Ecuador might best be known for the Galapagos Islands, but there is much more to this diverse and unique country than just these tiny islands off its coast! Packed into a small country the size of the state of Colorado, you’ll find everything from the Amazon Rainforest and Andes Mountains to stunning beaches, soaring volcanoes, waterfalls, historic cities, and much more.
There are so many interesting things to do in Ecuador that it would take weeks to see the entire country well – we generally recommend spending at least 10 days in Ecuador to get a good feel for the country! In this ultimate guide to the best tourist attractions in Ecuador, we share the places to see in Ecuador you can’t miss, no matter how long you have to spend here.
Best Tourist Attractions in Ecuador
1. Pailón del Diablo Waterfall
The small town of Baños, located between the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest, is well known for having countless beautiful waterfalls; Pailón del Diablo is easily the most impressive. Known as “the Devil’s Cauldron” for how water shoots through a narrow canyon into a deep hole below, this waterfall is a must-visit in Baños, sure to inspire awe as you get perilously close, feeling the mist and hearing the roar of the water.
To visit, you’ll hike down into the lush forest for about twenty minutes to access the lookout point near the falls; the hike is relatively easy, though hiking back out can be a bit more tiring. You’ll cross an impressive suspension bridge over the river before reaching the falls. Plan to bring a rain jacket – you’ll get sprayed! – and shoes with grip to navigate the slick walkways and staircases around the falls.
2. Mitad del Mundo
You can’t come to Ecuador without visiting the Equator! While the Equator line passes through the entire northern part of the country of Ecuador, most visitors to Ecuador end up seeing the 0 degrees latitude line at Mitad del Mundo – in Spanish, the Middle of the World – located just north of Quito.
At Mitad del Mundo, you can visit either the monument to the Equator or the Intiñan museum, which are located right next to each other. Both are impressive, and a day trip to Mitad del Mundo usually includes a trip to both.
The Monument to the Equator is a massive stone monument showing the cardinal points and is impressive for photo ops, though it isn’t actually located on the true Equator! It’s a few feet off, calculated by European explorers built before modern GPS calculated the precise location of the Equator. A ticket to the site allows you to visit a few impressive museums about Ecuadorian culture and history, a small planetarium, and several souvenir shops surrounding the monument.
I always recommend visiting the Intiñan museum instead – this is the accurate site of the Equator, calculated accurately by the indigenous groups here and confirmed by GPS. Visiting the site allows access to a few interesting museum exhibits on indigenous lifestyle, culture, and history, plus the equator line – perfect for photo ops – and some campy yet interactive and fun “science experiments” that show how forces are different on the Equator.
After traveling through every corner of Ecuador, I can confidently say Quilotoa Crater Lake is the most stunning natural wonder in the country. Created when the massive volcano exploded centuries ago, with its cone caving in, the gorgeous blue-green Quilotoa Crater Lake formed in the crater left behind.
While visitors can’t swim in the lake, you can rent a kayak at the bottom of the crater to explore the crater’s interior. Be on the lookout for bubbles escaping to the water’s surface – chemicals and gases are still regularly released by the volcano!
Quilotoa is also the start – or end – of the famous Quilotoa Loop Trek. This three-day or four-day trek around the crater lake and through the surrounding countryside is an incredible adventure, and easily one of the most famous treks in South America. This remote mountainous section of the Andes has some of the most stunning landscapes in the country.
4. The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are by far the most visited destination in Ecuador for foreign travelers, and why not? These incredible islands off the coast of mainland Ecuador are renowned for having astonishing biodiversity, stunning beaches, and more incredible flora and fauna than you can imagine.
Highlights of a trip to the Galapagos Islands include snorkeling or diving and seeing wildlife like incredible and colorful birds, seals, giant tortoises, lizards, and much more. Visiting the beautiful beaches and natural formations like Pinnacle Rock on Isla Bartolomé are some of the other best things to do in the Galapagos Islands.
While there are ways to save money on a trip to the Galapagos, reaching these remote islands and exploring their many natural wonders is, by nature, an expensive trip. Most visitors elect to take a Galapagos cruise, which is the easiest way to see the very best of all the islands. Cruises last anywhere from a day to more than a week or even two weeks!
