5 of the best road trips in Ecuador

Ecuador’s privileged geographic location, gentle weather, contrasting regions and travel-friendly size make it an ideal destination to travel by road. 

While driving in Ecuador is not entirely without challenges — it’s best to get a 4WD vehicle to traverse the most hostile terrains — the relatively inexpensive gas and short distances between cities make it an attractive option to explore the country. 

Whether you’re embarking on a journey through the Pacific Coast, admiring mountains across the Avenue of Volcanoes or simply opting for a one-day trip, Ecuador will deliver stunning views, unique landscapes and diversity to spare. 

Here’s our guide to the top scenic drives to make the most out of your visit to Ecuador.

Pause along the E30 highway to admire the scenery around Laguna Quilotoa © Volanthevist / Getty Images

1. Follow the Avenue of the Volcanoes

Best road trip to explore the Andean mountain range
Quito–Sangay National Park; 565km (351 miles); 5 days

An adventure-fueled trip, this itinerary follows a chain of geographic elevations named “Avenue of Volcanoes” by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. The route extends along the northern and central highlands, stopping by popular hiking destinations such as the Cotopaxi National Park, Baños and Mt Chimborazo.

The trip starts in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital city, moving southward through the E35 highway. Stop by the Pasochoa Wildlife Refuge or the Cotopaxi National Park and reach Latacunga for a traditional food tasting. Then head to the Quilotoa Loop taking the E30 to witness the gasp-inducing turquoise-water crater, Laguna Quilotoa.

Return to E35 and stop by the picturesque towns of Salcedo (for traditional ice cream) or Pillaro before taking a detour east towards Baños, where you’ll enjoy trekking, cycling or just bathing in thermal waters.

Go back to E35 to visit the Reserva de Producción Faunistica Chimborazo to admire native camelids (vicuñas, llamas and alpacas) in the wild and then head to Riobamba, Chimborazo Province’s capital city, Guamote and reach the final destination: the Sangay National Park.

A city beach backed by apartment blocks and with many loungers and seats under gazebos
Stop by beach towns and surfing spots, such as Salinas, on the Spondylus Route along the coast © MarcPo / Getty Images / iStock

2. Cruise the coast on the Spondylus Route

Best road trip to explore the Pacific coastline
Esmeraldas–Huaquillas; 850km (528 miles); 7 days

Crossing the E15 road through the Pacific coastline, the Ruta Spondylous features some of the most popular Ecuadorian beach destinations. The itinerary starts in Esmeraldas, a province in the northwest that borders Colombia, and follows downwards towards the provinces of Manabi, Santa Elena and El Oro.

White-sand beaches, small towns and surfing spots make the Spondylous Route a well-loved path for all sorts of travelers, from adventure-seekers to eco-conscious relaxation enthusiasts.

Notable stopovers include Montañita (a touristic town in Santa Elena), Salinas, Manta, Puerto López (a popular whale sighting spot), Isla de la Plata and Machalilla National Park, which is considered a more affordable option for those seeking a Galápagos-adjacent experience. 

Planning tip: With recent crime spikes disturbing locals’ daily lives in the Coastal region, it’s best not to drive at night or stay out late alone. While most places are relatively peaceful, reduce risks by regularly checking foreign travel advice updates from your governments to see if travel is advised against for any town or city en route.

A scenic view over a lake with a few small buildings tucked into the surrounding hillsides
Lake Yahuarcocha – or Blood Lake – is named after an ancient battle between invading Inca and local Caranqui © ecuadorplanet / Getty Images

3. Drive the E35 to the lakes

Best road trip to enjoy lakes, crafts and Indigenous culture
Quito–Ibarra; 171km (106.2 miles); 2 days

Embark on this journey along one of the most scenic and culture-filled routes, departing from Quito in the direction of the northern Imbabura Province.

Begin by taking the E35 highway, also known as La Panamericana, towards Cayambe where you’ll find several haciendas and restaurants offering activities such as horseback riding and the traditional bizcochos con chocolate meal (salt biscuits with chocolate).

Follow the E35 up north until the imposing San Pablo Lake comes into view. Next, take Avenue Enrique Garcés and head to Peguche, home to the renowned Inti Raymi (summer equinox celebration), mysticism-steeped waterfalls and rich indigenous tradition. 

Back on the E35 route, drive towards Otavalo for a deep dive into one of the most prominent Ecuadorian indigenous cultures. Enjoy music, crafts and food before rejoining the highway. 

Continue the short drive to Lake Cuicocha and the villages of Cotacachi and Atuntaqui before arriving in Imbabura’s capital city, Ibarra and stopping by Lake Yahuarcocha (Blood Lake), which takes its name from an ancient tale describing a bloody battle between Inca invaders and the Caranqui people who still inhabit this region today.

Planning tip: If you happen to be in Ecuador in June for the Inti Raymi Festival, don’t miss out on the rituals and festivities that take place across Imbabura, from the midnight cleansing baths by the Peguche waterfalls to the dance parades in the streets of Otavalo and Ibarra. For convenience, book a weekend stay in places such as Hacienda Cusin, where you can learn about the colonial history of Imbabura, enjoy delicious meals prepared with Andean ingredients, and take horseback riding and cycling tours.

A row of brightly colored houses and shopfronts on a cobbled street
Explore the historic center of Loja on this drive through Ecuador’s south © Boyd Hendrikse / Shutterstock

4. Road trip through the south to the Oriente

Best route in the south
Cuenca–Vilcabamba; 383km (238 miles); 4 days

While driving from the northern or central highlands to Cuenca might not be for anyone — roads can be treacherous and landslides are common — once you’ve touched down in Cuenca, head out to explore the Southern Highlands and neighboring provinces by car. 

Depart from Cuenca and cut through E35 until reaching the 594 high road. After visiting the plazas and parks in Gualaceo and shopping in the so-called silversmith capital of Ecuador, Chordeleg, continue south through the 594. Prepare for a slight change of weather as you approach the E45 and arrive in the Oriente (Amazon region). 

Stray from the main road to the dew-laden town of Gualaquiza and immerse yourself in community-based tourism activities with the Shuar people of Morona Santiago before stopping by El Pangui, an orchid haven. 

From Gualaquiza head to the megadiverse National Park Podocarpus and once you’ve explored the natural sanctuary continue along the E45 to Loja. In Loja explore the historic center, venture into the Japanese-inspired Jipiro Park and enjoy the local cuisine. 

Then reprise the journey to the Vilcabamba Valley — recognized for its centenarian inhabitants — via the 682 route. To celebrate a safe arrival, bask in the serene nature-filled atmosphere with a cup of full-bodied Vilcabamba coffee.

Planning trip: Due to favorable weather conditions, the best time of the year to visit the Podocarpus National Park is between September and December.

5. Motor along the Chocó Andino 

Best road trip within Pichincha Province
Quito–Nanegal; 141km (88 miles); 1 day

Looking for a one-day road trip within Pichincha? Set off on a one-day trip to the Chocó Andino. Explore the cloud forests, watch wildlife and learn about the area’s conservation efforts.  

Departing from Quito, take the 28 highway stretching northwest for two hours. You’ll arrive in Mindo, a verdant cloud forest best known for its abundance of birdlife, butterfly sanctuaries and adventure sports offerings. 

Hop back in your car and continue your way to Nanegal, where lodges such as Maquipucuna can arrange hikes, birdwatching and Andean Spectacled Bear spotting.

This article was first published Dec 13, 2021 and updated Jun 15, 2024.

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