Ecuador may pack more attractions per square mile into its Wyoming-sized borders than any other country in the Americas.
If you like the outdoors, Ecuador is home to some of the most incredible landscapes on Earth. From its portion of the towering Andes, to the its wildlife-full tropical rainforest at the Amazon basin, there are multiple ways to immerse yourself in the wilderness.
If you like remarkable Spanish colonial architecture, history and charm, Ecuador is home to beautiful (and beautifully situated) cities like Quito and Cuenca.
If tropical coastlines are your preferred scene, Ecuador lays the Pacific coast at your feet. The coasts are also a great place to be if shopping is your passion, Ecuador is well known manufacturer of some of the world’ best textiles and handmade carvings –- and ranks as the real home of the Panama hat. All of these attractions lie within the four zones of Ecuador.
Ecuador: the “Four Zones”
Ecuador can be divided into four major zones or regions for travelers: The Galapagos, The Amazon, the Andes, and The Pacific Coast. The four a very different, but all provide incredible travel experiences. There are also great outdoor activities to be had any of the four zones.
1. The Galapagos
The Galapagos is by far the most well known region of Ecuador, even though it is sometimes mistaken for its own country! Despite this confusion, the islands are officially part of Ecuador. The Galapagos is perhaps best known for the role it played in helping Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution. This was partly because of its wide range of unique and endemic species, or animals that can only be found in that region. Escorted tours and cruises to the Galapagos focus on introducing travelers to this unique diversity.
The Galapagos also make a great destination for a photography tour. Animals here are known for their incredible lack of fear around humans, and as a result make great photographic subjects. You can walk, photograph, dive, and snorkel among them without frightening them or causing them to scatter – as long as you stay on the trails, don’t reach out to touch them and follow the rules laid out by your guide. Check out our Galapagos wildlife tours if learning about the flora and fauna of this unbelievable region is your primary objective.
2. The Amazon
The Ecuadorian Amazon is the most biodiverse rainforest in the world - home to 150 species of amphibian alone, plus 121 reptiles, and 450 species of birds.
Unlike the more popular Amazon regions in Peru and Brazil, Ecuador’s jungle has remained largely unexplored by tourists, contributing to its intensely off the grid experience. Prepare for a uniquely rustic experience (though not all creature comforts need be forgone - secluded eco lodges are a popular form of accommodation along the river).
Enjoy getting completely lost in nature in any one of the incredible reserves of the Ecuadorian Amazon. One important thing to note is that these are protected areas, and so you will need a guide to explore them.
3. The Andes
The Andes is probably the most visited region of Ecuador, aside from the Galapagos. This region of the country offers spectacular views of crater lakes, hiking, whitewater rafting, ancient markets where indigenous people sell handmade crafts and clothing, and access to the Equator.
The largest indigenous market in Ecuador, Otavalo Market, is another very popular attraction for travelers through the Ecuadorian Andes. The market has been around for centuries, bringing to mind the convergence of cultures that Ecuador has experienced over its history. The market is a verifiable melting pot, and you will be able to distinguish the European and tribal influences as you stroll the many stalls of brightly colored materials and craft goods.
4. The Pacific Coast
Lastly, the Pacific Coast of Ecuador is home to some of South America’s most beautiful beaches. Idyllic mangrove forests to explore, chirping rainforest birds, and the lapping waves of the Pacific Ocean make a journey to Ecuador’s Pacific Coast absolutely perfect for relaxation and rejuvenation.
Active travelers will also enjoy this region, which is great for ocean sports, hiking, and canoeing through otherwise inaccessibly water byways. The region of Manabi is one of the best spots in the world for spotting humpback whales. Nothing beats the thrill of watching these majestic creatures breach as you float near on a whale watching tour.
Inca Heritage in Ecuador
The Inca Empire expanded beyond present day Peru, to include parts of Ecuador as well. While Peru lays claim to the most famous Inca ruins on Earth -- The Lost Kingdom, Machu Picchu -- Ecuador is also home to a great deal of Inca history, and a large number of equally impressive ruins. Because these archaeological sites are less well known, you can also expect fewer crowds and more extensive attention from your guides.
