For such a small country, Ecuador is insanely diverse. From the high altitude metropolitan city of Quito, to the animal refuge of the Galapagos Islands, to the adventure town of Banos, to the high mountain regions of the Andes, to the Amazon Rainforest – and that’s just like, a really short summary highlight reel – there are so many incredible places to go in Ecuador!
Plus, Ecuador is home to all of our favorite things: really good chocolate, llamas, stunning mountains, alpacas, volcanoes, llamas & alpacas, and sea lions. What more could you want?!! Our one regret is that we still do not have an alpaca as a pet.
We spent a month backpacking through Ecuador, and we LOVED exploring this small but incredibly diverse, insanely beautiful country. From swimming with sea lions to hiking in the Andes to sleeping in a hobbit hole at the foot of a volcano to white water rafting to swimming in giant natural thermal baths at the foot of a waterfall, this itinerary is chock full of amazing things to do in Ecuador that we really, really, really want to go back and do again.
We’re finally sharing the 1 month itinerary we followed, plus our favorite highlights from each spot. We’ve also got a few recommendations for places we didn’t personally visit, but have heard absolutely amazing things about (there’s always next time, right?).
Table of Contents
- Practical Information about Ecuador
- What to Pack for Ecuador
- 1 Month Itinerary for Ecuador
- Quito, Ecuador
- The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
- Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
- The Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
- Baños, Ecuador
- Cuenca, Ecuador
- Vilcabamba, Ecuador
- Other Places to Visit in Ecuador
Psst: Planning a trip to Ecuador? We’ve got a bunch of useful resources to help you plan your trip!
- 30 Things No One Tells You About Backpacking in Ecuador
- How to Visit The Galapagos Islands Without a Cruise: A Complete Guide
- Baños, Ecuador: A Complete Guide to What to Do in Baños
- What to Pack for South America: 32 Backpacking Essentials
- Hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador: Reverse Route Travel Guide
We’ve also created a massive 10-page eBook packed full of Ecuador travel tips. Sign up below and we’ll send you our FREE Ecuador Travel Guide, plus email you with tips to help you plan your trip!
Practical Information about Ecuador
We’ve got a post listing out the 30 things nobody tells you about backpacking in Ecuador, but it’s not necessarily the most practical list (like, nobody tells you there are creepy clown trash cans everywhere, but also it doesn’t really help you plan your trip. Except to mentally prepare yourself, I guess). So here are some important highlights to know about before you go backpacking in Ecuador!
- Accommodations: If you’re on a backpacker budget, good news: Ecuador has some incredible hostels. You can find a dorm for under $10 a night or a private room in a hostel for around $15, and most hostels include a free breakfast as well. If you opt for a hotel, $50 and under is a very comfortable hotel, and if you ball out on $100+ you will be treated to some extreme luxury!
- Food Costs: Ecuador is inexpensive. You can eat a set lunch, called an almuerzo, for around $3 which will fill you up all day long. Add that to your free breakfast, and it should be easy to keep your food costs around $10 or less per day. With one giant, glaring exception: The Galapagos, where everything is more expensive!
- Altitude: Half of the country is close to sea level, and then there is a GIANT MOUNTAIN RANGE that you may have heard of called The Andes. What this means is that you will need to pay close attention to the altitude of the places that you visit. Quito sits at 10,000 feet of elevation, and if you’re flying in from somewhere at sea level, you WILL feel it. Quilotoa Loop is up in the Andes as well. You will absolutely definitely need to visit your doctor and get a prescription for an altitude sickness prevention medication such as Diamox. This is very, very important! Altitude sickness can be incredibly dangerous. Plus, it’s miserable to have.
- Currency: Ecuador uses USD! Woohoo! No complicated currency conversions to figure out. You can bring your money straight from home, and you’ll find that everything is way cheaper than you’d expect, which is great. That said, even though Ecuador uses USD, the coins are unique to the country and therefore useless outside of Ecuador. What’s more is they love using 50 cent or $1 pieces. We came in with some cash from home, and left with a bunch of change that we can’t use.
- WiFi: Every hostel in Ecuador will have free WiFi. Not every hostel will have GOOD free WiFi. We used our scientific Litmus test, which we’ve nicknamed “Netflix,” to determine the WiFi speeds in Ecuador, and let me just say this: I hope you’re patient, because there will be a lot of “buffering …” that said, we managed to both watch all of Stranger Things AND complete a massive website overhaul while in Banos, so it’s really not THAT bad.
What to Pack for Ecuador
We’ve got a huge post about what to pack for South America, but here are some must-have items for backpacking in Ecuador specifically.
