Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador is the smallest of the Andean nations, covering an area no bigger than Nevada. For all its diminutive size, however, the country is packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery, taking in steaming tropical rainforests, windswept highlands, ice-capped volcanoes, and palm-fringed beaches, all within easy reach of the capital, Quito.
It’s a land of bold contours and heightened colors, where you can find yourself beneath a canopy of dripping vegetation amongst clouds of neon-colored butterflies one day, and in a highland market, mixing with scarlet-ponchoed indígenas the next. It’s also a country of astounding biodiversity, boasting 1600 species of bird (more per area than any other South American country), 4500 species of butterfly and over 3500 species of orchid, to cite just a few examples.
Add to this the country’s stunning colonial architecture and diverse indigenous groups, and it becomes clear why Ecuador is regarded by many as a sort of South America in miniature, offering a pocket-sized microcosm of almost everything travelers hope to find on this bewitching continent. As if more were called for, its attractions are triumphantly capped off by the Galápagos Islands, whose extraordinary wildlife has gone down in history for its pivotal role in shaping Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution.
“Ecuador, so tiny on the map of the world, has always possessed the grandeur of a great country to those who know her well.”
– Albert B. Franklin, Ecuador: Portrait of a People
Geographically, Ecuador’s mainland divides neatly into three distinct regions running the length of the country in parallel strips. In the middle is the sierra, formed by the eastern and western chains of the Andes that surge abruptly into the clouds from the lowlands either side. Punctuated by over thirty volcanoes, the two chains are joined by a series of high plateaux at around 2800m above sea level, separated by gentle transverse ridges, or nudos (“knots” of hills). This is the agricultural and indigenous heartland of Ecuador, a region of patchwork fields crawling up the mountainsides, of stately haciendas and dozens of remote communities. The sierra is also home to many of the country’s oldest and most important cities, including Quito.
East of the sierra is the Oriente , a large, sparsely populated area extending into the upper Amazon basin, much of it covered by dense tropical rainforest – an exhilarating, exotic region, though under increasing threat from oil-production and colonization.
West of the sierra, the coastal region is formed by a fertile alluvial plain, used for growing tropical crops such as bananas, sugar, coffee, and cacao, and bordered on its Pacific seaboard by a string of beaches, mangrove swamps, shrimp farms, and ports. Almost a thousand kilometers of ocean separate the coastline from the Galápagos archipelago, annexed by Ecuador in 1832.
All this provides a home to some fourteen million people, the majority of whom live on the coast and in the sierra. They are descendants, for the most part, of the various indigenous populations that first inhabited Ecuador’s territory, of the Incas who colonized these lands in the late fifteenth century, of the Spaniards who conquered the Inca empire in the 1530s and of the African slaves brought by the Spanish colonists.
Although the mixing of blood over many centuries has resulted in a mostly mestizo (mixed) population, the indigenous component remains very strong, particularly among the Quichua-speaking communities of the rural sierra, and the various ethnic groups of the Oriente such as the Shuar, the Achuar, the Huaorani, and Secoya, while on the north coast there’s a significant black population.
As in many parts of Latin America, social and economic divisions between indígenas , blacks, mestizos and an elite class of whites remain deeply entrenched, exacerbated here by a slew of recent economic and political crises. And yet, even as poverty and unemployment increase, as their national currency is lost to the US dollar and their political leaders continually fail to tackle the country’s problems, the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians remain resilient, remarkably cheerful, and extremely courteous and welcoming towards visitors.
Top Attractions in Ecuador
Thanks to its compact size, traveling around Ecuador is easy and relatively fast, with few places more than a fourteen-hour bus ride from the capital. Unlike the larger South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile – whose immense distances don’t lend themselves easily to a two- or three-week trip, and where itineraries demand careful forward-planning – Ecuador’s contrasting regions and highlights are within easy reach of each other, allowing for a more flexible approach to route-planning.