5. Cotopaxi Volcano
Cotopaxi Volcano is easily one of the most breathtaking volcanoes in South America, and a must-visit when in the Andes Mountains region in Ecuador. It is nearly perfectly conical and covered with an impressive glacier, Cotopaxi stuns, and seeing it peaking out from behind the clouds is truly unforgettable.
Located just two hours south of Quito, the trip from Quito to Cotopaxi is an easy one, whether traveling as part of a group excursion or by public bus. There is plenty to explore in Cotopaxi National Park, including high-altitude lakes, stunning viewpoints, and excellent hiking trails.
A highlight is climbing to the José Rivas Refuge near the glacier line on the volcano. While climbing to the glacier line isn’t technically challenging, don’t underestimate the toll that the elevation will take on your body, even if you’ve spent a few days at altitude in Quito adjusting. You’ll likely need to move slowly and rest often, even if you’re relatively fit.
Intrepid climbers can book with a guide to summit Cotopaxi. This requires full winter gear and climbing gear to help climb the glacier. You can spend the night at the refuge and awake early in the morning for a sunrise push to the summit.
6. Otavalo Market
The largest artisan market of its kind in South America, the Otavalo Market is not to be missed! An easy day trip from Quito, but an even better overnight trip, the Otavalo Market is a highlight of a trip to Ecuador.
Located just two hours north of Quito, the small town of Otavalo is located in a beautiful region of the Ecuadorian highlands, surrounded by soaring volcanoes, beautiful lakes, and gorgeous countryside. It’s also a heavily indigenous area, and you’re certain to hear Quichua, the local indigenous language, as you explore the area.
The best day to visit the Otavalo market is Saturday, the primary market day. On Saturday morning, locals and visitors alike flood the market, and stalls pop up along what feels like every street in town. The rest of the week, the market is open daily in the Plaza de Ponchos in the middle of town.
You’ll find everything from street food and fresh fruits and vegetables to leather products, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, and much more. The most sought-after items and most popular purchases are easily the textiles – this area is known for them – including alpaca sweaters and blankets, tablecloths, purses, and much more.
Many visitors arrive on Saturday as an easy day trip from Quito, but if you have time to explore the surroundings of Otavalo, even better! Just a few minutes outside of town is the impressive Peguche Waterfall, and just a few minutes further is the stunning Cuicocha Crater Lake, itself one of the most impressive tourist attractions in Ecuador.
What To Pack for Ecuador
Check out our Ultimate Ecuador Packing List to help you pack for your trip – we’re sharing exactly what to bring to Ecuador and what we never travel without.
7. Mindo Cloud Forest
Wedged between the Andes Mountains and the coast of Ecuador, the unique cloud forest ecosystem, with its lush forests and rushing waterfalls is its own unique tourist attraction in Ecuador.
The small town of Mindo, known for its relaxing atmosphere, fantastic adventure sports, and as one of the world’s best destinations for birdwatching, is the best place to experience this one-of-a-kind environment that draws visitors from around the world.
Some of the best things to do in Mindo include tubing down the river, ziplining, hiking to waterfalls, and “canyoning,” a unique sport that includes repelling down rushing waterfalls.
Bird watchers worldwide travel to Mindo to see unique species of hummingbirds and other brilliantly colored birds with the help of experienced guides. Lodges outside of town organize specialized full-day or multi-day birdwatching excursions. Even budget travelers can birdwatch in Mindo by staying at a hostel in town and booking tours independently.
8. Old Town Quito
If you’re headed to Quito, you’ll want to spend a few hours exploring the incredible Old Town Quito Historic Center. Well-known as one of the most extensive and well-preserved historic centers in Latin America, Quito’s historic heart will wow you with countless ornate churches, colonial architecture, museums, and sprawling plazas.
You can’t skip the jaw-dropping Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús – this incredible church in the heart of Old Town seems to be dripping in gold from the soaring ceilings to the floor. While most of the impressive churches in Quito are free for visitors, this one requires a small entrance fee to help keep up this historic building.
