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10 best places to visit in Ecuador

Ecuador: northernmost outpost of the Inca empire, inventor of the Panama hat, and gateway to the Galápagos Islands. There is plenty to see and do here, and – thanks to the country’s size – navigating between attractions is easy. 

Deciding which attractions to visit is another story. Read on for our recommendation of the best things to see on your Ecuador holiday.

Visit the Avenue of Volcanoes

The snowcapped Andes stretch in two rows across Ecuador, forming a dramatic natural corridor. This formation is nicknamed the Avenue of Volcanoes as it encompasses all the mainland’s 84 volcanic peaks, including the country’s highest mountain, Chimborazo. The majority of these volcanoes are inactive, and present a spectacular backdrop for hikes, city tours and rail rides.

The Avenue’s most famous peak is the Cotopaxi volcano, whose perfect cone belies the turmoil within. Enclosed by the national park of its namesake, Cotopaxi was quiet for more than a century before springing to life in 2015 with two minor eruptions. It remains one of the country’s most popular climbs, but you may wish to admire it safely from afar. Baños is the main jumping-off spot for hiking, mountain biking and rafting, and its hot springs are themselves worth a visit. Equally, don’t miss the hike to Quilotoa, a lake formed in a crater and famed for its brilliant emerald-green waters.

Suggested holiday: Classic Ecuador

Visit the Mindo & Mashpi cloud forests

The cloud forests of Mashpi and Mindo sprawl across the lower slopes of the Andes. Veiled by moss-quenching mist, these are havens of biodiversity with one of the world’s largest concentrations of bird species – from chestnut-mandibled toucans to iridescent hummingbirds. Here too, you will find a profusion of vivid orchids, bromeliads and butterflies.

An hour north of Quito by road, the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve lends itself to a full-day trip from the capital. Mashpi, meanwhile, is set on its own private reserve a couple of hours outside Quito, and offers a luxury eco-lodge experience.

Suggested holiday: Ecuador & Galápagos in Style

Visit the Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos archipelago was a bit of a dud when Ecuador first claimed sovereignty in 1832. Volcanic, nearly 1,000 km from the mainland and seemingly uninhabitable, they were an unappealing prospect – good for only pirates and whalers. Then, three years later, Charles Darwin paid a visit… and the rest is history.

The inhospitality of the Galápagos Islands likely shielded their unique wildlife from the threat posed by humankind. This limited exposure to man has also given the animals here a fearlessness towards visitors, allowing you to come remarkably close. You have the chance to encounter some of Earth’s most unusual creatures, including the blue-footed booby, flightless cormorant, marine iguana, Galápagos penguin and giant tortoise. The Galápagos Conservancy estimates over 80 per cent of land birds, 97 per cent of reptiles and land mammals, and 30 per cent of plants within this biosphere reserve are unique – and new species are still being discovered.

Visit Isabela for its tortoise population; Santiago to see Galápagos fur seals and flocks of flamingos; and North Seymour for land and marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds. Meanwhile, Floreana offers a fascinating slice of human history. Not only can you snorkel in the Devil’s Crown crater alongside sea lions, eagle rays and sea turtles, but you can investigate the mysterious disappearance of the island’s former settlers and send a letter via its unusual post box – a 200-year-old barrel where homesick whalers once left notes for passing ships to carry home.

Suggested holiday: Ecuador & Galápagos Family Adventure

Visit the Ecuadorian Amazon

A dazzling rainbow of some 1,300 bird species awaits in the Amazon basin – and that’s just scratching the surface. There are around 40,000 different plant species and over 2.5 million kinds of insect. Hardly surprising then that the shores of this mighty river are a popular place to spot wildlife.

Visitors to the Ecuadorian Amazon usually opt for a forest lodge experience. Many of the lodges here are only accessible by boat or light aircraft, ensuring a sense of splendid isolation in the wilderness. You may see howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, river dolphins, tropical frogs, caimans, and many parrot and parakeet species. Guests have the option of excursions on foot and by boat. In addition to established trails leading you through the undergrowth, canopy walkways and observation towers offer high vantage points for spotting arboreal critters.

