Ten places you should not miss in Ecuador

A special guest post by V!VA Travel Guides. The editorial staff of V!VA Travel Guides share with us their ten favourite places in Ecuador.

1. The Quilotoa Loop

The Quilotoa Loop is made up mostly of small, Andean villages that surround the famous crater lake Quilotoa. The reason this is a don’t miss in Ecuador is not just because of the lake, which is lovely, but for the unique and rich culture of the high mountain villages. We arrived in the village of Quilotoa after travelling up mountain passes whose valleys are home to wandering shepherds and their flocks. It’s probably one of my favourite bus rides in the whole country. The town survives on the tourism the lake attracts and it’s filled with cozy hostels, little shops, and restaurants.

Roasting cuy in Quilotola

Our hostel was run by a family that could not have been more generous. It had the feel of a Swiss mountain lodge and when we entered it for the first time we found the entire family roasting cuy on a stove in the middle of the room. They were preparing the guinea pig delicacy for a village wedding. The women encouraged us to take photos and let us help with the roasting. In the evening, what seemed like the whole village, dressed in traditional Andean clothes, gathered in the hostel to eat a small meal before the wedding.

Even though we were only there a short time, we felt welcomed and like we were part of the community. The people make Quilotoa one of my favorite places in Ecuador but the stunning Andean setting doesn’t hurt either.

2. Canoa

Canoa

Ecuador’s coast is diverse. Mantañita is the party town. Puerto Lopez, known as the poor man’s Galápagos, is where you go if you want to spot whales or other marine wildlife, and Mompiche is known for its laid-back atmosphere. But when we’ve got a long weekend, we head to Canoa, which has the best of all worlds. It’s got a relaxed beach vibe but plenty of bars and nightlife to keep you dancing till dawn. We usually spend our time hanging out under the colourful tents that line the beach, surfing the mellow waves and eating our weight in fresh ceviche.

The food really is the best thing about this small town. In addition to all the fresh seafood you can eat, there is a Bask restaurant that specializes in dishes smothered in garlic – we’ve decided it’s the best restaurant in all of Ecuador.

Canoa’s the kind of town you can plan to go to for a weekend and find yourself still there, hanging out on the beach and drinking with the friendly locals, a month later.

We saw frog eating spiders, armadillo holes, bugs that have glowing eyes,…

3. Mindo

Mindo

Mindo is a small town located deep in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. It’s a great place to spend a few days eating fresh trout, zip-lining trough the canopy, hiking to waterfalls and just getting some fresh air (especially if you’ve been spending any time in Quito). The area is incredibly gorgeous and even the laziest travellers will find themselves unable to remain idle here.

My favourite part of our weekend trip was the frog concert tour at a lodge called Mindo Lago. The tour guide (who is also the owner of the lodge) is passionate about the area’s natural ecology and his enthusiasm is infectious. He led us on a tour around the lake after dark. We saw frog eating spiders, armadillo holes, bugs that have glowing eyes, glowing mold that grows on rotting wood, and, of course, tonnes of frogs. The tour demonstrates how diverse and incredible the area is. It’s cool to see how much life is sustained in one small ecosystem.

4. Basílica del Voto Nacional

Whenever friends and family visit me in Quito, I take them to the Basilica de Voto Nacional. The cathedral was built to symbolise Ecuador’s devotion to the Roman Catholic Church. It remains in an unfinished state and a rumour lingers among Ecuadorians that the world would end if construction was completed.

Basilica del Voto Nacional

For $2 USD you can explore every inch of the church, which is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas. It has characteristics of European architecture and from the outside; the basilica´s façade actually looks similar to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. However, one of its distinctive decorations is the grotesques, or gargoyles, which do not appear ominous or threatening, but are instead animals that call Ecuador home. The details in the stain-glass and tile designs are incredible. There are two clock towers on either side of the building. If you have the nerve to climb the narrow stairs that lead up to the towers, you will be rewarded with a view of the whole city. One of the highlights of the church is the wooden-plank bridge, which crosses over the sanctuary. After you cross the bridge, you come to a ladder which leads to more stairs and to another tower with even more spectacular views of the city. For the extra-brave, there is another staircase near the tower that will take you even higher to a view worthy of overcoming any fear of heights.

