Ecuador packs more biodiversity into a small area than anywhere else on Earth. Roughly the size of Great Britain, it’s possible to drive across the country in one day — from tropical Pacific beaches up through cloud forest to Andean peaks and down again to the edge of the Amazon jungle. Of course, that would be one very long day, so it’s best to spread it out over a few weeks, but you can see a lot of Ecuador on a ten-day tour.
The highlands are the most visited region with a wealth of natural and cultural attractions — the colonial centers of Quito and Cuenca, the line of the Equator, Otavalo’s indigenous market, the Valley of the Volcanoes, shimmering lakes, thermal springs and dramatic train rides.
The cloud forest and jungle are treasure troves for bird-watchers and nature-lovers, and you can choose from one-day tours to secondary jungle or spend 4 or 5 days going deeper into the primary rainforest.
The Pacific coast boasts some of the best surfing in South America as well as beaches, mangroves, and delicious seafood, while the Galapagos is one of the world’s best destinations for wildlife watching and a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The south of Ecuador is the road-less-traveled but has some stunning attractions and lush scenery: Inca ruins, hilltop towns, petrified forest, and mangroves teeming with birdlife.
#1 The Best of The Highlands
|Day 1||Arrive in Quito, tour the Old Town||Quito|
|Day 2||Mitad del Mundo and Quito New Town||Quito|
|Day 3||Day trip to Otavalo market||Quito|
|Day 4||Hiking in Lake Quilotoa||Latacunga|
|Day 5||Hiking in Cotopaxi National Park||Cotopaxi|
|Day 6||Climb Cotopaxi volcano||Baños|
|Day 7||Waterfall tour and thermal baths in Baños||Baños|
|Day 8||Riobamba and Devil’s Nose Train Ride||Alausí|
|Day 9||Cuenca city tour||Cuenca|
|Day 10||Return to Quito|
At an altitude of between 2000 and 3000 meters, you’ll need to pace yourself in the Ecuadorian highlands. Begin in the colonial center of capital Quito with its array of Spanish architecture and art. Take a bus half an hour north to the Equator at Mitad del Mundo. Then take a day trip two hours by bus to the northern highland town of Otavalo, which hosts one of the biggest indigenous markets in South America.
Next, take a bus three hours south of Quito through the Valley of the Volcanoes to explore the spectacular Lake Quilotoa. Next, hike around the volcano Cotopaxi, marveling at its 5,897-meter summit. Fit hikers can attempt to reach the peak with help from a local tour operator (you need to spend the night halfway up at the Refuge cabin and depart around 1 am for the summit).
After your visit to Cotopaxi, take a bus three hours south to relax in the thermal baths of Baños, and explore nearby waterfalls before experiencing Ecuador’s most dramatic train ride.
Travel two hours south-west to Riobamba and take the train south to the famous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), a series of switchbacks carved into the mountainside. Stay in Alausí, then take a bus two hours south to the charming colonial city of Cuenca before flying back to Quito.
#2 Mountains and Galapagos
|Day 1||Quito and Mitad del Mundo||Quito|
|Day 2||Day trip to Otavalo||Quito|
|Day 3||Day trip to Cotopaxi National Park||Latacunga|
|Day 4||Waterfall tour and thermal baths in Baños||Baños|
|Day 5||Day trip to the jungle via Puyo, return to Quito||Quito|
|Day 6||Fly to Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands||Galapagos|
|Days 7-9||Galapagos tour||Galapagos|
|Day 10||Fly back to Quito|
Situated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are an unforgettable and unique destination. If you want to make the trip then you will need to pack highlights of mainland Ecuador in a few days.
See the sights of Quito’s Old Town as well as the Equator at Mitad del Mundo, a half-hour bus ride north of the city. Then take a day trip (two hours by bus) to the indigenous market at Otavalo before heading south (two hours of Quito by bus) to explore the national park around spectacular volcano Cotopaxi. Take a bus three hours south to relax in the thermal baths of Baños, then take a day trip through the cloud forest to secondary jungle via Puyo. Return to Quito (four hours by bus) to fly to the Galapagos Islands (2.5 hours).
Choose either a cruise or a land-based tour, and spend five days experiencing the wildlife and geological wonders of this archipelago – snorkeling with sea lions and penguins, hiking on lava trails past giant tortoises and iguanas, and watching the incredible birdlife.
