All you need is Ecuador: 20 things not to miss
Thanks for swinging by the blog! Despite the many marvellous things to do in Ecuador, I did write that I didn’t like it in the past. But I stayed there for 90 days and had the best time with the Ecuadorian friends I made. In this post, I will share to you 20 of my favourite things to do in Ecuador. I hope it helps!
#1: Otavalo Market
On top of the list of the best things to do in Ecuador is Otavalo Market. Locally known as Plaza de los Ponchos, Otavalo Market is one of South America’s largest outdoor markets. This is the place where local artisans sell their craft. You’re in the Andes so of course there will be a wide selection of colorful textiles and woven goods. You can also find a good selection of ceramic, leather, wood, silver, and metal products. Keep in mind though that not everything is artisanal. It is a tourist destination so you will also find a wide array of mass produced commodities and souvenir items. Saturday would be the busiest day of the week and this means more people. You can try to plan your visit accordingly. The market is indeed a haven for shopping enthusiasts but whether or not you love shopping, Plaza de los Ponchos is still a place to see and be seen.
#2: Mitad del Mundo
Mitad del Mundo is a tract of land containing monuments and museums built to celebrate the fact that the equator directly passes through Ecuador. It’s also a place where you can bask in the glory of having one feet on the Northern Hemisphere and the other on the Southern Hemisphere. Visit the Monument to the Equator, Ethnographic Museum, and the Intinan Solar Museum. It’s not too far from Quito and it’s a nice day trip.
It’s the land that inspired Charles Darwin to conceptualize the theory of evolution. Isn’t that enough of a sell? This isolated group of volcanic islands in the Pacific is probably the world’s most exciting living museum. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate the archipelago’s unrivaled biodiversity. I mean, there’s just nothing like getting up close and personal with all the species endemic to the archipelago for you to understand the gravity and magnitude of`Darwin’s magnum opus. Make sure you don’t miss the chance to get sightings of the archipelago’s most famous inhabitants in their natural element like the giant tortoises, marine iguanas, Darwin’s finches, and penguins. The seas surrounding the islands are also worth mentioning due to the rich marine life present in the area. A cruise around the islands is a nice option for you to see more. But if you’re on a budget, there are a number of hotels in Puerto Ayora to choose from and day trips to certain hotspots are easy to find. It’s best to get a naturalist guide when you’re exploring so you can follow the proper rules and guidelines. No one wants to directly or indirectly contribute to the destruction or be a threat to this place and its inhabitants. Seeing the Galapagos is a life changing experience. That, I can assure.
#4: Quilotoa Loop
Quilotoa is a water-filled caldera located in the Ecuadorian Andes. Some would say the Quilotoa Loop is the best way to see the caldera. The loop offers a number of hiking routes depending on how much time and effort you are willing to exert. No matter which route you take, you’ll be rewarded with pit stops at remote local villages and spectacular scenery. And, really, getting a panoramic view of the caldera will be more than worth it. Best to set aside at least three days for this. Grab a map from your hostel, leave your heavy packs, equip yourself with the basic necessities, and you will be in for a treat.
Looking to really maximize that vacation time? Papallacta will be perfect for you. Nestled between two volcanoes, this small village two hours north of Quito provides some of the country’s best natural hot springs. A little trekking and birdwatching can also be done at Papallacta but the hot springs and spas are the real show stoppers. The therapeutic waters are perfect to soothe muscles from all the hiking and all the discomfort that altitude brings in the Andes.
The small village of Vilcabamba was once a retreat for Incan royalty and for good reason. Located in a remote mountainous area in the southern part of the country, Vilcabamba is an interesting destination. Locals are said to live exceptionally long lives. Ayahuasca and San Pedro ceremonies presided over by local shamans are not uncommon. And the surrounding mountains add a mystical allure to the town. Besides all this, there are a number of hikes you can choose from. The town’s bar and restaurant scene is also a standout. No matter how much time you spend here, rest assured Vilcabamba will offer you good energy.
