Top 10 places to visit in Ecuador

One of the beauties of Ecuador is its size. Within hours of the capital, it’s possible to visit a host of landscapes including the misty cloud forests and the high Andes. The Amazon rainforest is just a short flight away. Naturalists will revel in the incredible range of flora and fauna, particularly the birdlife. The Galapagos Islands need no introduction, a classic bucket list destination. Here are 10 places you should not miss, not in any particular order:-

1. Quito City

Quito San Francisco Square
Quito Plaza San Francisco © David Horwell

Quito is one of South America’s most wondrous cities – a colonial gem that sits high up in the Andes mountains. In its heart lies an historic colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s cobbled streets, whitewashing Spanish churches and plazas have all be painstakingly restored. It’s worth spending at least a day in the capital to see the world class museums, sample the mouth-watering cuisine and drink coffee in the sunny plazas. We also suggest a visit up to the Virgin Mary statue that towers above the city from Panecillo Hill. If you have a head for heights hop on the teleferico, or cable-car that zooms up Pichincha volcano.

2. Middle of the World

Ecuador Middle-of-the-World

Ecuador Middle-of-the-World

The Middle of the World is just 26 miles north of Quito and is often visited on the way to Otavalo or the cloud forests. It commemorates the first Geodesic Mission of the French Academy of Sciences. Here Louis Godin, Pierre Bouguer, and Charles Marie de La Condamine first determined the equatorial line in 1736. There are plenty of Instagram moments, as you stride the equator line. A museum houses exhibits from local indigenous communities. Nearby, the Intiñan Site Museum claims to be on the ‘real’ equator. (Recent GPS measurements have shown that neither are quite on the equator). Yet one can only marvel at the close accuracy of the surveyors from three centuries ago. Do this as a half-day tour from Quito or combine with the nearby Pululagua crater. One of our favourite exhibits is a hand-made model of Quito’s old city, with hundreds of lights.

3. Cloud Forest

toucan barbet
toucan barbet

Just a few hours’ drive from Quito is the misty cloud forests that inhabit the Eastern slopes of the Andes mountains and descend into forges and rushing waterfalls. The forests and elevation make it a bird watchers dream. The mountain slopes catch the air as it rises off the Pacific Ocean, resulting in lush and verdant jungles. The protected reserves are teeming with birds from toucans to hummingbirds. While you spend your days hiking the trails in search of colourful birdlife, in the evening return back to stay at a range of lodges from luxury to rustic.

4. Otavalo Market Town

Otavalo Market Ecuador
Otavalo Market Ecuador © David Horwell

A highlight and an absolute must on a trip to Ecuador. Just a couple of hours north of the capital lies the famous colourful market town of Otavalo. Every Saturday, the local communities descend upon the town to sell their wares. Piles of leather goods, native paintings and hand-woven textiles adorn the tables throughout the town. It’s not just for show – this authentic market is a great introduction to the Ecuadorian Andean way of life. We’d suggest at least a couple of days stay in the area. Dotted around the town are many small country inns and haciendas overlooking the snow-capped mountains and run by friendly local families. From here spend days walking and horse riding in the stunning countryside.

5. Amazon Headwaters

Amazon Sunset

Ecuador is arguable the easiest place to visit the Amazon. A scenic 45-minute flight from Quito brings you into the steamy port town of Coca. From here board dugouts canoes to reach the excellent wildlife lodges. Our favourite is the Napo Wildlife Centre, a series of cabanas located on the riverfront deep within the jungle. Take daily hikes along the trails to spot monkeys, sloths, tapirs, macaws, giant otters, anacondas and pirañas.

6. Devil’s Nose Train

Devils Nose Train Ecuador
Devils Nose Train Ecuador

One of the continent’s most interesting train rides. A feat of engineering, The Devil’s Nose train ride starts in Riobamba and reaches Alausí, and on to Sibambe. This zig-zag railroad is one of the most thrilling rides in the Andes. The track goes over rocky ravines, beside white-water rivers, through dense cloud forests, and around mountains. The train descends 3,280 ft (1,000 m) in just 7.5 miles (12 km). Afterwards, be sure to visit Ingapirca, one of the only Inca ruins that remains in Ecuador. (The train is temporarily suspended).

7. Cuenca City

Cuenca flower market
Cuenca flower market

This southern city of Cuenca is well worth the visit. This is Ecuador’s most unspoiled city. It’s colonial centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Spanish churches and sunny plazas that ooze charm. The weather is more pleasant than Quito. The pace in Cuenca is unhurried, and that’s exactly the approach that visitors should take. Take a couple of days to drink coffee and people watch in the lovingly preserved squares, sample Andean food at in the excellent eateries and enjoy the city’s nightlife. It is a hub for exploring the only notable Inca ruin, Ingapirca and the Cajas National Park.

8. Galapagos Islands

Galapagos land iguana
Galapagos land iguana © David Horwell

What can we say about the Galapagos? This archipelago was left without human contact for so many years, the wildlife has evolved to be fearless. This allows visitors to get up close to some of the most interesting wildlife on the planet. Swim with sea lions, snorkel with turtles, scuba with sharks, watching the mating dances of the blue-footed boobies and waved albatross and walk with giant Galapagos tortoises in the wild. The Galapagos’ isolated location at the meeting place of warm and cold currents have created a truly diverse set of ecosystems which in turn has allowed the wildlife to flourish. The Galapagos Islands are not just for wildlife enthusiasts – it should be on everyone’s bucket list. For a guide book for visitors we recommend Galapagos Wildlife by David Horwell (Bradt).

9. Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi Volcano
Cotopaxi Volcano

Head south from Quito along the Avenue of Volcanoes. Named for the two ranges of snow-capped volcanoes and mountains by the German naturalist Humboldt (who visited the area in the early 19th century). Be sure to stop for a day’s hiking through the Cotopaxi National Park, home to the world famous snow-capped mountain: Cotopaxi. Keep an eye out for wildlife including Andean gulls, lapwings, foxes, coots, pintails, deer and wild horses. Condors circle above using thermals. There are plenty of excellent historic haciendas surroundings the park.

10. Baños Spa

Baños waterfall
Baños waterfall

After all that hiking and wildlife watching, it’s time for a little rest and relaxation. This famous mountain town is home to plenty of natural hot springs ranging in temperature. This hot water is filtered into communal baths and while they are the prettiest, you’ll feel a million dollars after taking a taking a soak. The cliffs that surround the town have a series of beautiful cascading waterfalls which make for a scenic backdrop. If you have the energy, there are plenty of trails to hike around the town. The church is a place of pilgrimage, due to a Virgin with miraculous powers akin to Lourdes.

To start planning your tour of Ecuador, speak to one of our travel experts on +(0) 207 407 1478 or email us here.

RELATED: How well do you know Ecuador?

Tour: Condors & Tortoises

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