From the Andes Mountains to the coast, the sprawling Amazon Rainforest, and everything in between, Ecuador has plenty to offer travelers, no matter what you’re looking for. From adventure sports in the mountains to wildlife tours by canoe and of course, Galapagos cruises, the experiences you could add to your Ecuador itinerary are endless.
In this ultimate guide to the best things to do in Ecuador, we’re sharing some of our personal favorites and the things we always recommend to our own friends and family who visited us while we called Quito home for more than two years. We’ve done it all – this is the best of the best things to do in Ecuador for your unforgettable trip!
18 Things To Do in Ecuador
1. Hike the Quilotoa Loop
Located in the remote heights of Ecuador’s Andes Mountains, Quilotoa is an ancient volcano that might look slightly different from other volcanoes you’ve seen. With a massive eruption centuries ago, its cone collapsed inward, leaving an intensely blue-green lake behind.
This is one of the most stunning natural places and most beloved destinations in Ecuador for travelers; pictures genuinely don’t do it justice.
Quilotoa crater lake is a stunning spot for a day trip from Quito – or even better, an overnight – but it is also the start (or end) of the famous Quilotoa Loop Trek, one of South America’s most famous treks.
This multi-day trek is most commonly accomplished in three or four days and takes trekkers through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery in the country, with stays at basic hostels and friendly guest houses in small villages along the way. If you’re looking for an unforgettable hike in Ecuador, this should be it!
2. Shop at the Otavalo Market
The Otavalo Market is the largest artisan market of its kind in South America and a highlight on any trip to Ecuador. While the market is open every day of the week, the entire town seems to be packed with vendors spilling into every street on Saturdays.
You’ll find everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to incredible textiles, alpaca sweaters and blankets, jewelry, leather goods, and so much more. Plan to spend at least two hours exploring the market, shopping, people-watching, and taking it all in.
Located just an hour and a half north of Quito in a stunningly beautiful part of the mountains, Otavalo is a great spot for an easy day trip from Quito. However, it’s even better if you can spend a night exploring this lovely area a bit more.
I probably made about a dozen weekend trips to Otavalo over two years living in Ecuador, and I’ll certainly go back next time we’re in the country!
Within just a few minutes of Otavalo you’ll find the stunning Peguche waterfall and Cuicocha Crater Lake, where visitors can complete a stunning rim hike or take a boat ride through this volcanic crater lake. Visiting makes your trip to Otavalo even better!
Read More: Ultimate Guide to the Otavalo Market
3. Visit El Ángel National Park
Located along Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia, the El Ángel Ecological Reserve is well off the typical tourist path in Ecuador, but this hidden gem is well worth a visit.
Home to a unique species of high-altitude shrubs called frailejones, the mountainous landscape is strewn with these prickly, tall shrubs that look like giant succulents – it’s unforgettable. Visiting the ecological reserve, you’ll see thousands of these stunning plants covering the mountains, hills, and volcanoes.
A hike through the park and near beautiful lakes is the best way to take it all in.
A visit to El Ángel is an excellent and unique overnight from Otavalo, as the small town of El Ángel is just over two hours north of Otavalo. The town is tiny and offers a few basic, inexpensive hotels perfect for budget travelers or backpackers, or stay at the gorgeous Polylepis Lodge, a luxe eco-lodge in the heart of the reserve.
4. Admire the Historic Streets of Cuenca
The small, charming city is Cuenca is often among visitors’ favorite cities in Ecuador, and it’s easy to see why. Cuenca has so much to offer: a beautiful historic center, great food, a relaxed atmosphere, and close distance to nature, like the unmissable El Cajas National Park.
One of the best things to do in Cuenca is to explore the historic center, starting at the massive Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Cuenca’s stunning cathedral with its iconic blue domes. From the plaza, continue by exploring the charming streets around the cathedral and other historic plazas, churches, and government buildings.
Make sure to stop at the Mercado 9 de Octubre – in addition to selling fresh foods, this market has an entire floor of prepared food vendors, the perfect place to try local Ecuadorian foods like hornado (roast pig), fresh fruit juices and other local favorites.
5. Take in the View from Quito’s Basilica
If you visit just one city in Ecuador, make it Quito! Maybe I’m biased (we lived in Quito for more than two years, after all!), but it’s one of South America’s great cities and the best home base from which to explore the rest of the country.