#7: Parque Nacional Podocarpus
Podocarpus is a meeting point between the four ecological systems of the Northern Andes, the Southern Andes, the Amazon, and the Pacific. It’s high and low mountain-forest ecosystem boasts some of the most spectacular flora in South America. Forty percent of the total estimated plant species are endemic to the area. Of course, lush vegetation offers shelter to a unique array of fauna, which includes a healthy amount of mammal species. Think deer, pumas, foxes, and bears to name a few. Birdwatchers will also enjoy here. Best way to see all this is to go through one of the trails in the park. It’s a paradise for nature lovers.
#8: Climbing El Altar
Among all the mountains and volcanoes that you can choose from in Ecuador, there’s something about El Altar that just draws both climbers and non-climbers alike. It is an extinct volcano situated in Sangay National Park and is actually home to a series of nine peaks. Experienced climbers can challenge themselves with Obispo, the mountain’s highest peak. A more manageable route is the one that leads you to the stunning Laguna Amarilla. Come prepared and you will be treated to some of the grandest Andean sights.
#9: Montañita Surfing
Montanita is Ecuador’s surfing capital. And nowadays, it’s also known for its infamous party scene. This once small town is located not too far northwest of Guayaquil and is well loved by locals and foreigners. If you’re primarily looking for surf, expect consistent swells all throughout the year. December through April are considered the best months due to better conditions and warmer waters. Beginners and more experienced surfers alike travel to Montanita specifically for the waves so expect to see crowded lineups. Non-surfers can also just enjoy the town’s vibe and relax with a massage and/or a yoga class. You won’t run out of things to do in Montanita.
#10: Punta Suarez
A must see when you visit the Galapagos is Punta Suarez. Located at the west coast of Espanola Island, it’s famous for the great number of both albatross and iguana inhabitants but it’s also home to a variety of birdlife and amphibian mammals. Due to its location and due to being one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, Espanola Island has a high percentage of endemism. Note that this is one of the most challenging walks in Galapagos. Punta Suarez is only roughly three kilometers but visitors will have to endure difficult footing through slippery volcanic boulders. Don’t be discouraged though because the place really does offer the most spectacular views of both the landscape and its residents.
Mindo is more than just a bird watcher’s paradise. This valley and its accompanying pueblo is an important watershed in the western slopes of the Andes and is considered a biologically diverse ecoregion. Go trekking and you’ll be indulged with lush greenery and the occasional waterfall. Tubing, rafting, and ziplining can also be found for thrill seekers. If you’re looking for something chill but still immersed in nature, try the butterfly farm or the orchid garden. It’s amazing that this natural wonder is just two hours away from Quito. If you find yourself in the capital, go for it.
#12: Ingapirca Ruins
If you think Incan archeological sites, you’ll probably think of Machu Picchu. Little do people know that all throughout the Andes you will find a number of Incan ruins. Ingapirca is the largest site in Ecuador. It might pale in comparison to the more famous sites but you’ll be treated with beautiful open fields and the frequent llama sighting. The complex was primarily used as a storehouse and a fortress for Incan troops heading to the Northern Andes. It is also home to the Temple of the Sun, which is the only elliptical Incan temple in the whole region. In typical Incan fashion, it is in line with their belief and knowledge of the cosmos and positioned so the sun will flood the temple with its light at the right time during the solstices. The best thing about this place though is that, more often than not, it’s not as crowded as you’d expect.
Banos de Agua Santa is known as Ecuador’s gateway to the Amazon basin and for its hot springs, which has a reputation of having healing properties. Its location at the foothills of the active Volcan Tungurahua is the reason for this natural phenomena. Despite being a popular tourist destination, Banos still has a lot of gems and activities that are worth the visit. Ruta de las Cascadas is a must as the route through the valley offers stunning views of multiple waterfalls. Adventure seekers can choose from an array of activities such as white water rafting, canyoneering, mountain biking, and ziplining. Don’t forget to get that massage or spa treatment though! After all this is what Banos is best known for. Super bonus is that you get all this with a backdrop of a lush rainforest.
14: Whale Watching (Isla de la Plata)
Isla de la Plata is a small island located off of the coast of Manabi province. It has garnered fame over the years for two things. One is that it’s a cheaper alternative to the Galapagos and iIt is home to a good number of endemic bird species (best to go on a hiking trail to see them). Two is that is the prime spot to go whale watching in Ecuador. Every year from June to October, humpback whales make their way to breed in the waters surrounding Isla de la Plata. And so do dolphins and other species of whales and marine mammals. Come at the right time and you will witness these majestic creatures do what they do best.
