For me, Ecuador is one of those quintessentially “Latin” countries; it’s exactly what I picture when I think of “South America”. The country lies right along the Equator (hence its name Ecuador, literally “Equator,” in Spanish) and boasts some of the highest peaks in the world. Home to the vast Andes Mountains and rich traditions of the local people, Ecuador should not be overlooked on any trip to the region. The country’s national motto is “Ecuador: Ama La Vida,” or in English, “Ecuador: Love Life!”, and that’s exactly what you can’t help but do in this beautiful and eclectic country.
My first time visiting Ecuador was on a mission trip with volunteer organization Manna Project International, where I lived and worked with the local community in Valle de Los Chillos just outside of Quito. The trip was my first real exposure to a Spanish-speaking country, and was the experience that made me fall in love with travel and with South America in particular. I was captivated by the culture which centered around fútbol, dancing, cooking, and enjoying life with close-knit friends and family. Over the course of several months, I was able to travel throughout the country quite a bit, discovering the best that Ecuador has to offer.
For anyone planning a trip of their own, here are my recommendations for Ecuador’s top destinations:
Quito is a massive city which sits in a valley among the Andes Mountains. From the endless parks, art galleries, churches, museums, shops, restaurants, clubs, and bars, you will never be lacking for something to do here. If Quito is your first stop in Ecuador, make sure to take things slowly as the city’s (and country’s) incredibly high altitude can take some getting used to. Take a gondola ride on Quito’s Teleférico for incredible views of the city, wander through the picturesque colonial streets and plazas, drink a Canelazo in Plaza Foch, and grab brunch at Lucia Pie House and Grill.
I’ve visited many cities throughout my life and to this day, Quito is still one of my absolute favorites. It was here that I had my first mini-taste of solo travel when I spent the day wandering through the city alone; needless to say, I was hooked!
Quilotoa is an enormous crater lake which was formed by the ancient eruption of Quilotoa Volcano, and is now one of Ecuador’s most important tourist attractions. The small village of Quilotoa sits at the top of the lake and is run by the indigenous community there. Hike down to the lagoon where you can kayak and take in the extraordinary views, though remember that the hike back up is very challenging due to the high altitude and you may want to hire a horse or mule to take you. Spend some time in the little village having lunch or enjoying the handicrafts market there, and dinner will most likely be provided by your hostel or hotel accommodation (there aren’t too many options as the village is quite small).
Quilotoa is one of the most magnificent sites I have ever seen and neither words nor photos can properly do it justice. Though the site itself is truly incredible, the journey to get there was an experience in itself. We took the local bus from Quito to Latacunga and from there another bus the rest of the way, neither costing more than a few dollars. Both busses played hours of cumbia songs on the radio, showed Spanish-dubbed American movies, and showed little concern while racing through the winding Andean roads. Passing through the tiny, isolated mountain villages of local indigenous people while taking in breathtaking views of the Andes is something I will never forget.
Baños de Agua Santa (Baños for short) is definitely one of the more touristy places you’ll visit in Ecuador, but nevertheless, one that certainly cannot be missed. This town is known for its extreme sports, thermal baths, exciting nightlife, and of course, La Casa del Arbol, the “swing at the end of the world”. The town itself is filled with cute bars and restaurants and it’s very easy to mix and mingle with the locals and other travelers.
For me the highlight of Baños was La Casa del Arbol. This treehouse is a rickety little shack at the top of a mountain with a rope swing attached at the side. If you’re brave, the old man working there will give you a push and you’ll swing out into the sky overlooking the Andes and the Tungurahua volcano. It’s best to go on a clear day, but in the Andes the weather is always luck of the draw. On the day that I went fog completely obscured the view, but swinging into the foggy abyss was still an other-worldly experience.
Otavalo is a town renowned for having one of the largest artisan markets in South America. The market is a wild and chaotic place, filled with all the colors, sites, smells, and foods of Ecuador. Vendors are friendly and walk through the streets chanting whatever it is they’re selling; “frutilla, frutilla!” (strawberries) or “sandia, sandia!” (watermelon) and the whole place is buzzing with energy and excitement. Be sure to go on a Saturday, when the market expands throughout the streets of the entire town.
Otavalo is a town built on history and tradition, and with that comes the element of ceremony and spirituality. During my time in Otavalo, my group of "gringo" friends and I got caught up in a local parade which we quickly realized was actually a ritual ceremony. At the time, none of our Spanish was good enough to understand what was truly going on, so we marched and danced with the local people through the village by candlelight until the parade culminated in a plaza where everyone gathered for the final ceremony. I later discovered that the festival had to do with celebrating the seasonal harvest. It was absolutely incredible to be included by the local people and experience some of their traditions firsthand.
Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s most notable symbols. This active, snowy volcano is the second highest peak in the country and lies just south of Quito. Besides the volcano itself, there isn’t much else in this area, allowing you to truly connect with the land and the spirit of Pachamama (Mother Earth). I recommend staying at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi hostel, located among vast, empty fields with Cotopaxi visible in the distance. Spend the day hiking the volcano. The hike up is difficult due to the high altitude and can get very cold, but it’s a totally surreal experience that is absolutely once-in-a-lifetime.
Tena is a city located in the Amazon rainforest and is a hub for whitewater rafting and adventure activities. The town has many shops and restaurants, several of which offer the traditional “menu del día,” which is a set three or four course meal consisting of soup, a main dish of fish or meat, rice, vegetables, a dessert, and usually a glass of freshly-squeezed local juice. The menu del día is very common in restaurants throughout the country and you’ll rarely find one that costs more than $4 USD. In Tena in particular, a whole fish, usually Tilapia, is typically included as one of the courses and is absolutely delicious!
On a whitewater rafting tour I took in Tena, we pulled over to the river bank and walked deep into the rainforest where we were met by a group of local indigenous people living there who hosted us for lunch in their village. That was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had and opened my eyes to the many different cultures and ways of life existing in every corner of the world.
Montañita is a coastal city known for its surfing and rowdy parties. Though you’re sure to have a great time here, be careful to watch your back and keep your belongings close, as the city is also known for being a bit seedy. I didn’t personally have the chance to visit Montañita but its reputation is known throughout Ecuador for being one of the country’s wildest destinations!
The Galapagos Islands are arguably Ecuador’s most famous feature. The islands are world-renowned for their superb beaches and incredible marine and wildlife. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit myself, as getting to the Galapagos can be a bit difficult and quite expensive, but I’m told it’s completely worth it. Go diving and snorkeling, soak up the sun on pristine beaches, and see sea turtles, Blue-Footed Boobies, penguins, and some of the most impressive nature in the world.
For such a small country (relative to the rest of the continent), there are endless things to do in Ecuador. The places I’ve mentioned here are just a few of my absolute favorites, but other destinations like Mindo, Cuenca, Guayaquil, and La Mitad del Mundo, among many others, are also worth a visit if you have the time! If you are lucky enough to spend any time at all in Ecuador, make sure to live it up in true Ecuadorian form; Ecuador, ¡Ama La Vida!
My name is Sophie Mendel, and I’m an American travel writer and editor currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. I have traveled to 42 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages), and love lugging my guitar around the world with me! Follow my travels on Instagram @theunboundedtraveler!