Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, these are the places that most easily come to most people’s minds when thinking about traveling South America. Not a lot of people think of lesser-known Ecuador as one of the continent’s top destinations, and if yes it is primarily for the Galapagos islands.
I spent three months in this beautiful country and if there is one thing I can tell you it’s this: Don’t skip Ecuador! Despite its small size, Ecuador has it all: lush mountains, beautiful towns, snowy volcanoes, amazing beaches, bustling Andean markets, and the endless diversity of the Amazon rainforest!
Top Five Places to Visit in Ecuador
Worlds cannot begin to describe the beauty and diversity of Ecuador, and the number of things to do and see is seemingly indefinite. Even after three months, I still kept discovering new things and adding places to my must-see list. However a lot of travelers only have limited time, so here are my top five favorite places to visit in Ecuador:
BAÑOS DE AGUA SANTA
Nestled in between lush mountains and spectacular waterfalls lies the small yet bustling town of Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador’s adventure capital. With activities ranging from bungee jumping, white water rafting, and canyoning to zip-lining, ATV rentals, and mountain biking, there is no shortage of options for adrenaline junkies!
One of my personal highlights was the swing at Casa del Arbol. Know as the Swing at the End of the World, it is hanging from a skinny tree branch right above a steep drop-off and provides both an amazing view and a fun experience. If you are looking for a similar experience in a less-touristy location, check out the swing at Las Antenas viewpoint. The view is equally gorgeous and you are likely to be the only one there.
On our last day in Baños, we got up at 5 am to watch the sunrise at the famous thermal baths, and relaxing our tired bodies after all the adventuring was exactly what we needed.
TIP: Stay at Great Hostel Backpackers Los Pinos. Their food is amazing and the beds are really spacious and comfy. The atmosphere is very relaxed and sociable and it is only a short walk from the center of town!
Ecuador’s capital is always worth a visit. I spent most of my time in the country there and soon felt at home in this beautiful city.
Top things to do include strolling through Old Town, taking the Teleférico to get an amazing view of the city (go in the morning as it is often cloudy in the afternoon), visiting la Compañia de Jesús (a church famous for being bathed in gold), and la Basílica del Voto Nacional (the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas), and taking a taxi up to El Panecillo, a statue of the Virgin of Quito that looks down upon the city.
If you have time, take one of the many free walking tours. I went on one after having already lived in Quito for two months and learned so much about the city and its history!
Just an hour outside of Quito you can find la Mitad del Mundo, where you can stand on the equator and feel the resistance when you try to balance on it! Although quite touristy, it is an experience that should not be skipped!
TIP: Eat a giant empanada! In la Ronda street there are lots of restaurants offering them, but consider sharing one with a friend or two – the one we got was literally bigger than my face! This is a must for all cheese lovers!
Quilotoa Lagoon is simply spectacular. The 240 m deep crater lake is surrounded by rocky cliffs and glistens in all shades of blue and green. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get to the bottom and about an hour to hike back up. While this may sound easy, the hike is actually quite exhausting (Quilotoa is at an elevation of almost 4,000 meters).
However it is absolutely worth it and once you get to the bottom, you can rent a kayak and float in the middle of the lake and take in the sound of nature. After taking a break on the kayak, we decided to hike back up but if you want to opt for an easier option, you can hire one of the many mules to take you back up.
TIP: While we opted to hike down to the lagoon, you can also walk around it (takes approx. 5 hours) or hike the Quilotoa Loop, which takes 3-5 days.
The coastal town of Montañita is known for two things: surfing and nightlife! The town itself will make you fall in love with its hippy vibes, flea market stalls, and beautiful sunsets and its party scene is known as one of the best in all of South America. I spent my days there at the beach and danced the nights away. Overall a great time!
TIP: Not in the mood to party? Head to nearby Puerto López for a more laid-back atmosphere and visit Los Frailes beach (known as the most beautiful beach in Ecuador) and Isla de la Plata (aka Poor Man’s Galapagos).
THE AMAZON RAINFOREST
Stretching across nine countries, the Amazon is the largest and most diverse rainforest in the world. This place has always been on my bucket list and when I went to Ecuador I knew I had to go! While I usually prefer to plan trips myself instead of going on organized tours, it is almost impossible to visit the Amazon by yourself.
However there are lots of tour operators offering 3-to 5-day tours, with prices starting at around $250. We opted for a 3-day tour and got to see lots of monkeys, birds, snakes, caimans and even sloths and pink dolphins. We hiked through the jungle and went on a caiman search at night, but my absolute highlight were the sunset swims in the Amazon river at the end of each day.
TIP: We stayed at the Cuyabeno Dolphin Lodge and I can 10/10 recommend this place! Our guide was awesome and the lodges are located right by the river.