- Observe exotic bird life at Mashpi Lodge
- Bask in thermal pools at the Hotel Termas de Papallacta
- Paddle blackwater jungle creeks to reach Napo Wildlife Center
- Stay at a boutique property on a sandy Galápagos beach
Quito's Colonial Hostels and Boutique Sleeps
First, to clear up some terminology: the word hostal in Ecuador can refer to anything from a bare-bones guesthouse to a small hotel. Then there are hostels, offering backpacker-style dormitory accommodations similar to what you'd expect in North America or Europe. In Quito, though, a city with a UNESCO-listed Old Town and some of the best budget accommodation options in South America, the line blurs: some hostels, though backpacker-oriented, have better rooms and facilities than many hotels.
The newest and nicest hostel in the city, Hump Day Hostel, has a selection of boutique-style private rooms and dorms, a pretty roof terrace, a well-stocked guest kitchen, and an atmospheric bar and lounge. Perks include a free breakfast, round-the-clock reception, and privacy screens with reading lights on every bed. It's a refreshing take on budget accommodations, especially for those who have braved more rustic digs elsewhere in South America.
Another unforgettable hostel experience comes at the stalwart of the city's backpacking scene, Secret Garden. With its roof terrace yielding exquisite views over the Old Town, it is one of the best places in the city to meet other travelers. There are regular social events, volunteer opportunities, and Spanish lessons on offer, making this an ideal place for travelers to integrate themselves into a local scene.
Insider Tip: At the other end of the spectrum, Ecuador's capital has some unique boutique options. In the ever-popular La Mariscal district, Anahi Boutique Hotel offers rooms themed individually around each of Ecuador's different topographical regions.
Cloud Forest Lodges
Ecuador's cloud forest is the country's fourth topographical zone — after the coast, mountains, and jungle — located below the altiplano (high mountain plains) and above the rainforest proper. The cloud forest sits at a high enough altitude to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes that plague the lower jungle. It's easily accessible, too: there's no need to jump on a plane or long boat ride to reach the best of it. Most people make the trip to the cloud forest because of its astounding array of wildlife, all within a couple of hours' drive of Quito.
A one-of-a-kind accommodation option — the cloud forest lodge — has been developed to help travelers best appreciate the region's superb flora and fauna. These lodges are different than those found in the jungle: they generally boast top-notch facilities, including wi-fi, and allow one- or two-night stays (most jungle lodges require a three-day minimum stay).
Mindo, northwest of Quito, is the classic destination for experiencing Ecuador's cloud forest. Here, you'll find the flashiest and most groundbreaking cloud forest accommodation, Mashpi Lodge. This state-of-the-art lodge, sitting in its own private reserve, has towering floor-to-ceiling windows maximizing the views out to the jungle. Tremendously varied bird life — more than 400 species, in fact — is available for observation right on the doorstep. Several trails lead off from the lodge, as well as the famous Dragonfly, an innovative cable car that transports passengers through the canopy.
Insider Tip: Mashpi Lodge has a spa. But for an all-natural Jacuzzi, take the trail that drops down to the reserve's beautiful Magnolia Waterfall.
Back in the day, agriculture on the altiplano of the Ecuadorian Highlands was managed through haciendas, or country estates. These sizeable and scenically located colonial complexes are often still working farms today, but some have been converted into hotels, offering one of Ecuador's more unique accommodation options.
At the foot of the Cotopaxi volcano, the salmon-pink rustic chic farmstead of Hacienda El Porvenir is a balmy introduction to altiplano life. Many rooms and suites are wood-beamed and full of traditional character; the more affordable Masai rooms, with thatched roofs, pay homage to the lodging used by the Quechua people, the local indigenous population. You can embark on multi-day guided treks to the four volcanoes visible from the hacienda, or explore rural life more leisurely on horseback rides. Even if you can only spare one night, a hacienda is worth visiting.
Insider Tip: You don't need to join a tour to explore the countryside: many haciendas rent mountain bikes and offer advice on area hikes.
Thermal Spas in the Mountains
As you travel from Quito up over the Andes towards the Oriente (the Amazon rainforest) you reach the turn-off to idyllic Papallacta, home to Ecuador's most renowned natural thermal waters. The Termas de Papallacta spa complex mixes the high-end with the basic: the accommodation, restaurant, and spa area are lovely, but the outdoor poolside facilities are no-frills. The overall atmosphere is surreal as you bathe in the dozen or so pools, with water temperatures approaching 104°F. Outside, air temperatures are drastically chillier, and Andean peaks flank the pools on three sides. With spectacular hiking nearby, this is a place to spend at least a couple of days.
For more ways to experience Ecuador like a local, read this article.
Insider Tip: Other hotels on the approach road to Termas de Papallacta also have their own thermal pools, such as Hosteria Pampallacta.
Ecuador contains the most accessible jungle in the entire Amazon Basin. While not as straightforward as visiting the cloud forest, the rainforest is a spectacular part of any Ecuadorian vacation. Here, you'll spot animals you simply do not see elsewhere: giant river otters out fishing, piranhas waiting to be fished on blackwater creeks, and parrots and macaws flocking to feed, and for the very fortunate, jaguars prowling in the denser pockets of vegetation.
Rainforest retreats take the form of everything from luxury lodges to simple thatched-roof huts, but most offer dedicated multi-day packages including wildlife observation, riverboat trips, and jungle forays. It's worth going as deep into the jungle as time allows. Three-night/four-day packages properly allow for this experience, and get you into the primary jungle, which is more magical and wildlife-rich than the secondary jungle nearer to human settlements.
In Parque Nacional Yasuní (Yasuní National Park), a riverboat trip from Coca down the Río Napo and one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, some amazingly preserved primary jungle beckons. The only lodge standing inside its boundaries is the Napo Wildlife Center, a time-tested, high-end lodge. You'll approach via a silent canoe paddle up a blackwater tributary — a wonderful moment for wildlife viewing. A typical program includes visiting parrot and macaw clay lick feeding grounds, interacting with a rainforest community, and hiking through the jungle to observation towers that allow you to see birdlife darting through the forest canopy.
A number of other lodges close by on the Río Napo offer similar programs and excursions. See here for more on the best lodges in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Insider Tip: The trip on down the Río Napo to Nuevo Rocafuerte and the Peruvian border is great fun. The excursion can be arranged in the town of Coca.
In a place that many view as the globe's supreme destination for marine wildlife-watching — the Galápagos — no one spends a lot of time thinking about where to stay. Yet there is a small but significant boutique accommodation scene.
On Isla Isabela, the largest and yet one of the least populated island in the archipelago (least populated by humans, anyway), there is divine La Casa de Marita. At the far end of the Puerto Villamil beachfront, it peeps through the palms onto pale sands, offering sumptuous rooms decorated with striking artwork. It also has a restaurant and a sea-facing terrace. But the unique selling point is its location: here, guests feel like they have one of the most stunning islands in the world to themselves. People generally stay more than one night. The menagerie of memorable fauna, from hosts of giant tortoises to penguins, may have something to do with that.
Meanwhile, the new (and award winning) Ikala Galápagos Hotel on Isla Santa Cruz, has sustainability as its focus. As well as a terrace restaurant with great views of the Puerto Ayora harbor, and a beautiful swimming pool, it is surrounded by shady gardens and is powered by solar energy.
Have more than a week to spend? Try these suggestions for two-week itineraries in Ecuador.
Insider Tip: The best giant tortoise viewing on Isla Isabela is at the volcano of Volcán Alcedo, in the north central region of the island.