Ecuador Outdoors

Ecuador has a vast range of adventures, and its compact size makes it possible to combine a number of activities in a short time. You can go bird-watching in misty cloud forests, hike amid Andean peaks and snorkel with abundant sea life off the Galápagos Islands. There’s also excellent surfing, mountain biking and rafting.

Top Choices

Best Outdoor Adventures

  • Best Climb

The majestic heights of Volcán Cotopaxi (5897m) provide a fantastic view for those fit enough to make the summit.

  • Best Trek

The multiday Camino del Inca follows the Inca royal road for 40km to the striking ruins of Ingapirca.

  • Best Bird-Watching

The biologically diverse cloud forest of Mindo is home to hundreds of colorful species.

  • Best Mountain-Biking Trip

Descend 61km from the crisp highlands town of Baños to steamy Puyo in the Amazon.

  • Best White-Water Rafting

In the Oriente, both Tena and Macas offer fantastic full- and multiday rafting trips past jungle-clad scenery.

  • Best Surfing

Montañita, Mompiche and Canoa on the mainland offer good breaks, while Isla San Cristóbal on the Galápagos has more challenging waves.

Hiking

The opportunities for hiking are practically limitless. Stunning scenery is a guarantee wherever you go, with snow-covered peaks, cloud forests and verdant lowland jungle setting the stage for hiking and wildlife-watching. Most of the best independent hiking is in the national parks.

Top Destinations

Parque Nacional Cotopaxi This 330-sq-km national park is home to the snowcapped peak of the active Volcán Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second-highest point (5897m). There are great opportunities for hiking here and in the surrounding countryside, but few established trails so you’ll need to blaze your own. Just be sure to stay safe, and if in doubt, hire a guide.

Parque Nacional Cajas Amid the picturesque páramo (high-altitude Andean grasslands), there are a number of trails (some better signed than others), which take in great views of pretty alpine lakes. Be prepared for rain (the driest months are August to January).

Quilotoa Loop Near the dramatic topaz crater lake of Quilotoa, there are some excellent hikes, including village-to-village trips and a few shortcuts through high-altitude canyons. One excellent DIY route goes from Quilotoa to Isinliví, overnighting in Chugchilán along the way. Local lodgings have handy maps.

Parque Nacional Podocarpus Across lush tropical lowlands and chilly, mountainous highlands, Podocarpus offers several memorable hikes, including a day hike through cloud forest and a multiday hike to Andean lakes.

Parque Nacional Machalilla The country’s only coastal national park covers 400 sq km, with trails through tropical dry forest as well as cloud forest. The park also includes Isla de la Plata, which has several loop hiking trails and has been called ‘the poor man’s Galápagos’ because of its wildlife, which includes red-footed boobies.

Camino del Inca For a fascinating journey along part of the royal road that linked Cuzco (Peru) to Quito, take the Inca trail to the archaeological site of Ingapirca; it’s a popular 40km hike that most travelers do in three days.

Bird-Watching

Nowhere else in the world has such incredible avian diversity been crammed into such a small country. Some 1600 species, including a number of endemic species (seen only here), have been spotted in mainland Ecuador and on the Galápagos. Scope is one of the biggest challenges for bird-watchers – with rainforest, cloud forest and islands all offering allure. Jocotoco Foundation manages 12 reserves throughout the country crucial to avian and environmental protection, and can offer specialized packages to the five which have lodgings.

Cloud Forest

One recommended place to start exploring is just north of Quito. The cloud forests outside of Mindo are a bird-watcher’s paradise. Highlights include the Andean cock-of-the-rock, plate-billed toucan, and golden-headed and crested quetzals. More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the region, and you'll find excellent guides and lodges here.

Amazon

An excellent destination is the lower Río Napo region of the Amazon, where more than 600 bird species have been logged. Some of Ecuador’s best jungle lodges are in this area, some with their own canopy towers and biologist-guides.

Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands have their own feathery appeal, owing to their 28 endemic species that have evolved in extraordinary ways. Isla Santa Cruz boasts the highest bird count overall, and it’s a good place to begin to find the 13 species of Darwin’s finches. Various large species are easily seen around Puerto Ayora harbor, including blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds and lava herons.

Other Great Bird-Watching Sites

Mountaineering

The towering Andes sweeping through Ecuador set the stage for serious adventure. The country has 10 peaks over 5000m, eight of which are in the central highlands. This is where you’ll find Ecuador’s most impressive summits. Keep in mind that many of Ecuador’s most impressive peaks are volcanoes, and their status can change quickly. Some are climbable one year and not the next. Those looking to climb a peak where no equipment is required might consider Volcán Imbabura (4609m) in the northern highlands. It’s a challenging and highly rewarding climb just outside of Ibarra.

