How long do you have? And where do you want to go? Your trip through Ecuador will depend on your answers to these two questions.
If you're short on time, guided tours are ideal. They get you out to some spectacular scenery in the shortest possible time, with hotel and airport transfers included. Keep in mind that choosing a guided tour doesn't necessarily mean you'll be part of a large group: you can opt for a private guide.
With more time at your disposal, however, it's often more fun — and more of a challenge — to travel around Ecuador independently.
Your desired destination will also have an effect on how you travel. Not all of Ecuador's natural wonders can be explored solo. In the Amazon Basin (known as the Oriente in Ecuador) and in the remote mountain country of Ecuador's tradition-steeped highlands, as well as certain locations within the Galápagos Islands archipelago, guided tours are obligatory.
For suggestions of how to spend two weeks in Ecuador, check out these recommended itineraries.
Guided tours are great for travelers who don't have tons of time but are ambitious in their travel plans. They're also good (indeed, they're imperative) for anyone who wants to reach certain adventurous destinations. Of course, another perk of the guided tour is the extra insight the tour's leader can offer. Guides offer unparalleled knowledge of the hikes in a particular region, specialized information about flora and fauna, and access to local contacts that makes interaction possible between travelers and natives.
Wherever you are, guided tours also offer peace of mind and ease of communication with respect to language barriers. In many areas of Ecuador, only Spanish or Quechua may be understood by the locals.
Perhaps you wish to view some of the astounding 600-odd species of birds recorded in the lush cloud forests around Mindo, meaning you'll require a guide to help you spot and identify species you would never see alone. It may be that you wish to explore the incredible southern coastal national park of Parque Nacional Machalilla, where the trip out to the wildlife-replete Isla de la Plata, or the 12-mile cloud forest hike to San Sebastián, are only possible with a guide. It may be that you wish to hunt out the less-trodden trails of the volcano-dotted Parque Nacional Cotopaxi: only a professional guide's insider knowledge can get you there.
Guided tours are best arranged in the towns and cities that act as bases for exploring the surrounding wilderness. Guides for the much-traveled Quilotoa Loop, for example, renowned for getting up close and personal with traditional highland life in the indigenous village, can be hired in Latacunga. For travel in the national parks and cloud forests of the Northern Highlands, there are more choices, in Quito, but also in Otavalo and Mindo.
Group travel in Ecuador is beneficial on several levels. The main advantage of this kind of travel is that sometimes services simply do not run at all for single travelers or groups of two or three: they only run with a minimum number of participants. The other bonus is that it can be good for meeting other travelers, and sometimes forging long-term friendships that extend beyond the end of your trip. It's surprising how much bonding can be done at a lodge in the jungle, or on a multi-day trek!
Group travel can be arranged impromptu: many hotels offering set trips will see which of their guests wish to participate the night before the excursion. Discounts for large groups of travelers are possible on adventurous train rides such as the Tren Crucero, Ecuador's stunning cross-country rail ride from Quito to Guayaquil.
Even if you're with a group, you can still have a great cultural experience. Read this article for tips on how to experience Ecuador like a local.
Places that are especially good for organizing group travel include Quito, which is surrounded by a wealth of attractions from volcanoes to cloud forest, Baños, which lies between the cloud forest and the jungle, and can be handy for planning trips into both, and Cuenca, which boasts some scintillating nearby highland attractions from Inca ruins to villages famed for their handicrafts.
For some kinds of group travel, such as adventures down the Río Napo into Parque Nacional Yasuní, you will have to go as part of a pre-arranged group, both for the transportation and likely for the duration of your jungle explorations.
In Ecuador, the remoteness and level of protection of certain regions — such as in the country's 11 national parks and various reserves — mean that self-guided travel is not always possible. Climbing 16,000-foot volcanoes, such as Volcán Cotopaxi, or exploring deep in the jungle, such as in Parque Nacional Yasuní, should not be treated lightly or attempted solo. In some other national parks, such as Parque Nacional El Cajas near Cuenca, the adventurous traveler might consider exploring alone, but actually, hiking without guides is prohibited.
However, self-guided trips are perfectly fine for visiting the vast majority of cities and towns. In a fair amount of the outlying countryside, public bus transport is decent. Traveling through Ecuador independently also gives you a degree of flexibility that guided tours can not.
Note that self-guided tours can be combined with guided tours in destinations that are more complicated to visit independently. For example, you can make your own way to Coca, then organize a tour down the Río Napo to Parque Nacional Yasuní; you could explore Cuenca and its environs independently, then used guided services for visiting Parque Nacional El Cajas. If you're traveling along Ecuador's beautiful sandy coastline, you can visit the towns and villages independently, then hire a professional guide for water sports activities.
Commonly perceived as a trip which must be organized through a tour operator, the Galápagos islands are in fact a destination that can be visited solo. For some activities out on the archipelago, though, you may need to join a tour group. For ideas of how to spend your time in Quito and the Galápagos, check out this recommended itinerary.