8 of the best places to visit in Ecuador

Though the Galápagos Islands may be considered the jewel in the crown of any visit to Ecuador, the Andean nation flaunts a great diversity of landscapes, people and geographic features.

Littered with colonial towns, snow-capped mountains, and gold sand beaches, it displays the South American region’s diversity, packed in a compact, travel-friendly area of 283,562 sq km (109,484 sq miles). 

Ecuador offers no shortage of places to visit and activities to enjoy across four natural regions — the Amazon rainforest, the Andean highlands, the Pacific coast, and the Galápagos archipelago.

From Quito, the second-highest capital city in the world, to the UNESCO-recognized Cuenca, here’s our guide to the best places to explore during your stay in Ecuador.

Be ready for your visit to Ecuador with our local tips

Quito’s historic center is a delight of churches and museums that preserve colonial artworks and architecture © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

1. Quito

Best place to discover Ecuador’s heart and soul 

Colonial art, a mélange of Spanish and Indigenous cultures and a beautiful mountain-filled landscape make Quito one of Ecuador’s most fascinating cities.

Bustling with activity, Quito provides an overview of the country’s rich history. Find out about the pre-Hispanic peoples of Ecuador at museums and archaeological sites such as Museo Casa del Alabado and Parque Arqueológico Rumipamba.

Learn about the Independence Wars at the Alberto Mena Caamaño Museum and La Cima de la Libertad, a monument situated up the flanks of the Rucu Pichincha (an inactive volcano), where you will also enjoy one of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the city.

Quito’s historic center will delight visitors with treasures from La Escuela Quiteña (Quito’s School of Art) — a colonial institution that birthed a prestigious art movement by mixing European styles and Indigenous iconography.

Churches and museums such as Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus, Iglesia Convento de San Francisco and Museo del Carmen Alto preserve splendid artworks and architecture dating back to colonial times.

Local tip: Mingle with quiteños (people from Quito) in mercados (food markets), rooftops and modern-cuisine restaurants such as Mercado Iñaquito, Bistro 626, Panecillo Cocina & Mirador or Somos to discover traditional and modern-day interpretations of Ecuadorian food, from empanadas (turnover pastries) and mote (hominy) to llapingachos (fried pancakes of mashed potatoes with cheese) and caldo de patas (cow feet stew).

Feeling hungry? Here’s our guide to the best food and drink to try in Ecuador

2. Baños

Best place for adventures

Traveling to Ecuador for a taste of adventure? Baños, a small town in the Tungurahua province, is your answer. Surrounded by mountains and stunning geographical features, Baños is a haven for adventure activities such as trekking, cycling, canyoning and rafting. 

Hiking to viewpoints or booking a cycling tour along La Ruta de las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls) will allow you to take in the most breathtaking landscapes and watch well-loved natural landmarks such as Pailón del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) and Cascada Manto de la Novia.

Meanwhile, rafting down Río Pastaza will satisfy even the most audacious adventurers.

To wrap up an activity-filled day, visitors can bask in the comfort of the volcanic thermal baths that give name to the town, relax in spas and enjoy the popular baños de cajón (sauna boxes).

Another popular thing to do is visiting the public square to sample traditional candy and delicacies such as melcochas (sugar cane candy).    

Planning tip: If you’re in for a full local experience, you can book tailored Spanish-learning experiences (guided tours, music lessons and more) with one of the language schools in town such as Raíces Spanish School.

Looking for more adventures in Ecuador? Here are the country’s best experiences

Wild Vicuñas - llama-like creatures - in a group at the foot of a snow-capped volcano
Hike the slopes of Chimborazo on the Avenue of Volcanoes © alejocock / Getty Images

3. The Avenue of Volcanoes

Best place to discover the Andean highlands

Spanning snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes — including the world’s tallest active volcano — and peaks, the Avenue of Volcanoes is a mandatory item on any traveler’s bucket list.

Running down the Andean highlands, this route encompasses popular destinations such as the Cotopaxi Volcano and Mt Chimborazo (6263m/20,548ft) — the highest mountain in Ecuador, or as Ecuadorians like to call it, the closest point to the sun.

On this route, travelers will also find Volcán Cayambe, the highest point in the world that the equator passes through, Quito’s overseeing Rucu Pichincha and the turquoise-water Quilotoa crater lake.