The majority of visitors fly into Quito , whose glorious if chaotic colonial center – a maze of narrow streets and exquisite monasteries and churches – demands at least a couple of days of your time. Its modern new town, meanwhile, is packed with hotels, restaurants and useful facilities that make it, for many travelers, a convenient resting-post between excursions.
Striking north from Quito, the northern sierra , green valleys dappled with glistening lakes and crested by volcanic peaks, is famed for its artesanías , with centers of weaving, leather goods and woodcarving all within a short bus ride of each other.
Of these, Otavalo is undoubtedly the biggest attraction thanks to the town’s enormous Saturday market – one of the continent’s most renowned – and its flourishing weaving industry. The region also offers plenty of scope for walkers and riding enthusiasts, who should consider splashing out on a stay in any of several beautiful converted haciendas .
The attractive regional capital, Ibarra , is dominated by elegant nineteenth-century architecture and makes a far less touristy alternative base to nearby Otavalo. South of Quito, the central sierra is home to the most spectacular of the country’s volcanoes , including the snow-capped cone of Cotopaxi , and Chimborazo , Ecuador’s highest peak at 6310m. In this deeply rural region you’ll find some of the most exciting markets in the sierra, with those of the villages of Saquisilí and Zumbahua, and the small town of Guamote, standing out in particular.
One of the most rewarding off-the-beaten-track destinations is the dazzling crater lake of Laguna Quilotoa , with its remote páramo setting. More established attractions include the busy little spa town of Baños , framed by soaring green peaks, and the train ride down the Nariz del Diablo (“the Devil’s Nose”) from Riobamba , the most attractive of the central sierra’s cities.
In the southern sierra you’ll find Ecuador’s most captivating colonial city, Cuenca , recently declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and a convenient base for visiting Ingapirca – the country’s only major Inca ruins – and Parque Nacional El Cajas , a wild, starkly beautiful wilderness area.
Further south, the charming city of Loja is a jumping-off point for visits to the Parque Nacional Podocarpus , whose humid lower reaches are particularly sumptuous, and the easy-going mountain village of Vilcabamba , a popular gringo hangout.
The Oriente embodies one of Ecuador’s greatest wildernesses – a thick carpet of tropical rainforest unfurling for almost 300km east to Peru that, until the late 1960s when oil reserves were found here, was only inhabited by isolated indigenous groups and the odd Christian mission. Since then, the region’s infrastructure has developed at pace, allowing easier access to Amazonian jungle than any other Andean country.
Two of the country’s largest protected areas – the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno and the Parque Nacional Yasuní – and a number of other private reserves are the guardians of substantial forests that have survived the incursions of the oil industry and colonists. Jungle lodges , many of them a canoe ride down the Río Napo , make for the most comfortable way of experiencing the thrill of the world’s most diverse and exciting habitat, while guided tours are often inexpensive and straightforward to arrange.
You can’t do better, however, than staying with an indigenous community for a glimpse of the jungle’s human dimension, and opportunities for this are becoming widespread throughout the region.
In the north, Tena and Misahuallí are the best towns to organize a jungle trip, though the bigger and grittier centers of the oil industry, Lago Agrio and Coca , are the gateways to the remotest forests and reserves. Tourism is considerably less developed in the southern Oriente, though the towns of Puyo and Macas offer possibilities for ecotourism in association with local indigenous groups, while many of the more remote destinations in this region can be reached only by light aircraft.
As in the jungle, you don’t have to be a wildlife enthusiast to appreciate the beauty of the cloudforests , otherworldly gardens of gnarled and tangled vegetation, wrapped in mosses and vines, and drenched daily in mist. The country has a number of private cloud forest reserves that provide accommodation and guides, some of the best beings on the western slopes of the Andes, a few hours’ drive from Quito on the way to the coast. These reserves have long been favorites of bird-watchers and the village of Mindo , enveloped in richly forested hills brimming with endemic species, is regarded as the birding capital of the country.