Here are 5 main Inca ruins to explore in Ecuador:
- Ingapirca - Literally meaning Inca Wall: Inca (Inga) and wall (pirca), this location was originally settled by a native tribe of Ecuador known as the Canari. The Canari are well known for their resistance against the famous Inca leader Tupac, who found them difficult to conquer as he and the Inca made their way south toward modern day Peru.
Once the Inca did conquer the Canari province and people, they adopted Ingapirca and built upon it in the Inca fashion we know and see today. The site was most likely used as a temple, though archaeologists still don’t know for sure.
- Pumapungo - This archaeological park is a wonderful place to walk around and learn about Inca history. Located in Cuenca, these ruins were restored in 1991 and have morphed into a lovely outdoor area for the province since then. The nearby ethnographic museum will help put these ruins in context, anf explain what the ruins have been believed to be used for.
- Rumicucho - The Rumicucho ruins lie near the Equator marker in Quito. These stone structures were undoubtedly used in the many years before the Inca arrived in Ecuador, though what we see at the site today was built under Tupac’s rule.
Rumicucho is a great example of an Incan structure built to correspond with astronomical activities. The Inca were famous for incorporating astronomy into their buildings, and this stone fortress has been discovered to have been used for more than simply military protection. The Rumicucho ruins are very well maintained by the local population and are a wonderful day trip if you’re staying in Quito.
- Agua Blanca - On Ecuador’s coastal Pacific side you’ll find Agua Blanca, which is part of Machalilla National Park. This is a very small native community, notable for their adherence to ancient traditions and customs. The park is maintained by the community and they rely on tourism to help fund the parks maintenance. Come here to hear the tribe’s oral histories about their ancestors, which include Incas and native Ecuadorian tribes.
- Todos los Santos - Only discovered in the 1970s, Todos los Santos is also located in the Cuenca province of Ecuador. One of the best examples of how the Inca built upon pre-existing cultures and structures. These impressive ruins showcase a hodgepodge of architectural styles - quite unlike most classic Inca ruins.
The Church of Todos los Santos is one of the biggest draws and what most travelers remember. Exhibiting a distinctly Spanish colonial influence, it also contains traces of the local culture as well. This surrounded by distinctly Inca stonework make for a truly unique sight.
The Galapagos Islands is one of the most renowned wildlife tour destinations in the world, outside of some South and East Africa locations. The islands are home to dozens of birds, reptiles, and sea mammals.
Strict enforcement by the Ecuadorian government, and delegation of national park status to the islands helps to ensure that the Galapagos remain intact and protect the wildlife as much as possible. For example, some environmental codes dictate that only a certain number of visitors can go ashore on each island at a time. To navigate these restrictions and make the most of your visit to the islands, we recommend going on a guided tour of the Galapagos.
The islands you should absolutely not miss if it's your first visit are: Santa Cruz Island, Isabela Island, and San Cristobal Island.
On Santa Cruz, you will visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is a great place to get to witness scientists who are continuing and building upon Darwin's groundbreaking field work on the islands. It's also the best island for observing Giant Tortoises - the species for which the islands are named. This is the most populous island of the Galapagos, and a classic first stop for visitors. You'll have multiple opportunities for shopping and fun bars and restaurants.
Isabela Island is one of the best spots for hiking and exploring. This is the largest island in the Galapagos so prepare to spend a lot of time walking! On this island, you'll have the chance to encounter some of the rarest species, including pink iguanas, and the most northernly penguin colony on earth.
San Cristobal is the first island that Darwin landed on in 1835. It is here you will see the famous blue footed boobies, as well as many other bird species. For a splurge, head about 1.5 hours off shore to Kicker Rock for a wonderful snorkeling experience.
Keep in mind that the Galapagos are almost 800 miles (1200 kilometers) from mainland Ecuador, so except for a stay in coastal Guayaquil or the capital, Quito –- the two cities from which Galapagos flights depart -- you may not see much more of Ecuador on a Galapagos tour than the islands themselves.
However, many tour operators offer extensions to Galapagos tours that will take you to other destinations in Ecuador or nearby Peru; visitng the Galapagos and Machu Picchu on a single tour is especially popular.
