Best of Ecuador
- 2 Weeks
Colonial treasures, cloud forests, rainforests, teeming markets and wondrous wildlife are all on the menu of this action-packed journey around Ecuador.
Begin the trip in Quito. Spend two days soaking up the architectural gems of the Old Town, then go 2½ hours north to Otavalo for its famous market (best on Saturdays). Spend the night there and squeeze in a hike out to the stunning lakes Laguna de Cuicocha or Lagunas de Mojanda. On the fourth day, go west (via Quito) to the lush cloud forests of Mindo. Overnight in a riverside or mountaintop lodge, then return to Quito for a flight to Cuenca, the colonial jewel of the south. Spend two days exploring 500-year-old churches and visiting the fairy-tale–like setting of Parque Nacional Cajas, 30km to the west. If time allows, visit the Inca ruins of Ingapirca before continuing to Guayaquil for a flight to the Galápagos. Spend four days there, wildlife-watching and island-hopping. For the final part of the Ecuadorian adventure, fly back to Guayaquil and onward (via Quito) to Coca, gateway to the Amazon. Spend three nights at a jungle lodge on the Lower Río Napo, one of the best places to see Ecuador's Amazonian wildlife.
Exploring the Andes
- 3 Weeks
Traveling along the spine of the Andes, you’ll take in sublime alpine scenery, laid-back villages and a mix of colonial and pre-Columbian architecture. Opportunities for hiking, trekking, mountain biking and climbing are superb.
Start the highland adventure in Quito, where you can acclimatize to the altitude while exploring one of South America’s most fascinating capitals. After two nights in the city, head south for a night or two in a historic hacienda on the flanks of Volcán Cotopaxi, where you can horseback ride and hike; avid climbers can tackle one of Ecuador’s iconic peaks. Around day four, travel south to Latacunga and journey into the nearby mountainous landscape of the Quilotoa Loop. This is a great place to hike between high-up indigenous villages, staying in simple guesthouses along the way.
After two days spent in the clouds near Quilotoa, head to a slightly lower elevation and the delightful subtropical town of Baños, where you can soak in natural spring baths, book into a charming inn with views, and take a fabulous downhill bike ride past refreshing waterfalls to Puyo in the Oriente. After Baños, move on to Riobamba, an ideal base for setting out on a high-adrenaline mountain-bike ride or hike around Volcán Chimborazo. From Riobamba take a bus to Alausí, then take a train ride on the famed Nariz del Diablo, with its dramatic views of Chimborazo, El Altar, Laguna de Colta and other vistas dotting the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Returning to Alausí, continue by bus to the marvelous colonial city of Cuenca. There, enjoy a few days taking in the colonial churches, peaceful plazas and the idyllic river setting before striking out for the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. You can visit by bus, organized day trip, or on a more challenging three-day hike along the Camino del Inca (Inca Trail), with gear and guides available in Cuenca. Afterwards, make your way back to Quito for a final night out (Zazu is a good choice, followed by drinks and dancing at La Juliana) and a big send-off to the great Andean experience.
- 2 Weeks
Heading south from Quito, you’ll soon find yourself in bustling market towns, remote indigenous villages and pristine national parks far from the touring crowds.
Start your journey in the gateway town of Riobamba, a rather workaday mid-sized city that’s at its liveliest on Saturdays, when a sprawling market takes over. From here, take a detour west to Guaranda, a scenic town that’s the gateway up to Salinas, a fascinating and charming country village where you can visit cooperatives producing chocolate, cheese, mushrooms and wool products; or you can just take a walk or horseback ride through the pretty countryside. Stay overnight in the village before heading back through Riobamba and continuing east to Parque Nacional Sangay, a setting of magnificent volcanoes and diverse flora and fauna. Head back to Riobamba then south to the lovely Kichwa town of Guamote. Spend the night in the cozy community-run Inti Sisa, which is also a good place to arrange horseback rides or hikes in the pristine countryside. If possible, try to time your visit for Wednesday or Thursday, when a massive indigenous market takes over the town.
After Guamote, travel south to Atillo for a couple of days of spectacular hiking around the crystalline Lagunas de Atillo. Afterwards, head back to Guamote, then south to Cuenca. After days of rugged traveling, pamper yourself with a stay in one of the city’s many fine guesthouses and a meal at one of its eclectic eateries. Recharged and refreshed, continue south to Loja, where you can sample one of the city’s specialties, cuy (guinea pig) – or, if you don't fancy that, try its famous corn- and plantain-based delicacies.