When arriving in Ecuador, start by visiting the Basilica del Voto Nacional and climbing the bell towers and the spire to get your bearings. Prepare for one of the most beautiful city views you’ll ever see!
Quito crawls up the sides of mountains and volcanoes, and you’ll get an incredible view of the city, especially the stunning El Panecillo hilltop with its iconic Virgin of Quito statue.
Climbing the spire – across the Basilica from the bell towers – provides the very best view from the Basilica, as you’ll have the entire church as a backdrop for the city. It requires navigating some extremely steep steps – not for the faint of heart! – but the view is well worth it.
6. Cruise Through the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands, about 600 miles (965 km) off the coast of mainland Ecuador, are a major draw for foreign visitors to Ecuador, with 275,000+ visitors traveling to this remote location every year.
Though a trip to the Galapagos can be expensive, these unique, diverse islands are a bucket list destination well worth the trip! Plus, you can also find free or cheap things to do in the Galapagos as well.
The most popular and convenient way to visit the Galapagos is by ship, as Galapagos cruises will take you around the 19 major islands of the archipelago to all the best destinations, including pristine beaches, fantastic spots for hiking, and unique areas where you’ll see the flora and fauna that set these islands apart.
You’ll save money by sticking to just one island and taking excursions, but nothing compares to how up close and personal you’ll get with these unique paradise islands when taking a Galapagos cruise.
Read More: Best Things To Do in the Galapagos Islands
7. Go Birdwatching in Mindo
Located just two hours northwest of Quito, the small town of Mindo sits in the heart of Ecuador’s cloud forest, a unique, lush habitat that makes for an incredible place to visit. In addition to being an excellent choice for a day trip from Quito, Mindo is world-renowned for being one of the best places for birdwatching in the world, drawing travelers from all over to this special ecosystem.
Travelers can stay at ecolodges around the small town dedicated to birdwatching, or at incredibly affordable in the town of Mindo, making this an affordable trip for any budget. Guides are highly experienced in pointing out endemic bird species including countless varieties of hummingbirds, toucans, the giant antpitta, and many more.
Don’t worry, Mindo isn’t only for birdwatching. There are plenty of things to do in Mindo, and out of all the places I’ve visited in Ecuador it’s one of my very favorites.
Read More: Ultimate Travel Guide to Mindo, Ecuador
8. Get Your Adrenaline Pumping in Baños
There are plenty of places to enjoy and adventure in Ecuador, but the small town of Baños is the undisputed adventure sports capital of the country. Wedged between the Amazon Rainforest and the Andes Mountains, this hotspot is home to countless waterfalls, rivers, and mountains, which makes it the perfect spot for an array of adventurous activities.
In Baños, you’ll find everything from bungee jumping and mountain biking to ziplining and canyoning, a unique activity in which participants repel down a waterfall to the river and swimming hole below. It’s an exhilarating experience, and Baños is the best place for it.
If you’re not into adventure sports, don’t count Baños out. The town gets its name from the natural thermal baths you’ll find around the city, heated by Tungurahua Volcano that towers over the city, meaning there are plenty of spas to enjoy, too. You’ll also find plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars to enjoy if you’re looking for a more relaxing trip.
Read More: Ultimate Travel Guide to Baños, Ecuador
9. Go Whale-Watching
If you’ve ever dreamed of whale-watching, Ecuador is one of the best places for it. This experience is possible from both the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, meaning you can add it to your itinerary no matter your plans.
The Galapagos Islands are some of Ecuador’s best places for whale watching. Especially if you’re headed out on a cruise during the summer months, you’re likely to see them at some point during the cruise. Dedicated whale-watching excursions from the islands are also available to visitors who are skipping a cruise.
During the summer months, the coastal area near Machalilla National Park is one of the country’s best spots for whale watching. Inexpensive whale-watching tours in Puerto Lopez include trips to the nearby island of Isla de la Plata, known as the poor man’s Galapagos for its abundance of unique animals, many only found in the Galapagos.
You can even sometimes spot whales breeching from the coast in Puerto Lopez, Machalilla National Park, and the stunning Playa de Los Frailes beach.
10. Spot Wildlife in the Amazon
For an entirely different wildlife encounter in Ecuador, head into the Amazon Rainforest for a bucket list trip spotting unique wildlife in one of the most biodiverse corners of the planet.
