Have just five days in Ecuador? No problem: it's one of the smallest countries in South America, so it's possible to move around to more than one place in less than a week. Read on for our top suggestions for a quick visit to this gorgeous and geographically diverse destination.

Five days in Ecuador may not be enough time for a lengthy cruise around the Galápagos Islands or for an extended hiking trip through the Ecuadorian Highlands. But it's enough time to have an unforgettable travel experience. Whether you're interested in exploring Ecuador's high-altitude colonial cities or horseback riding through a volcanic landscape, you can plan a great itinerary that takes less than a week. Read on for a few of our top suggestions.

Itinerary #1 — Explore Quito & the Surrounding Countryside

Browsing the artisan marketplace at Otavalo
Browsing the artisan marketplace at Otavalo

The fact of the matter is this: you could spend all five days in Quito and have a wonderful time. There's so much to see and do in the capital city: wander around the picture-perfect Old Town, with its grand cathedrals and cobblestone plazas, stop in a café to sample coffee and chocolate, two of Ecuador's most celebrated exports, ride the TelefériQo cable car up the slopes of the towering Volcán Pichincha for sweeping views over the Andean landscape, and hit the nightlife scene of La Mariscal.

But if you're interested in venturing a little further afield, consider a side trip to Otavalo, the largest indigenous marketplace in South America. It's the perfect place to pick up locally produced handicrafts and artwork. Many of the artisan wares in the market are made in the nearby village of Cotacachi, which is also worth a visit. 

Even if beaches aren't on your quick Ecuadorian itinerary, you can take in the breezes and lovely views at Cuicocha Lake, a wide crater lake at the foot of Cotacachi volcano. It's located near Otavalo.

For advice on how to spend a single day in Quito, check out this article

Itinerary #2 — Snorkel and Swim off the Coast of Ecuador

Looking down at Los Frailes beach
Looking down at Los Frailes beach

Many travelers think of Guayaquil as the gateway to the Galápagos. But this lively port city is a destination in its own right, and it's an ideal jumping-off point for a five-day exploration of the coast. On your first evening, you could stroll along the Malecón (waterfront promenade) and go for a seafood dinner in the happening neighborhood of Las Peñas.

From Guayaquil, you have several options for swimming, surfing, snorkeling, and sunbathing. A three-hour bus ride north of the city, Montañita is a surf village that's a great place to spend a day and night. An hour further north, Machalilla National Park awaits. The region is known for its tropical forest, bird life, and migratory humpback whales swim that swim through the waters offshore. Base yourself in the town of Puerto López. From there, you can visit thermal pools and pre-Columbian ruins at nearby Agua Blanca, or lay on the beautiful beach at Los Frailes.

Best of all is Isla de la Plata, an island just off the coast. If you can't get to the Galápagos on your short visit to Ecuador, this is the next best thing: snorkeling is good here, and on land, you'll see blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.

Itinerary #3 — Get Acquainted With the Galápagos

Kicker Rock, a massive rock formation, dwarfs a passing boat
Kicker Rock, a massive rock formation, dwarfs a passing boat

A standard cruise of the Galápagos requires a full week. But it's possible to enjoy a brief introduction to the otherworldly island chain even if you don't have enough time to board a yacht and explore its further reaches.

One option is to catch a flight from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz, the largest city on the archipelago. From there, you can embark on a shorter cruise or try a land-based itinerary.

This suggested 8-day itinerary, which includes several days in the Galápagos, is helpful for reference. Highlights include a boat trip to Kicker Rock, a massive rock formation that juts out into the water, the surrounding waters full of hammerhead and whitetip reef sharks. Other points of interest include a visit to a farm for the island's famous giant tortoises and an afternoon on a remote beach where sea turtles breed at intervals throughout the year.

Itinerary #4 — Wander Around Inca Ruins in Southern Ecuador

Ancient Incan ruins at Ingapirca
Ancient Incan ruins at Ingapirca

Most international travelers don't make it to southern Ecuador at all, let alone on such a short itinerary. But a trip down to the historic city of Cuenca (and its lovely surrounding area) make for an interesting introduction to the country's geography and history. As a plus, you'll also run into fewer tourists.

After exploring Cuenca's old city, head out to Ingapirca to explore the largest complex of Incan ruins in Ecuador. Another option from Cuenca is to visit Podocarpus National Park, a great example of Ecuador's cloud forest. Other highlights in the region are Puyango, with the largest petrified forest on the entire continent of South America, and Machala, known as "the banana capital of the world." One of the country's most important port cities, Machala is also known for coffee and cocoa.

Itinerary #5 — Adventure on Horseback in Cotopaxi National Park 

Cotopaxi Volcano in Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
Cotopaxi Volcano in Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador

One of the most thrilling itineraries in the country — a journey on horseback around Cotopaxi Volcano — can be completed in just five days. This recommended trip doesn't require previous experience with horses, but it's best suited to travelers in good physical shape. 

On this once-in-a-lifetime journey, you'll view more than a dozen volcanoes, including the magnificent Mt. Rumiñahui, from the saddle, and stay in an old farmhouse that's been converted into a contemporary B&B. You'll hike through native forests, visit an owl refuge, dine al fresco on the side of the trail, and stop at the old Incan fortress known as Pucará del Salitre

Love the experience of exploring Ecuador on horseback? Try this mini-adventure that includes riding in the Ecuadorian Highlands.