Updated April 25th, 2021.
When it comes to choosing the best places to visit in Ecuador, it is hard to pick just a few. Although the Galapagos islands will be the first place that spring to mind for many travellers, mainland Ecuador offers a variety of attractions you won’t want to miss. Whether you’re into wildlife spotting or adventure activities like canyoning and whitewater rafting, Ecuador has something for you.
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15 Places to Visit in Ecuador: Big Attractions & Authentic Experiences
1. Galapagos Islands
Located about two hours off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are many people’s sole reason for visiting Ecuador. Although the mainland has a lot to offer, it’s easy to understand why. These volcanic islands are home to some of the most unique flora and fauna in the entire world and for many, a visit here is at the very top of their bucket list.
According to UNESCO, the Galapagos archipelago is made up of 127 islands, islets and rocks. Of these, there are 19 large islands, four of which are inhabited. A whole manner of exotic wildlife calls these islands home, from the rare land iguana to the giant tortoise.
Sadly for backpackers, a trip to the Galapagos does not come cheap. There are two ways to see the islands, either by cruise (most costly) or by land hopping (still costly but less so). To help you decide whether this is a splurge you’re willing to make, have a read of this traveller’s account.
The Galapagos are undoubtedly one of the world’s most incredible destinations. They’re utterly magical and the residents, both human and animal, will capture your heart. Heading to the Galapagos? Check out this hiking & diving Galapagos trip run by Ecuatraveling.
Officially known as Baños Agua de Santa, Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador. Hugely popular with backpackers and known for its lively traveller and expat community, this is a must-visit spot on your Ecuador itinerary!
Although Baños attracts mainly adrenaline seekers, it has something for the more chilled out traveller too. FYI: It’s named after the hot springs dotted about the town, rather than the public convenience!
If you want to get the blood pumping, there’s an endless list of activities: ziplining, canyoning, puenteing (very much like bungee jumping), mountain biking, and rafting, to name a few. It’s the most popular backpacking spot in the central highlands, so it’s best to book accommodation before you arrive.
Although many of these adventure activities can be expensive, there are plenty of more budget-friendly things to do. Take on one of the mountain hikes in the area or cycle the Ruta de las Cascadas, culminating in the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall. You’ll need your wits about you on the roads but the views are well worth it!
The capital city of Ecuador, Quito, has everything. From a stunning UNESCO World Heritage colonial city centre to great nightlife in Plaza Foch, to kitschy attractions in the middle of the world, you’ll certainly not be bored here.
There are several viewpoints where you can get great panoramas of the old town – try el Panecillo, a huge statue of the Virgin Mary, or climb the towers of the San Francisco cathedral. If you want a vista of the entire city, take the teleférico, a cable car that scales the side of the Pichincha volcano. If you plan on doing the volcano hike (which you should), bear in mind that you’ll need to start it early in the morning to avoid getting stuck at the summit in bad weather.
Biking is a great way to see the city, as there are several bicycle lanes and large parks. On Sundays, Avenida de Amazonas is closed to cars and buses. Some hostels offer bike rental for guests so look out for this if you like the idea of exploring on two wheels!
Otavalo has one of the biggest indigenous markets in South America, where you can buy handicrafts, jewellery, clothes made of alpaca wool (did you even go to South America if you didn’t come back with an alpaca wool jumper?), and hammocks.
Most travellers tend to do a day trip to Otavalo which can be a good way to see the world-famous market if you are short on time. However, there are some budget-friendly hostels in the area if you want to really get under the skin of the place.
Once you’ve haggled yourself out, there are several great hikes around the city, including those to Peguche waterfalls, Fuya Fuya, and Cuicocha lake.
Vilcabamba’s relaxed atmosphere and great weather attract lots of tourists. In fact, there are more foreign-owned businesses here than in any other city in Ecuador!
The hippie vibe means that vegans and vegetarians have lots of restaurants to choose from and a welcome relief from the meat/potatoes/rice combo that is prevalent all over the country. Stay here for a few days and chill.
Vilcabamba is a popular spot for travellers seeking spiritual and psychedelic experiences through the use of the San Pedro cactus which grows naturally here. Be aware that the mescaline in San Pedro is very potent and we urge against treating this as just another traveller experience to tick off your bucket list.
The weather in Vilcabamba is perfect for horse riding and hiking and it’s close to Parque Nacional Podocarpus. This national park is special because it is the meeting point of four ecological systems: Amazonian, Northern Andes, Southern Andes and Pacific. This means there are a huge variety of endemic species here.
Like Quito’s city centre, Cuenca is another UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its beautiful historic centre. Domed churches, huge open plazas, and some of the best nightlife in Ecuador mean that you can’t miss this place.
Cuenca is also a popular spot for foodies, namely because of its reputable cuy restaurants. For those of you that don’t know, that is what the locals call guinea pig. Would you eat a guinea pig? If so, you’re in the right place!
Situated just outside Cuenca is Cajas National Park. Comparable to the Scottish Highlands, just a whole lot higher, this wild escape is perfect for outdoor lovers.
Travellers can easily visit Cajas National Park independently and camping is also permitted in the park if you want to do a multi-day hike through the park. Those staying in Cuenca can travel directly via bus or arrange a one day tour from the city.
Officially Ecuador’s second city, but actually bigger than Quito, Guayaquil is often seen by backpackers as a stopover, rather than a destination in itself. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit though!
The once-neglected Malecón has been regenerated into an excellent waterfront square/promenade and there are plenty of things to do in and around the city, like spot huge iguanas for instance!
When you arrive, head out on a walking tour to help you get your bearings and learn a little more about the history of Ecuador’s bad boy city. Guayaquil is much safer these days than it used to be but backpackers are still encouraged to have their wits about them and take the usual safety precautions when visiting.