From affordable day trips through the jungle on the edge of the rainforest to national park trips in the deep Amazon, there are plenty of ways to visit this unmissable region of Ecuador. Amazon visits can range from multi-day kayaking or canoeing excursions with camping to guided nature walks around lodges, there are countless options to choose from.
If you’re traveling on a budget, consider visiting Tena, Ecuador, on the edge of the Amazon, where you can stay in affordable hotels on the edge of the rainforest. If your budget allows for more, choose a lodge deeper in the rainforest, to an area like Cuyabeno or Yasuní.
Generally speaking, the deeper into the Amazon you travel, the most expensive the trip.
Read More: Ultimate Ecuador Amazon Rainforest Guide
11. Take in the View from the TelefériQo
Quito has so much to offer, but the stunning views from every corner are one of the highlights. One of the city’s best views is undoubtedly from the top of the TelefériQo cable car that whisks travelers halfway up the side of the Pichincha Volcano that towers over the city. It’s one of the best things to do in Quito, hands down.
Riding this cable car will give you stunning views of Quito on the ride itself, but another highlight is getting to the top of the cable car line. More than just looking over the city, you’ll have stunning views of the volcano and nearby mountains and valleys – on clear days, you can even see up to FIVE snow-capped volcanoes from the top!
Make sure that you save the ride on the TelefériQo for the morning of a day in Quito that is expected to be the nicest day of your trip, weather-wise. The appeal of the TelefériQo is, after all, the view, and mornings in Quito tend to be the clearest time of day.
Another essential travel tip: Make SURE that you have a warm jacket when heading up the TelefériQo. Even if it’s boiling hot and sunny in Quito, it will be windy and chilly so far up the mountain.
12. Eat Encebollado and Encocado on the Beach
Ecuador’s coast boasts countless relaxed beach towns perfect for a getaway, each one better than the next. Drawn to the Galapagos, Amazon, and Andes, far too few visitors make it to this unique region of Ecuador, home to the best regional dishes in the country.
While Ecuador’s coastal cuisine is excellent all around – you can’t go wrong with everything from delicious ceviche and grilled fish to fried plantains and seafood rice – some of the best dishes are encebollado and encocado.
There is nothing like finding a little restaurant right on the beach and digging into these dishes.
- Encebollado: This fish soup dish is synonymous with Guayaquil and is a popular hangover cure, but it is delicious any time of day and anywhere along the coast. Eat it top with popcorn and plantain chips.
- Encocado: This delicious dish uses fresh coconut to make a stew, usually with shrimp, fish, or other seafood. You really can’t go wrong with any type of encocado!
Even if you’re not on the coast and you see some Ecuadorian coastal dishes like encebollado or encocado, give them a try – they’re a highlight of Ecuadorian cuisine.
Read More: 10 Best Beaches in Ecuador
13. Climb a Volcano
Though just a tiny country, Ecuador is home to 47 volcanoes spread across the mainland and the Galapagos Islands. No matter where you travel, you’ll never be too far from a volcano in Ecuador. These imposing and often stunning landmarks are beautiful from below but also make for some of the country’s most impressive spots for hiking.
Ecuador’s most famous volcano is Cotopaxi, the nearly perfectly conical, glacier-topped giant that towers over the Valle de los Chillos just outside Quito. It is easily the most beautiful volcano in Ecuador and the most popular destination for climbers.
While summiting Cotopaxi is a challenge (though doable for the fit, even without much experience climbing), even the moderately fit can reach the refuge near the glacier line, and everyone can enjoy a day trip from Quito to Cotopaxi to hike, bike, or horseback ride in the shadow of the volcano within the national park.
To prepare and acclimate for a push to the Cotopaxi summit, consider hiking Rucu Pichincha in Quito or Pasochoa or Ilalo, just outside Quito. Sincholagua and Rumañahui are nearby popular climbs as well.
Tungurahua, active as ever and releasing occasional spurts of gas and even lava, is a popular hike outside the adventure sports capital of Ecuador in Baños. Other famous volcanoes include the extinct volcanic crater lakes of Quilotoa near Latacunga and Cuicocha, just outside of Otavalo.
