Ranging from the misty jungles and roaring waterfalls of the Amazon in the east to the salt-sprayed Pacific seaboard in the west, Ecuador encompasses everything from wondrous cloud forests to brooding volcanos, Andean peaks and Incan ruins between its borders.
Check out the top 15 spots that every traveler here should be sure to have on their itinerary on our list of the best places to visit in Ecuador:
Cascading down the rugged slopes of Pichincha Volcano, the highest official capital city in the world is perhaps the biggest bucket-list destination in all of Ecuador.
In 1978, the center of the city was designated as one of the first ever UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites, hailed for its lived-in pueblo homes and gilded Spanish plazas, painted colonial edifices and enchanting cobbled streets, each trodden by conquistadores and Incan imperialists alike.
On the edges of town, the hillsides of El Panecillo give way to the soaring Andean peaks, mist-clad or snow-topped depending on the time of year.
Meanwhile, Mercado Santa Clara and the various eateries pulse with local chatter and camarones and cuy (that’s guinea pig to you and me!) dishes, and La Carolina Park beats with bikers and football players alike.
Once just a sleepy little fishing town rising from the mangroves and crawling dune vines on the Ecuadorian Pacific, Canoa now boasts a distinct air of confidence and panache.
During the day, tanned locals canoe and kayak over the rollers, while surfers hone their skills on the challenging left-to-righters during the high-season (typically running from December through to spring). When night comes, the town’s clutch of Rasta bars and bamboo cocktail shacks comes alive with Pisco sours and the chatter of travelers, fusing a low-key hedonism with a bona fide South American beach town feel.
Some two hours along the Pacific Coast from the southern, seaside metropolis of Guayaquil is where travelers will discover the good vibrations of Montanita; a salt-sprayed string of a town that’s made up largely of lean-to bars and bamboo shacks along the beach.
Home to one of the most reliable and accessible surfing spots in the country, this one’s bursting to the brim with board rentals and surf teachers offering their services.
Night time is the domain of Marley and the Wailers, while the sunsets bring out the yogis, who pepper the boulders and cliffs stretching and unwinding in the ocean breeze.
In short, if you’re after a blast of Caribbean living and Cali free love in Ecuador (plus some great surf ops), this is the place to go!
Brooding and bubbling, mist-clad and snow-tipped, Cotopaxi is the great, hulking monster of the Ecuadorian backcountry.
Although not the highest peak in the country (that honour goes to the colossal massif of Chimborazo), Cotopaxi lurches so high above the horizon that it can even be seen from the central districts of Quito when the mists clear.
Climbers come in their droves to conquer the summit too, strapping on the crampons and wielding ice picks as they attempt to scale what is one of the few permanent ice fields on the Earth’s equatorial circumference.
Just like its Spanish namesake, Cuenca is a real beauty.
Oozing colonial charm and elegance from every one of its neo-classical and baroque pores, the city is spiked with countless church spires and topped with the bulbous, coloured domes of the Catedral Nueva – photogenic in the extreme.
Travelers head in to wander the tight-knit streets and enchanting 16th-century plazas here, gawping at the various churches and the perennial bougainvillea blooms that erupt around the Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion and the like.
And once you’ve checked off all the Spanish history, be sure to head north out of town, to where the crumbling remnants of Ingapirca pepper the hills of Canar Province.
These are the largest known Incan remains in all of Ecuador.
Roaring cataracts cut their way through the ridges of the La Cordillera de los Llanganates on the edge of Banos, while bubbling hot springs issue plumes of steam into the misty jungles that dress the land.
Trekking trails weave and turn all around the highlands that encompass the town, and mountain bikers enjoy kilometer upon kilometer of runs through the rainforests.
Yes sir, Banos – the so-called ‘Gateway to the Amazon’ – is a real jewel (even if it’s ramshackle appearance and ad hoc rows of guesthouses and adventure guide establishments isn’t the prettiest South America has to offer!).
Set high in the Northern Sierra ranges north of Quito, the charming little backwater town of Otavalo has become a real gringo favourite in the last couple of decades.
But its draws aren’t new.
No sir, that buzzing marketplace, complete with its stacks of alpaca wools and colourful Quechua clothes, animist totems and reed-grass voodoo pieces, has been going for centuries, and the people here can trace their roots back to the pre-Incan tribes of the high Andean plateaus.
Then there’s the backcountry, which lurches like a great backbone out of the earth with the peaks of Imbabura Volcano – another of Ecuador’s top climbing spots.
Atacames is one of the first beach cities on the Ecuadorian Pacific arch.
Pulsing and big, the town is quite different to the rustic bamboo resorts that pepper the shorelines to the south, however.