#15: Climbing Cotopaxi
This is actually the number one in things to do in Ecuador lists. I mean, look at that beautiful snow-capped volcano – it’s so nice to look at! Cotopaxi is an active, majestically conical stratovolcano in the Ecuadorian Andes not too far from Quito. The volcano is considered sacred by the local Andean people of the region and for good reason. It is beautiful and it continually shapes the land surrounding it. This is Ecuador’s second highest summit at almost 6000 meters so don’t expect it to be a walk in the park. It has its own technical challenges and it’s best to go as prepared as possible. Meaning acclimatize and pack and dress accordingly. Extreme sport enthusiasts can also go downhill mountain biking, by the way. Cotopaxi and its views will literally and figuratively take your breath away.
#16: Visit the Ecuadorian Amazon
Fun fact time. Did you know that the Amazon River was discovered from Ecuador? The Spaniard Francisco de Orellana and his men left Quito in 1541 in search of the fabled El Dorado. They eventually found themselves in a river that they followed for hundreds of miles until they reached the Atlantic. Along the way, they saw fierce native warrior women and named the river after them in reference to the celebrated warrior women of Greek mythology. So now you’ve got the Amazon River. Note that indigenous tribes that live in deliberate isolation can still be found in the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon and their rights are protected by law. A number of protected areas are also located in this region. Parque Nacional Yasuni is the most popular one where you can find a number of trails, boat cruises to see pink river dolphins, and of course just simply see and learn more of the region’s unparalleled flora and fauna. Whatever route you take, the Amazon is the Amazon and its wonders and glory will reward the nature and outdoor enthusiast in you.
#17: Malecon 2000
If you ever find yourself in Guayaquil, you will most likely find your way to the Malecon 2000. This 2.5 kilometer-long boardwalk overlooks the Guayas River. Here, you will sense both of the city’s history and modernity. Great historical monuments and museums illustrating the history of Guayaquil can be found here. There are a number of recreational areas and activities to choose from–restaurants, bars, shopping centers, playgrounds, gardens, you name it. It’s a perfect place if you’re craving for that urban adventure.
#18: Mama Negra Fiesta
Latacunga is a town in a plateau south of Quito. It is best known for one of the most fascinating cultural events in Ecuador, La Fiesta de la Mama Negra. The fiesta commemorates both religious and secular events and has indigenous, African, and Spanish influences. It happens twice a year within a few weeks of one another. The first one in September has religious undertones honoring the Virgin of the Iglesia de la Merced who is believed to have saved the city many times from the wrath of Cotopaxi’s eruptions. Expect to see parades of brightly costumed people depicting traditional characters (including the Mama Negra) on the streets. The second festival in November is more secular and flamboyant. It’s famous for its street parties and ensuing festivities. La Fiesta de la Mama Negra is a perfect reflection of the cultural hot pot that Ecuador is today.
#19: Nariz del Diablo Train Ride
Initially built to link the coastal city of Guayaquil to the capital Quito, Nariz del Diablo is one of the most exciting train rides in Ecuador. Situated in the Andean highlands, the railroad zigzags through almost perpendicular rock faces. Today, the railway is far from its former glory and is not as “dangerous” as it once was but it still offers some spectacular views of mountains. You can spend some time in Alausi before or after the train ride to get a peek into the local culture. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Cuenca, located in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Andes, is one of the country’s most historical and beautiful cities. Earliest settlers date back from 8060 BC and ever since then, Cuenca has played an important role in the region. Its stable climate, fertile soil, and abundant water sources have drawn people time and time again. Cuenca today is exceptionally picturesque. Brick colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, and the Tomebamba River make for a perfect storybook setting in its historic city center. Work your way through all the churches, plazas, and museums that the city has to offer. Relax and enjoy panoramic views of the city in El Mirador de Turi. A day or two in this place and you’ll understand why people choose to live there.
Have you been? What’s in your list of best things to do in Ecuador?
What did you do in Ecuador? Where did you stay? What did you eat? Leave your ideas, thoughts, and suggestions in the comment box below to help others plan their trip!