4. The Oriente

Best place to connect with nature

With verdant rainforests and one of the world’s most biodiverse flora and fauna on the planet as the backdrop, the Ecuadorian eastern region — best known among locals as the Oriente or the Amazon rainforest — is one of the top places to visit in Ecuador. 

Nature lovers will encounter the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch rare endemic species in their natural habitat at places like Parque Nacional Yasuní and enjoy the sheer peace of connecting with nature in eco-friendly lodges such as Cuyabeno Lodge and Jamu Lodge.  

Travelers can also experience the lifestyle of Indigenous communities engaging in community-based tourism at places such as the Kichwa women-run Sinchi Warmi Lodge or Cascadas Yanayaku community center.

For the most authentic wildlife experience, you can opt for a visit to the Zabalo River, home to the Indigenous Cofan Nation and recognized as the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park by Quiet Parks International.

Ready to start planning? Choose the right time to visit with our seasonal guide

A person sits in the very neat gardens within a courtyard of a large cathedral
Cuenca is home to UNESCO-protected structures such as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception © Thomas Janisch / Getty Images

5. Cuenca

Best UNESCO-protected beauty

Nestled in the Southern Highlands and labeled the third most important city in Ecuador, Cuenca mixes tradition and modernity in a picturesque setting surrounded by four rivers.

Boasting UNESCO-protected colonial architecture, lauded artisan tradition and a booming culinary and contemporary art scene, Cuenca attracts local and foreign tourists aplenty.

In addition to wandering the streets of the historic center sampling food and admiring landmarks like the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, travelers can plan day trips to the countryside and nearby destinations.

The Cajas National Park as well as the Ingapirca Ruins, Ecuador’s largest archaeological site, are places worth visiting once you’ve landed in Cuenca. 

6. The Pacific Shoreline

Best place to enjoy the sea and sunshine 

The Pacific Coast might not be one of the most publicized destinations in Ecuador, but the white-sand beaches, beautiful sceneries and surfing spots make it a playground for travelers.

Towns and cities like Salinas and Montañita are tourist-favorite spots for leisure. However, exploring the Spondylous Route — which stretches along the coastline crossing several provinces — will allow visitors to see the wide diversity of landscapes, from beaches to mangrove swamps, and engage in activities such as surfing, hang gliding and diving. 

If you’re in for a relaxed stopover, take a stroll down popular beaches such as Los Frailes, Playa Rosada and Puerto López, where you can even see humpback whales if you visit during the right time of the year (from June to September). 

Planning tip: Due to the crime spikes in the Coastal region, rule out traveling at night and avoid conflictive areas at all costs. If your budget allows it, book a full tour with local companies or guides to make the most out of this visit.

Black spotted eagle rays and a school of shiny fish being watched at a distance by a scuba diver
The Galápagos Islands are cherished for their diverse wildlife both on land and in the sea © wildestanimal / Shutterstock

7. The Galápagos Islands

Best place to see unparalleled wildlife and natural wonders

Let’s set the record straight. The Galápagos Archipelago doesn’t offer the type of enjoyment a Caribbean destination would provide.

People won’t be partying on the beaches and nightclubs won’t be teeming with activity. The UNESCO-recognized islands, however, are worth their weight in gold.

Nowhere in the world will visitors be able to closely watch the wildlife and natural wonders that served as inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. 

Pelicans, sea lions, giant tortoises and even penguins inhabit this fragile ecosystem. To fully enjoy a trip to the Galapagos, take the time to learn about the conservation efforts in the islands and don’t hesitate to book a cruise or tour with local operators.

8. Imbabura

Best place to experience the Andean region

Perhaps no other province in the Andean region will offer visitors as many options as Imbabura. Situated 114km (71 miles) north of Quito, the province’s natural landscapes, Indigenous communities and leisure activities appeal to all sorts of travelers. 

Lakes, waterfalls and lush plains invite adventure enthusiasts to explore Imbabura’s geography and catalog of outdoors activities.

Then, crafts-focused towns like Cotacachi, Otavalo and San Antonio de Ibarra display the best of the province’s craftsmanship, including textiles, leather goods, wood sculptures, jewelry and all sorts of souvenirs.  

Meanwhile, haciendas, such as Pinsaquí, Cusin and Zuleta, provide a peek into colonial history and tradition through guided visits, cooking classes and horseback riding. 

Local tip: While small shops and crafts vendors generally work seven days a week, market ferias (market days) take place on Saturdays and will widen options (and likely jack prices up) for tourists.

This article was first published Jan 3, 2022 and updated Jun 13, 2024.

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