The beach is wide and just a tad polluted, peppered with fishermen and al fresco discos that thump with Europop and reggae and salsa alike throughout the high season.
But it’s precisely that earthy, hedonistic energy that pulls the crowds to Atacames, and locals love to head in from the Andes to party the night away with Pisco sours, mojitos and fast-food aplenty.
Charming little Guamote is a patchwork of mud-brick homes and breeze-block buildings, smiling indigenous people and sleepy plazas, where the native tongue of Ecuador’s central Andean tribes still rings between the adobe walls and the looming central ranges rise like bulwarks on all sides.
Travelers head here to seek out the legendary Thursday market, when Guamote erupts with curious trinkets, hand-carved totems and multi-coloured frocks, while others come to wax up the walking boots and hit the trails or bridal paths, which weave out of town to the sparkling Lagunas de Atillo and the volcano-topped Sangay National Park.
10. Galapagos Islands
It was in 1835 that one Charles Darwin and his ship, the HMS Beagle, drifted in to these far-flung isles some 906 kilometers west of the Ecuadorian mainland.
What the great scientist found there was to inspire one of the most revolutionary theories of all time.
Yes sir, from blue-footed boobies to red-billed tropicbirds, colossal albatrosses to fur seals and bottlenose dolphins, red bats and flamingos all peppering the volcanic slopes and windswept beaches here, it’s hardly surprising that Galapagos was – and is – famed mainly for its great biodiversity.
Today, travelers come to spy out the arrays of wondrous wildlife, scuba dive in the reefs and explore the otherworldly landscapes of the archipelago’s hinterland.
Okay, so Tena might not have the gilded colonial churches and pretty plazas of its mountaintop compadres to the west, but it does have something that the likes of Quito and Cuenca can only dream of: primeval rainforest.
Yes sir, perched just on the edge of the Amazon basin, this lively little transport town is a hubbub of backpackers and intrepid types, all eager to bathe in the gushing waterfalls that crash through the wilds outside of town, or hit the kayaks and rafts and white water rapids of the legendary Jatunyacu River.
Caving is also big here, with oodles of tunnels and karst caverns hiding beneath the undergrowth around the pretty backwater of Archidona.
Sandwiched between the beautiful reaches of the Podocarpus National Forest and the mythic Mount Mandango, Vilcabamba was once the royal retreat of Incan VIPs.
Today all are welcome, and travelers flock to the highland town between the ridges of southern Loja to enjoy everything from horseback riding in the wilds to hiking, spa retreats and pleasant year-round temperatures and breezes.
It’s thought that the inhabitants – indelibly lovely people with a graceful, welcoming air about them – live longer than most.
Perhaps it’s the potent herbal remedies they cook up, or maybe it’s the lingering spectres of the pre-Columbian kings and spirits in the hills.
Tucked in a valley of cloud forests and Andean summits, Mindo is pretty much universally liked.
It’s now one of the major stop-offs on the gringo trail through Ecuador, offering backpackers and outdoorsy types a taste of the wild mountain reaches and the tropical jungles that burst up from where the Chocoan plains leave off.
The town itself is an enchantingly haphazard array of bamboo, timber homes and guesthouses, living amidst the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve, which encompasses the streets here in a patchwork of roaring waterfalls and chirping tree canopies, winding walking trails and tubing rivers, white water rapids and rolling highland meadows.
It’s all beautiful stuff!
Guayaquil is the great southern metropolis, Ecuador’s largest city, and a throbbing port town with multicultural influences coming out of its ears.
It can be found straddling the delta of the Guayas River as it spread out to meet the Pacific Ocean; a patchwork of breeze-block barrios and ice-cream-coloured hillside homes that finds its zenith on the bubbling Malecon walkway along the water.
Here, ceviche holes-in-the-wall throw out homemade seafood salads and students straight out of Guayaquil’s many lecture halls sip beers as the sun sets against the sea.
Meanwhile, the Zona Rosa and Penas districts pulse with nightclubs and discos, and there’s always somewhere to sip a cheeky tequila in the early hours!
Villa Real de San Antonio del Cerro de Oro de Zaruma (that’s just Zaruma for short) crowns the hillsides of the Vizcaya just a little inland from Ecuador’s rolling coastal plains.
It’s a fascinating place, awash with ramshackle old miners’ homes and the regal republican mansions of the prospectors and foremen who made it large in the gold mines of the Andes.
Today, travelers can opt to descent into the subterranean depths where the seams were once chiselled away, while others will simply sip coffee in the earthy cafes that line the streets of Zaruma’s downtown, sampling the flavoursome tigrillo plates of plantain and campo cheeses the locals are known for.