Little Ecuador packs in a very great deal. You could drive across the country in one day, and yet take in sandy Pacific strands, the volcano-dotted skyline of the Andes and the steamy Amazon jungle during that time. Of course, that would be one very long day. Ideally, a trip around Ecuador would last several weeks, but for the time-pressed, a 7-day trip is enough to get a good taste of one or two of the country’s key regions.
The Highlands are the most visited region with a wealth of natural and cultural attractions. Here are the colonial centers of Quito (the capital) and Cuenca, the line of the Equator, Otavalo’s indigenous market, the Valley of the Volcanoes, shimmering lakes, thermal springs and dramatic train rides.
The cloud forest and jungle are treasure troves for bird-watchers and nature-lovers, and you can choose from one-day tours to secondary jungle (forest that has regrown after a timber harvest) or spend 3+ days going deeper into the primary rainforest (forest that has been relatively unaffected by human activities). The cloud forest is, many would argue, Ecuador’s fifth distinct topographical zone: a transition zone between highlands and jungle.
The Pacific coast boasts some of the best surfing in South America as well as great beaches, mangroves, and delicious seafood.
The Galapagos is one of the world’s best destinations for wildlife watching and a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Southern Ecuador is the road-less-traveled but has some stunning attractions and lush scenery: Inca ruins, hilltop towns, petrified forests, and mangroves teeming with birdlife.
#1 The Best of the Highlands
|Day 1||Arrive in Quito, tour the Old Town||Quito|
|Day 2||Day trip to Otavalo market & Mitad del Mundo||Quito|
|Day 3||Hiking at Lake Quilotoa||Hacienda near Latacunga|
|Day 4||Hiking near Cotopaxi volcano||Baños|
|Day 5||Waterfall tour and thermal baths in Baños||Alausí|
|Day 6||Devil’s Nose Train Ride||Cuenca|
|Day 7||Morning Cuenca city tour; depart|
At an altitude of between 6500 ft and 10,000 ft, you’ll need to pace yourself in the Ecuadorian highlands. Begin in the historic center of Quito with its array of Spanish architecture and art. Then take a day trip two hours north by bus to the northern Highland town of Otavalo, which hosts one of the South America’s biggest and best indigenous markets. Take a break at the line of the Equator, Mitad del Mundo, on the way back from Otavalo.
Next, take a bus three hours south of Quito through the Valley of the Volcanoes to explore the spectacular Lake Quilotoa. Overnight at a hacienda near Latacunga. Next, hike in the area around Mt. Cotopaxi, an active stratovolcano that soars to a height of 19,347 ft.
After your visit to Cotopaxi, take a bus three hours south to relax in the thermal baths of Baños, and explore nearby waterfalls.
Next day, continue south another three hours via Riobamba to Alausí to experience Ecuador’s most dramatic train ride. The following morning, take the train over the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), a series of steep switchbacks carved into the mountainside. Then take a bus two hours south to the charming colonial city of Cuenca. Take a tour of this beautiful colonial city before flying back to Quito the next day.
#2 Mountains & Galapagos
|Day 1||Arrive in Quito, tour Old Town||Quito|
|Day 2||Day trip to Cotopaxi National Park||Quito|
|Day 3||Fly to Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands||Galapagos|
|Day 4||Galapagos tour||Galapagos|
|Day 5||Galapagos tour||Galapagos|
|Day 6||Galapagos tour||Galapagos|
|Day 7||Fly back to Quito; depart|
Situated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are an unforgettable and unique destination. A tour of the Islands requires at least three fulls.
After touching down in Quito you can spend a half day visiting historic sights in the Old Town. Then take a day trip (two hours south of Quito) to explore the national park around spectacular volcano Cotopaxi. Return to Quito to fly the following morning to the Galapagos Islands (2.5 hours).
An astounding array of fauna can be observed Galapagos, including blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas, and the tropical climes make a contrast with the chillier Andes. Choose either a cruise or a land-based tour, and spend 4 days experiencing the wildlife and geological wonders of this archipelago – snorkeling with sea lions and penguins, hiking on lava trails past giant tortoises and iguanas, and watching the incredible birdlife.
Note that four nights in the Galapagos is considered a short stay, to get more out the islands, consider extending your stay a couple of nights.