14. Explore Ecuador by Train
If you’re looking for an unforgettable way to see Ecuador, consider zipping through mountain passes, past snow-capped volcanoes, and through lush valleys by train. With various routes and options for train travel in Ecuador, this has quickly become one of the most luxurious ways to explore the country.
Visitors can hop on the Tren Crucero in Quito and make the four-day journey to Guayaquil on the coast (or take the journey in the opposite direction), traveling in style through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
Don’t worry, you won’t be stuck on the train for hours on end. The route is designed for stops at artisan markets and plantations where you can see Ecuador’s famous roses, stunning mountain vistas, and more, with overnights planned at guesthouses and haciendas along the way.
It’s both an experience and the best way to travel the country in style and comfort.
15. Visit El Cajas National Park
Located just half an hour outside Cuenca, El Cajas National Park is one of Ecuador’s most well-known and famous national parks. With its unique flora and fauna, otherworldly topography, and countless trails for hiking and biking, it makes the perfect day trip from Cuenca.
While visitors are welcome to tour the park independently, the expanses of the park are only explored with transportation, so choosing an inexpensive small group excursion or a personalized private tour is the best option. You’ll see the stunning Laguna Toreadora and surrounding hillsides, plus unique high-altitude flora and fauna ranging from condors and hummingbirds to coatís.
16. Hike to a Hidden Beach
Widely considered mainland Ecuador’s best beach, Playa de Los Frailes is a hidden beach located outside Puerto Lopez, accessible only through the Machalilla National Park. While it may be a bit out of the way, this stunning beach with almost-white sand and whales migrating just offshore is more than worth the effort to visit.
Visitors can enter the park with their own vehicles or by taxi and take a short walk from the parking lot to the main Playa de Los Frailes beach, the longest strip of sand in the park.
However, if you’re looking for more of an adventure, hike to the beach along the “Sendero Largo” path from the park entrance. This path will lead you past additional beach coves that will be nearly empty and past beautiful overlooks of the ocean and beaches. It’s a stunning journey of about 1.5 hours long, worth the effort!
17. Straddle Hemispheres at Mitad del Mundo
If you’re headed to Ecuador, you must visit the Equator! If you spend any time traveling around Ecuador, especially near Quito, you’ll likely cross the Equator at some point, but stopping off at one of the places that pay tribute to the Equator is a must.
The best place to visit the Equator is at Mitad del Mundo (in English, the middle of the Earth), found just a few miles north of Quito. You’ll have your choice of visiting either the Monument to the Equator, or the Intiñan Museum, both of which are unique spots perfect for photo opportunities of straddling two hemispheres.
Here’s a fun fact about the Equator at Mitad del Mundo: the Monument to the Equator is not on the actual Equator! It was built before GPS confirmed its precise location, which indigenous Ecuadorians had accurately calculated centuries earlier.
To visit the TRUE equatorial line, visit the Intiñan Museum – you’ll also get a fun passport stamp to memorialize your visit to Latitude 0.
Easily accessible by public transportation or affordable half-day guided excursion from Quito, this is a must on any Quito itinerary!
18. Taste-Test Ecuadorian Coffee (and Chocolate!)
Nextdoor neighbor Colombia might be more famous for its coffee, but Ecuador is close behind with some of the best coffee you’ll find anywhere in the world. With its unique pockets of forests, including the cloud forest in Mindo, Ecuador also produces 70% of the world’s highest-quality cacao, making chocolate a delicious export.
Wherever you plan to visit in Ecuador, make a point to try these high-quality local treats!
In Quito, some favorite spots to sample these incredible local products include Cafe Travesia for coffee, located in the upscale Gonzalez Suarez neighborhood and locally famous for roasting in-house and for having incredible baristas that know how to prepare a quality cup.
If you’re looking for Ecuador’s best chocolate in Quito, head to the República del Cacao, just a block away from the Plaza Mayor in Old Town Quito. At this storefront, you can taste test to your heart’s content, from classic chocolate bars to specialty bars with additions like chiles, tropical fruits, and even rose petals.
Pacarí on La Ronda in Old Town Quito is another must-visit spot for delicious chocolate.
If you’re looking to get a bit more up close and personal with the process of chocolate production, head to Mindo in the cloud forest just outside of Quito. El Quetzal is a local chocolate factory that makes incredible chocolate and offers regular tours and experiences to try your hand at making chocolate and tasting it!