Ecuador is a magical country, full of surprises and adventures. In every corner, you can discover some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in the world.
How could you make a list of the most epic destinations in Ecuador and not include the world famous Galapagos Islands? Home to Darwin’s theory of evolution and all of the marvellous animals that were used as evidence in his scientific exploration, the islands are a truly unique destination.
The Galapagos are composed of 21 islands, each totally different in vegetation, animals, landscapes and even weather. If you are short on time, or budget, it can seem an impossible task to fit the islands into your itinerary. The advertised tours are usually in the several thousands for a few days, but fret not; there is an affordable way to see this iconic destination.
Despite cruises obviously being a delightful way to experience the Galapagos Islands; their price tag can seem overwhelming. However, if you factor the amount that you see in a relatively short space of time; the cost of day trips, food, and accommodation you can sometimes find last minute deals that end up being relatively affordable. Pro tip: Haggle with the tourist operators to get an even better deal.
If cruises are definitely not an option, fly to one of the main islands where you can find hostels to stay in and arrange trips to the areas you would like to visit. Doing the Galapagos this way means you can really adapt it to your personal budget. To save money, don’t book much more than your flights and initial accommodation online. There are plenty of last minute deals on the islands for tours running the next day. For more details on the sights to see in the Galapagos, check out the ideal 5-day itinerary created by Wanderbus Ecuador.
Paradise. Quite literally; Mindo is one of the most biodiverse places in the planet with hundreds of species of orchids, over 600 species of birds, bears, butterflies, trees, and plants. Home to some of the most beautiful views in the country, Mindo attracts a small but steady flow of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts all year.
You’ll be pleased to hear it’s easy to get to, as it’s only a couple of hours away from Quito, and there is even a direct bus. If you have a couple of days to explore around Quito, this is the perfect option to get out of the city and experience some of Ecuador’s incredible nature.
Mindo is synonymous with water in every sense, rivers, waterfalls, and lots of rain. Some of the activities you can do include scooting down the rivers in rubber rings, jumping 12 meters into a waterfall, or even abseiling down a few of them.
There are three tracks that lead out of Mindo in different directions and make for lovely long walks. The weather here can be hot when the sun is out and cooler when its really rainy, but generally always fluctuates in a really comfortable range, especially for walking or cycling. You can rent mountain bikes in town for a few hours or a whole day.
While you are here, take the opportunity to book a bird watching tour, even if it is something you wouldn’t usually be interested in. You are bound to see innumerable incredible species of trogons, quetzals, toucans, and tanagers. The local community are particularly passionate about birds and organize an annual bird count where they count the number of species they can see in the space of 24 hours.
One of the most iconic locations in Ecuador, this may be the reason you want to visit the country. If it’s not, it should be. Quilotoa is a remote volcano in the Andes south of Quito. It is particularly recognisable thanks to its iconic turquoise lagoon located in the crater. The lagoon shifts and changes colour as the sun and clouds move across it throughout the day.
Surrounding Quilotoa are some amazing landscapes, some of which you can see on the journey there. You can also find tiny indigenous communities, traditional markets, where famers and locals come together to exchange livestock and fresh food. Make sure to try the traditional local dishes, which include caldo de gallina, or chicken soup, mote con chicharron, boiled corn with pork, and possibly even cuy, guinea pig!
If you have the time, there is a hiking route known as the Quilotoa Loop which takes you from Quilotoa to Isinlivi or vice versa. This route will give you tremendous insight into the local landscapes and communities. Allowing you to really see how locals live in these somewhat harsh but beautiful conditions. Make sure to visit the carpentry known as Don Bosco in the little village of Isinlivi. You can also stay at an amazing hostal here called Llullu Llama, with lots of maps, amazing food, and a spa to top it off.
Vilcabamba is a village located near Loja in the south of Ecuador. It is often visited as the the valley where it is located is known as the valley of longevity. Its inhabitants are known to live to 100, and some to 120 or even 135 years of age. The area was historically used as a retreat for Incan royalty, and the name comes from the Quechua huilco pamba meaning plain of sacred trees.
Located in a lush valley near the Podocarpus national park, Vilcabamba is the perfect location for beautiful hikes and horse rides. These usually cost about $15 for two hours, $25 for four or $35 for the whole day. There are iconic hikes from the village itself such as the Cerro Mandango trail, which ascends the distinctive peak west of town and takes four hours out and back. For more hikes in the Podocarpus national park, there is a long hike to a waterfall called Cascada el Palto. Make sure you enquire into how far it is before heading out so that you take sufficient provisions with you.
