Stretching from the Amazon to the Andes and straddling the southern and northern hemispheres, Ecuador boasts a remarkable range of landscapes, cultures and ecosystems. From raucous festivals to wildlife encounters, historic cities to Inca ruins, colorful markets to dramatic train journeys, it has something for everyone. This article picks out ten of the country’s most memorable activities.

#1 Cross the Equator

The Mitad del Mundo complex celebrates Ecuador's position on the equator.

Ecuador’s name derives from its position astride the equator, and just outside the capital Quito are a pair of monuments commemorating this fact. The official Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) complex was founded in 1936 and celebrates the eighteenth-century Geodesic Mission of French scientist-explorer Charles Marie de La Condamine. A line runs through the site to represent the equator (though, ironically, modern GPS technology has since revealed that the true equator line is actually 240m south) bisecting a monolithic Mitad del Mundo monument.

There's also a planetarium, ethnographic museum, and regular music, dance and cultural shows. Closer to the correct location (0° latitude, 0° longitude) is the privately-run Museo Intiñan, which has several fun equator-based experiments and displays. You can visit both sites on a half-day trip from Quito. 

#2 Experience Cuenca's Colonial Architecture

The glorious Catedral Nueva dominates the old town of Cuenca.

Founded by the Spanish in 1557, Ecuador’s third largest city is a treasure trove of well-preserved colonial architecture. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets, leafy plazas, elegant churches, and opulent townhouses. Among the highlights is the Catedral Nueva, with its white-and-pale-blue domes and lavishly gilded altar. Construction started in the 1880s and took almost a century to complete. 

#3 Take part in the Mama Negra festivals 

The Mama Negra festivals are thought to commemorate either the expulsion of the Moors from Spain or the first encounters between the indigenous population and African slaves.

For most of the year, Latacunga is a quiet, relatively nondescript highland town. Twice a year, however, Latacunga lets its hair down and hosts the riotous Mama Negra festivals. These fiestas, held at the end of September and during the week of 11 November, are thought to commemorate either the expulsion of the Moors from Spain or the first encounters between the indigenous population and African slaves brought over to work in the nearby mines. Regardless of their precise origins, both feature colorful costumes, raucous parades, cacophonous marching bands, lots of drinking – and plenty of opportunities for travelers to join in.

#4 Swim with sharks, penguins, turtles and sea lions in the Galápagos

Swimming with sharks is a highlight of any visit to the Galápagos Islands.

Almost 600 miles (1,000 km) west of the mainland and spread across 45,000 sq km of ocean, the volcanic islands of the Galápagos archipelago offer you close-up wildlife encounters with an incredible range of rare and endemic species. The waters are particularly rich, home to playful sea lions, graceful Pacific green turtles and the only penguins found north of the equator, and offer some of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba-diving. Swimming over a school of hammerhead sharks is a particularly spine-tinglingly experience. 

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#5 Stay with an indigenous community in the Amazon

Staying in an indigenous-run eco-lodge is an excellent way to ensure your tourism has a positive impact.

Ecuador’s Amazonian region, known as the Oriente, is one of the most bio-diverse places on earth. An excellent way to ensure both a memorable experience and that your tourism has a positive impact is by staying at one of the many jungle lodges, owned and run by the indigenous peoples of the region, such as the idyllic Napo Wildlife Center in Parque Nacional Yasuní. Here guides from the Kichwa Añangu community show you their traditional way of life, lead you through jungle trails, and take you on caiman- and piranha-spotting canoe trips on a nearby lagoon. 

#6 Shop for crafts at the Otavalo Market

The Otavalo market is one of the largest and liveliest in South America.

Every Saturday the highland town of Otavalo plays host to one of South America's largest and liveliest markets. The bustling streets are filled with shoppers, tourists, traders and artisans from across the region. Everything from livestock to pets, hammocks to jewelry are for sale, while the smell of hog roasts, crab soups, fried fish and other delights fills the air. This area is particularly famous for its exquisite textiles, which make excellent souvenirs – though make sure you haggle before you buy. 

#7 Soak in a hot spring in Baños

The small resort of Baños is famous throughout Ecuador for its thermal baths. 

In the shadow of the active Tungurahua volcano, the small resort of Baños is famous throughout Ecuador for its thermal baths. After a hard day hiking, mountain biking, canyoning, horseriding or whitewater rafting in the surrounding countryside, there are few better feelings than sinking into the soothing, mineral-rich waters of one of the town’s piscinas

#8 Travel Around the Green Crater Lake on the Quilotoa Loop

According to local legend, Laguna Quilotoa is bottomless. 

This spectacular 125 mile (200 km) circuit around Laguna Quilotoa, an emerald-green crater lake that, according to local legend, is bottomless, is a real highlight of the central sierra region. Providing some of Ecuador's finest Andean scenery, the Loop features a series of sleepy towns, rural markets, rugged cliffs and canyons, and plenty of hiking and horseriding opportunities (once you've acclimatized to the altitude). It can be done by bus, hire car (make sure you get a 4X4) or on a one- or two-day guided tour. 

#9 Explore the Inca Ruins of Ingapirca

The hilltop Ingapirca site contains Ecuador's finest Inca ruins.

High on a hill, overlooking the countryside, the Ingapirca site contains the country’s finest Inca ruins. Although the Spanish dismantled much of the site, the magnificent Temple of the Sun (known as the Adoratorio) remains largely intact. Positioned so that it catches the sun during the solstice, and once used for religious ceremonies, the structure today showcases the elaborate stone-masonry for which the Incas are renowned. 

#10 Ride a Train Over The Devil's Nose

La Nariz del Diablo is the most dramatic section of the Trans-Andean Railway. 

The most dramatic section of the Trans-Andean Railway is La Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose), an impossibly steep wall of rock that lies between the stations of Alausí and Sibambe. A magnificent feat of engineering, completed in 1908, the railway climbs more than 500m in less than 12km of tracks. The journey offers you panoramic views, as well as more than a few heart-in-the-mouth moments. 

Map

Map of Best Things to Do in Ecuador
Map of Best Things to Do in Ecuador