Getting off the beaten path in Ecuador is easier than you might think. Some of the places below can be accessed from well-established tourist destinations such as Quito and Montañita, making it easy to fit them into an existing itinerary. Others do involve a lengthy bus or boat journey and a bit of forward planning. But the rewards of exploring places relatively untouched by tourism far outweigh any difficulties in getting to them. If you’re up for a little adventure you won’t be disappointed.
Admire the architecture in Zaruma
Perched on a scenic hillside in southwestern Ecuador, Zaruma is one of the country’s most attractive towns but receives only a handful of tourists. Founded in 1549, the town flourished during the colonial period thanks to the many gold mines in the surrounding region.
Today the atmospheric center is filled with grand late 19th-century/early 20th-century architecture that resulted from a second gold boom in the 1880s. Zaruma’s mining history is evocatively told at its Mina de Sexmo Museum, but the best way to experience the town is just to wander through the backstreets, amid colorful houses, wooden churches, and narrow, winding lanes.
Scuba-dive with sharks in the Galápagos
The Galápagos Islands are one of Ecuador’s prime tourist destinations, but it’s still possible to get off the beaten track. In the far northwest of the archipelago are two tiny, little-visited islands, Darwin and Wolf. Although it is illegal to land on either one, the surrounding waters are ripe for exploration — as long as you’re an experienced scuba-diver.
At these world-class dive sites, you’ll find turtles, manta rays, and hammerhead and Galápagos sharks. The highlight, though, is the chance to encounter whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, weighing around 21 tonnes (46,000 lb). Between June and November, they migrate through the region, and diving beside them is an absolutely mesmerizing experience.
Hit the beach at Olon and Salango
The Ruta del Spondylus stretches around 87 miles (140 km) along the southern coast and encompasses some of the country’s finest beaches. Resorts like Montañita are hotspots for surfers and backpackers alike, but if you are eager to avoid the crowds, head instead to Olon and Salango, two relatively undeveloped — for now — villages with fabulous beaches.
Olon is a peaceful village, whose beach has gentle waves, making it ideal for novice surfers. At the slightly larger Salango, you can visit an interesting little archeological museum, climb the hill above town for great views, or take a boat trip to a nearby islet, also called Salango, whose surrounding coral reefs are a haven for snorkelers.
Look for fossils and spot birds in the Puyango Petrified Forest
Located some 62 miles (100 km) south of the city of Machala in southwestern Ecuador, the Bosque Petrificado Puyango (Puyango Petrified Forest) is the biggest of its kind in the country and one of the largest in the world. Covering an area of roughly 10 square miles (16 sq km), this haunting reserve has dozens of fossilized trees, leaves and plants dating back up to 120 million years. It's also a wonderful place for birdwatching.
The highlights are the huge araucanias (an evergreen commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree), the largest of which is 6.5 ft (2 m) in diameter and 49 ft (15 m) in length. Several trails lead through the reserve, but if you speak Spanish, it’s well worth hiring a guide from the visitor center at the entrance, as they can help you discover a number of hard-to-spot fossils. Although the Bosque Petrificado Puyango is full of fossils, there’s also plenty of life, including over 130 species of bird, notably the red-masked parakeet, as well as ocelots, pumas and armadillos.
Visit the “Rome of the Andes”
Although the only real similarity with the Italian capital is that fact that it is also spread across seven hills, Guaranda is well worth a visit. Accessed via a precipitous, winding road from the city of Ambato, one of the country’s most awe-inspiring journeys, the sleepy town and its smaller neighbor Salinas de Guaranda are relaxing places to spend a few days.
As well as views of the looming Chimborazo Volcano, they boast well-preserved colonial architecture, and a host of local producers make tasty chocolate, cheese, and other goodies. Guaranda really comes alive during its annual carnival (February/March), when the celebrations are fueled by copious amounts of the local firewater, pájaro azul (blue bird).
Explore the gorgeous Atillo and Ozogoche lakes
For fewer tourists than the famous Quilotoa Loop, but similarly spectacular lakes, head to the central sierras town of Guamote. This is the jumping-off point for trips to the nearby Atillo and Ozogoche lagunas. The former is a series of small lakes with a grisly history: before the arrival of the Spanish, locals were believed to have drowned their criminals here.
Laguna Magdelena is the prettiest of the lakes, thanks to its backdrop of jagged mountain peaks. Around 3.7 miles (6km) southwest lie the Ozogoche lakes, which are home to an unusual, and still unexplained, phenomenon. In some years, in the late summer or early fall, thousands of migrating plovers mysteriously “commit suicide” by dramatically diving into the lakes’ icy waters.
Hike through the wild Pasochoa reserve
Despite lying only 19 miles (30km) southeast of downtown Quito, the rugged Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasochoa (Pasochoa Wildlife Reserve) feels remarkably wild. A thick forest sprawling across an extinct volcano whose western side was destroyed in an eruption some 100,000 years ago, the privately administered reserve is home to over 120 species of bird, as well as a number of orchids and many podocarpaceae conifers, which are native to this region.
The reserve receives few visitors, so you’re unlikely to encounter many others when exploring its trails, which range from gentle rambles lasting an hour or two to testing full-day hikes. There’s also a basic lodge and campsite if you want to stay the night.
Escape the crowds in Loja
The charming city of Cuenca is rightfully one of Ecuador’s foremost attractions, but it can feel a bit touristy. For a similar vibe but far fewer fellow travelers, head to the small, isolated city of Loja in the southern sierras. Set between the Zamora and Malacatus rivers in a lush valley, Loja boasts handsome colonial architecture (notably along Lourdes street, located just south of the city center), palm-filled plazas, and tranquil parks and botanical gardens. It is also within striking distance of one of the country’s most biodiverse reserves, Parque Nacional Podocarpus, home to over 500 bird species.