#3 Mountains and Jungle
|Day 1||Quito City tour||Quito|
|Day 2||Mindo, zip lining and canopy tour||Quito|
|Day 3||Birdwatching and hiking in cloud forest||Quito|
|Day 4||Otavalo, visit Lake Cuicocha||Otavalo|
|Day 5||Mojanda Lakes and return to Quito||Quito|
|Day 6||Fly to Coca for jungle tour||Jungle lodge|
|Days 7-9||Jungle tour||Jungle lodge|
|Day 10||Return to Quito|
Rivaling the Galapagos for providing incredible wildlife experiences is the jungle, within easy reach of the highlands. After taking in the highlights of capital city Quito, head two hours north-west by bus to the cloud forest around Mindo for hiking, birdwatching and zip-lining across the forest canopy.
Then head further north to explore the dramatic volcanic scenery around Otavalo at Lake Cuicocha and Mojanda. Get the bus back to Quito (two hours) and fly to the jungle entry town of Coca (30 minutes by air or nine hours by bus). Take a boat one hour downriver to reach swathes of primary jungle. Stay at a jungle lodge for four or five days, exploring amazing scenery and wildlife around Yasuní National Park – parrot clay licks, toucans, howler monkeys, white caiman and piranhas to name but a few highlights.
#4 The Best of Ecuador’s Coast
|Day 1||Guayaquil city tour||Guayaquil|
|Day 2||Montañita, surfing and beach||Montañita|
|Day 3||Machalilla. Frailes and Agua Blanca||Puerto Lopez|
|Day 4||Isla de la Plata||Puerto Lopez|
|Day 5||Bahía de Caráquez and mangroves||Bahía de Caráquez|
|Day 6||Surfing and beach at Canoa||Canoa|
|Day 7||Rio Muchacho Organic Farm||Canoa|
|Day 8||Mompiche, surfing and beach||Mompiche|
|Day 10||Return to Guayaquil or Quito|
Ecuador’s coast is less visited by foreign tourists and while it may not be quite as spectacular as the Caribbean, it has some fantastic beaches, surf spots, wildlife watching, and seafood.
Begin in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, exploring the riverfront Malecon and artistic district Las Peñas. Then take a bus north (three hours) to party and surf town Montañita.
One hour further north by bus is the stunning forest scenery of Machalilla National Park. Relax on the protected beach of Las Frailes, explore the hills and take a day trip to Isla de la Plata. Here you can see blue-footed boobies and frigate birds, particularly good if you’re not visiting the Galapagos.
Take a bus five hours north to Bahía de Caráquez, arguably Ecuador’s most beautiful coastal city. Take a trip to the mangroves to observe the bird life, stay in nearby surfing mecca Canoa and visit Rio Muchacho Organic Farm. Four hours further north is another great surfing spot at Mompiche, with a more spectacular tropical backdrop. Two hours further north is the party town of Atacames, a great place to dance and gorge on delicious seafood.
#5 Southern Ecuador: Off-The-Beaten-Track
|Day 1||Fly to Cuenca. City tour||Cuenca|
|Day 2||Day trip to Ingapirca ruins||Cuenca|
|Day 3||Loja and Vilcabamba||Vilcabamba|
|Day 4||Hiking in Vilcabamba||Vilcabamba|
|Day 5||Podocarpus National Park||Vilcabamba|
|Day 7||Puyango Petrified Forest||Machala|
|Day 8||Churute Mangroves, evening in Guayaquil||Guayaquil|
|Day 9||Guayaquil City Tour||Guayaquil|
|Day 10||Return to Quito|
Southern Ecuador is less visited but has plenty to keep you occupied. Begin in Cuenca with a tour of the historic city, before taking a day trip to Ecuador’s best Inca ruins at Ingapirca. Take the bus four hours south to Loja and the nearby hippy enclave of Vilcabamba. Relax in the ideal climate and explore the surrounding hills.
On Day 5, Take a day trip to the cloud forests of Podocarpus National Park close to town. Head west (four hours by bus) to get further off the beaten track in the dramatic hilltop town of Zaruma, where you can sample some of the best coffee on the continent. Explore the largest petrified forest in South America at Puyango, about three hours by road from Zaruma, before heading for Machala, self-styled ‘banana capital of the world’.
On Day 8, stop off for hiking and birdwatching in the mangroves of Churute en route to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. Take a tour of the riverfront and historic highlights before hitting the bars and discos in the evening.