- Steri-Pen Water Purifier: The tap water in Ecuador is not safe to drink (even in Quito), so we purified everything with our Steri-Pen. It’s such a life saver! And we’re saving plastic water bottles from the landfill. (Note: you can also use a Sawyer mini filter or water purification tablets to purify undrinkable tap water, both of which we brought just in case, but we found that we preferred the Steri-Pen for ease of use and taste.)
- Packable Down Jackets (His & Hers): Whenever you’re at a high altitude, such as in Quito or anywhere in the Andes, it will be very, very cold. We love our super lightweight packable down jackets because they’re insanely warm and insulating and pack into teeny tiny little balls to stuff into our backpacks when they aren’t needed!
- Ultra-Light Rain Jackets (His & Hers): Ecuador has 2 seasons: rainy, and not rainy. And if you’re going to the Amazon, not-rainy is optimistic. We didn’t bring an umbrella on our month long backpacking trip through Ecuador, but we did bring these fantastic rain jackets. They’re ultralight and pack down into nothing, just like our down jackets, so when we put them together they’re the perfect layerable & warm waterproof outfit. The Marmot Precip jackets are super waterproof whether we’re in a downpour or just white water rafting, and they’ve become a must-bring on every hike, just in case!
- Hiking Pants (His & Hers): Hiking the Quilotoa Loop is not for the faint of heart, or, as I learned firsthand, people who like to wear leggings when they hike. We needed hiking pants that were up to the task of handling mud, rain, gravel, sand, and jungle, with a lot of butt-sliding and knee-hitting – AND that were comfortable enough to actually hike in. Luckily, our hiking pants were designed with technical hiking in mind! I wore leggings for a total of 1 day of hiking before relegating them to the bottom of my pack.
- Trekking Poles are crucial for the hiking the Quilotoa Loop. We brought our Black Diamond trekking poles with us, folded down and tucked into a side pocket of our backpacks, for our entire 5 months in South America and they were SO useful on hikes.
- High SPF Sunscreen: Ecuador is literally ON the equator, and the sun is STRONG. Skimping on sunscreen could mean the worst sunburn of your life! I really like this Neutrogena sunscreen because it soaks into your skin quickly and doesn’t leave that icky filmy feeling.
- Reef Safe Sunscreen is crucial to bring if you visit the Galapagos for when you’re snorkeling or swimming, to protect the coral reef and underwater critters! You’ll be swimming right through their home, and wearing regular sunscreen in the water harms the wildlife that you’re there to see.
1 Month Itinerary for Ecuador
Here’s the day by day itinerary we followed, including the transit you’ll need to get from place to place.
Day 1- 4: Quito
- How to Get There: Fly into Quito
- Where to Stay: The Secret Garden Hostel Quito
Day 5-13: Galapagos Islands
- How to Get There: Fly to the Galapagos on Avianca or LATAM
- Where to Stay: Sueno Silvestres in Puerto Ayora, Drake Inn on Isla Isabela, Hotel Mar Azul on San Cristobal
Day 13-15: Cotopaxi
- How to Get There: Fly back to Quito, take a bus/taxi to Secret Garden Hostel, or pay extra and get the airport to hostel shuttle
- Where to Stay: Secret Garden Cotopaxi
Day 14: Latacunga 1 night
- How to Get There: Bus to Latacunga 1.5 hr, $1.50
- Where to Stay: La Posada
Day 15-18: Hike the Quilotoa Loop
- How to Get There: Bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa (for reverse route) or Sigchos. If you’re doing the reverse route hike, here’s a day by day breakdown:
- Day 15: Bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa (elev: 3914m) 2 hrs. Overnight in Quilotoa at Hostal Chukirawa.
- Day 16: Hike from Quilotoa to Chugchilan (elev: 3200m). Overnight in Chugchilan at Cloud Forest Hostel
- Day 17: Hike from Chugchilan to Insilivi (elev: 2900m, 5-6 hours). Overnight in Insilivi at Llulu Llama.
- Day 18: Hike from Insilivi to Sichogs (elev: 2800m, 4-5 hours). Bus Sicogs to Latacunga. Overnight in Latacunga at La Posada
Day 19-26: Baños
- How to Get There: Bus Latacunga to Baños, 2hrs
- Where to Stay: Hostel Chimenea
Day 26-27: Cuenca
- How to Get There: Bus Baños to Cuenca, 9hrs, $10
- Where to Stay: Alternative Hostel
Day 27-30: Vilcabamba
- How to Get There: Cuenca to Loja, bus, 4 hours, $8 each (Ejecutivo San Luis bus); Loja to Vilcabamba, 1hr
- Where to Stay: Hosteria Izhcayluma
Day 31: Leave Ecuador
- How to Get There: If you’re flying out from Quito, take a bus from Vilcabamba to Loja (1 hr bus) to fly to Quito (1 hour flight)
- OR, you can cross into Peru via La Balsa. Take a bus from Vilcabamba to Zumba. $6.50 each, 7 hour, 6:30 AM. Then, Zumba – La Balsa by Ranchera $1.75 1.5hr. Last ranchera 2:30pm. Here’s a full breakdown of the La Balsa Border Crossing!