5. Baños

This city is known as the gateway to the Amazon. However, most of the V!VA staff tend to stay in Baños, rather than going all the way into the jungle, because of all it has to offer. The city is situated near the active Tungurahua volcano and is surrounded by dense green forest. The geothermal hot springs are the number-one attraction and the reason why we head here after a long week at work. But we’re not alone, foreigners and locals alike flock here almost every weekend to bath in one of the mineral pools around town. Spas offering an assortment of treatments can be found on almost every street. Besides soaking and relaxing, visitors can horseback ride in the hillsides or sign-up for a tour at one of numerous companies in Baños that offer rafting or canyoning.

6. Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi volcano

The Cotopaxi Province boasts one of the most dazzling landscapes in Ecuador. Every picture makes it seem like you are on the set of a movie. On a clear day, the vast Cotopaxi Volcano, which is the second-highest summit in Ecuador and arguably the highest active volcano in the world, can be seen. Its snow-capped peak contrasts against the blue sky and green landscape. Our favorite hostel (like many in the area) offers hiking excursions to the Cotopaxi glacier and up Volcán Pasachoa. It also rents out mountain biking and offers plenty of hammocks for lounging in the peaceful surroundings. The alternative option for those not interested in scaling the volcano is to do a similar climb on the back of a horse. A pretty lengthy horseback ride will take you up the Ruminahui Mountain where you can get a closer look at the volcano.

7. Cuyabeno National Reserve

When it comes to the ecological gems of the Amazon, the Cuyabeno National Reserve is the most popular spot for travelers. A diverse section of jungle, it is home to an incredible amount of flora and fauna. Over 450 species of fish and over 500 species of birds have been recorded here, including the hoatzin, one of the strangest birds of the Amazon forest – it looks kind of like a small, brown-and-white striped turkey, and the harpy eagle, the largest and most powerful bird of prey in the Americas.

There are several lodges and tour operators that offer you the chance to get up close and personal with these creatures, as well as an opportunity to observe the native communities that still make their home here. Plus there’s nothing quite like traveling by canoe, deep into the heart of the Amazon, to make you feel like an adventurer.

8. Cuenca

Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site bursting with history and colonial-style architecture, including 52 churches, one for every Sunday of the year. Cuenca was the second largest city in the Incan empire before the Spanish arrived. Before the Incas, the city was inhabited by the Cañari, who arrived around 550 AD. Drop by one of the many museums and you can see both Incan and Cañari artifacts, as well as the remains of certain Incan and Cañari structures. It’s a must see for its colonial charm, easy-going vibe, and its delicious international fare.

9. Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands are Ecuador’s biggest draw – attracting scientists and nature-lovers from all over the world. The most famous visitor was Charles Darwin, who arrived in 1835 and now has a research station named after him.

Galápagos seals

The most popular way to explore the islands is by boat, from sailboats to luxury cruise ships. One of the world’s top spots for snorkeling and scuba-diving, the Galápagos also offers many exciting adventures on land, such as hiking, mountain-climbing, horseback riding, and of course, observing wildlife in one Earth’s most undisturbed natural habitats. Although it’s not cheap to get there, Galápagos is one of those once-in-a-lifetime places that is worth all the hype.

There’s even an alien airport there…

10. Vilcabamba

Vilcabamba is another of Ecuador’s natural wonders, home to the sacred mountain of Mandango (the sleeping Inca) and Podocarpus National Forest. People who are drawn to this tranquil village range from those just looking for a relaxing time in the mountains to new-agers hoping to wait out the predicted end of the world in 2012—they believe it is one of the only safe places in the world because of its distance from the North and South Poles. There’s even an alien airport there, although its intended use is unclear.

Vilcabama also offers a wide variety of spa services for reasonable prices, and you get to enjoy spring-like weather all year round. Horseback riding, biking and hiking are the most popular ways to explore the surrounding mountains and forests. You can arrange an afternoon outing, day trip, or spend up to several days exploring with a tour operator.

About V!VA Travel
V!VA is made up of a small group of expats living in Quito, Ecuador. We’re passionate about travel and about our home country of Ecuador in particular. For more local insights, check out V!VA Travel Guides or download our app here. To celebrate the launch of this new iPhone app, we’re offering it for FREE till October 29, 2010.