Climbing Essentials

Mountaineers will require standard snow and ice gear: rope, crampons, ice axe, high-altitude sun protection and cold-weather clothing as a minimum. Unless you are very experienced, hiring a guide from Quito or Riobamba is recommended. The weather can turn bad quickly in the Andes, and even experienced climbers have been killed. Several agencies offer both rental gear and guides: expect to pay about $250 per person for a two-day climb up a major peak. The best guides have a card accrediting them to the Ecuadorian Mountain Guides Association (ASEGUIM).

You can climb year-round, but the best months are considered to be June to August and December to February.

Major Peaks

Volcán Chimborazo Ecuador’s highest peak is an extinct volcano that tops at 6263m. It’s a relatively straightforward climb for experienced climbers, but ice-climbing gear is essential. From the climbing refuge, most climbers opt for the Normal Route, which takes eight to 10 hours to the summit and two to four on the return. Riobamba is the best place for arranging a guided hike, hiring equipment and unwinding when the climb is done.

Volcán Cotopaxi The country’s second-highest peak is an active volcano and one of the most popular summits in the Andes for serious climbers. Cotopaxi can be climbed in one long day from the climbers' refuge, but people usually allow two days. Climbers must acclimatize for several days before attempting an ascent. Lodges in and around Cotopaxi are great for acclimatization.

Ilinizas The jagged sawtooth peak of Iliniza Sur (5248m) is Ecuador’s sixth-highest peak and one of the country’s most difficult climbs. It’s suitable only for experienced climbers. Iliniza Norte (5126m), on the other hand, is a rough scramble and can be climbed by acclimatized, experienced hikers. The small village of El Chaupi is a good base for acclimatizing climbers and hikers, with a handful of simple but pleasant guesthouses.

Volcán El Altar This long-extinct 5319m volcano is widely considered the most beautiful and most technical of Ecuador’s mountains. December to March is the best time to visit this area. In July and August El Altar is frequently shrouded in clouds.

Mountain Biking

There are some excellent spots for mountain biking, especially the adrenaline-charged downhills on the flanks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. The best mountain-biking operators (with the best bikes, guides and equipment) can be found in Quito and Riobamba.

Also awash in midrange mountain bikes is Baños, thanks to the popular and excellent downhill ride (by road) to Puyo. Nicknamed ‘La Ruta de las Cascadas’ (Highway of the Waterfalls), it follows the Río Pastaza canyon, dropping steadily from the highlands town of Baños at 1800m to the jungle settlement of Puyo at 950m. It’s a 61km ride, with some refreshing dips in waterfalls along the way.

Diving & Snorkeling

The Galápagos Islands are among the world’s great dive destinations, offering dramatic underwater wildlife: sharks, rays, turtles, penguins, sea lions, moray eels, sea horses, fish of many kinds and, if you’re very lucky, dolphins or even whales. Conditions are difficult for beginners, with strong currents and cold water temperatures. There are dive operators based in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Experienced divers with deep pockets can opt for a week’s tour aboard a dive-dedicated boat, stopping at the aquatic hot spots around the archipelago. Those looking for less commitment can arrange two-tank dives for a day. The Galápagos is also a good place for snorkeling as the marine life doesn’t often require great depths to access.

On the mainland, you can arrange dive trips with operators in Puerto López and Montañita. The sea bottom here mixes rock with coral reef patches and sand. Aquatic life includes angelfish, trumpet fish, puffer fish, morays, parrot fish, manta rays, guitar rays and white-tip sharks.

The water temperature is around 22°C (72°F) from January to April and about 18°C (64°F) the rest of the year; operators rent wet suits if you don't want to bring your own.

Surfing

Ecuador isn’t a huge surf destination but has some excellent breaks if you know where to go. The season is generally November to April, with peak months in January and February. Localism is generally minimal; Ecuadorians and foreigners mix it up pretty peacefully.

The classic mainland break is Montañita, a fast, powerful reef-break that can cough up some of the mainland’s best barrels. The break is best from December to May, when swells of 2m to 3m are common. It also has some tolerable beach-breaks nearby. Near Muisne, in Esmeraldas province, Mompiche is a world-class left point-break offering rides of up to 500m on top days. Canoa is a fun spot for left and right beach-breaks, if only because the town here is a great little hangout and the beach is beautiful.

In the Galápagos, Isla San Cristóbal is home to three world-class reef-breaks, all near the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. They’re extremely fast and best for experienced surfers. The high price of getting there keeps the crowds down. Optimal surf season on the islands is December to May. Isla Isabela also has some nice breaks near Puerto Villamil.

White-Water Rafting

Ecuador boasts world-class river rafting and kayaking year-round. Some of the rivers offer up to 100km of continuous Class III to Class IV white water before flattening out to flow toward the Pacific on one side of the Andes and into the Amazon Basin on the other. Wherever you go, the best time for rafting is from October to February.

