There’s a well-known saying that Ecuador is actually four worlds rolled into one country — despite being roughly the same size as the UK. Discover the rich culture and stunning beauty of Ecuador with our Rough Guide list of the best things to do in Ecuador and get inspiration for planning your trip.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Ecuador & The Galápagos, your essential guide for visiting Ecuador.
Even hardened skinflints won’t be able to resist bagging a few of the fabulous handicrafts and weavings on offer at one of the largest and most colourful artesanía markets on the continent. Every Saturday morning, Otavalo comes to life. Pick-up trucks laden with merchandise and vendors bent double under great blocks of textiles stream into town from the surrounding countryside.
If you can’t visit on a Saturday, don't worry. Many of most of town’s weaving and artesanía shops stay open throughout the week. You’ll find stalls on the Plaza de Ponchos every day.
A mixture of church spires, tiled roofs and skyscrapers glinting in the sunlight against the brooding backdrop of Volcán Pichincha. Quito is the second highest capital in the world and is an enthralling blend of urban and traditional indigenous cultures. Rivalled only by Guayaquil in size and economic clout, Quito is Ecuador’s political and cultural heart.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito's historic centre contains some of the most beautiful Spanish colonial architecture on the continent. The frenetic crowds of indígenas and mestizos that throng its streets give it a tremendous energy.
On this tailor-made trip to Ecuador's Cultural Cities and the Galapagos Islands you will explore the largest three cities of Ecuador, and the small towns and villages in between. Enjoy some outstanding scenery and wildlife, including the giant tortoise of Galapagos and the large iguanas that roam the streets of Guayaquil.
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Ecuador is a big draw for experienced climbers. A popular destination is Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Even novices, if fit and under professional guidance, can have a crack at
With its broad, green base and graceful slopes tapering to the lip of its crater, Cotopaxi is arguably the most photogenic of the country’s thirty or so volcanoes. On a clear day, it makes a dizzying backdrop to the stretch of highway between Quito and Latacunga.
Ready to immerse yourself in the history of Ecuador? Learn all about the history and culture of Ecuador and travel through the famous Avenue of the Volcanoes on this tailor-made trip to History and Culture of Ecuador. Here, markets, farms and museums will help you understand the traditions of Ecuador's indigenous people.
This glittering green crater lake sits at the heart of the Quilotoa loop, a popular scenic diversion through the beguiling landscapes and villages of the rural central highlands.
It’s possible to walk down to the lake from the crater’s edge following the path that starts just left of the parking area. It’s steep, and not to be undertaken lightly, but the views at the bottom are highly rewarding.
A triumph of urban renewal, this landmark is a transformation of a dangerous and dilapidated riverside walkway into the cultural and recreational heart of the city. It has been a leading force behind the renaissance of Guayaquil. Strolling the two-kilometre long pedestrianized section that runs alongside by the waterfront, known as the Malecón 2000 is one of the most pleasant things to do in Ecuador.
It connects some of Guayaquil’s best-known monuments. It features a large, paved esplanade filled with trees, botanical gardens, contemporary sculpture and architecture. Also serves access to lovely shopping malls and restaurants. Enclosed by railings and accessed only via guarded entrance gates, it is regularly patrolled by security guards, making it one of the safest places to spend a day in Guayaquil.
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A miracle of biodiversity, Ecuador has more orchid species than any other country on Earth. Wet, green, vibrant and extraordinarily beautiful, cloud forests feel like the prehistoric habitat of dinosaurs. Streaked by silvery waterfalls, the forests are shrouded in heavy mists for at least part of each day.
It’s this dampness that creates such lush conditions, giving rise to an abundance of epiphytes, such as lichens, mosses and ferns, which drape over the trees. Many orchids are epiphytes, preferring moss-covered branches or exposed bark to normal soil. With more than 3500 species, Ecuador is thought to have more orchids than any other country in the world.
The bright, zesty flavours and tender textures of ceviche, seafood marinated in lime juice, have made it a national obsession. This is especially so on the coast, where it makes the perfect accompaniment to sun, a cold beer, and a bowl of popcorn. Coastal delicacies, unsurprisingly, centre on seafood.
The classic ceviche is prepared by marinating raw seafood in lime juice and chilli, and serving it with raw onion.