#3 Mountains & Jungle
|Day 1||Quito Old and New Towns||Quito|
|Day 2||Mindo, hiking/ bird-watching/ zip lining/ canopy tour||Quito|
|Day 3||Day trip to Otavalo market & Mitad del Mundo||Quito|
|Day 4||Fly to Coca for jungle tour||Jungle Lodge|
|Day 5||Jungle tour||Jungle Lodge|
|Day 6||Jungle tour||Jungle Lodge|
|Day 7||Fly back to Quito; depart|
Rivalling the Galapagos for providing incredible wildlife experiences of a very different kind is the jungle, within easy reach of the highlands. After taking in the highlights of capital city Quito, travel two hours northwest by bus to the cloud forest around Mindo for hiking, birdwatching, and zip-lining across the forest canopy. Take another day trip to Otavalo to see one of South America’s biggest markets. Slot in a stop-off on the line of the equator, the Mitad del Mundo, on the way back.
The following day, fly to the jungle gateway town of Coca (30 minutes by air). The 9-hour bus ride will not get you to Coca in time to connect with the jungle tour departure times that day, but flying will. Take a boat 1-2.5 hours downriver to reach swathes of primary jungle. Stay at a jungle lodge on a 2 day/3-night package, exploring amazing scenery and wildlife around Yasuní National Park – canopy observation towers and walkways, parrot clay licks, toucans, howler monkeys, white caiman and piranhas to name but a few highlights.
#4 The Best of Ecuador's Coast
|Day 1||Arrive in Guayaquil||Guayaquil|
|Day 2||Montañita, surfing and beach||Montañita|
|Day 3||Machalilla. Las Frailes and Agua Blanca||Puerto López|
|Day 4||Isla de la Plata||Puerto López|
|Day 5||Bahía de Caráquez and mangroves||Bahía de Caráquez|
|Day 6||Surfing and beach at Canoa||Canoa|
|Day 7||Return to Guayaquil or Quito; depart|
Ecuador’s coast has some fantastic beaches, surf spots, wildlife watching, and seafood, and much of it remains off-the-beaten-path.
Begin in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest and most vibrant city, exploring the riverfront Malecón and artistic district Las Peñas, which has many of Ecuador’s best restaurants. The following day, take a bus north (three hours) to party and surf town Montañita.
Continue your tour with a one-hour drive further north to the stunning forest scenery of Machalilla National Park. Base yourself in Puerto López. Relax on the gorgeous protected beach of Las Frailes, check out the community of Agua Blanca with its pre-Columbian ruins and thermal pools and then take a day trip to Isla de la Plata. This island is the Galapagos for those who can’t make it out to the Galapagos proper. Here you can see blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and pelicans, plus there is decent snorkeling.
Take a bus five hours north to Bahía de Caráquez, a beautiful coastal city set on a dramatic spit of land that juts into the sea. Take a trip to the mangroves to observe the bird life. Next, head to nearby surfing mecca Canoa. Spend the rest of your time here, relaxing on the beach or taking a kayak trip to nearby caves.
On your departure day, take a taxi to the airport at Manta (1.5 hours) or take the bus via Bahía de Caráquez and Portoviejo (3.5-4 hours). Fly back to Quito.
#5 Southern Ecuador: Off-The-Beaten-Path
|Day 1||Fly to Cuenca. City tour||Cuenca|
|Day 2||Day trip to Ingapirca ruins||Cuenca|
|Day 3||Vilcabamba, hiking/ horseback riding||Vilcabamba|
|Day 4||Podocarpus National Park||Vilcabamba|
|Day 6||Puyango Petrified Forest||Machala|
|Day 7||Guayaquil city tour; depart|
Southern Ecuador, with the exception of Cuenca, is less visited but has a wealth of unique places to see and experience. Begin with a flight from Quito to Cuenca, where you can take a tour of the historic city. The following day, take a day trip to Ecuador’s best Inca ruins at Ingapirca. Leave Cuenca behind and take the bus six hours south via Loja to the nearby hippy enclave of Vilcabamba. Relax in the ideal climate and explore the surrounding hills either on foot or by horseback.
The following day, take a day trip to the cloud forests of Podocarpus National Park close to town. Head west (four hours by bus) to get further off the beaten track in the dramatic old hilltop mining town of Zaruma. Explore the largest petrified forest in South America at Puyango, about three hours by road from Zaruma, before heading for Machala, self-styled ‘banana capital of the world’.
On Day 7, take an early bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. Take a tour of the riverfront and historic highlights, plus lunch in the happening Las Peñas neighborhood and maybe a drink in one of the bars to toast your trip.
For more Ecuador trip ideas, see all of our 7-day tours and itineraries.