Continuing westwards, Ecuador’s varied coastline begins at the Colombian border in a confusion of mangrove swamps, protected by the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Cayapas-Mataje , and best visited by canoe from San Lorenzo , a down-at-heel town rich in Afro-Ecuadorian culture. The north coast is best known, however, for its beaches , and the resort at Atacames is one of the most popular and boisterous; quieter places to enjoy the warm Pacific waters include Súa, Same, Muisne and Canoa . Among the chief attractions of the southern coast is Parque Nacional Machalilla , with its dry and humid forests, superb beaches and impressive birdlife on its offshore island, Isla de la Plata .
Further down the coast, grungey Montañita is rapidly gaining popularity with surfers and backpackers, while Salinas is considered by Ecuadorians to be the country’s most prestigious seaside resort. Guayaquil , the region’s main port and the largest city in Ecuador, is too frenetic and humid for most visitors’ tastes: quieter destinations include the mangrove forests of the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute , the warm, picturesque hill village of Zaruma and the petrified forest of Puyango .
Finally, Ecuador’s showpiece, the Galápagos Islands , is, for many, the initial lure to the country, and arguably the most compelling nature spot in the world, more so even than the Oriente. Almost 170 years since Darwin dropped anchor there, the forbidding volcanic islands and their motley creatures are still fascinating all those who see them.
Weather in Ecuador
There’s no real summer and winter in Ecuador, with weather patterns varying according to geography, and temperatures determined more by altitude than by season or latitude. As a general rule, the warmest and driest months in the sierra are June to September, though this is complicated by various microclimates found in some areas.
Outside these months, typical sierra weather is characterized by sunny, clear mornings and cloudy, often wet, afternoons.
In the Oriente , you can expect it to be warm, humid and rainy throughout the year, though there are often some short breaks from the daily rains between August and September and December to February. In the lowland areas, it can get particularly hot on clear days, with temperatures easily topping 30°C.
The coast has the most clearly defined wet and dry seasons, with the best time to visit is from December to April, when you’ll get frequent showers but also clear blue skies and warm weather.
From May to November, the southern coast , in particular, is often overcast and relatively cool, with less chance of rainfall. The Galápagos climate sees hot, sunny days interspersed with the odd heavy shower from January to June, and dry and overcast weather for the rest of the year, when the garúa mists are also prevalent. It’s worth noting that El Niño years can bring enormous fluctuations in weather patterns on the coast and at the Galápagos archipelago when levels of rainfall can be many times the norm.
Food & Drink
Ecuador is a land of plenty when it comes to food, and it’s easy to eat well for little. As a fertile country comprising three distinct geographical regions, it can produce a startling array of foods, including dozens of exotic fruits, and three different regional styles of cooking.
That said, there’s surprisingly little variation between restaurant menus in these areas, with either fish (usually trucha or corvina , trout or sea bass), chicken or beef served with rice, chips or patacones (fried plantain), topped off with a smidgeon of salad.
Though the fish or chicken may be fried, boiled or breaded, it’s easy to get tired with the overall monotony of the cuisine, though occasionally you’ll find more exciting comidas típicas (especially in sierran areas), the traditional food of each region, cropping up on menus, or you can resort to western fast-food outlets, such as Burger King, opening in Quito or the pizza and pasta parlors which are springing up in many Ecuadorian towns.
Markets are among the cheapest sources of food, not only because of the range of nutritious fruits and produce on offer, but also from the makeshift restaurants and stalls that dole out fried meats, potatoes, and other snacks; although they may not be overly scrupulous on the hygiene front, food prepared and cooked in front of you should be fine.
Street vendors also supply snacks such as corn-on-the-cob or salchipapas , a popular fast food comprising a bag of chips propping up a sausage, all doused in ketchup. Vendors often carry their wares onto buses and parade the aisles to tempt passengers.
