Ecuador highlights & itineraries

Ecuador highlights


Make the most of your time

The beauty of Ecuador is how much it manages to cram into its compact borders. Even the shortest of vacations will allow you to explore a large chunk of Ecuador's highlights. The efficient Pan-American Highway runs along the Andes, linking highland towns. Traveling east-west is trickier and slower, with less reliable roads – but these are some of Ecuador’s most impressive journeys, as the bleak, rocky highlands transform into exuberant jungle. Typical Galápagos tours last seven nights, although shorter options are available if you’re pressed for time. Here are three of our top routes, incorporating our favourite Ecuadorian highlights. Click on the map points below for more information about each Ecuador highlight.
Banos Chimborazo Cotopaxi Cuenca Galapagos Machalilla NP Mindo Napo Otavalo Papallacta Puerto Lopez Quito Riobamba Tena Tigua Yasuni NP

Baños

This tranquilo little town is a hotspot for adventure lovers, who can try out rafting, paragliding, horse riding, rappelling, mountain biking and even bungee jumping beside the looming backdrop of the smoking Tungurahua Volcano. After pushing your body to its limits, you can soak in the hot springs Baños was named after, or visit one of the many affordable massage studios scattered around the town.

Chimborazo

At 6,268m, this is Ecuador’s highest peak, and its proximity to the equator means it’s the furthest point from the earth’s centre. Chimborazo’s changeable climate and glaciers make it a tough climb, but the surrounding Fauna Reserve is filled with wild vicuñas, strange flora and hiking trails. A night in a cosy mountain lodge allows you to soak up the enchanted atmosphere of Ecuador’s giant.

Cotopaxi

One of the world’s highest active volcanoes, the perfectly conical Cotopaxi is a dignified sight in the central Andes, its snow-capped peak releasing the odd billow of smoke for anyone who doubts its power. The surrounding area offers many pleasant hikes, horse rides and haciendas, while the brave (and well acclimatised) can attempt to summit the peak and peer into its deep caldera.

Cuenca

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of South America’s best-preserved colonial cities. Founded by the Spanish in 1557, Cuenca had already been a settlement for 1,000 years for the Cañari and then the Incas. Today, Cuenca’s cobblestoned streets, whitewashed churches, mild climate and fascinating museums are a draw for tourists and retired expats.

Galápagos

The isolation of these volcanic islands has turned them into a living museum of evolution, where all is not as it seems. Puckered, giant tortoises can walk these rocks for over two centuries, and tiny finches have forgotten how to be afraid of humans. Cormorants have lost their ability to fly, yet iguanas have learned to swim. This is a worthy, wildlife Mecca that will inspire your inner biologist

Machalilla National Park

This parched, dusty climate has preserved many archaeological artifacts from one of South America’s most ancient people, the Manteño. Tours through this scrub desert pass through the small community of Agua Blanca and end at the sulfur pools where you can wallow in the restorative, black waters. Don’t miss Los Frailes beach – one of Ecuador’s most beautiful.

Mindo

The foothills of the Andes fall away into lush, tropical lowlands in Mindo, one of Ecuador’s most phenomenally biodiverse regions, a labyrinth of cloud forest, montane forest, waterfalls and rapids, with a range of excellent lodges to match. Twitchers can see over 450 species of birds, while more intrepid travelers can try tubing, mountain biking, rafting, canyoning and hiking.

Napo

The Napo River passes little jungle settlements, wonderful ecolodges and tranquil lagoons. Visitors may spot shy tapirs and colourful Amazonian birds, try their hand at fishing and paddle canoes along the river. The Napo Wildlife Centre is jointly owned with a local Quichua community, and has macaw clay licks, a viewing tower, and some impressive sustainability credentials.

Otavalo

This exuberant Andean town hosts one of South America's hugest markets. Stock up on alpaca woollens, woven throws, straw hats, and bright paintings, sold by Quichua locals with black braids, felt hats and flowing blouses. At the nearby animal market, chickens, sheep and guinea pigs change hands each Saturday. Head out of town for panoramic hikes around the sacred Laguna Cuicocha, at the foot of Cotacachi Volcano.