Pristine colonial architecture, cobbled streets, illustrious churches and flowering plazas give Cuenca a distinguished air. It earns its well-deserved reputation of being the country’s most enchanting city. A classic example of a planned Renaissance town in the Americas, Cuenca’s centro histórico is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city shares many architectural features with Quito’s old town: narrow, cobbled streets, harmonious, balconied houses with interior courtyards. Not to mention an abundance of gleaming white churches and monasteries – all presented without the pollution, noise and overbearing crowds of the capital.
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From around 4700m down to 3100m, the climate of the páramo is less harsh, allowing for a wider range of life. The vegetation of the páramo, covering ten per cent of Ecuador’s total land area, is dominated by dense tussocks of Festuca or Calamgrostis grasses, along with terrestrial bromeliads and ferns.
The páramo is bleak, cold and wet, but hauntingly beautiful. You'll find here high-altitude grassland wildernesses rolling uninterrupted for miles between lonely, mist-shrouded lakes in many of the country’s highland reserves.
If you are going backpacking in Ecuador read our list of tips for backpacking South America.
Nariz del Diablo is one of the world’s greatest train journeys as it descends the Andes over the “Devil’s Nose” in a sequence of thrilling switchback turns. This journey is one of the most exciting things to do in Ecuador.
The train starts at Alausí, taking around two and a half hours for the return trip. This includes a spell in Sibambe, where you are treated to some staged traditional dancing and a small museum. Sit on the right-hand side of the train for the descent, if you can, and take the less busy 8 am journey.
Galapagos Island still gives an unparalleled insight into the mechanics of nature at one of the world’s most treasured wildlife destinations. Today the archipelago’s matchless wildlife, stunning scenery and unique history make it arguably the world’s premier wildlife destination.
The animals that have carved out an existence on the dramatic volcanic landscape have a legendary fearlessness. This results in close-up encounters that are simply not possible anywhere else on Earth. Witnessing first-hand the mating dance of the blue-footed booby and snorkelling with sea lions, turtles, penguins and sharks are just a couple of the unforgettable experiences that await you.
The Galapagos is undoubtedly one of the most tempting destinations in South America. You'll find even more ideas for your holiday in our guide to incredible South American journeys.
Follow in Charles Darwin's footsteps with this compact tailor-made trip to the Galapagos Islands. Spot the giant tortoise, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and sea lions. All in their natural habitat, lounging and feeding as you walk or swim by.
Brought by the conquistadors, horses may be late arrivals to Ecuador. However, they are uniquely suited to in-depth exploration of the country’s sweeping highland landscapes. There are many tour operators that offer horseback riding trips through the Andes mountains, along the coast, and through the Amazon rainforest.
These trips can range from a few hours to several days and can be tailored to suit different skill levels. It's important to note that while horseback riding is a popular activity in Ecuador, it can also be dangerous if proper safety precautions are not taken. It is advisable to choose a reputable tour operator and to wear appropriate safety gear such as helmets.
This tailor-made trip to Pristine rainforest - Ecuador's Amazon starts in Ecuador's capital Quito with nearby Cotopaxi volcano. Afterwards proceed to your adventure in the Amazon - a luxurious Lodge awaits with plenty of excursions from river canoes, bird watching, rainforest hikes and more.
At the eastern end of Calle Larga is the Museo de Pumapungo (formerly the Museo del Banco Central), Cuenca’s most polished and absorbing museum.
Right behind the main museum building is the Pumapungo archaeological park. This is where most of the artefacts displayed in the museum’s archaeological sala were found. It is also where the most important religious buildings of Tomebamba were located, though there’s little to see now.
The heart-stopping sight of a 36-tonne humpback breaching and flopping back into the ocean amid towers of spray can be experienced between June and September. This is when they come to the Ecuadorian coast to breed. The best place for whale watching in Ecuador is the Machalilla National Park, located on the Pacific coast.
Visitors can take boat tours from the town of Puerto Lopez to see humpback whales, as well as other marine life such as dolphins, sea lions, and marine birds. Some tour operators also offer the possibility of swimming with the whales, but this is only for experienced swimmers under guide supervision.
