Ecuador was meant to be a quick stop-over en route to Peru. That quick stop-over turned into 43 days. This country turned out be more incredible than I could have ever imagined. Ecuador is criminally overlooked and severely underrated, despite boasting some of my favorite places I have ever traveled to. Despite spending six weeks in this stunning country, I still feel like there is so much more that I need to see. For the perfect mix of beautiful scenery, bustling nightlife, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, here are the best places in Ecuador to visit.
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Let’s start off with my favorite. Cuenca was one of my last stops in Ecuador and I almost skipped it since it was a bit out of the way. My original plan was to head down to Mancora from Montañita but through word of mouth, I decided that Cuenca was a can’t miss destination. I took a bus from Montañita to Guayaquil and then to Cuenca. The 3-hour journey from Guayaquil to Cuenca affirmed to me that I made the right choice before I even arrived in the city itself.
Driving through Parque Nacional El Cajas was as stunning of a drive as you could imagine. Shortly after, we rolled into the valley where Cuenca was situated. Surrounded by mountains with rivers running alongside the city, I already knew I was going to love it here. I didn’t even visit the stunning colonial city center until two days later and I was already convinced that Cuenca was the best city in Ecuador.
The colonial center is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in all of Latin America. The central park boasts over 2,000 species of plants alone. Flanked by beautiful churches on each side, including the stunning New Cathedral of Cuenca, it is easily one of the most stunning plazas you’ll see in South America. A short walk over to the bustling Plaza San Francisco gives you a better look at just how incredible the New Cathedral is. Hop on down to Mercado 10 de Agosto for a cheap meal and then walk along the river for sunset and you’ve got what I’d call a perfect day.
There is so much to do in Cuenca and its surrounding area. A visit to Parque Nacional El Cajas is a must, as is a sunset mission to Mirador El Turi. Cuenca is a very backpacker-friendly town, as well, with accommodation starting at around $8 per night for a shared dorm or $12 for a private room at Alternative Hostel.
I couldn’t get enough of Cuenca. I could have stayed for weeks if my friend had not pressured me to get going and move down to Vilcabamba with him.
How Much Time Do You Need in Cuenca?
This is a difficult question to answer for Cuenca. How much time to spend in Cuenca really depends on your pace and style of travel. Cuenca is a place where you can cross off all of the must-dos in about 3 or 4 days. However, for slow-paced long-term travelers, it is also a place that can almost immediately start feeling like home. The sunny days can disappear in the form of slow strolls along the river or a string of coffees at a cozy cafe.
Cuenca has a lot of must-do activities but sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. I spent a week in Cuenca, pressured to leave by my friend who wanted to get moving down south. I frantically scoured the web looking for any other activities that I could bring up to convince him to stay one or two more days, only to find out that we have crossed off pretty much every tourist activity in the city. I could have stayed weeks here, content to do nothing and enjoy the vibe and beauty of the city.
In short, I would suggest spending a minimum of three days here. One for Cajas. One to sightsee. And one to just roam aimlessly. Be careful, though, three days can turn into three weeks very easily.
Before we continue, just know that I am a very avid hiker and outdoorsy person. I’m not one for anything crazy like paragliding or bungee jumping but I do love a good hike. Baños has everything for outdoorsy people of every taste. There are plenty of free hikes to do around the city for those of you like me who like to keep their feet on the ground. For the more adventurous, you can take to the skies on a paraglide, take to the river on a white-water rafting trip, or zip line and horseback ride your way through the surrounding jungles and mountains.
Baños is a very touristy town, often known as the adventure capital of Ecuador. It has that name for a reason. There is so much to do here during the day and it boasts a bustling nightlife scene as well. For backpackers, Baños has over 200 hostels to choose from, although most of these are locally-owned and won’t show up online.
For a good mix of adventure, nightlife, and beautiful scenery, Baños is your spot. Oh yeah, it’s called Baños because of all the thermal baths in and around the city. Make your body hurt during the day with some adrenaline-inducing fun and then relax in some hot springs at night. Baños is pure bliss.
