Ecuador was a country that really surprised me. My sister had moved there as a Peace Corps volunteer after her graduation, and looking for any excuse to go back to Peru, I decided to fly over and visit her. I was planning on spending at most two weeks in Ecuador before working my way to the mountains of northern Peru. Six weeks later, I finally crossed over into Peru.
Despite being one of the smallest countries in South America, Ecuador packs quite a punch. There is a huge variety of things to do. From the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Rainforest, and of course, the world-renowned Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is brimming with adventures. Even in my six weeks there, I felt like I barely scratched the surface. I wasn’t able to make it to the Amazon Jungle, nor the Galapagos Islands, and only transited over its largest city of Guayaquil. This itinerary does lean towards the budget backpacker, so unfortunately, I’ve excluded the Galapagos trips from this itinerary. If you’ve got a couple thousand to throw around, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway.
Quito: The Chaotic Capital City
Recommended Time: 3 Days
Whether you’re flying in or bussing down from Cali, Colombia, the chaotic capital of Ecuador is most likely going to be your first stop in the country. There is a lot to explore around the colonial city center and beyond. Quito became one of my favorite capital cities in Latin America, boasting a good mix of outdoor adventures and beautiful sites within the city.
While in Quito, you’ll definitely want to make a day trip to the equator at the Mitad del Mundo. If you’re the adventurous type, a hike up Rui Pichincha will give you some stunning views of the city and the mountains. You could roam through the city center and experience the beautiful architecture. Make sure to pay a visit to Basilica del Voto Nacional, pictured below.
A night out at Plaza Foch will round out Quito as a perfect introduction to the country of Ecuador. For backpackers, I’d recommend staying at Community Hostel Quito, perfectly located close to the center. It was one of the most social hostels I’d ever stayed at, and it’s hard not to make friends while you’re there. They really drive home the “community” part of their name.
Cotopaxi National Park and Quilotoa: The Outdoorsman’s Paradise
Recommended Time: 3 Days
Alright, time to get you out of the city. Two of the most popular day trips from Quito are Volcan Cotopaxi and Laguna Quilotoa. While both can be done as separate day trips, I recommend getting straight to the heart of wild Ecuador. A popular option for backpackers looking for an amazing experience at Cotopaxi is by staying at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi hostel. They usually package their stays in three day experiences of Cotopaxi National Park that include meals, accommodation, treks, and more.
For the adrenaline-seekers, the two-day hike to Cotopaxi’s summit is a must-do. Be warned, though. Only half of the hikers who attempt the summit actually make it up there. It is very difficult, and most travelers opt to just do the hike to the refuge. That’s what I did and I still struggled mightily with the altitude.
For Quilotoa, I stayed at the tiny farm village of Chugchilan. I spent three days hiking pristine landscapes and local hikes that you won’t find on any Internet guide. Seriously, I don’t even know what the hikes are called. I stayed at the Black Sheep Inn where they had a list of hikes, some of which were discovered or trail blazed by the owner himself. The best of those hikes would be the loop from Chugchilan to Quilotoa. It took us nearly a full day, but it was one hell of an adventure and absolutely stunning.
Baños de Agua Santa: Waterfalls and Adrenaline
Recommended Time: 4 Days
I recommend four days but the reality is that the adventurous traveler could stay here forever. I initially only booked for four nights and ended up staying an extra two days. I could have stayed much longer, mostly because I enjoyed the small town vibe and party atmosphere. There was no better balance than exploring all day and hitting the Leprechaun Bar until late at night.
During the day, there are so many hikes, waterfalls, and other thrilling things to do in and around Baños. One of the must-do adventures would be the Ruta de las Cataratas, or the Waterfall Route. Rent a bicycle or hop on a local bus and stop at a few of the waterfalls along the way. There are a lot of waterfalls to see, but the most incredible of these would be the majestic and powerful Paillon del Diablo. This waterfall was one of the most epic I’d ever seen. It’s hard to describe the experience but it was absolute awe-inspiring.
Other highlights of Baños include zip-lining, bungee jumping, canyoning, horse riding, and the challenging hike up Volcan Tungarahua. Oh yeah, and the famous swing at the end of the world. It might be a very touristy thing to do, but I had a good group and we were able to enjoy ourselves. Don’t take yourself and your travels too seriously and it’ll be a fun experience and a great photo opportunity.
The only other thing I did in Baños aside from a few hikes, the swing, and the Paillon del Diablo was canyoning. I had to be practically dragged screaming and kicking by my friends. I’m not ashamed to say I was absolutely terrified but I’m still here today. Would I do it again? Voluntarily, no. But I did end up having to rappel down a waterfall when the trail got washed out on a 5,150 meter summit in Peru a month later. Again, I wouldn’t do it voluntarily, but it was still fun in hindsight.
The Amazon Rainforest
Recommended Time: 4 or 5 Days
Baños is considered to be the gateway to the Amazon, but if you really want to get in the heart of the jungle, you’ll want to go even deeper. Cuyabeno and Puya are two popular locations for jungle adventures. It does take a while to get to both places, so make sure to allot at least three or four days so that you can truly experience the Amazon without spending most of your time just getting there and back.