Quito and Cuenca
The old section of Quito sits at more than 9,300 feet (2,800 meters) in the Andes, and is the world’s highest capital city. Cuenca is another city in the clouds, and can be found at an impressive altitude of 8,400 feet. Both of these mountain cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites, filled with remarkable examples of Spanish colonial architecture.
Quito is larger, noisier, but its old town is a trove of colonial architectural treasures. One example is the Jesuit church known as La Compania, decorated with ornate Baroque carvings and gilded with gold leaf.
Quito is also a good base for trips to the famous Cotopaxi volcano, which is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of the city, and to the famous Otavalo Market, which is a bit farther away and about 50 miles north. At the market, you can shop for woolen goods and other hand-made textiles and carvings, or just take in the colorful scene. The popular Middle of the World Monument, with its yellow stripe that supposedly marks the Equator, is on the way to Otavalo.
Cuenca is smaller, quieter city, although it also enjoys a spectacular mountain setting. The old city is filled with colonial churches, plazas, parks and museums.
Wherever you choose to go in Ecuador, Stride can help you find the perfect guided group tour or tours that best suit your needs. And chances are, you’ll want to return again and again.
Food in Ecuador
The food in Ecuador is incredibly diverse, with a lot of different cultural influences. Main ingredients include corn, rice, and fish. Unique local delicacies are common in all the provinces and regions, each taking pride in their own special cuisine features.
Some top dishes you might encounter in Ecuador include:
- Ceviche -This delectable dish is found throughout South America, particularly in the countries along the continents western border. Made slightly differently depending on the country, the fundamentals of the dish remain the same: raw seafood and shellfish, with fresh lime, and some form of salsa. This dish is most often enjoyed on the coasts.
- Choclo - A classic Andean treat! This dried crunchy corn is sold throughout Ecuador from street vendors. Enjoy munching as you explore.
- Cuy - Cuy is one dish tourists both love and hate to try. It’s made of guinea pig, and Cuenca is the most well known and best city to sample this famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Ecuadorian dish. Find someone to split it with, as it’s among the more expensive meals street food you can buy.Cuy is typically greasy, and not a lot of meat is on the bones. But it’s an experience and definitely a local delicacy. You’d be remiss to not at least try it on your tour through Ecuador.
- Librillo - Particularly popular in Ecuador’s mountain regions, if you’re exploring the Andes in the country, you’re sure to come across this delicacy: cow stomach lining, usually served with rice. Fans of tripe will enjoy this meal.
- Llapingachos - Cheese stuffed potato patties. This is another one of Ecuador’s nationally recognized dishes - and a clear favorite among travelers fueling up in the morning (and, let’s face it, they have all the trappings of a classic hangover cure). Served with eggs, avocado, and a protein such as pork or chorizo, this is the perfect dish to energize and wake you up for a day of exploring Ecuador.
- Canelazo - A delicious warm alcoholic beverage, with flavors of sugar cane and cinnamon. Typically drunk more often during holidays it is sold at multiple festivals throughout the country, but is most common in the mountain regions where it originated. The liquor is called “Aguardiente” and has a distinctly anise like flavor.
Travel to Ecuador: Practicalities & Logistics
Ecuador is generally a very safe country to visit, though some of larger cities (especially Lima and Guayaquil) have had trouble with crime in the past. Be alert when traveling around and don’t carry large sums of money or valuables.
- Currency: Ecuador uses the US dollar, so there is no need to exchange money before traveling to Ecuador.
- Visas: Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa to travel to Ecuador, unless you plan to stay past 90 days. You will generally receive a free visa upon entry into Ecuador.
- Vaccinations: You do need a Yellow Fever vaccine for traveling to Ecuador. Proof of vaccination is required upon entry into the country. No other vaccinations are required, but if you’re visiting the Galapagos on a cruise, you should make sure your normal vaccinations are up to date.
Zika is a risk in Ecuador. If you are pregnant, planning to pregnant, or traveling with small children, the risks are much greater.
If you are planning on visiting the Galapagos, bring hats, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen. You’ll be outside for the majority of your tour and walking quite a bit. The Galapagos is beachy and open area, so don’t expect too much of shade.
Lima is still considered unsafe in many areas. Heed warnings from your travel guide in Ecuador about where to go and where not to go. Keep valuables out of sight and don’t carry large sums of money. Be discreet when using credit cards and ATMS.