Ecuador may be one of South America’s tiniest nations, but it punches above its weight in terms of natural beauty and one-of-a-kind attractions.
Every inch of this compact country is jam-packed with astounding diversity: the Andes mountain range runs through its heartland, palm-fringed beaches dot its coastline, and Amazonian rainforest dominates its eastern region.
And, of course, it boasts one of the most remarkable ecological attractions on the planet: the Galapagos Islands. This biodiverse archipelago attracts more visitors than any other destination in the country, but there’s so much more to explore in Ecuador.
If you’re planning a trip to Ecuador — or if you’re looking to add a few more destinations to your South American bucket list — read on for seven of the best places to visit in Ecuador.
Travel to: Ecuador
Sitting sky-high in the Andes and straddling two hemispheres, Quito is easily one of the country’s most captivating destinations — and it definitely warrants more than just a quick stopover (especially since you’ll need a few days to acclimatise to the altitude).
With its well-preserved colonial architecture, grandiose churches, and picturesque plazas, the city’s Old Town is Quito’s main draw, but you’ll find plenty more attractions beyond its UNESCO-listed historic district. History buffs will love the City Museum, while foodies will swoon over traditional dishes like Llapingachos (fried potato pancakes).
For the best views overlooking the city, climb to the top of the Basilica del Voto Nacional (a stunning neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church), or hop aboard the TelefériQo, a cable car that ascends up the slopes of Pichincha Volcano.
2. Baños de Agua Santa
Baños is primarily known for two things: natural hot springs and adventurous activities. You can go horseback riding, white-water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, and more! Basically, if you want to get your adventure on in Ecuador, this is the place to do it.
Baños is also home to Ruta de las Cascadas (nicknamed Highway of the Waterfalls), a spectacular route that winds through Río Pastaza canyon, passing several (you guessed it!) waterfalls along the way.
The bus ride is fantastic, but you can also tackle the route by mountain bike. Once you’ve had your fill of adrenaline-inducing activities, enjoy a relaxing dip in one of the city’s many hot springs.
3. Cotopaxi National Park
Situated just over an hour outside of Quito, Cotopaxi National Park makes for the perfect day trip from the capital. If you really want to take advantage of everything on offer here, however, consider staying overnight at one of the reserve’s lodges or haciendas.
The imposing silhouette of Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, dominates the spellbinding landscape of this protected area — which also includes several other volcanoes, vast grasslands, and glacial streams.
Adventure seekers flock here for the chance to spot rare Andean wildlife, test their trekking skills, visit ancient Incan ruins, and climb to the summit of an active volcano.
Nestled deep within the Ecuadorian cloud forest, Mindo is a haven for nature lovers, bird-watchers, and those wanting to venture off Ecuador’s well-trodden tourist trail. The town itself is quite small, so a few days is more than enough to soak up Mindo’s main sights while still having plenty of time to relax.
Visit a butterfly farm, stroll through fields of orchids, go ziplining, or set off on a scenic hike — the best way to experience this destination is to simply get outside and enjoy its natural wonders.
Cuenca is one of the most significant — and one of the most beautiful — colonial cities in Ecuador. It shares many of the same characteristics as Quito, from its cobbled streets to its abundance of extravagant churches, all without the tourist hordes you’ll typically find in the capital.
The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its gorgeous colonial architecture will make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Spend a few days exploring Cuenca’s historic centre and artisanal markets, and if time allows, take a day trip to Cajas National Park — a stunning destination renowned for its craggy hills and spectacular array of glittering lakes.
If laid-back beach towns are your thing, you’ll love Montañita. This backpacker hotspot is best known for its relaxed vibe, surf scene, and the raucous, party-loving crowd it attracts.
You’ll find some of the best breaks in South America here, so it’s the perfect place to catch some waves or take a surf lesson and learn to hang ten. Aside from surfing, you can brush up on your language skills with a Spanish course, take a day trip to nearby dive spots, or simply kick back and relax for a few days.
7. The Galapagos Islands
Located in the Pacific Ocean roughly 960 km off the coast of Ecuador, this group of volcanic islands needs no introduction. More than 200,000 travellers visit the Galapagos Islands every year to experience thrilling close-up encounters with a range of unique species found nowhere else on earth, from giant tortoises to marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies.
Each island has its own distinctive landscape and offers a completely unique experience, so you’ll have to be selective with your itinerary if you have limited time to visit (or you can always island-hop your way around the area on a Galapagos Islands tour).
A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station is a must, as is Santa Cruz’s Rancho Primicias, an animal sanctuary where you can come face-to-face with the Galapagos’ famed tortoises.
See Also: Galapagos Cruises
Which of these destinations is at the top of your travel wishlist? Is there anywhere else you’d add to this list? Let us know in the comments!