Transportation in Ecuador
Ecuador’s inexpensive and generally reliable buses are the country’s most useful and preferred form of public transport, trundling along just about everywhere there’s a road. By contrast, the train network covers only a small fraction of the country.
The road network is limited by North American and European standards, but expanding and improving all the time. Less than 15 percent of the highways, however, are paved so expect a bumpy ride if you’re going on any but the most important routes.
Pan American Highway
The Panamericana (Pan American Highway) forms the backbone of the country’s road infrastructure, linking all the major highland towns and cities from Tulcán to Loja. A handful of other good roads spill down the Andes to important coastal cities such as Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas, while in the Oriente the road system is the least developed and exists almost entirely to serve the needs of the local oil industry.
The network’s biggest problem has always been the weather – floods and landslides are common – while the rough nature of the terrain means that travelling in the country’s highland and mountainous regions is often much slower than you might expect: traveling the length of the country by bus from the Colombian border to Peru, a distance of 818km on mostly paved roads, takes around 18 hours – an average speed of 45km.
Crafts & Markets
The rich tradition of craftwork (artenasía) in Ecuador, was ingrained in the indigenous culture long before the arrival of Spanish. Weavings, ceramics, leatherware, paintings and woodwork form the core of the handicraft scene, but use of new materials, such as tagua nuts (vegetable ivory), shows a willingness to adapt to the times. Nevertheless, many of the skills and techniques employed have changed little, and often it’s the same families and communities that have kept the traditions alive over hundreds of years.
A walk down Amazonas in Quito will quickly give you an idea of the wealth of handicrafts being made in Ecuador; you’ll also see, in some of the classy boutiques, that the work can be of very high quality.
Markets are among the best places to pick up finely crafted pieces at good prices, and even if you can’t find a bargain, all the bustle and business makes a true window on life in rural Ecuador.
Apart from some notable exceptions, such as the famous market at Otavalo, you won’t necessarily find much in the way of artesanías at most others. After all, markets are where locals come to do their week’s shopping, meet friends,..
Ecuador Outdoor Attractions
Having so much untamed wilderness within easy striking distance of major population centers, Ecuador is among the world’s prime destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. Traditionally it’s been a target for climbers, boasting ten volcanoes over 5000m, including the world’s highest active volcano (Cotopaxi) and the point furthest from the center of the Earth (the summit of Chimborazo).
Rafting and kayaking
In recent years, Ecuador has been making a name for itself in international rafting and kayaking circles too, with a broad range of exciting runs packed into a small area, but opportunities also exist for mountain biking, surfing, diving, fishing, and horse riding. Amongst less strenuous activities, bird-watching is one of the biggest draws, with Ecuador’s extraordinary biodiversity supporting more than 1550 species of bird or about eighteen percent of the world’s total.
Some seventeen percent of Ecuador’s mainland territory is protected within 24 state-run national parks and biological, wildlife and woodland reserves, in addition to 97 percent of the Galápagos Islands’ landmass and a marine reserve surrounding them – the world’s second-largest. Encompassing mangroves, dry and wet tropical forests on the coast, cloud and montane forests, páramo, and volcanoes in the sierra, and tropical rainforests in the Oriente, the protected areas represent a cross-section of the country’s most outstanding natural attractions. Some have also earned international recognition – such as Sangay, a World Natural Heritage Site, and the Galápagos, another such site as well as being a World Biosphere reserve, as is Yasuní.
In many cases, the parks hold pure wilderness, areas that are protected almost by default, as they’re too remote and inaccessible to be developed. Other parts, however, are coming under increasing pressure due to the demands of the industry. The job of managing the protected land falls to the Ministerio del Ambiente – formerly known as, and sometimes still referred to as both INEFAN (Instituto Ecuatoriano Forestal de Areas Naturales y Vida Silvestre) and the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente – whose key concerns are to conserve the biodiversity of the parks; stop poachers; and to prevent incursions from big business, most notably the oil and African-palm-oil industries.