If you are an art lover, exploring local contemporary art should be on your list of things to do in Ecuador. Ecuador’s great modern artists are like the conscience of the nation, influential social commentators whose work, on view at several impressive galleries, shouldn’t be missed.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is home to several contemporary art galleries, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Popular Art.
Another important centre for contemporary art in Ecuador is Guayaquil, the country's largest city. This is where you can find the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is in the process of being remodelled, and other private galleries like Galería de Arte Contemporáneo GAC.
You will find plenty of things to do in Ecuador in this charming spa town. Nibble on the local speciality, melcocha (a sticky toffee made in shop doorways), or wallow in the thermal baths. Or take a day to go hiking, biking or rafting in the surrounding countryside, At 1820m above sea level, Baños enjoys a mild, almost subtropical climate and a spectacular location, nestled among soaring green hills streaked with waterfalls.
Baños is one of the most visited destinations in the country – despite the unpredictable condition of the Tungurahua volcano towering above the town to the south. Indeed, Tungurahua’s unpredictability is something of a draw in itself, with tourists flocking to high vantage points on cloudless nights to watch it spit lava and igneous rocks into the sky like fireworks.
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Ecuador’s best-preserved Inca ruins exhibit the fine stonemasonry and trapezoidal doorways that were the hallmarks of the empire’s architecture. It is perched on a hillside overlooking the serene pastoral countryside,
Though not as dramatic or well preserved as the Inca remains in Peru, it is nonetheless an impressive site that certainly deserves a visit, if only to witness the extraordinary mortarless stonework for which the Incas are renowned.
Quito’s centre is packed with magnificent churches, monasteries and convents. However, few can match La Compañía’s outstanding Baroque facade and sumptuous interior. Boasting an extraordinary Baroque facade of carved volcanic stone, the church is piled high with twisted columns, sacred hearts, cherubs, angels and saints.
Go early to see the sun light up the facade. The opulent Neoclassical building to its north was formerly the central bank and, ironically for a country that dropped its currency, houses a nostalgic numismatic museum, including pre-Columbian spondylus shells.
About 60km east from Quito, Papallacta is most famous for its steaming hot springs. Here you'll find highly ferrous pools reputed to relieve numerous ailments, from kidney trouble to ganglions. Papallacta’s best hot spring – and perhaps the best in Ecuador – is Las Termas de Papallacta, comprising two beautifully designed, well-managed bathing complexes, both with on-site restaurants and snack bars.
The Balneario has nine thermal pools, ranging in temperature between 36°C and 42°C, and three cold pools built in gentle terracotta curves and natural rock, while the heartstoppingly cold Río Papallacta itself offers a serious cool-off. Don’t miss the three small secluded pools up the hill to the left of the restaurant. The top one is over 40°C and is perfect for supine gazing at the mountain ridges.
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Almost opposite the Ilinizas, the snowcapped, perfectly symmetrical cone of Volcán Cotopaxi forms the centrepiece of Ecuador’s most-visited mainland national park, Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, which covers 330 square kilometres of the eastern cordillera.
Although the volcano dominates everything around it, and the aim of most visitors is simply to get a close-up view before turning home, a number of other attractions make a visit to the park very rewarding – namely the starkly beautiful páramo, all rolling moorland streaked by wispy clouds and pockets of mist.
If you are interested in exploring South America, check out these 7 itinerary ideas our pick of the best off-the-beaten track destinations.
Set at 1250m on the forested western slopes of Volcán Pichincha, Mindo resembles an Alpine village transplanted to the tropics. You'll find here steep-roofed, chalet-like farmhouses punctuating its lush and beautiful landscape. No longer a secret hideaway for bird-lovers, Mindo is expanding rapidly as a popular weekend escape for quiteños seeking relief from frenetic city life and the chilly climate of the Sierra.
Though the place is not yet bursting at the seams, new lodges and hostels are sprouting. Some ill-advised developments have occurred, and prices are rising. It’s best to avoid weekends and holiday periods if you want a more tranquil, back-to-nature experience.
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Looking for travel inspiration? Don't miss our guide to the most exotic places to travel in the world.
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Ready for a trip to Ecuador? Check out the The Rough Guide to Ecuador & The Galápagos. If you travel further in Ecuador, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in Ecuador. For inspiration use the initiaries from our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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