All flights to the Galapagos either originate in or pass through Guayaquil, so it’s a good excuse to spend a couple of nights here if the islands are on your itinerary.
Papallacta is a tiny village in the northern Oriente, with a population of less than 1000. You’re not coming here for the village though! The 2-hour trip from Quito is totally worth your time and money, as you can relax in the village’s many hot springs.
These 40-degree springs are located 3km above the village and offer spectacular views of the snow-capped Antisana volcano. The nights here are cold, but the sun is intense, so bring plenty of sun cream.
The local restaurants are famous for their steamed trout so if you’re not a veggie, make sure you try this signature local dish. La Choza de Don Wilson restaurant is a good choice and they also serve Ecuador’s notorious sugarcane spirit, aguardiente. Bottoms up!
These pre-Columbian Cañari ruins were originally used as an observatory, and the Temple of the Sun, where virgins were sacrificed, is still very much intact. Thankfully, there are no sacrifices carried out nowadays, virgin or otherwise.
As well as being hugely interesting from a historical point of view, the land is also kept in check by the resident llamas, which for some reason, seem to excite backpackers the most!
Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador and a great place to get off the grid and experience a more authentic side of the country. Many people skip it in favour of Vilcabamba or Cuenca but there’s plenty here to keep you occupied for a few days.
Loja has a vibrant music and food scene, as well as a prestigious university that contributes to a cool art community. The downside is that there aren’t loads of hostels to choose from but that shouldn’t put you off.
Some say that Loja is a little like Cuenca, except that the flood of expats (mostly from the US) haven’t yet found it. The area benefits from a spring-like climate year-round which is ideal for exploring the nearby Parque Nacional Podocarpus.
If laid back jungle vibes are your thing, don’t miss Tena, capital of the Napa province and gateway to the Amazon basin. Although not strictly on the Gringo trail, Tena is finding its feet on the expat scene and attracting increasing numbers of backpackers.
Most flock to the area before embarking on trips into the Amazon jungle. However, there is a fair amount to do in the city itself. Cafe Tortuga is one of the main hangout spots for travellers and the wonderful El Sendero de la Misión Trail begins nearby.
Whitewater kayaking and rafting are the big attractions here and there are rivers to suit all abilities. Although there are plenty of places to do water sports in South America, Tena is undoubtedly one of the best, with exciting rapids and a jungle backdrop. Make sure you do your research when choosing a tour company as the cheapest option is rarely the best. We recommend Kayak Ecuador who uses only certified professional guides.
Located on the Pan-American Highway, Latacunga is a popular jumping-off point for Cotopaxi National Park. This little Andean city sits at 2,630 metres above sea level so you’ll need to allow yourself plenty of time to acclimate. Altitude sickness medication is sometimes recommended by doctors for travellers who don’t have time in their schedule to allow for gradual acclimatisation.
Cotopaxi volcano is the biggest attraction in the national park and day trips can easily be arranged from Latacunga or Quito for travellers with limited time. Most of these will take you to the Cotopaxi glacier before you bike back down!
Quilotoa crater lake is also well worth a visit. Trips that hike down to the crater can be done in a day but more intrepid travellers won’t want to miss the 3-day Quilotoa loop. Be warned, this can be physically challenging!
If you can, try to time your visit to Latacunga with the Mama Negra Festival where the locals pay homage to the Virgin of Mercy. This crazy fiesta takes place on 23-24 September (although this changes depending on when the weekend falls) and really needs to be seen to be believed!
Although Riobamba is a city that is regularly overlooked by visitors to Ecuador, it really shouldn’t be. It is the capital of Chimborazo province and makes up part of the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
For those that do find themselves in Riobamba, there is one main attraction: scaling Ecuador’s highest volcano. Measuring in with a peak of 6,263 metres above sea level, Chimborazo allows you to get closer to the sun than anywhere on earth. Everest may be further above sea level but the equatorial bulge means Chimbarazo reaches further into the atmosphere.
As well as mountain hiking, you can also board the Nariz Del Diablo train here. This train leaves Riobamba thrice weekly and follows a charming scenic route to Alausí. The train was once very well known for permitting passengers to sit on the train roof but this practice has been banned for obvious reasons!
We’ll be upfront about this one: Montañita is a beach town not to everybody’s tastes. With great surf, chilled beaches and cheap hostels, it is a backpacker paradise. So, what is the downside I hear you ask?
Montañita is a party town that doesn’t sleep. Seriously. The streets are lined with cocktail bar after cocktail bar and the happy hour never ends. If you’re looking to sip from buckets and dance the night away, then Montañita is a hedonistic haven you don’t want to miss.
However, for backpackers who prefer a slower pace of life, don’t dismiss the town just yet. It is a great place to learn Spanish (courses in the area are reasonably priced and aimed at the backpacker market) and a good launch point for one of South America’s best national parks: Machalilla.
Home to the ‘poor man’s Galagapos’ known as Isla de la Plata, tours can be easily arranged from Montañita. The waters around Isla de la Plata have some of the best snorkelling in the whole of Ecuador and there is also the opportunity to spot Blue-Footed Boobies on land.
Sitting in Ecuador’s beautiful cloud forest, Mindo is a wonderful spot for nature lovers. Most known for its diverse birdlife, over 470 different species live here. Although you can explore some of the area independently, a local guide will help you see as many different birds as possible.
If you’re looking for more of a fast-paced trip, check out the tubing (cheap and cheerful) and the canyoning. There are a number of waterfalls nearby that can be navigated on foot if adventure activities aren’t your thing.
For those not afraid of things that go bump in the night, head out on a night walk for the opportunity to spot huge creepy crawlies, snakes and even possums.
Have we missed your favourite place in Ecuador off our list? Let us know in the comments!