Due to a lack of resources, tourism has inevitably been put on the back burner, and infrastructure within the parks can be very limited. Even so, there’s great potential to take advantage of these wildernesses, and with the help of a guide, a good map and camping equipment you can immerse yourself in some stunning and little-explored country.
Visiting national parks
No permit is needed to visit any of Ecuador’s national parks; you simply turn up and pay your entrance fee if there’s a warden ( guardaparque ) at the guardpost ( guardería ) to collect it.
In addition to the state-managed parks, there is a growing number of small-scale private reserves set up for conservation, scientific research or eco-tourism projects and managed by philanthropists or ecological foundations.
Ecuador’s great wilderness areas and striking landscapes offer fantastic opportunities for hiking, though a general absence of well-marked trails and decent trekking maps does mean more effort is required to tap into the potential.
Ecuador’s “avenue of the volcanoes”, formed by the twin range of the Andes running the length of the country, offers numerous climbing opportunities, from relatively easy day-trips for strong hill-walkers to challenging technical hikes.
Rafting and kayaking
White-water rafting combines the thrill of riding rapids with the chance to reach some spectacular landscapes that simply can’t be visited otherwise. Each heavy-duty inflatable dinghy takes six to eight people plus a guide. Beginners can happily…
With roughly as many species as North America and Europe put together, crammed into a country that’s smaller than Nevada, Ecuador arguably has the best birding in the world. There are hundreds of endemic species, and even some recent discoveries, such as…
Mountain biking is more widespread in the sierra than in the lowlands, and a handful of rental companies in the main tourist centers can sort you out with wheels. Outside of Quito, you’re less likely to get a bike of decent quality; always check the…
Ecuador’s Sierra region offers numerous opportunities for horse riding, particularly at the many haciendas that have been converted into country inns, where riding has been a way of life for centuries. Riding up to the region’s sweeping…
Diving and snorkeling
Ecuador’s top scuba-diving spots are in the Galápagos, where there are good chances to see large sea fish as well as a number of spectacular endemic reef fish. Most people arrange diving tours before arrival, but there are several…
The coasts of Manabí and Guayas provinces are the most popular places for surfing with tourists and Ecuadorians alike, and laid-back Montañita, in Guayas province, has the reputation of being the country’s surf center, though…
Fishing ( pesca deportiva ) for trout ( trucha ) in the lakes of the sierra is quite a widespread local hobby. A couple of the national reserves are well-known fishing spots, namely El Ángel in the north …
High in the Andes, Ecuador’s capital, Quito , unfurls in an implausibly long north-south ribbon, over 30km long and just 5km wide. To the west, the city is dramatically hemmed in by the steep, green walls of Volcán Pichincha , the benign-looking volcano which has been threatening to erupt for over two years, sending periodic clouds of ash billowing into the sky and over the streets. East, Quito abruptly drops away to a wide valley known as the Valle de Los Chillos, marking the beginning of the descent towards the Amazon basin.
It’s a superb setting, but outside the summer months of July and August it can be bone-chillingly cold up here and Quito’s much-vaunted “spring-like climate” all too often gives way to grey, washed-out skies that somewhat undermine the beauty of the surroundings. If this is your entry point into the country, you’ll probably find that Quito’s altitude of 2800m leaves you feeling breathless and woozy when you first arrive – most visitors adjust in a couple of days, which is considerably helped by resting, drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol.
Central Quito falls into two distinct parts. The compact historical quarter known as the old town is the city’s undisputed highlight, a jumble of narrow streets and wide, cobbled plazas lined with churches, monasteries and mansions, and colorful balconied houses. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, old Quito contains some of the most beautiful colonial architecture on the continent, and the chaotic crowds of indígenas and mestizos that throng its streets give the place a tremendous sense of energy. However, as home to the poorer sectors of Quito’s 1.2 million population, it is perceived as a dangerous place after dark and few tourists actually stay here, choosing instead the adjacent bland, modern new town as their base. There’s nothing very special about the new town, but the concentration of banks, hotels, restaurants, tour operators and cybercafés is undeniably convenient, and even here the main shopping streets are brightened up by numerous Otavaleño street traders, whose wares are spread out over the pavements.
