If you’re looking for a beautiful and diverse country to travel to, look no further than Ecuador! Ecuador is a land of contrasts, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its diverse landscape. The country is divided into four distinct regions: the Andes Mountains (la Sierra), the Amazon (la Amazona), the Pacific Coast (la Costa), and the Galapagos Islands (las Islas Galápagos). Each region has its own unique attractions, and Ecuador is a great destination for travelers who are looking for adventure, culture, and relaxation. I lived in Ecuador for over a year and I would highly recommend visiting this incredible country to anyone looking for an unforgettable experience. Here are my suggestions of 10 beautiful destinations to visit in Ecuador broken down by region:
I called Otavalo home for over a year and loved getting to know this amazing indigenous city and the surrounding communities. Otavalo is more than just a day trip for the expansive indigenous outdoor market. It is a gorgeous and vibrant city with tons of outdoor adventures. Don’t get me wrong, the market is pretty awesome and definitely worth a visit. There is a smaller market every day of the week located in Plaza de Ponchos and then Saturday is when the locals really rev things up and take over the city. The market grows from one city block into every street corner and floods the entire town with brightly colored handicrafts in all directions, as far as the eye can see. Also on Saturdays there is also an animal market across the Pana (Pan American Highway), get there early if you want to see the show!
Beyond shopping, Otavalo offers some pretty amazing adventures right outside of the city. Consider visiting the famous Peguche waterfall or hiking to the lesser known Taxopamba waterfall. You can also visit Laguna Mojanda and have a peaceful picnic along the lake. If you are feeling extra adventurous you can hike a volcano. There are two incredible volcano hikes in the region, Imbabura and Fuya Fuya. Both of these trails will be worth your time if you're looking for some fresh air with breathtaking views…literally!! Be cautious as you will be hiking at a high altitude, Otavalo sits at 8,300 feet above sea level and you only go up from there.
Laguna Cuicocha means Guinea Pig Lake in Kichwa, the local indigenous language. (Cuy means guinea pig in Spanish.) The crater lake is absolutely stunning. It is located about 30 minutes by car from Otavalo or you can stay slightly closer to the lake in the charming expat town of Cotacachi. It is possible to explore the lake by boat or by foot, I highly recommend doing both. The hike is approximately four to five hours and takes you around the entire lake with different gorgeous vantage points along the way. The boat ride offers an alternate perspective of the lake and is a fun way to learn more about the lake and surrounding area. The backdrop for the lake is the extraordinarily beautiful Cotacachi Volcano.
3. MIDDLE OF THE WORLD - QUITSATO SUNDIAL
Ecuador literally translates to equator, so a stop on the equator line should be on each traveler’s list. There is some controversy surrounding the equator line and its actual location. It was recently discovered that the original middle of the world site outside of Quito, The Middle of the World City is not in fact on the 0 degree latitude line. Recent technology advancements have pinpointed the exact 0 degree latitude location and it was found outside the town of Cayambe. I have visited both places and prefer the more authentic experience at the Quitsato Sundial near the town of Cayambe. The Middle of the World City felt like Disneyland to me, no offense Disneyland but there were too many people, massive crowds, lines, restaurants, and tour groups. This type of experience is just not for me. At the Quitsato Sundial you can learn about the equator, support the local non-profit organization that runs the site, and enjoy the view of Cayambe Volcano in the background. And again, this is the actual middle of the world, so it just makes sense to visit this beautiful destination for your middle of the world stop.
A visit to Ecuador would not be complete without a few days in Quito. This capital city is the second highest capital city in the world at 9,350 feet above sea level. There are lovely neighborhoods, impressive churches, and unforgettable views within the city. My favorite activity in Quito is to take the teleférico (cable car) to the top of the dormant Pichincha Volcano. The teleférico takes about 20 minutes to get to the top and once there you will be at 12,043 feet. The view is spectacular. You can see volcanoes in the distance and the expansive city below. From the top, there are trails you can wander on to get to different vantage points.
Other tourist sites that I enjoyed visiting in Quito are the Panecillo Hill area and the La Virgen del Panecillo statue, Quito Old Town, and the Basilica del Voto Nacional.
The southern city of Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This charming colonial city has a bit of a European feel to it. The picturesque Tomebamba River flows through the city and then feeds into the Amazon River, eventually ending up in the Atlantic Ocean. The intricate architecture of Cuenca's main plaza, Parque Calderón is remarkable. Sit and enjoy a delicious ice cream while watching and conversing with the locals. Cuenca is also famous for the ornate blue domed cathedral called Catedral Nueva, Panama hats, and the artist Eduardo Vega.