Suggested holiday: Tailor-made tour of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Visit Otavalo indigenous market

Around one million people belong to Ecuador’s 14 indigenous groups – inhabitants whose ancestry predates the arrival of Europeans. The indigenous Otavalo people live mostly in the small Andean town of their namesake and are famed for their skilled textile weaving. They host a daily market, the biggest of which is held on Saturdays, giving visitors the opportunity to admire their traditional wares. Browse stalls spilling over with locally made leatherwork, woodcarvings, intricately patterned clothing, fruits, vegetables, and even livestock.

Suggested holiday: Ecuador & Galápagos Experience

Visit Cuenca

Cuenca is a colonial-era gem and Ecuador’s second UNESCO World Heritage city. Like Quito, it boasts an architectural legacy stretching back to the 16th century. Highlights include the ‘new’ cathedral with its magnificent domes, dating back to 1885 but finished almost a century later; and the old cathedral, built in the mid-16th century using stones from Tomebamba, an Inca ruin nearby. There are also some fantastic museums here, including Museo Pumapungo, which reveals the country’s indigenous cultures and includes access to what’s left of Tomebamba; and the Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes, which houses more than 5,000 archaeological finds dating back 13,000 years, from cooking pots to jewellery.

Suggested holiday: Classic Ecuador

Visit Montecristi & its Panama hats 

Despite the misleading name – a result of their export via Panamanian harbours – Panama hats originated in Ecuador. These lightweight, stylish hats are traditionally woven by tightly plaiting the dried leaves of the toquilla palm. If you’re seeking your own authentic Panama hat, head to Montecristi, regarded as the city with the best weavers. Be sure to ask for a sombrero de paja toquilla, however, as that’s the hat’s local name. Alternatively, visit Homero Ortega in Cuenca. Arguably Ecuador’s most famous milliner, the shop houses a small museum devoted to the history of the Panama hat.

Suggested holiday: Tailor-made holiday in Ecuador

Visit the Ingapirca ruins 

Only a short daytrip from Cuenca is Ingapirca, Ecuador’s best-preserved archaeological site. First settled by the Canari people, it was destroyed and rebuilt by the Incas before being largely dismantled again by the Spanish. The most impressive ruin here is the oval-shaped Temple of the Sun, although the surrounding remains help give an impression of Ingapirca’s size and status. This is also the end point of the Inca Trail to Ingapirca, which roughly follows the Inca Royal Road between the Inca capital of Cuzco, Tomebamba (now Cuenca) and Quito. A relatively uncrowded three-day trek, it offers a picturesque and tantalising glimpse into what was once part of one of the most extensive and impressive communication systems in the world.

Suggested holiday: Classic Ecuador

Visit Quito 

It’s easy to see why Quito was the first city in the world to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Ecuador’s capital is a patchwork of pastel-coloured, terracotta-tiled buildings built 2,850 metres up on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano.

The old city you see today dates to the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors created a city atop the ashes left by the retreating Incas. Its historical buildings reflect the styles of the colonial Spanish and the baroque school of Quito. This includes the Quito Metropolitan Cathedral, the Carondelet Palace and the monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, among myriad churches, monasteries, convents and squares. It is, as UNESCO declares, “the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America”.

Yet Quito is no museum, as a trip to one of its many markets proves. La Mariscal Artisan Market sells handicrafts, jewellery and Panama hats (which are, in fact, Ecuadorian), while Tianguez in the Old Town offers fair trade goods. Head to Mercado Central for a mix of fresh fruit, veg and flowers, and to try some local specialities, from corvina con papas (sea bass with potatoes) to locro de papa (potato soup with avocado, cheese and egg).

Quito also presents a range of scenic vantage points, including the 200-metre-high hill of El Panecillo, home to a landmark winged Madonna; Parque Itchimbía, best enjoyed with a picnic; or the Cruz Loma lookout, whose 4,000-metre summit can be reached via the TeleferiQo cable car.

Suggested holiday: Classic Ecuador

Visit the Middle of the World monument 

The Middle of the World monument is 30 metres high, topped by a giant globe and surrounded by immaculate gardens. Extending out from it: a bold yellow line marking the equator, after which Ecuador is named.

This landmark honours an 18th-century geodetic mission that sought to find Earth’s centre line. Modern GPS equipment has revealed that the French scientists involved were off by 240 metres, but the monument maintains their original line. The Middle of the World monument lies just 25 kilometres from the centre of Quito and makes for a worthy detour.

Suggested holiday: Classic Ecuador

 

 

Inspired to see Ecuador’s greatest sights for yourself? Browse our Ecuador escorted tours and private holidays, or contact our South America specialists.