As a major crossroads and transport hub, Quito is the sort of place people keep coming back to, usually in-between forays to the jungle, to the Galápagos and to the northern and southern sierra. It’s also a popular base for learning Spanish, boasting dozens of language schools all over town, and many travelers spend several weeks here or longer mastering their castellano . It’s an easy city to spend time in, with its great choice of restaurants and the lively presence of fellow backpackers, and if the inevitable pollution and screeching horns begin to get a bit wearing, you can easily nip out for a break to several nearby attractions.
Mitad del Mundo
The most popular day-trip is to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) on the equator line, marked by a massive monument and several museums. This is often combined with a visit to the giant volcanic crater of Pululahua . Less obvious targets include the new, fun zoo at Guayabamba and the sanctuary of El Quinche to the north, as well as the Pasochoa forest reserve to the south, which offers great birding opportunities just half an hour from the city.
Women Travelers to Ecuador
Traveling as a lone woman in Ecuador presents no major obstacles: plenty of women do it, and the well-trodden gringo trail down the country makes it very easy to hook up with other travelers if you choose to. That said, there are a number of irritations you may have to put up with – as in any country – and certain precautions you should take.
The main nuisance faced by solo women travelers is the habit, prevalent among groups of young men, of whistling or making a hissing or kissing noises at unaccompanied young women as they walk past. Fair-haired women, or those who obviously look like a gringa, are likely to be subjected to these brainless displays of machismo more than others, but even Ecuadorian women haven’t let off the hook. The accepted wisdom is to pointedly ignore the perpetrators, or perhaps give them a withering stare – shouting abuse back at them will only be greeted with hilarity and convince them you’re loca (mad). Note that these situations rarely represent a real threat and are more about a group of guys flexing their muscles in front of each other. And, thankfully, you’ll encounter them far less frequently – and maybe not at all – outside the larger cities.
The more annoying problem of unwanted attention tends, on the whole, to be more of an issue in large cities and areas with a lot of tourists, such as Baņos, where you may find yourself being stared at insistently and engaged in conversation by men who enquire about your love life or make suggestive innuendoes. This stems partly from the fact that many Ecuadorian men perceive Western women to be “easy” and “loose” – an image to some extent exacerbated by Western women’s more liberal attitudes to the way they dress and socialize, for example. The head of South American Explorers in Quito – a Canadian woman who’s spent many years in Ecuador – advises women travellers to “be respectful of where they are, what impression they are leaving behind, what message they are sending out” in order to avoid reinforcing cultural misconceptions, and to minimize the amount of unwanted attention they receive.
Sexual assault and rape are not common in Ecuador, but there have been a number of incidents reported by female travelers. It is important to note that these are by no means carried out exclusively by Ecuadorians, with several foreign men reported as having assaulted women travelers. Beach resorts such as Atacames, Playas and Montaņita are known to have a higher incidence of reported assaults – under no circumstances walk on any beach alone or even as a twosome at night. Other sensible precautions include avoiding walking alone after dark in towns, and avoiding lone hiking – hook up with a couple of companions or sign up to a guided hike rather than take a risk, however low. If you are unfortunate enough to be the victim of rape or sexual assault, report the incident immediately to the local police and get in touch with your embassy in Quito as soon as possible for advice and support.
Despite the tone of warning, it must be stressed that most Ecuadorians are friendly and respectful of solo female travelers, and most women experience no major problems while traveling through the country. As for practical concerns, note that sanitary protection comes almost exclusively in the form of towels, with tampons very difficult to get hold of.