The following members of V!VA Travel Guides contributed to this post: Desiree (Editor), Alison (Editorial Intern) and Cathleen (Editorial Intern). The photos in this post are courtesy of V!VA Travel Guides.

Read other posts in Velvet Escape’s “Tens” series.

 

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23 Responses to “Ten places you should not miss in Ecuador”

  1. Bob 03/07/2012 8:29 am
    #

    We’ve been to Bolivia and Chile but did not give much thought to Ecuador. We didn’t know why to go other than maybe for a trip to Galapagos but it seemed out of the way. I think we’ll try to include this at another time.

  2. Alex Bramwell 20/02/2012 4:37 pm
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    Loved Cotopaxi, Vilcabamba and Quilotoa loop. Great people and excellent hostels everywhere. Can’t recommend Ecuador enough!

  3. Mike 21/10/2011 8:26 pm
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    Enjoyed Mindo in my last visit. It’s only about a two-hour ride from Quito. It reminded me very much of Puerto Jimenez in Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica.

  4. Pete | Hecktic Travels 08/06/2011 3:21 pm
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    We had no expectations before arriving in Ecuador from Peru and were blown away. We loved it all. We never had a chance to make it to the coast, but spent a good amount of time in Baños (4 months). One of our highlights was a monkey refuge in Puyo that you could actually play with 50+ monkeys.

    I can’t wait to go back!

  5. Jeremy B 14/01/2011 11:12 pm
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    Ecuador seems to be that little country in between Peru and Colombia that people don’t know much about. However, you shed some light on some of the things there. Many people have heard of the Galapagos Islands but I admit I had not heard of most of the other places. I love how most of these places are outdoor attractions rather than city ones!

  6. Butterflydiary 14/01/2011 9:48 pm
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    Thanks for this post–very timely, since my friend is in Ecuador. I MUST put SA on my list this year…

    Charu

  7. Bali Signature Villas 20/11/2010 8:08 am
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    Wow.. very nice places. The lake almost same as our lake in Bali.

  8. velvet 18/11/2010 10:09 pm
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    Sounds like a brilliant trip! I hope to make it to Ecuador soon!
    Thanks Leigh.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  9. Leigh 17/11/2010 9:24 pm
    #

    I was in Ecuador & the Galapagos 2 years ago. We thoroughly every minute. In Quito we stayed at Casa Aliso, a small boutique hotel, not for the backpackers budget, but still reasonably priced and very friendly. One day we rented bikes and rode downhill for hours (thank God it was downhill because we were at altitudes of 11000 feet & had just arrived from sea level) to a spa town near Quito. Then we spent an hour or two in a series of hot springs with mostly local people.

    Also spent three days on a tributary of the Napo River (itself a tributary of the Amazon). Everyone should see the jungle once but I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t born there – grasshoppers as big as your hand, beetle looking affairs with eyes like LED’s that the natives use as flashlights, all manner of creepy crawlies…

    Also had fun in Otavalo – again riding bikes in rarefied air, checking out the craft market and staying at the fabulous Hotel Pinsaqui.

  10. Ted Nelson 10/11/2010 9:10 pm
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    I have never been to Ecaudor. The Galapagos Islands are what everyone knows Ecuador for, but it is great to have some out of the way alternatives.

  11. Tran 01/11/2010 7:02 pm
    #

    The whale-watching off Puerto Lopez was also pretty spectacular!

    If you’re considering climbing Cotopaxi, you can read about one climber’s recent ascent at http://bit.ly/9ntjkE.

  12. Erin 29/10/2010 4:15 pm
    #

    Great list! We are currently in Peru, and although we are visiting Ecuador next we haven’t done much planning yet. This helps to give us some ideas on places to visit.

  13. LeslieTravel 29/10/2010 3:42 pm
    #

    Great picks! I want to check out all of these places- especially Galapagos!

  14. velvet 27/10/2010 7:55 pm
    #

    Thanks Mark! I would love to visit Ecuador one day – it’s very high on my list! Some day soon I hope. :-)

    Cheers,
    Keith

  15. Mark 27/10/2010 7:42 pm
    #

    There you go again Keith, stirring up the travel bug in all of us! Awesome post my friend…I especially like how Cuenca has a church for “every Sunday of the year”. I hope to make it down to S. America someday…looks like I’m missing out on a lot of great places! Safe Travels!

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