Another great way to get a feel for this beautiful neighborhood is by visiting the Basilica del Voto Nacional. While not as old as the rest of Quito’s historic center, this Basilica is perched on a hill and overlooks the area. From the twin clock towers and the spire, you’ll have some of the most impressive views in the entire city of the historic center and El Panecillo hill with its iconic Virgin of Quito statue.
Looking for where to stay in Quito? Most visitors will enjoy staying in the historic center, close to the attractions, though Quito backpackers will prefer the more modern Mariscal neighborhood closer to bars, clubs, and restaurants.
9. Yasuní National Park
Considered one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, Yasuní National Park, deep within the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador, is a must-visit destination for an unforgettable bucket list adventure.
Visitors to the park stay at lodges and have the opportunity to explore thousands of acres of protected lands – the largest protected area in mainland Ecuador – with the help of guides ready to point out the unique flora and fauna you won’t find anywhere else on Earth.
Yasuní National Park is home to the Huaorani indigenous peoples. While many of the different Huaorani tribes are now in contact – to varying degrees – with outsiders, at least two uncontacted tribes remain in Ecuador.
Looking for a trip to the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador without the cost of a journey to Yasuní National Park? Consider visiting Tena, Ecuador instead. This Ecuador backpacking hotspot offers travelers an excellent Amazon experience while still on the edge of the rainforest. Sure, you won’t see as many species or as much biodiversity, but you’ll find affordable jungle treks and canoeing tours while saving money staying in a hostel or budget lodge.
10. Malecón 2000 in Guayaquil
The largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, isn’t a tourist hotspot. Though travelers often visit, traveling through Guayaquil on their way to a Galapagos cruise or another coastal destination, there just isn’t that much to draw visitors to this coastal city and business capital.
If you find yourself in Guayaquil, head to Malecón 2000, the charming river walk that cuts through downtown Guayaquil along the Guayas River, running for over a mile in length. This attractive boardwalk has plenty to see and do, including monuments, statues, a Guayaquil sign for photo ops, museums, markets, and restaurants and cafes.
A visit to Malecón 2000 isn’t complete without taking the La Perla observation wheel for an excellent view over the city. You’ll have an impressive view of the river and the entire boardwalk, as well as the towers of downtown, and the charming hilly Las Penas neighborhood, home to the remnants of historic Guayaquil.
11. Machalilla National Park
Ecuador’s coastline is an often overlooked but dreamy destination for in-the-know travelers looking to experience a whole other side of this diverse country. If you’re looking for an unforgettable beach destination in Ecuador, and one of the most popular coastal tourist attractions in Ecuador, head to Machalilla National Park.
A classic South America backpacking route, the Ruta del Sol – or, Route of the Sun – takes travelers up the entire coast, hitting the most stunning Ecuadorian beaches and beach towns along the way. Machalilla National Park is one of the banner destinations along the way, and while there is plenty to see and do throughout the park, the most impressive feature is Playa de los Frailes.
Few will dispute that Playa de los Frailes is the most beautiful beach in Ecuador outside of the Galapagos Islands, with its long stretch of white sand and stunning cliffs making for gorgeous scenery. To reach the park, visitors have to hike in, and while the hike isn’t challenging, it limits the amount of beach gear you can bring.
Another highlight of Machalilla National Park? Isla de la Plata, known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos. This island, easily accessible by affordable excursions from the mainland, is home to species only found here outside the Galapagos, including birds and mammals you won’t find elsewhere.
12. Cajas National Park
Located just 18 miles west of Cuenca, one of the most charming cities in Ecuador and much-loved with travelers and expats alike, Cajas National Park is a must when traveling in southern Ecuador. With its high-altitude flora and fauna, stunning mountainous landscape, and impressive lakes, it’s a remarkable spot that travelers won’t want to miss.
El Cajas is a hikers and naturalists paradise, with incredible opportunities for hiking, spotting wildlife, and impressive high-altitude flora you won’t find elsewhere.
While it is possible to visit El Cajas on your own, most visitors choose to come on a guided excursion, both for the ease of private transportation and guidance in navigating the hiking trails through the park. For a more relaxed visit, there are plenty of options to choose from with tour providers in Cuenca, but if you’re looking for hiking guides or climbing one of the parks’ peaks, get a specialized guide from one of the local climbing clubs.