How Much Time Do You Need in Baños?
I wasn’t a fan of Baños for the first couple of hours. I was immediately greeted by the tourist trolley that drives around town blasting reggaeton through the streets. It didn’t take long for my opinion and perception of Baños to change. With the bustling nightlife and multitude of activities, I quickly adjusted to my element. I did hardly anything in Baños worth blogging about. I saw the main waterfall, got sucked into rappelling down a waterfall, and did a couple of hikes. The more active adventurer could spend a week here and still need another week to do everything else.
I would suggest five days in Baños if you can swing it. See what I did there? Swing. Because Baños is famous for its swing! Ha. Anyway, set aside a day for rafting, a day to cycle the ruta de las cascadas, a day to do a hike or two, and then the rest to either chill or tack on any of the other adrenaline-inducing activities you can do here.
I didn’t hear of Vilcabamba until I was already in Cuenca. Montañita was meant to be my last stop, and then that turned to Guayaquil, and then to Cuenca, and then to Vilcabamba. I’m glad I made the mission down because it turned out to be one of my favorite spots in all of Ecuador. Vilcabamba is a very quiet town tucked away in the mountains of southern Ecuador. On every hike we went on, it felt like we had the entire world to ourselves.
The nature and scenery here is otherworldly. Never had I seen layer after layer of mountains in every direction like I did in Vilcabamba. It is something you’ll have to see for yourself to grasp the beauty of this region. While Vilcabamba lacks any sort of nightlife or activity past the early evening, it does have enough to keep you busy during the day. They have a surprising amount of modern and trendy restaurants, likely due to the growing expat and retiree population.
Podocarpus National Park, Rumi Huilco Reserve, and a number of rivers and mountains gives you seemingly endless trails to choose to explore. Many of these trails can be accessed within a 5 minute walk of one of the best hostels I have ever stayed at. Hosteria Izhcayluma charges $9.50 a night for a bed in their massive cabin dorms and includes free yoga classes, a swimming pool, a large bar with billiards and ping pong, and more. It feels like a resort for backpackers tucked away in the middle of nowhere, Ecuador. Izhcayluma alone is worth visiting Vilcabamba for.
How Much Time Do You Need in Vilcabamba?
This is a tough question to answer. Looking at Vilcabamba’s size, you would think two days is enough. I booked two nights at Hosteria Izhcayluma, only to bother reception every morning to extend another night. I did that three times. My five days in Vilcabamba felt like enough, but it also felt like I could have done more. I spent two of those five days pretty much relaxing, sprinkling in two hikes and a horseback riding excursion in between those.
I highly suggest doing the horseback riding trip, and the Izhcayluma Loop was a breathtaking hike. You could spend the third day at Parque Nacional Podocarpus or following one of the many trails in town along the river to Rumi Wilco. Three days should do it, but if you are staying at a place like Hosteria Izhcayluma, why not take it slow?
4. Quilotoa or Chugchilan
The small village of Quilotoa itself does not have much to see. However, walk a few steps towards that big hill and just over the hump, you’ll see one of the most marvelous things you could imagine. The Laguna del Quilotoa is arguably Ecuador’s most beautiful attraction. Many travelers come just to see it but for those of you looking for a more adventurous getaway in the remote mountains of Ecuador, you’ll want to stay at Chugchilan.
From Chugchilan, you can hike to the Laguna del Quilotoa in about five or six hours, making the reward that much sweeter. Chugchilan is a secluded little town that is almost devoid of other travelers. I went on a number of hikes in the area and always felt like it was just me, the world, and the occasional farm animals.
Along with Vilcabamba, my three days in Chugchilan were among the most peaceful days I have ever experienced in my travels. The beauty of the endless farms rolling on the mountainsides is hard to overstate. A good home base in Chugchilan would be the Black Sheep Inn. The Black Sheep Inn Eco-Lodge is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed at in my life.
How Much Time Do You Need in Quilotoa?
