- Climb Rucu Pichincha, the volcanic summit above Quito
- Witness the lively birdlife of the cloud forest near Mindo
- Hike through lake-dotted Parque Nacional Cajas near Cuenca
- Cruise down the Río Napo through one of the world's most biodiverse regions
To whet your appetite for what Ecuador's countryside has to offer, start with some hiking within the city limits of Quito. Start by taking the cable car called TelefériQo. The ride features a spectacular ascent up the initial slopes of the closest volcano to the capital, Volcán Pichincha. From the cable car's top station at Cruz Loma (13,450 feet), you'll find yourself on a gorgeous expanse of páramo (high-level Andean grasslands).
For more on the TelefériQo and the best way to spend 24 hours in Quito, check out this article.
It takes three to four hours to hike up to one of this dormant volcano's summits, Rucu Pichincha, at an altitude of 15,350 feet. The contrasts between the big metropolis of Quito and the grassy, rocky ridges around Volcán Pichincha make for spectacular viewing.
Cloud Forest around Mindo
The little town of Mindo, in the Northern Highlands about 2.5 hours' drive northwest of Quito, is a brilliant base from which to explore the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Lush waterfall-splashed forests blanket the hills photogenically around town, and over 600 bird species have been recorded in this area — the bird-watching here is phenomenal, even by the high standards of Ecuador. Birds like the colorful cock-of-the-rock, as well as many more unusual species, are best viewed by enlisting the services of a guide and journeying out to one of over ten bird-watching zones in the area. Hiking opportunities abound in the region, too.
While birdwatching around Mindo itself is exceptional, the best possible wildlife watching experience is out at one of the region's private reserves, where you can stay in a lodge and observe nature at your leisure. Try the reserve at Bosque Nublado Santa Lucía, two hours' drive northwest of Quito. It's accessible by bus (followed by a wonderful two-hour hike) from Quito. This is cloud forest at its most picturesque.
For a seven-day itinerary taking in the best of Ecuador's Highlands, check out this article.
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
This volcano-dotted national park is a must-see for any traveler wishing to experience Ecuador's amazing countryside, where snow-capped volcanoes — some of which are still active — loom out of the pale green páramo. Latacunga is a good base for visiting the park, or you can stay at one of several colonial haciendas, many of which also offer tours within the park. For the outdoor enthusiast, there's hardly a more visually striking location in all of Ecuador.
A climb to the 19,347-foot peak of Volcán Cotopaxi is a difficult hike. It begins at midnight so that you reach the summit at dawn. But there are other hikes in the park, too, offering beautiful views of Cotopaxi and the other volcanic peaks without so much physical exertion.
Interested in exploring the area on horseback? Check out this article for a recommended 5-day itinerary.
Just as beautiful as the view from the summit of Cotopaxi is the less demanding hike to Laguna Limpiopungo, where Cotopaxi is reflected perfectly in the deep blue waters. If you're in great shape, continue onwards on a five-hour hike to the top of the volcano Volcán Rumiñahui.
Parque Nacional El Cajas
In Ecuador's Southern Highlands, it's a tough call which is the most inviting tract of countryside. But an easy day trip from Cuenca is the national park known as Parque Nacional El Cajas. This otherworldly landscape, over 1000 square miles in size, is páramo country. Dotted with sparkling lakes and covered by forests of trees that can survive at loftier altitudes than any other tree on Earth, the region is known as the most biodiverse páramo in the Andes.
Stay overnight at one of the small refugios (overnight shelters) and take one of the guided hikes that take you beyond the main tourist areas into some fantastically remote landscapes.
Parque Nacional Sumaco-Galeras
One of the most underrated national parks in Ecuador, the vast Sumaco-Galeras reserve has two key draws.
First is its terrain: the reserve spans a unique mix of ecosystems, from rainforest to cloud forest and volcanic peaks. Second is its utter lack of development: nowhere else in the country is such a large area so free of human civilization. Nevertheless, there are a few traveler-friendly places to base yourself. The main one is Wildsumaco Lodge near Pacto Sumaco.
The Wildsumaco Lodge is renowned for its birdwatching, but ask about the four-day round-trip hike up through three topographical zones (jungle, cloud forest, and altiplano, or high-altitude plain) to the summit of the volcano called Volcán Sumaco.
Parque Nacional Yasuní
Ecuador's generous portion of the Amazon rainforest, often going under the moniker of the Oriente, is easier to access than the jungle in other countries. Boasting some of the planet's highest rates of biodiversity, it's wilderness in the true sense of the word — largely uninhabited and cut-off, its wildest part is within the Yasuní National Park, almost 4000 square miles of protected reserve. Encompassing tropical rainforest, swamps, and rivers, it's a thrilling adventure destination. There's a scattering of lodges around where you can stay before or after exploring the area and its abundant wildlife.
See here for more on the best lodges in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Entry into the Parque Nacional Yasuní and its buffer zone along the Río Napo requires signing up for a guided tour. These are usually operated by one of the river lodges: stay several nights to fully appreciate this enchanting region.
Northern Coast around Mompiche
Ecuador has some of the best sandy beaches in South America. With the exception of the Galápagos, the loneliest, loveliest, least-developed stretches of sandy beach are around Mompiche. Mombiche itself is quite literally the end of the road, a relatively undeveloped fishing village with wide stretches of sandy beach backed by palms. Heading north and south along the beach, you'll delve further into isolation. Explore points along the coast by a locally chartered fishing boat.
A ferry takes you across the estuary south of Mombiche to the charming sand-rimmed island of Isla Portete.
Have more time to spend in Ecuador? Try these itinerary suggestions for two-week stays in the country.