Ecuador is a charming, quaint gem, growing rapidly in popularity amongst travellers.
A substantial portion of Ecuador’s charm can be found in Quito, one of - if not the - most beautiful capital city in South America. Quito is heavy in Spanish-styled colonial architecture and just roaming the streets is an attraction.
Start at the Plaza Grande in the center of Old Town and climb the cathedral for some great views. Then visit inside and admire the religious artworks, before heading to the Monasterio de San Francisco. Finally, climb El Panecillo and get close to the omnipresent statue of La Virgen de Quito, offering spectacular views as well.
The next day, stand on both hemispheres at the Mitad del Mundo equatorial monument, 22km north of Quito – or take the Telefériqo up Volcán Pichincha and continue walking for about three hours to reach the summit of Rucu Pichincha.
A short bus ride up north is Otavalo, which is mostly known for its colourful handicraft and animal markets, which greet the town every Saturday. You’ll see plenty of people dressed in traditional gear, adding to the cultural appeal of Otavalo.
Your next base is Latacunga, Ecuador’s primary hiking destination. Visit Volcán Cotopaxi National Park en-route from Quito and admire Ecuador’s second highest peak. Then go on a three-day trip to explore the Quilotoa Loop and hike between the Andean villages. Check out the Sunday market at Pujili or the Thursday market at Saquisilí, and hike to the breath-taking Laguna Quilotoa volcanic crater lake.
Next, visit Tena for some water activities. This relaxed town sits at the confluence of the Rio Tena and Rio Pano rivers, and is known for white water rafting. Plenty of operators organize such trips. Other options include kayaking, paddling, and guided trips through the jungle.
Baños is your next destination – and you come here for the gorgeous scenery coupled with some adventurous activities. Start with a dip in one of the thermal baths in town. Then rent a mountain bike or a motorized quad and ride down the 60km to Puyo, enjoying the marvellous mountain vistas. If you feel like climbing and the conditions are good, try the ascend to Tungurahua, an active volcano at 5016m. And if that is not too much already, arrange for a trip through the jungle with an experienced guide.
Then make your way to Riobamba, the starting point for a spectacular train ride down to the Nariz del Diablo. Roof-riding used to be popular but owning to an accident in 2008, it is now prohibited and the ride is not as spectacular as it used to be - too bad. Trains usually go three times a week, but call the train station beforehand to make sure that operations are running smoothly. In Riobamba itself, walk the streets on market day (Saturday) and visit the Museo de Arte Religioso for its 360kg gold monstrance. For some more action, ride a mountain bike downhill from Volcán Chimborazo (Ecuador’s highest peak at 6310m).
Next, go down to Guayaquil for a relaxing stint in one of Ecuador’s historic cities. Guayaquil used to be infamous for its crime-ridden and dangerous harbour, but is now a reformed city. Authorities patrol along the modern and beautiful waterfront promenade Malecón 2000, which is best enjoyed in the evening. Don’t miss to explore the historic neighbourhoods and brightly painted houses in La Penas and Cerro Santa Ana at Malecón’s northern end.
Your last major stop in mainland Ecuador is Cuenca. After exploring the city with a walk along the bank of Rio Tomebamba and visiting the photogenic New Cathedral and El Sagrario (Old Cathedral) at Parque Calderon, embark on a daytrip to even more sights in Cuenca’s vicinity. Be sure to check out the famous Inca ruins of Ingapirca, the lakes in Parque Nacional Cajas, and various indigenous villages along the way.
From Cuenca, you can go to Trujillo in Peru.
From Quito or Guayaquil, you can also fly over to the very famous Galapágos Islands, known for being paradisiacal in nature - Charles Darwin found inspiration for his evolutionary theory when he visited in 1534. Organize your trip in Quito or Guayaquil and give yourself at least 2-3 weeks to stay on the islands in order to make up for the hefty entry fee. We strongly recommend a multi-day cruise, as this allows you to see islands further away from your likely base in Puerto Ayora. However, some islands closer by can also be done on cheaper daytrips directly from Puerto Ayora. Our tip: Shopping around and waiting for price drops due to last minute cancellations can save you a lot.
(This itinerary is based on our Ecuador Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)