Must see attractions in Ecuador

  • Sights in Puerto Ayora

    Charles Darwin Research Station

    Just northeast of Puerto Ayora is this iconic national-park site, where over 200 scientists and volunteers are involved with research and conservation efforts, the most well known of which involves a captive breeding program for giant tortoises. Paths leading through arid-zone vegetation take you past tortoise enclosures, where you can look at these Galápagos giants. There's also a baby-tortoise house with incubators (when the tortoises weigh about 1.5kg or are about four years old, they’re repatriated to their home islands).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Isla San Cristóbal (Chatham)

    León Dormido

    About an hour’s boat ride northeast of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is León Dormido (Kicker Rock), so named because of its resemblance to a sleeping lion. León Dormido is an imposing, vertical, sheer-walled tuff cone that has been eroded in half; smaller boats can sail between the two rocks. Because there’s no place to land, this site is usually seen by snorkelers, passing boats or from the top of Cerro de las Tijeretas outside of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, often to dramatic effect when the sun is setting. Day trips from Puerto Boquerizo Moreno here are around $80.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Isla Santa Cruz (Indefatigable)

    El Chato Tortoise Reserve

    South of Santa Rosa is El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where you can observe giant tortoises in the wild. When these virtually catatonic, prehistoric-looking beasts extend their accordion-like necks to feed, it’s an impressive sight. The reserve is also a good place to look for short-eared owls, Darwin’s finches, yellow warblers, Galápagos rails and paint-billed crakes (these last two are difficult to see in the long grass). The reserve is part of the national park and a guide is required.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Isla Isabela (Albemarle)

    Volcán Alcedo

    The summit of this volcano (1097m) is famous for its 7km-wide caldera and steaming fumaroles. Hundreds of giant tortoises can be seen here, especially from June to December, and juvenile hawks soar on thermal updrafts. The view is fantastic. Permits are required to hike this long, steep and waterless trail and to camp near the summit (two days required).

  • Sights in Isla Santiago (San Salvador or James)

    Puerto Egas

    Puerto Egas is one of the most popular sites in the Galápagos – a long, flat, black lava shoreline where eroded shapes form lava pools, caves and inlets that house a great variety of wildlife. It's a great place to see colonies of marine iguanas basking in the sun and hundreds of Sally Lightfoot crabs attracting hunting herons. The inlets are also a favorite haunt of the surprisingly agile Galápagos fur sea lions.

  • Sights in Salinas

    La Chocolatera

    The westernmost point of Ecuador has three main attractions: La Fae Beach, with a boarded walkway where you can watch a seal colony; El Morro (or little hill), with a lighthouse and incredibly spectacular views over Salinas; and La Chocolatera – a point named for the way the tempestuous waves break on the rocks, creating foam and the impression of a big bowl of chocolate.

  • Sights in Isla Isabela (Albemarle)

    Darwin Lake

    A dry landing deposits you at the beginning of a 2km-long trail that brings you past this postcard-perfect saltwater lagoon. It has twice the salinity of the ocean, and is a tuff cone, like a chimney from the main volcano. The trail leads to the lower lava slopes of Volcán Darwin (1280m), where various volcanic formations and stunning views of surrounding slopes can be observed. There are some steep sections on this trail. A panga ride along the cliffs to Tagus Cove will enable you to see the historical graffiti and various seabirds, usually including Galápagos penguins and flightless cormorants. There are snorkeling opportunities in the cove.

  • Sights in Puerto Ayora

    Tortuga Bay

    In terms of sheer white-sand beauty, this beach is the rival of any in South America. You’ll find it at the end of a 2.5km paved trail southwest of Puerto Ayora. In addition to swimming (a spit of land provides protection from the strong and dangerous currents on the exposed side), surfing or just sunbathing, you can see sharks, marine iguanas, pelicans and the occasional flamingo. There’s no drinking water or other facilities.

  • Sights in Isla Isabela (Albemarle)

    Volcán Wolf

    Not only is Isla Isabela the largest Galápagos island, but its imposing skyline of grumbling volcanoes makes it the most striking. Volcán Wolf, at the northern tip of the island, is the highest point in the Galápagos, standing at 1707m (5600ft), and is one of the most active volcanoes in the archipelago – young lava covers the caldera floor. Ten eruptions have occurred between 1797 and 1982. The 1982 eruption saw fountains of lava emanating from vents before rising over the rim.