Papallacta

Situated at a chilly 3,300m, Papallacta’s main attraction is its natural thermal baths. The setting is beautiful – surrounded by towering walls of greenery at the point where the Andes descend into the Amazon, along with waterfalls and rivers. Be sure to try the freshly caught trout. Head to the neighbouring Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve for some wonderful hikes.

Puerto López

It’s easy to lose track of time in this little fishing town on the hot, dry central coast. Stroll along the long stretches of golden sand, sip coconut juice from wonky beachside huts, bathe in the warm waters and tuck into a refreshing bowl of ceviche. Whale watching tours depart from here in Jun-Sep, plus year-round trips to Isla de la Plata – a parched rock covered in loofah bushes, boobies and balloon-chested frigate birds.

Quito

Stretched narrowly between volcanic peaks, Quito is a fittingly dramatic introduction to Ecuador. The Old Town’s beautifully restored colonial architecture and busy plazas are perfect for people watching, while its lively indigenous community provides traditional music, dance and food. Step back into the modern world in the Mariscal Sucre district, with excellent restaurants, trekking gear shops and funky cafes.

Riobamba

This majestic city has a good tourism infrastructure, largely because until recently it was the starting point of the notorious Devil’s Nose train ride. Though the train now departs from Alausí, Riobamba is still the gateway to the colossal Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak, and excellent climbing, mountain biking and hiking operators fill the town. Its indigenous Saturday market is far more “local” than Otavalo.

Tena

Ecuador’s whitewater capital doubles up as the doorway to the Amazon. The Tena River rolls through the foothills of the surrounding Andes and offers superb rafting and kayaking, while outside the town there are waterfalls and a labyrinth of caves to explore, as well as indigenous communities. Tena is a hub for volunteers, working on nearby reforestation, conservation and community development projects.

Tigua and Quilotoa

Dotted with farming communities, llamas, crater lakes and ravines, this is a wonderfully scenic yet little-visited region. Public transport is minimal, but multi-day hikes from village to village – known as the "Quilotoa Loop" – and horseback rides offer a glimpse into little-seen Ecuadorian life – culminating at the exquisite Quilotoa Lake in a 3,900m high volcanic crater. Kayak across, or ride a mule around the rim.

Yasuní National Park

This is the Amazon of myth and legend – 9,800km2 of pristine rainforest, home to towering kapok trees, parasitical strangler figs, shy jaguars, howling monkeys, red-eyed caimans and strange pink dolphins. Quichua and Huaorani communities also live beneath the dense canopy. Expert local guides reveal the secrets of the forest – whose future is precarious thanks to the presence of oil.

Travel times in Ecuador


The following times give you a rough idea of the driving and flight times between the main Ecuador highlights.

  • Quito – Baños: 3 hours 30 minutes drive
  • Quito – Otavalo: 2 hours 30 minutes drive
  • Quito – Tena: 5 hours drive
  • Quito – Riobamba: 3 hours 45 minutes drive
  • Baños – Riobamba: 2 hours drive
  • Quito – Puerto López: 11 hours drive
  • Quito – Cuenca: 9 hours drive
  • Cuenca – Guayaquil: 5 hours drive
  • Puerto López – Guayaquil: 3 hours 30 minutes drive
  • Quito – Guayaquil: 8 hours drive
  • Quito – Guayaquil: 55 minutes flight
  • Quito – Cuenca: 55 minutes flight
  • Guayaquil – Galápagos: 2 hours flight
Photo credits: [Top box background: Wild Frontiers] [Laguna Cuicocha: mrthomson] [Quito: Wild Frontiers] [Tena: Dallas Krentzel] [Baños: Rinaldo Wurglitsch] [Riobamba: Bolivar Rojas] [Alausí and the Devil’s Nose Train ride: Beatrice Murch] [Tigua and Quilotoa: Wild Frontiers] [Cotopaxi: Consultora TURIDEE] [Cuenca: Theodore Scott] [Mindo: Michael Woodruff] [Chimborazo: Jo Simon] [Papallacta: Marcio Ramalho] [Ingapirca: Delphine Ménard]
Written by Vicki Brown
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