If you just want to see the lagoon, you can make a day trip out of Quilotoa. However, with time to spare and a desire to punish my legs, I opted to stay in Chugchilan for three nights. I did three hikes, including the six hour journey from the Laguna del Quilotoa back to the Black Sheep Inn. My legs were undoubtedly punished but my heart was undeniably full. I used those three days to disconnect from the outside world for a bit, due to there being no signal whatsoever in Chugchilan.
If that sounds good to you, then two or three days should be a good amount of time. If you just want to see the thing and leave, then make a day trip out of it.
5. Cotopaxi National Park
Volcan Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s top attractions. Summiting it at sunrise is an achievement that few people can claim. Less than half of the people who attempt the feat actually accomplish it. At 5,900 meters above sea level, Cotopaxi is a monster. I am proud to say that I…
Turned around at base camp at about 4,800 meters because I was cold. I give myself an A for effort. Cotopaxi and the surrounding national park boasts some of the most beautiful scenery that you will find in Ecuador. Aside from summiting Cotopaxi or just hopping up to the base camp, there are a number of stunning treks to do in the area. For any avid hikers, Cotopaxi is a can’t-miss stop on your Ecuadorian journey.
How Much Time Do You Need in Cotopaxi?
I know what you are expecting me to say. At least 3 days but you might want to stay 5. Well guess what? My lazy ass only went for a day trip. It was amazing and I was suffering so much from the altitude that I am glad I only went for a day. However, the more well-adjusted traveler could find themselves in the park’s grounds for more than a few days. A popular option among travelers is staying at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, where they package a 3 day, 2 night stay with a bunch of hikes and beautiful adventures for around $120. I didn’t do it myself but I heard rave reviews from other backpackers about it.
My blog is called ~ The Partying Traveler ~ after all. Montañita is one of the craziest places I have ever partied. I did not expect it to be nearly as wild as it was. I’m talking raves that go on until the early afternoon. I’m talking people snorting cocaine out in the open. I’m talking me blacking out right at midnight on my birthday and subsequently puking and passing out behind the booth of one of the nightclubs. Don’t worry, I awoke from my slumber about an hour or two later and rallied to storm the dance floor at a different club.
Montañita gets wild. Beyond the parties, it is a super laid-back surf town where you can either surf or do absolutely nothing guilt-free during the day. The food scene was also surprisingly amazing. Although Montañita is a bit more expensive than the rest of Ecuador, it makes for a good stop for a few days to let loose and splurge.
Just don’t get sucked in or else you will find yourself unable to leave and repeating the cycle of Sleep-Empanada-Party-Empanada-Sleep for two whole weeks. Like me. Don’t be like me.
How Much Time Do You Need in Montañita?
If I could tell myself this before I went to Montañita, I would say leave before I ever get a chance to damage my dignity. But hindsight is 20/20. I spent a whopping eleven days in Montañita. I surfed only one of those days. What did I do the remaining 10 days? Who knows. I ate a lot of kebabs, that’s all I remember.
Montañita is a lot of fun to the point where it can be dangerously addictive. Everyone kind of gets sucked in to staying for far longer than they initially planned. Whether it’s the laid-back vibe or the vicious cycle of being too hungover to leave, it is just bound to happen. Come for a Friday to Tuesday stretch if you are looking to have a wild time.
Be warned, though. Monday night raves at Lost Beach Club quickly turn into Tuesday afternoon raves. Then you’ll end up staying until Wednesday, where Hidden House Hostel has a $5 all you can drink deal. So you figure, why not stay until Thursday? Realistically, Thursday is your only opening. If you don’t leave on a Thursday, then you’ll stay for the weekend, convincing yourself you’ll leave Sunday. But then you’re just one day away from Monday nights at Lost Beach Club. Which turns into a Tuesday afternoon. The vicious cycle goes on.
7. Puerto Lopez
Just an hour north of Montañita is somewhere significantly more laid back. Puerto Lopez is a beautiful beach town that boasts Machalilla National Park and Isla de la Plata. Whale watching trips, blue-footed booby spottings, and lazy beach days are the name of the game in Puerto Lopez. It is much cheaper and much more local than Montañita. For those that aren’t much of partiers or just need to escape from Montañita’s vicious cycle, Puerto Lopez is the spot to be.