From Loja head east to the Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a massive park that’s home to astounding biodiversity and offers hikes through mesmerizing landscapes of páramo (high-altitude Andean grasslands) and cloud forest. Afterwards, go back through Loja and continue south to Vilcabamba. This pretty village offers some fine walks, cycling and horseback rides, although it’s also a perfect spot to simply enjoy the peaceful scenery. Next work your way down the western side of the Andes to Catacocha, a charming, little-visited highland town. Spend a day here, then head to Puyango to visit one of South America’s largest petrified forests.
Adventure in the Oriente
- 3 Weeks
The Oriente is Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon, one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions. For adventurers, wildlife lovers and budding anthropologists, there’s much to discover here, from indigenous reserves to jungle lodges with an incredible array of plant and animal life.
Start in Quito; pre-book jungle lodges you plan to stay at and load up on any needed supplies, then catch a bus southeast to Papallacta, a sparkling complex of thermal baths with magnificent mountain views on a clear day. With both high-end and budget options, this is a fine place to overnight before continuing east to Baeza, a pleasant base for hiking, biking, rafting, bird-watching and other activities. From there, go north to the thundering drama of photogenic San Rafael Falls – Ecuador’s highest falls. For spectacular views of nearby Volcán Reventador in action, make the hike up to the Reserva Alto Coca, a remote cloud-forest reserve with great hiking and bird-watching, plus rustic cabins with striking views of the volcano.
Continue on to the gritty oil town of Lago Agrio; from here, head out to the Reserva de Producción Faunística Cuyabeno – a spectacular rainforest reserve packed with biodiversity. Spend a few days at the recommended Cuyabeno Lodge then travel back to Lago Agrio and on to Coca, another tiny river settlement turned oil boom town. Take a stroll along the river, then hook up with a jungle guide (best arranged beforehand in Quito) for a trip out to the Lower Río Napo, home to some of Ecuador’s finest jungle lodges. Here you’ll find superb wildlife-watching on hikes, canoe rides or climbs to the top of the jungle canopy.
Get your fill of piranha fishing, caiman-spotting and bird-watching, then head back to Coca and down to Tena. This river town is an ideal spot to gain a different perspective on the rainforest: namely, by rushing past on a white-water rafting trip through spectacular Class IV rapids. If time allows, you can tack on a trip to the less-visited southern Oriente, via Macas. The Achuar-run Kapawi Ecolodge & Reserve, reachable by chartered aircraft from Shell, is a wonderfully remote piece of Amazonia.
Surf & Sun
- 10 Days
Ecuador’s charming coastal villages and attractive beaches draw a wide mix of travelers, including sun-seekers, surfers and seafood lovers.
Start in the laid-back beach spots near Same (sah-may) and the Corredor Turistico Galera-San Francisco on the north coast. Tranquilo Súa is also a nice option. After the long journey from Quito, book into a beachfront cabaña (cabin), walk on the beach, and get your fill of seafood. On day two, catch a bus down to Mompiche, a beloved haunt for surfers and paradise-seekers alike with a long brown-sugar beach, big waves and a fun traveler scene that still hasn’t become overrun. Take a whale-watching day trip from here or visit the far-off island paradise of Isla Portete before continuing south.
Next up is Canoa, a slow-moving beach town with a long sandy stretch backed by forested cliffs. Canoa invites lingering: you can take surf lessons, study Spanish and ride horses or cycle to deserted beaches nearby. There are some fine beachfront guesthouses and decent restaurants. While in Canoa, leave time for a visit to the Río Muchacho, a working organic farm, at which you can take a tour, stay overnight and enjoy the fantastic food grown right on-site.
On day six, continue south to Bahía de Caráquez, where you can explore mangroves and look for frigate birds on a tour of Isla Corazon. Continue on to Puerto López (you’ll probably have to transfer at Manta). This sleepy town is the gateway to the Isla de la Plata, a fine place to see blue-footed boobies if you’re not heading to the Galápagos. In season (mid-June to early October), there’s also good whale-watching. Other area attractions include the stunning beach of Los Frailes, the indigenous community of Agua Blanca, and surrounding rainforest with memorable hiking and horseback riding.