Vilcabamba is also known for its relaxation, and there are many locations offering spa services, massages, meditation sessions, or even manicures and pedicures. Yoga has become increasingly popular, and is very affordable, as are the other spa services.
Mompiche is an idyllic fishing village with a dose of surfing on the Ecuadorian coast. It combines the beauty of its surroundings, amazing food, and having fun, in perfect harmony. The beach is stunning, with a dry rainforest(!) coming all the way down to the sea. These forests are now in danger of extinction and are home to unique ecosystems.
Mompiche is a surf paradise, similar to other locations along the coast such as Montañita or Canoa. What we love about Mompiche is that it is just a bit more laid back than either of those places. If you love to party – but not all the time – this is the place for you. If you’re a total techno-head you should head to Montañita, where you can pretty much party 24/7 and there is a club that has a great sound system and is dedicated to techno and house music.
If you are down for chilling, Mompiche is the place to be. There are a couple of cool bars, like the reggae spot that serves caipirinhas. A 20-minute walk down the road will take you to one of the most beautiful places on the coast called Playa Negra, or black beach. The sand is made of a mixture of minerals that makes it black and sparkly like the night sky. Unfortunately, this beach is in danger of disappearing, as the sand is being mined for its unique beauty.
Cuenca is a picturesque town that seems to have been stuck in time with it’s churches, flowered balconies, nuns, and school children in uniforms. It is notably visited for its historic center where, like Quito, architecture from various periods reside side by side. Beautiful squares host markets selling quality traditional crafts, such as ceramics and woven goods. Cafes with terraces are dotted around the area, especially on pedestrians roads, and offer many types of cuisine.
Cuenca is notably visited for it’s Incan historical ruins and history. The most significant ruins are those found at Ingapirca, a day trip from Cuenca. Ingapirca is made up of both Incan and Cañari structures, as the Cañari inhabited the area before the Incans arrived. As they were unable to conquer them, the Incans lived alongside the Cañari in the area. This means there are some temples worshipping the sun built by Incans, and others worshipping the moon built by Cañaris.
Cuenca is also near the beautiful national park of Cajas. Cajas is a protected area at high altitude, and is famous for its beautiful cloud forests, and paramo landscapes. This unique ecosystem of sponge-like plants holds as much water as the lakes that surround it, making it a unique source of water for the surrounding region. The park has numerous trails that wind through hundreds of lakes and surrounding mountain summits. Some of the wildlife that lives here includes Andean condors, giant hummingbirds, coatis and more.
The Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon is one of the most magical places in Ecuador, with huge expanses still relatively untouched. The mystery of this forest enthralls everyone who visits, and certainly makes for an unforgettable experience.
Ecuador has two major natural conservation parks in the Amazon; Cuyabeno in the northern region of the Amazon, and Yasuni further south. Both are renowned for their great bio-diversity and beauty. You will need at least 4 or 5 days to visit the Amazon, as many of the ecolodges are at least a day’s journey away from Quito.
The Amazon is home to many unique species, unseen in other regions due to the presence of the Andes. From pink river dolphins, to giant parrots known as macaws, there are stunning animals to see. Monkeys are extremely common in some areas, and can be seen in large packs. Cuyabeno forest is home to the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy marmoset, which is about 12 cm in height and weighs around 100 grams.
There are a number of ecolodges in both Cuyabeno and Yasuni, ranging in price from the thousands of dollars to around $250 for a 4-day excursion. Lodges such as Sani or Napo Wildlife Center might be expensive but they also have top of the range guides, as well as stunning facilities. Lodges such as Jamu or Cuyabeno are much cheaper, and although you may not have guides that are quite as experienced, you will still see a vast quantity of incredible species and natural areas.
Perched on the highest point of the Andean mountain range between Quito and the Amazon, Papallacta is a beautiful village famous for its thermal baths. Not only is Papallacta worth a visit for a relaxing, restoring experience at the well-kept and attractive baths, but also for the journey there. If you are visiting from Quito, the route to the village takes you up a slowly climbing highway that leaves beautiful views of Quito behind, as well as stunning mountain scenery the higher you climb.
Papallacta is close enough to Quito to be able to do as a day trip, but if you have the time staying overnight means you get to explore the area. The thermal baths have a hotel that is part of the complex, but it is particularly expensive. If you are on a budget we recommend staying back in the village.
There are some beautiful hikes in the area, so we recommend spending some time hiking before going to the baths for a relaxing soak. Just a head’s up; you’ll need a nap after the baths.
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