But for me, my favorite part of being in Cuenca was getting out of the city and visiting Cajas National Park. This park has rugged hikes, 100s of pristine high mountain Andean lakes, waterfalls, and incredible views. There are a number of different hikes at varying levels of difficulty, so you are sure to find one that will fit your abilities and trust me, the views will not disappoint.
Ingapirca is Ecuador’s largest and most important Incan ruins. These ruins were constructed by the Incas in the later part of the 15th century, just before the Spanish conquest. The name Ingapirca translates to "Incan Wall", in Quechua, the language of the Incas, and it was built by the Incas as a military fort. Visitors to the site can wander around the ancient city and learn about its history. The views from Ingapirca are beautiful, with the countryside visible in all directions. Ingapirca is a great destination for anyone interested in Ecuador's history or culture.
Situated in the mountains, Baños is known as the adventure capital of Ecuador, with activities such as rafting, hiking, canyoneering, and more, all of which were awesome and so fun! Baños is also famous for its hot springs, waterfalls, the swing at the end of the world, good food, and a small city vibe. Although Baños is super touristy, the stunning views and outdoor activities are incredible. I had an amazing time here and would definitely go back in a heartbeat.
Note, the swing at the end of the world is not really at the end of the world nor super high up. It does have a great view and makes for a fun photo if you are into that sort of thing. The Tungurahua Volcano towers behind the swing making it an impressive sightseeing spot...when it is not hiding behind the clouds.
Ecuador is one of only 17 “megadiverse” countries in the world and is home to some of the highest biodiversity on earth. I decided to visit the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve because of its proximity to the Andes and it is less touristy than other Ecuadorian Amazon towns. It was a quick and cheap flight from Quito to Lago Agrio, and then from there I hopped on a bus which took me to the river where I jumped on a canoe that took me upriver to my rustic lodge: Cuyabeno River Lodge. At the lodge, there are simple yet beautiful accommodations along the river and you are completely immersed in the Amazon. The lodge offers guided walking tours (day and night - scary, but worth it), canoe trips, an excursion to a local indigenous community, piranha fishing, and much more. During my time there I saw tons of fascinating animals, including many birds and monkeys. Unfortunately, I also came across some tarantulas, yuck! The lodge had a delicious restaurant on the property that serves local food—fresh and delicious. I even swam in the river directly outside of my room! Such an amazing experience that I would highly recommend to others looking for unique adventure travel.
9. PUERTO LÓPEZ
If you can’t make it to the Galapagos, go to Puerto López and Isla de la Plata. This is considered the poor man's Galapagos, but trust me it is a beautiful destination and you will get to experience some of the same wildlife here that you can see on the Galapagos. Isla de la Plata is part of the Machalilla National Park, this uninhabited island is home to nice beaches, hiking trails, and tons of marine birds. Blue-footed boobies, masked boobies and Galapagos albatrosses are just some of the birds you can see on the island. The waters around Isla de la Plata attract manta rays and migratory humpback whales. I did a bunch of scuba diving here and had a great time. The dives were beautiful, lots of animal life, good visibility, and nice calm water.
I also had the best tuna of my life in the town of Puerto López. If I knew where it was I would tell you but I don't know where it was at, so you will have to look around one of the side streets. It was a local joint and the tuna cheek was insane, absolutely delicious!
LAS ISLAS GALÁPAGOS
10. LAS ISLAS GALÁPAGOS
The Galapagos Islands are truly one of the most unique places on Earth. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt like I was in another world. The islands are so wild and untouched, and the wildlife is like nowhere else on earth. The islands offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these animals in their natural habitat. I was fortunate enough to visit two of the main islands, San Cristobal and Isabela. Each island has its own distinct character and flora and fauna. San Cristobal is home to the Galapagos giant tortoise, while Isabela is home to the Galapagos penguin. During my visit I saw iguanas, penguins, sea lions, turtles, a seahorse, manta rays, whitetip reef sharks, and so many other unique species. Both islands offer a wealth of opportunities for adventurous activities such as hiking, snorkeling, biking, and diving. In addition to the incredible wildlife, I was also mesmerized by the volcanic landscapes and the crystal-clear waters. The Galapagos Islands are truly a wild and magical place, and I am glad that I was able to experience them firsthand.
From stunning scenery to thrilling adventures, these are some of the beautiful destinations within Ecuador that have me counting down the days until my next visit! I could go on and on forever about the beauty of Ecuador, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises. Instead, I hope this blog has inspired you to visit Ecuador for yourself. With such a diversity of landscapes and activities available, there is something for everyone in this amazing country. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip today!
If you have a favorite spot in Ecuador that I didn’t mention here, be sure to let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear about your travels in this spectacular corner of South America.