Despite its small size (around 110,000 square miles), Ecuador is one of the most diverse travel destinations in the world. There are an incredible array of things to do on an Ecuador tour, with sights, activities and attractions to suit just about any travel style.
From the Amazon River Basin and Andes Mountains to the Galapagos Islands, the country offers a wide variety of ecosystems within its borders. Their relative proximity makes it fairly easy to see a number of Ecuador’s finest natural and historical attractions in a fairly short time.
As a result, narrowing down a list of the best things to do in Ecuador is a bit of a task. Here are a few of our favorites:
Adventure Time in Baños de Agua Santa
Locals know Baños de Agua Santa simply as Baños. The town gets its name (which means “baths of sacred water”) from the natural hot springs that flow to the edge of town from active Tungurahua Volcano.
But Baños is also the jumping-off point for a wealth of activities around the region. This is the place for white water rafting, which runs the Paztasa River down towards the Amazon Basin. There are also a number of canyons nearby, and rappelling, climbing, and hiking through them is extremely popular.
For those seeking more subdued adventures, a wander down the valley of the waterfalls will take you to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in all of South America, including the stunning Manto de la Novia and the powerful Pailon del Diablo.
Colonial Architecture in Cuenca
In many ways, Cuenca is arguably Ecuador’s most beautiful colonial city.
The historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded in 1557 on rigorous planning guidelines issued in 1527 by the Spanish king Charles V. Cuenca. Much of the city’s architecture dates back to the 18th century, and the cathedral in Cuenca ranks among the most impressive buildings in Ecuador.
Because it’s a safe place with a very high standard of living, Cuenca is one of the most popular cities in South America for expats coming from the United States. There are loads of retirees here, and a great international community as well.
Explore the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are unlike any other place in the world. The myriad wildlife species are a highlight of any nature-lover’s Galapagos Islands cruise, and many of the animals living on the islands are endemic.
Marine Iguanas, Flightless Cormorants, Giant Tortoises and Galapagos Penguins are just a few of the many species you’ll find in the Galapagos Islands that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. The fact that you can get within a few feet of these wild animals without them seeming to care about your presence at all is amazing.
Beyond the wildlife, the geology of the volcano-birthed islands is something to behold. The landscapes look as if they’re from another planet, leaving even the most well-traveled visitor completely awestruck.
Perhaps what’s most amazing about these landscapes is the variety of ecosystems found among them. For example, Santa Cruz Island is extremely arid on the northern edge. However, when you drive towards the south, you’ll find increasingly heavy humidity and a lush green rainforest.
Get Some R&R in Montañita
Just a decade ago, Montañita was a quiet fishing village with a small population of South American hippies. But in recent years it has sprung to life as the country’s most popular beach destination. Sure, the town is still home to its fair share of hippies and beach bums, but Montañita has also come alive with tourists visiting from all over the world.
To provide some scale on the town’s growth, a decade ago there was just one hostel in Montañita. Today, there are at least a dozen. Nearly the entire beachfront has given way to hotels, shopping and restaurants.
But despite the growth on a tourism front, Montañita has remained a relaxed little spot for a beach getaway, with a permanent population of a little over 1,000 people.
Hike Cotopaxi National Park
Located just an hour’s drive from Quito, the Cotopaxi volcano is often visible from the city. It’s an imposing sight: Standing at around 19,347 ft above sea level, it is the highest active volcano in the world. It’s also one of the few places on the planet where you’ll find glaciers so close to the equator.
Cotopaxi National Park is easily accessible by car, and open to the public when the volcano is not extremely active. (It was closed to hikers briefly after a 2015 eruption.) Climbing the great snow-capped volcano is one of the most popular things to do in Ecuador among adventure-seekers, but it does require a licensed guide. Those who reach the top will find an impressive 820-foot deep crater at the peak.
Ride the Devil’s Nose Train
Most of Ecuador’s train lines have now fallen into disrepair and remain unused. But riding a section of the track called “The Devil’s Nose” has become one of the most popular things to do in Ecuador among tourists.
The Ecuadorian train line was originally built back in 1901 by workers that were brought into Ecuador from Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The name for this section of the track was given due to the staggering number of deaths that occurred while constructing the switchbacks.
It’s through this section that the train drops around 1,640 ft in altitude over a stretch of just 7.4 miles. To make the drop, the train cuts down a steep section and rolls past a junction on the track, then stops and rolls backwards down the next bit. It’s an impressive bit of engineering, and a must-do adventure for train-lovers.
Shop at Otavalo Market
Perhaps the friendliest and most accessible local market in all of South America, Otavalo Market is a brilliant place to wander and explore.
Located about an hour’s drive from Quito, this Andean town is built upon trade. On Sundays, locals come to town from nearly every village in the area to trade goods such as fruits and vegetables, and farm animals like goats and llamas.
Of course, in the center of town there is also a tourist market, which is open every day of the week. The vendors here are friendly, and always happy to chat. If you’ve had enough shopping, hike to the beautiful Peguche Waterfall, which is on the outskirts of town.
Take a Boat Down the Amazon
Ecuador’s share of the Amazon Basin is wild and beautiful. It is also completely unique to shares of the forest held by other countries. Where else in the Amazon could you sit and overlook the rainforest jungle while also having the backdrop of a snow-capped volcano?
The Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the best places in the country for wildlife lovers. There are over 1,600 different species of birds, over 350 species of reptiles (including Caiman and Anacondas), and plenty of mammal species as well (including Jaguars, Howler Monkeys, and the endangered Cotton-headed Tamarin).
Quito is the capital of Ecuador, and a bustling hub in the heart of the country. With most of the city located at just under 9,842 feet above sea level, it will take your breath away in more ways than one!
Quito was founded around 980AD by the Caras people, long before the arrival of Europeans. In the 1460s the city was conquered by the Inca, and integrated into their kingdom. When the Spanish arrived in Ecuador, Quito was serving as the northern capital in an Inca Kingdom that was deeply conflicted. The Spanish finally seized control of the city for good in 1534.
Today, there is plenty to love about Quito. The old city offers stunning examples of colonial Latin American architecture. There’s also a cable car which takes passengers up to about 13,779 feet above sea level for amazing views of the city, and, on a clear day, the Cotopaxi volcano.
There are plenty of attractions just outside Quito as well. One of the most popular is the Mitad del Mundo (“Center of the Earth”), a monument and museum for the equator. There’s also a line drawn along the equator, so you can get a photo standing with one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other in the northern.
Walk Around Quilotoa Lagoon
The Quilotoa Lagoon is one of the most overlooked destinations in all of Ecuador. The fact that it sits just off the traditional tourist trail (and the paved Pan-American Highway) means that only a handful of privileged people visit this incredible place each year.
Quilotoa, with a summit at 12,841 feet, is a massive volcanic crater some 820 feet deep that’s filled with water. The crater was created about 800 years ago during a massive eruption that collapsed the peak of the volcano.
Today, the volcano lies dormant and a beautiful hiking trail encircles the lagoon, which is colored green-ish blue due to heavy amounts of mineral deposits left behind in the water after the eruption.