Ecuador travel guide

Crammed into an area the size of the UK, Ecuador's habitats range from the steamy Amazon jungle and high Andean páramo, to bird filled cloud forest and mangrove lined coast, while majestic colonial cities shelter in the foothills of snow-capped volcanoes. All this before you’ve even reached the Galápagos, whose wide-eyed sea lions, giant tortoises, and penguins show no fear of their human visitors, and happily pose on wave battered rocks.
One of South America's most diminutive nations, Ecuador has more biodiversity per square kilometre that any other country in the world.
Ecuador's culture is equally as diverse and welcoming. The colourfully clad Quichua – descendants of the Incas – weave alpaca fleeces into warming woollens, while the many tribes of the lowlands capture the magic of the rainforest, with shamans, medicinal plants and flamboyant fruits. An Ecuador holiday will revive the body and the mind, and prove that the best things really do come in compact packages.

What we rate & what we don't


The Quilotoa Loop

Dotted with farming communities, llamas, crater lakes and ravines, this is a particularly 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.

Equatorial rhythms

Though not celebrated as other Latin styles, Ecuador’s cultural patchwork has created its own distinctive sounds, each one the perfect soundtrack to its specific region. From the rhythm-heavy, African-influenced bomba and marimba of the northern coast, to the mournful Andean flute and guitar and the vocal harmonies of the música nacional, pick up some cheap CDs during your Ecuador holiday and relive the experience back home.

Diverse culture

Ecuador’s nature and wildlife draw visitors from across the globe. However, its many cultures – including gaudily dressed Quichua highlanders, the little-visited, coastal Afroecuadorians and the many Amazonian tribes, with their shamans and fascinating knowledge of the rainforest – should not be overlooked. Use local guides, try a homestay, sample local food or join a cultural workshop for a thoroughly Ecuadorian cultural adventure.

Incan ruins

Peru takes all the credit for the Incas’ legacy, but their empire stretched as far as Quito, and southern Ecuador has its fair share of Inca roads and ruins. The most impressive is Ingapirca, whose Temple of the Sun was built using stones carved so perfectly they require no mortar. During the solstices, the sun shines through a doorway at the top of the temple.

The Galápagos Islands

Few places on earth have contributed as much to our understanding of the natural world as the Galápagos. A lack of large predators on this volcanic archipelago means the wildlife is fearless, and in this remotest of settings you can swim with sea lions, watch sea iguanas blow salt from their noses and see the famous finches, whose unique beaks revealed the secrets of evolution to Charles Darwin.

Cobblestoned 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 – first 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.

Exotic wildlife

As one of the world’s 17 biodiversity hotspots, Ecuador has a phenomenal variety of habitats – and the wildlife to match. From the vicuñas and condors of the high Andes and the birdlife of the cloud forests, to the howler monkeys, sloths and anacondas of the Amazon, the whales of the coast and the sea lions, iguanas and tortoises of the Galápagos, animal enthusiasts will be hopping with excitement during their Ecuador wildlife holiday.

Volatile volcanoes

Ecuador’s “spine” is a chain of volcanoes – you’ll never be far from a smoking crater or a rugged snow-capped peak during your Ecuador holiday. Scramble up Rucu Pichincha for unrivalled views of Quito, then soak your aching legs in one of the country’s many natural thermal baths. Mountain bike down Cotopaxi’s slopes, or simply enjoy the dramatic views – while sipping juice chilled with glacial ice.


The violent reputation of Ecuador’s largest city has mellowed over the past decade, as renovation projects have brightened up the promenade – the flashy Malecón 2000 – and pretty, pastel-coloured Cerro Santa Ana, with its cute cafes and vistas. But there’s little else to see, straying from these areas is ill advised, and the views reveal the slums across the murky water, facing back onto the selective wealth of the city.

Otavalo Market

One of the largest and most famous markets in South America, you’ll find enough crafts to stuff a hundred suitcases in Otavalo. You’ll also find hundreds of other tourists. For a more authentic market experience, try the Saturday morning animal market, or visit the surrounding villages, where many of the weavers practise their crafts on traditional looms. Salasaca, Saquisilí and Latacunga also have notable markets.

Isla de la Plata

This parched rock, 20km from Puerto Lopez, is covered in scratchy loofah bushes, blue-footed boobies and red-chested frigate birds. It’s an unusual daytrip, especially in June-September when there’s a chance of spotting migrating whales during the boat ride. However, don’t believe those who sell this island as an alternative to the Galápagos – you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Mitad del Mundo

The “Middle of the World” is a reference to the equator. Unfortunately, the monument built to mark it is 240m south of the actual line – so head to the nearby Intiñan Solar Museum for the real equator. Reaching the famed spot ends up being something of an anticlimax – and you’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not the “scientific” experiments involving plugholes and balancing eggs are true...
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Ecuador or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Ecuador is/isn't

Ecuador is...

a Mary Poppins-style bag of bottomless treats.

Ecuador isn't...

all about the Galápagos Stay and discover the mainland.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking

Locro de papas is a cheap yet delicious potato soup from the Andes. Top it with toasted maize, cubed cheese or sliced avocado.
No Ecuadorian bus ride would be complete without a tub of warming seco de chivo – pork and rice in sauce, sold along the roadside.
Don’t play it safe with bananas and mangos, try guava, ugly, creamy guanábana, and citrusy tomate de árbol juice (tree tomato)
The coastal Afroecuadorians have their own, wonderful, Afro-Latin cuisine, heavy on coconut, plantain, fish and cinnamon.
In Ecuador, chocolate grows on trees – in "chocolate pods". Take a workshop in roasting, grinding and making your own chocolate – fascinating, and scrummy!

People & language

Nearly three quarters of Ecuador's people are mestizo (mixed European and indigenous descent). The Quichua are scattered throughout the highlands – and each community has its own unique culture. Smaller ethnic groups inhabit the lowlands, including the Shuar, Chachi, Secoya and Huaorani who lead largely traditional lifestyles and have their own languages.

Greet a highlander in Kichwa: Imanalla

Say "cool!" in South American slang: Chévere!

When it gets freezing in the mountains, don’t say "Brrr" – say Achachay! It sounds like chattering teeth!

Gifts & shopping

The highlands are often wrapped in rainbow coloured fabric, warm alpaca ponchos and soft blankets. Markets may stock imported or poor-quality versions – visit weavers' cooperatives to find authentic crafts and ensure your dollars go straight to the artisans.
The farming region of Tigua is famous for its intricate paintings of Andean life. Painted on sheepskin, they feature farmers and weavers, festivals, volcanoes and condors. Quality varies – the best are found in Tigua itself, and Quito’s small galleries.
The Panama hat is in fact from Ecuador. Made from plaited leaves, the finest examples can hold water and will pass through a wedding ring when rolled up.
Baltasar Ushca – the iceman of Chimborazo – climbs to the volcano's upper slopes every day with his donkeys to bring ice back down to sell.

How much does it cost?

Authentic Panama hat: £15 - £35
Dinner in a Quito restaurant: £10
Bowl of seco on a bus: £1.50
Ride up the Quito Teleferiqo: £4.60
Bunch of bananas: 20p
Bottle of Club beer: 62p
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Longjourneys] [Is isn't: Dan Romero] [Underrated: Ian Masias] [Rated: Pedro Szekely] [Overrated: YoTuT] [Eating and drinking: Liz Henry] [Panama hats to be: David Brossard] [Bananas: F Delventhal]