I was a bit wary of my budget early on in my South America trip, and like I said, was not expecting to spend so much time in Ecuador. I ended up skipping the Amazon in Ecuador in favor of a cheaper (but still amazing) Amazon experience in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. Here’s someone else’s guide on their Amazon Rainforest experience in Ecuador.
Montañita and Puerto Lopez: Surf All Day, Party All Night
Recommended Time: 4 Days
Who am I kidding? Four days might seem like a lot of time for a small surf town such as Montañita, but believe me, you will get sucked in. The parties here are absolutely hectic. I decided to celebrate my birthday here and it was surprisingly one of the wildest birthdays I had ever had. I wish I could remember most of it, but I was told by my friends that I had a good night.
Like I said, the parties here are way crazier than any town of Montañita’s size should be. After the adventures in the Andes, the Amazon, and Baños, you’ll want to chill out for a few days anyway. Surf is the name of the game in Montañita and the neighboring village of Olon. If you don’t surf, chilling out along the beach, eating good, and partying all night can be how to spend the day.
Of course, you can also take day trips up to Puerto Lopez for some adventures during the day. In Puerto Lopez, you can visit Isla de la Plata and see whales and blue-footed boobies. You can also pay a visit to Los Frailes, part of the national park with some beautiful beaches and views. On a sunny day, the beaches at this national park are much nicer to spend time in than Montañita’s own strip of beach.
Guayaquil: Sizzling Nightlife and Weather
Recommended Time: 2 Days
Ecuador’s largest city is often overlooked by backpackers. Unfortunately, that list includes me. I only spent the night here, and since my bus arrived really late, I wasn’t able to explore at all before my bus the following morning. Guayaquil has a reputation for being dangerous, but keep your wits about you and you can really enjoy your time in this city. Guayaquil is without a doubt home to the best and most modern nightlife in Ecuador. There’s not too many must-dos in Guayaquil, but it is still a pretty good stop for a day or two.
Since Guayaquil is the main hub in southern Ecuador, most travelers coming from or going to Peru will make Guayaquil their first or last stop. However, just make sure you don’t ignore the destinations further south. Especially not…
Cuenca: Colonial City in the Mountains
Recommended Time: 5 Days
I really can’t say enough good things about Cuenca. I absolutely adore this city. Cuenca boasts one of the most beautiful colonial city centers in all of Latin America. It is a big city that feels a bit like a small town. The best thing one could do is just aimlessly wander through the historic center. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things to do in Cuenca but you could roam around for hours without ever getting bored.
Cuenca is also a perfect city for nature-lovers. Cuenca is surrounded by mountains and has plenty of hikes outside and inside the city, including trails along the many rivers that run through the city. It’s no surprise that many travelers find themselves getting sucked into staying for much longer than planned. I stayed for a week on a project with Alternative Hostel and the only reason I left was because my friend dragged me away to other destinations. To be fair, had a car. After all the soul-sucking bus rides I’d been on, I couldn’t turn that down.
Of course, no adventurer can visit Cuenca without also visiting Cajas National Park. On the way to Cuenca from Guayaquil, I found myself glued to the window. The views here are absolutely gorgeous. Thankfully, we were able to drive out and do a bit of exploring on our own, doing the hike around Laguna Toreadora. Other highlights of Cuenca include a visit to the lesser-known ruins of Ingapirca. If you’ve got a car, make sure to visit the waterfalls of Giron a couple of hours down south.
Loja and Vilcabamba: Culture and the Outdoors
Recommended Time: 3 Days
One of the best hidden gems of Ecuador are the little town of Loja and the even smaller village of Vilcabamba. These two destinations are off the beaten path, with most backpackers traveling no further south than Cuenca. It is also quite difficult to get to, needing a five or six hour bus from Cuenca. However, for the rare traveler that comes by, they are rewarded with some pristine outdoor adventures. Vilcabamba is a hiker’s paradise.
And for backpackers, the best hostel in Ecuador might just be Hosteria Izhcayluma. Complete with free yoga classes, a swimming pool, and large cabin-style hostel rooms, this was one of my favorite places I have ever stayed. You can even start your hikes straight from the hostel, which itself boasts one of the best sunset views in the area.
Some highlights of Vilcabamba included the Izhcayluma Hike and horseback riding to the waterfalls at the nearby national park. The village itself feels weird, kind of like a retirement home for American expats. However, you’ll be spending much more time in the great outdoors than in the village.
And what’s crazy about this itinerary is that a month sounds like it’s a lot for Ecuador. Yet, I feel like there’s so many more places that I could include on here. Like I said, this list entirely ignores the Galapagos, which deserves a trip on their own to truly appreciate. Many people who visit Ecuador come for the Galapagos before realizing just how much else there is to do. Many more come only expecting to brush over it on their way from Colombia to Peru or vice versa. But seriously, Ecuador is criminally underrated. If you get the chance to visit this beautiful country, give it the due it deserves.
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