It has everything you’d need from a big town, like supermarkets, ATMs, bus terminals, and so on but it maintains a very small town feel. The roads are mostly dirt and most of the beachside establishments are little local tents just set up. I really enjoyed my time in Puerto Lopez and wish I hadn’t spent so much time in its much rowdier neighbor.
How Much Time Do You Need in Puerto Lopez?
Like my stay in Puerto Lopez, I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Two nights. One day for whale watching. Another to laze away at Playa de los Frailes. Then get your booty back down to Montañita.
A bit further north from Puerto Lopez is the only beach city in Ecuador. By that, I mean it is the only place that you can have a proper pampered beach vacation. Luxury resorts, fancy clubs, mega-malls and fine dining, Manta has it all. And it has it all at very affordable prices. When people think of beach vacations in Latin America, Ecuador is definitely not anywhere near the top of the list.
After a few yacht parties and a few nights at a luxury resort, I’m convinced that there is no reason Ecuador shouldn’t be near the top of that list. You can even see whales straight from the shore. Manta is severely underrated and overlooked internationally, but it won’t be for long.
How Much Time Do You Need in Manta?
Manta is one of those weird places where its appeal can vary wildly depending on what stretch of your trip you are currently on. Are you burnt out and need to just flat out relax for a few days? Three or four days. Are you itching for adventure and need to be doing something all the time? Go back to the mountains, bro. Manta is a big city with a laid-back small town vibe. There’s no need to push yourself to do anything here. As far as relaxation goes, it can’t be beat. And the sun actually comes out in Manta! Which is more than can be said for my time anywhere else on the coast.
Ecuador’s capital city was full of surprises. I’m usually unimpressed by Latin American capital cities but Quito ended up being one of my favorites. The Centro Historico of Quito is very beautiful and can be explored over and over again without stumbling into the same street twice. The Basilica del Voto Nacional is one of the most beautiful buildings in all of South America.
Aside from the city itself, Quito is surrounded by several mountains with stunning hiking trails. The Teleferico of Quito is also a can’t-miss attraction. A short bus ride away will take you to the center of the world where you can fulfill all of your tacky Equator photoshoots and activities. Apparently it’s easier to balance an egg on the Equator, so make sure to do that as well.
How Much Time Do You Need in Quito?
I spent six days in Quito and felt like I needed more time. To be fair, if you couldn’t tell, I feel that way about everywhere. I think realistically, you could accomplish a lot with three days in Quito. Explore the historic city center, make a quick trip to the Mitad del Mundo, maybe hit up the Teleferico. If Quito is your first stop in Ecuador, make sure to account for a day or two to adjust to the altitude. I went out twice in Quito and blacked out twice, thanks to a rough combination of high altitudes and open bars. Take it slow if you can.
Close to Vilcabamba is one of Ecuador’s cultural capitals. Loja is a little bit like Cuenca, surrounded by stunning mountains and forests. However, it lacks the international tourism and expat community that have taken over parts of Cuenca. Loja has a stunning historic center as well, with many churches and colorful streets within its old town.
I only spent a few hours in Loja as a stopping point on our journey from Cuenca to Vilcabamba but I loved my time in the city. It is much more budget-friendly than other cities in Ecuador. It doesn’t have a large backpacker or travel scene but that makes it all the more appealing.
How Much Time Do You Need in Loja?
Loja is an interesting city. We did not spend much time there at all but I couldn’t see why it isn’t a popular tourist destination. Beautiful colonial city center? Check. Surrounded by mountains? Check. Cheap everything? Check. Backpackers should be flocking to this city but they just weren’t for some reason. I think you could spend at least two days in Loja and enjoy yourself, but if you are itching for a social scene with other travelers, you might want to bounce back up to Cuenca or down to Vilcabamba.
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Honorable Mention (Because I Haven’t Made It There Yet)
- Galapagos Islands
- La Mana