The editorial staff of V!VA Travel Guides and Velvet Escape share their favourite places in Ecuador and suggestions for things to do on a tour around Ecuador.
Ten places in Ecuador to visit
1. The Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop (map) 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.
Our hostel, Hostal El Vaquero, 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. Search for accommodations in Quilotoa and surroundings (Booking.com).
If you’re short on time, you can opt for a day tour to Quilotoa from Quito, which also includes the Cotopaxi National Park (see point #6 below).
Ecuador’s coast is diverse. Mantañita is the party town. Puerto Lopez 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 (map), 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. Search for accommodations in Canoa (Booking.com).
Mindo (map) 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).
Mindo is famous for its biodiversity. In fact, one of the best things to do in Ecuador for nature enthusiasts is to to go bird-watching in Mindo. 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. Search for accommodations in Mindo (Booking.com).
4. Basílica del Voto Nacional
Whenever friends and family visit me in Quito (map), 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.
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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.
Check out this 9-day tour of Ecuador with National Geographic/G Adventures
Baños (map) 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 bathe in one of the mineral pools around town. Spas offering an assortment of treatments can be found on almost every street.
6. Cotopaxi Volcano
The Cotopaxi Province (map) 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 hostels, Cuscungo Cotopaxi Hostel and Secret Garden Cotopaxi offer 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. You can also visit the Cotopaxi Volcano as a day-trip from Quito. Or even better, spend a few days in this majestic region to view the volcanoes and hop on a train trip to the Devil’s Nose!
Check out this 8-day Highlands of Ecuador tour with G Adventures
7. Cuyabeno National Reserve
When it comes to the ecological gems of the Amazon, the Cuyabeno National Reserve (map) 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 rainforest in Ecuador, to make you feel like an adventurer. Search for accommodations in Cuyabeno.
Cuenca (map) 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. Cuenca is one of the places in Ecuador that shouldn’t be missed for its colonial charm, easy-going vibe, and its delicious international fare. To get a great overview of Cuenca, join a half-day tour. Search for accommodations in Cuenca.
9. Galápagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands (map) 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.
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. Search for accommodations in the Galapagos Islands (Booking.com).
Find and compare multi-day Galapagos Islands package tours from the mainland
Read about Velvet Escape’s trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Vilcabamba (map) 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. Search for accommodations in Vilcabamba (Booking.com).
And you certainly should not miss QUITO!
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is an absolute gem that should not be missed. Built on the foundations of an ancient Incan city, Quito has one of the best preserved historic city centres in the Americas. Visit the bustling markets, a hat-maker and the ornate churches; stroll around charming cobblestone streets; sit at one of the many plazas and watch the world go by; indulge in the vibrant culinary scene; and get your chocolate fix!
Search for accommodations in Quito (Booking.com).
One more tip from Velvet Escape!
Imagine a futuristic-looking luxury lodge deep in the cloud forests, completely enveloped by nature. That place is called the Mashpi Lodge! Situated on a ridge 900 meters high and overlooking a broad valley, the lodge was designed as a cocoon of luxury in the clouds. The lodge perfectly combines luxury with incredible nature experiences in the cloud forest. Read about my stay at Mashpi Lodge.
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.
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.