Ecuador’s river-guide association is called Asociación de Guías de Águas Rápidas del Ecuador (AGAR; Ecuadorian White-Water Guides Association). We recommend only reputable companies. When shopping around for an outfit, make sure it has decent life jackets, professional guides, first-aid kits and throw bags. Some outfitters also offer wet-suit rental on several of the longer runs (recommended).

Top Rafting Spots

Tena This is Ecuador’s de facto white-water capital, with the nearby upper Río Napo (Class III+) and the Río Misahuallí (Class IV+) among the country’s best-known rivers.

Macas Further south, the Río Upano (Class III to IV+) near Macas is excellent for multiday trips and outrageous jungle scenery, including the spectacular stretch along the Namangosa Gorge, where more than a dozen waterfalls plummet into the river.

Río Blanco On the western slopes of the Andes, about 2½ hours west of Quito, the Río Blanco (Class III to IV) is a year-round possibility and a favorite day trip from the capital, with wildest conditions from February to about June. There is approximately 200km of maneuverable white water here, including the challenging Upper Blanco. There are several Class II to III runs for complete beginners and families near Quito as well.

El Chaco On the eastern slopes of the Andes, El Chaco is the gateway to the Río Quijos, a Class IV to V river with verdant scenery.

Río Pastaza & Río Patate These are two of the country’s most popular rivers due to their proximity to the tourist mecca of Baños. The Patate, unfortunately, remains very polluted.

Horseback Riding

Ecuador has some great horseback-riding opportunities, especially in the highlands. Unfortunately, many of the horses used in tourist hikes are not properly looked after. There are, however, some agencies that take proper care of their animals, and they’re worth seeking out, even though they charge more for tours. Haciendas throughout the highlands generally use good horses and offer some of the best opportunities for riding; 4 Volcanoes near Otavalo comes highly recommended. Vilcabamba offers some fine rides in the surrounding mountains. Trips range from a few hours to three days. Baños is also a good place to sign up for a casual half- or full-day ride.

Another fine place for riding is at the Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua near Quito. Located inside a volcanic crater, this reserve boasts cloud forests and a fascinating microclimate. You can arrange full- or multiday horseback rides from there.

An expensive but reputable company is RideAndes (www.rideandes.com). It offers day tours, multiday tours and custom-made tours for both experienced and inexperienced riders.

Alternative Adventures

Ecuador has much more than volcanoes and rainforests up its sleeve. Valleys, caves, rivers and the proximity of the continental shelf all create opportunities for uncommon adventures.

Caving Located on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the Cueva de los Tayos provides a fascinating wonderland for cave lovers. The journey starts with a 70m descent into the caves.

Tubing While some prefer kayaks and rafts, in Mindo you can jostle down the rocky Río Mindo, bottom securely planted in a rubber inner tube. A guide pushes you along.

Ziplining Baños and Mindo both have impressive ziplines where you can blaze over the forested canopy. Safety warning: be sure the person ahead of you clears the platform before you take off. In 2012 and 2016, ziplining deaths occurred in Ecuador due to unsafe operations.

Whale-watching During the annual migration of humpback whales (June to September), numerous boat operators along the coast offer whale-watching tours, especially from Puerto López and Mompiche. Go only with licensed companies; the pirates don't care about the whales, only the cash.

Canyoning & Puenting A favorite Baños-based activity, canyoning involves rappelling (abseiling) down waterfalls, swimming in rivers and taking short hikes through canyons. Daredevils can also go 'puenting', a kind of bungee-style bridge-jumping.

What to Take

  • A waterproof, windproof jacket – it will rain; the wind will blow (especially in the highlands)
  • Ear plugs – often essential for sleeping
  • Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Headlamp or pocket flashlight (torch)
  • Money belt
  • Insect repellent (containing 30% DEET)
  • Good novel for those long bus rides
  • Mobile phone charger

Pre-Departure Checklist

  • Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date
  • Check you have had the recommended vaccinations
  • Make travel insurance arrangements
  • Check the airline baggage restrictions
  • Find out the latest updates on volcanic activity in Ecuador and which volcanoes are currently open for climbing
  • Look into booking a Galápagos cruise

What to Wear

In much of Ecuador, the weather can be unpredictable. The sun may be blazing, but temperatures can drop and storm clouds could appear at any moment. For this reason layers are the way to go; be sure to always carry a waterproof jacket in case of rain. Casual, comfortable clothes are fine for most occasions, though you might want to bring something smarter for a night out to the theater or fancy restaurant in the city. If you're heading to the highlands, thermals and a knit cap will help keep you warm at night. For jungle trips, bring long pants (trousers) and long-sleeved shirts that will protect you from insects; a hat will protect you from both sun and bugs.