Ecuador is that sparkling, hidden gemstone in the jewelry box—it’s slightly small, yet its beauty is unsurpassed. There’s much to discover in this country known for its splendid beaches, Amazon rainforest, and old-world cities. Preserved architectural sites and centuries-old churches offer colorful glimpses into Ecuador’s rich history.
There’s a seamless juxtaposition to modern-day adventure: the Galapagos Islands are a wildlife paradise, the hiking trails leading to the Virgin Mary offer panoramic views of Baños, and tourist-friendly Montañita is a vibrant village that takes its surf culture very seriously.
Featuring otherworldly scenery, a lively culinary scene, and seemingly endless activities for both adventure-seekers and casual travelers, Ecuador is the multifaceted jewel of South America. Here, our guide on what to do, where to go, and the little treasures that make this country so unique.
East Some Candy in Baños
In the shadows of the Tungurahua volcano, Baños is lined with hiking trails that offer pristine views of the Andean highlands and deep green valleys. One of the steepest hikes leads you to a stunning Virgin Mary statue presiding over the town. But don’t be afraid to veer off these paths.
Baños has four municipal thermal baths known for their restorative, healing powers. After immersing yourself in the mineral-rich waters, head to the town square where the magnificent neo-Gothic Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water resides. The area is peppered with mom-and-pop style shops whose specialty is Melcocha, or taffy. It’s affordable (read: really cheap), deliciously sweet, and handmade right before your eyes. And if you’re feeling especially brave, consider observing Tungurahua in a different way: Casa del Arbol, a tree whose highlight is a roped swing. You’re free to climb on and enjoy the views from this bolder vantage point.
Ride the Waves in Montañita
Montañita is known as a surfer’s paradise. Some of the country’s most challenging waves are here, but there are friendlier waters for casual surfers, too. There’s a carefree spirit here that extends far beyond the shoreline and deep into the village. Cafés welcome you in your barefooted glory, and neighborhood roads are lined with local artisans peddling their handmade wares—you’ll find everything from seed-bead necklaces to alpaca handbags.
Come nightfall, the area’s reputation as a party town is made obvious: Music fills the streets, and snacks and libations are just a couple of bucks at nearly any street vendor’s stall. It's a rowdy, enjoyable scene that draws backpackers and local hippies alike.
Play with Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands
Known for its stunning wildlife, the Galapagos Islands provide a glimpse into an area seemingly frozen in time. It’s one of the planet’s most beautifully preserved areas, where the natural inhabitants welcome strange visitors—that’s you—into their world with open arms.
You’ll spot playful sea lions and fluffy finches often, and a dip into deep turquoise waters will almost guarantee an introduction with a purple angelfish or, in one of the archipelago’s coastal spots, a hammerhead shark or two. Exploring the area on a tour, you’ll visit tourist-friendly Santa Cruz Island, delve deep into lava tunnels, and hit the waves of Tortuga Beach. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter the iconic giant tortoises endemic to the Galapagos Islands.
Explore the Vibrant Culinary Scene in Quito
Bring your appetite to Quito, whose cafés and restaurants have earned quite a reputation in recent years. First stop: Mercado San Francisco, an indoor market dating from the 19th century whose stalls brim with local specialties. Here is where you’ll find freshly pressed juices, sacks overflowing with spices and grains, and mountains of vibrant fruits and vegetables. This area is so renowned, even local tours stop here!
Just down the road is Cedron, the main restaurant at Casa Gangotena Hotel, where langostinos are accompanied by chunky tomato salsa, four-cheese spaghetti whets the vegetarian appetite, and traditional Ecuadorian soups are served in enormous bowls. Venture into the Mariscal district’s Plaza El Quinde, whose buzzy restaurants serve exotic meats, or to nearby La Floresta for its lively evening market—you can grab dinner here on a dime.
Visit the Country’s Backbone
The volcanic backbone of the country is the 325 km. Avenue of the Volcanoes, a chain of snow-capped mountains providing near-flawless views of the Andean landscape. Explore the exquisite Papallacta Hot Springs, whose mineral-rich thermal waters are known for their therapeutic properties—or, if you’d prefer, pop into the spa for a massage (mountain views included, of course).
Cotopaxi National Park is one of the Avenue’s most practical areas to hike; there are numerous trails perfect for biking and horseback riding, too. Venture further into the park for a glimpse of the gleaming Limpiopungo Lagoon—the area teems with llamas, rabbits, and 24 different bird species. Guided train tours of the Avenue of the Volcanoes offer a wonderful way to take in some of the more challenging spots.
Shop the Largest Marketplace Around
Three hours north of Quito, Otavalo market is a spectacular shopping area steeped in history. Deeply saturated fruits line stalls along the roadside, while Otavaleños hawk handmade goods, from traditional dolls to ponchos. You can’t escape the bustling market without grabbing a bite, whether it’s a plate of oversized raspberries or a bowl of piping hot chicken and rice.
The market, in Plaza de los Panchos, is a kaleidoscope of color—at every turn, you’ll spot blankets stacked on tables, scarves hanging in the sunlight, and alpaca sweaters under the hand of the indigenous Otavaleño weavers. This bustling trade dates back to the country’s colonial period. The market is so popular that it’s even the focus of several guided visits.
Get in Touch with Nature
The Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world, home to thousands of plants and wildlife species. Jaguars, monkeys, and ocelots occupy many territories of the Amazonian jungles, while vibrant geckos, oversized iguanas, and anacondas creep through the mist-shrouded grasslands.
Deep in the Amazon, the carnivorous black caiman skulks through the waters, though spotting them is a rarity. Perhaps the most elegant sighting of all are the endangered pink Amazon River dolphins, who reside primarily in the Cuyabeno Reserve during rainy seasons. Watch the waters closely—they only emerge for seconds at a time before retreating to the safety below. Yet even a fleeting glimpse of their grayish-pink hue is more than enough to satisfy visitors.
Ingrained in its traditions, Ecuador bears great biological diversity and fascinating history. Modern-day developments are on the rise, and for adventurous types, there’s no better place to visit. Yet the fabric of ancient Ecuador, with its native species, fascinating colonial ruins, and peaceful mountainside villages, remains its consistent allure.