Compared to the tourism giants in South America, Ecuador is a relatively overlooked country. As you would expect, it is the magical Galapagos Islands that draw in most of the visitors to Ecuador but this is not all that this country has to offer.
Owing to its size and diverse ecosystem, it is perhaps the only place in the world where you can have breakfast on the coast, lunch in the mountains and dinner in the rainforest! The proximity of cities means it is a great destination for travellers as transport is quick and cheap. I recently spent three months in Ecuador and travelled all over the country looking for the top experiences to cram into my itinerary. Here are my pick of the best things to do in Ecuador.
1. See the best views in Quito
Ecuador’s capital is located in the Andes Mountain range which offers visitors some stunning vistas of the surrounding volcanoes. Take a trip up the Basílica del Voto Nacional (not for the fainthearted) or head to Parque Itchimbia for some great panoramas. Perhaps the best scenery comes from ascending the cable car to Pichincha volcano and watching Quito morph into a toy town below. On a clear day, it is even possible to see Ecuador’s highest volcano Chimborazo from this point!
2. Swim with sea lions in the Galapagos
I know I said there is more to Ecuador than the Galapagos Islands but this doesn’t mean that they are not worth a visit. A true hub of biodiversity, a trip to the Galapagos will give the opportunity to get close to rare and exotic wildlife you can’t see anywhere else on earth. Whether you choose to do the Sierra Negra Volcano hike or snorkel with playful sea lions, a Galapagos trip is sure to be one of a lifetime!
3. Climb a volcano in Cotopaxi National Park
Whilst I didn’t do the Cotopaxi trek myself (after attempting Pichincha volcano I was well and truly deterred), everyone I met who had said fantastic things about the experience. Towering at a whopping 5897m above sea level, this is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Book your Cotopaxi trek with a reputable guide to ensure your safety as the altitude makes this a hard hike even for the experienced. Whilst most tours will take you as far as the glacier, there is the option to go right to the top for those who so desire. Beware, trips to the summit are expensive and crampons and ice picks are a must.
4. Eat guinea pig in Cuenca
Whilst it won’t be the most popular thing on this list, adventurous travellers will not be able to resist the opportunity to try the most famous Ecuadorian delicacy: guinea pig. Of course, many people reading this will be screaming out in horror but as a rodent that is bred to be consumed in South America, is eating guinea pig really so bad? The difference between a positive experience and a negative one is often decided in the quality of the cooking, so make sure you go to a reputable restaurant. Cuenca is particularly famed for being one of the best places in the country to try this dish. One guinea pig, more commonly known as ‘Cuy’ in Ecuador, will be enough to feed two people. Tuck in!
5. Swing at the end of the world in Baños
A popular spot for adrenaline junkies, Baños is just what you need to get your heart racing. The city offers travellers the opportunity to rappel, jump, zip-line, raft and much more! You name it, Baños does it. However, the most iconic image associated with this backpacker favourite is the swing at the end of the world. Head up to Casa de Arbol for a swing over the mountainside – if you’re brave enough!
6. Raft down a river in Tena
Often overshadowed by adventure capital Baños, Tena misses out on the number of travellers it deserves. This jungle city is an off the beaten track escape for anyone looking to get away from the Gringo trail for a while but relaxation is not the main draw here. In Tena, it’s all about rafting. The areas surrounding the city showcase some of the most exciting rivers to get your adrenaline flowing in the whole of Ecuador. Be prepared for getting very wet as your raft your way past scenery that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tomb Raider movie!
7. Explore Cañari and Incan ruins at Ingapirca
When most people think of the Incas, their mind immediately springs to Machu Picchu. Whilst this is easily the most iconic symbol of Incan civilisation, what many people don’t know is that there are plenty of alternative archaeological sites which attract far fewer people. Head out to the Ingapirca complex and see the Temple of the Sun, the only elliptical Incan temple in the world. Not only is the site built on a former Cañari compound offering two different architectural styles but Ingapirca is also home to a bunch of llamas!
8. Walk through a Polylepis forest in Cajas National Park
The Polylepis tree is native only to the Andes and is actually one of the oldest and rarest trees in the world. These trees are characterised by their leafy thin bark which has earned them the nickname ‘paper trees’. The reddishness of the bark creates an otherworldly scene and you’d be forgiven for being tricked into seeing hobbits running through the trees. You can find these magical forests in Cajas National Park in the southern highlands of Ecuador.
9. Party with the locals at Mama Negra Festival in Latacunga
If you’re looking to get an insight into Ecuadorian culture, there is no better thing to do than check out one of their festivals. And by gosh is Mama Negra a festival. Created to pay homage to the Virgin of Mercy who spared the townsfolk from Cotopaxi Volcano, this celebration is a full two-day party which is nothing short of crazy to western eyes. Locals parade blowtorched pigs, adorned with bottles of booze and fruit through the streets for hours while consuming as much home-brew alcohol as they possibly can. Without a doubt, one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen, there is no denying that Mama Negra makes for a darn good party.
10. Go wildlife spotting in the Amazon basin
Whilst the Amazon isn’t exclusive to Ecuador, this country is certainly one of the cheapest places in which to explore it. Keep an eye out for giant spiders, snakes and a whole manner of other creepy crawlies! Be warned though, these critters are not always obvious so you’ll have to look carefully if you want to spot them. Know that the jungle makes mincemeat out of wimps so make sure you check out my survival guide to keep yourself alive and well!
11. Brush up on your Spanish in Montañita
Whilst Monañita is mostly famous for being a crazy surfer town which never sleeps, it still offers something for the backpacker with no balance and an alcohol intolerance. It just so happens that this beach town is actually a great place to brush up on your Spanish skills. With lessons offered overlooking the ocean and iced coconuts available on every corner, I promise it will be an upgrade from your high school language class!
12. Head to Isla de la Plata
Also known as Ecuador’s answer to the ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos‘, Isla de la Plata offers some of the same wildlife that the magical Galapagos Islands are famous for. The Blue Footed Booby can be found all over the island and if you go during the right time of year you can even see them nurturing their fluffy, white chicks. As well as eye-catching wildlife on land, the snorkelling offers some truly magnificent sights as well. Tim actually said he thought it was better than the real Galapagos Islands!
Have you been to Ecuador? What would you recommend?