  • Sights in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

    Interpretation Center

    This modern and easily digestible center explains the history and significance of the Galápagos better than anywhere else in the country. Exhibits deal with the biology, geology and human history of the islands – it deserves a visit even if you've been inundated with facts from boat guides. From the center there are also many well-marked trails that wind around the cacti and scrub of Cerro de las Tijeretas (Frigate-Bird Hill).

  • Sights in Isla San Cristóbal (Chatham)

    Cerro Brujo

    Possibly one of the nicest beaches in the Galápagos, Cerro Brujo is a huge white expanse found on the west side of the island. The sand here feels like powdered sugar. A colony of sea lions and blue-footed boobies call Cerro Brujo home, and behind the beach is a lagoon where you’ll find great egrets and great blue herons. There’s also good snorkeling in the turquoise waters.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Puerto Ayora

    MAPRAE

    The first of its kind in the world, this museum uses augmented reality to showcase a permanent exhibition of 55 pre-Columbian artifacts. The ancient cultures of Ecuador’s Amazon and coastal regions are brought to life as visitors point smart phones or tablets at one of the relics, with historical information and three-dimensional images appearing directly on the devices.

  • Sights in Isla Santa Cruz (Indefatigable)

    Rancho Primicias

    Next to El Chato is this private ranch, where there are dozens of giant tortoises, and you can wander around at will. The entrance is beyond Santa Rosa, off the main road – ask locals for directions. Remember to close any gates that you go through. There is a cafe selling cold drinks and hot tea, which is welcome if the highland mist has soaked you.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Quito

    Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

    Capped by green-and-gold domes, La Compañía de Jesús is Quito’s most ornate church and a standout among the baroque splendors of the Old Town. Free guided tours in English or Spanish highlight the church’s unique features, including its Moorish elements, perfect symmetry (right down to the trompe l’oeil staircase at the rear), symbolic elements (bright-red walls are a reminder of Christ’s blood) and its syncretism (Ecuadorian plants and indigenous faces are hidden along the pillars).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Cuenca

    Museo del Banco Central ‘Pumapungo’

    One of Ecuador's most significant museums, Pumapungo houses great modern art downstairs, but the highlight is on the 2nd floor. Here begins a comprehensive voyage through Ecuador's diverse indigenous cultures, with colorfully animated dioramas and reconstructions of typical houses of Afro-Ecuadorians from Esmeraldas province, the cowboy-like montubios (coastal farmers) of the western lowlands, several rainforest groups and all major highland groups.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Quito

    TelefériQo

    For spectacular views over Quito’s mountainous landscape, hop aboard this sky tram, one of the world's highest aerial lifts, that takes passengers on a 2.5km ride (10 minutes) up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. Once you’re at the top (a mere 4100m), you can hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4680m), a 4km (five-hour) round-trip – ask about the safety situation before attempting the climb and bring warm clothes.

  • Sights in Parque Nacional Machalilla

    Parque Nacional Machalilla

    Preserving isolated beaches, coral formations, two offshore islands, tropical dry forest, coastal cloud forest, archaeological sites and 200 sq km of ocean, Ecuador's only coastal national park is a marvelous and unique destination. Within its nature-rich, strange-looking forest are more than 200 species of birds, including coastal parrots and parakeets, and seabirds such as frigates, pelicans and boobies – some of which nest on the offshore islands. Animals include deer, squirrels, howler monkeys, anteaters and a variety of lizards, snakes and iguanas.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Quito

    Casa Museo Guayasamín

    In the former home of the legendary painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–99), this wonderful museum houses the most complete collection of the artist's work. Guayasamín was also an avid collector, and the museum displays his outstanding collection of pre-Columbian ceramic, bone and metal pieces. Admission includes entry to the Capilla del Hombre gallery.

  • Sights in Parque Nacional Podocarpus

    Podocarpus National Park

    This national park fills in much of the triangle between Loja, Zamora and Vilcabamba, as well as a huge swath to the southeast. Because altitude ranges so greatly within the park borders – from around 900m in the lowland sector to over 3600m in the highland sector – Podocarpus has some of the greatest plant and animal diversity in the world.

  • Sights in Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

    Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

    The centerpiece of Ecuador's most popular national park is the snowcapped and downright picture-perfect Volcán Cotopaxi. At 5897m, it's Ecuador's second-highest peak. Around the volcano you'll find outstanding hiking opportunities and wildlife such as the Andean condor, white-tailed deer, little red brocket deer and wily colpeo (Andean fox).