Feel free to play with this itinerary to suit your needs. We’ve got details on each spot below to help you evaluate whether you want to visit, or if you’d rather sub out some spots with other destinations in Ecuador (and we provided some suggestions for that too, because we’re nothing if not overly thorough).
If we’re being really honest, I’d say that if we went back and did things again, we probably wouldn’t go back to Cuenca or Vilcabamba. Instead, I think we’d like to check out Mindo, Guayaquil, or the Amazon Rainforest. So keep that in mind!
Quito is Ecuador’s capital and largest city, and if you’re flying into Ecuador from another country you’re pretty much guaranteed to arrive in Quito. The city is wrapped around a giant, active volcano called Pichincha, which is so freaking rad.
Practical Information About Quito
Quito Airport is actually really far from Quito. Factor this in when choosing your arrival time. You can easily take a cab and be in the city in 45 minutes for about $25. I know this sounds expensive, so we looked into other options. The only other way is to take a collectivo for $8 to the bus terminal, then bus for about $3. The whole trip will add about 2 hours, depending on hostel location. So basically if you’re in a pair, you only save three bucks. Honestly, just cab and accept it.
Quito sits at a high elevation of around 9,350 feet. That means that if you’re arriving from somewhere closer to sea level, you will feel it! Be sure to take altitude sickness prevention pills such as Diamox starting the day before your arrival (or as prescribed by your doctor) and give yourself a few days to acclimate.
Don’t visit the giant volcano that sits in the middle of Quito, Pichinca, until you’ve acclimated for a few days, because it’s even higher: around 15,000 feet. You will DEFINITELY feel it once you step off the telerifico!
Something we loved about Quito – unlike some other capital cities we’ve visited on this trip, lookin at you, Bogota – is that it has a convenient and intuitive public transit system, so it’s easy to get around town.
The Best Things to Do in Quito
Spend a day being touristy in Centro Historico Quito. This gorgeous city center is home to a ton of beautiful churches and museums. Our 2 favorite must-see’s are:
- The Basilica de Voto Nacional is one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in South America. Climb all the way to the top to get a stunning photo for Intsagram!
- The Compañia de Jesus is a straight up house of ballerdom made entirely of gold. I’d show you a pic, but you aren’t allowed to take photos inside (trust me, I tried. One day this blogging gig is going to get me arrested.)
If your sightseeing goes into the night and you haven’t been arrested yet, check out La Rhonda! It’s the cutest little street filled with bars, salsa clubs, and restaurants.
Take the teleferico up to the volcano in Quito. A cozy gondola will take you up to Vulcan Pinchincha, a giant lava-filled mountain casually towering over the city. (Because there is a volcano around every corner in Ecuador.) Once up there, you can pose with llamas (AND HUG THEM!!!!) see a panorama of the city, and – if you are less lazy/more in shape than we are – take the long trek up the volcano to peer inside (or throw an evil ring in, or whatever). Be sure to bring a big jacket though. Even though Quito/lava might be warm, high up on the mountain it’s windy and cold.
Take a Day Trip to Otovalo Market. You can take a guided tour to see the famous Otovalo Market (like this one) and spend a day exploring this colorful indigenous market. Or, you can DIY your own day trip! It’s easy to grab a bus from the North Terminal. It takes a couple hours on the bus each way, but you will save yourself some money. We suggest going relatively early, since shops start packing up around 4PM. Be prepared to haggle, and know that much of the “100% alpaca” stuff you’ll see in the market is actually blended with acrylic yarn – the real stuff is NOT dirt cheap. Yes, a $20 alpaca sweater is too good to be true, which is why we now own 3 of them.
Take more day trips from Quito! Because Ecuador is small, it’s possible to see a LOT of the country with day or overnight trips from Quito. Our top picks are Mindo, Quilotoa, Banos, Cotopaxi, or Papallacta
Drink some delicious llocally grown specialty coffee at a third wave coffee shop. South America has incredible coffee, and Quito is no exception! There are several third wave coffee shops in Quito. Here’s a great list of 7 of them! We recommend:
- Cafe Umami
- Traviesa Cafe
The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands are a magical wildlife paradise, and a must-visit for anyone who likes animals and wants to swim with sea lions under the guise of learning about evolution and science. The best part of the Galapagos? The islands are a marine wildlife sanctuary and research facility – so all of the tours and activities are strictly regulated and verified to ensure environmental and animal safety standards are being met. WHICH IS SO DOPE! Sustainability first, y’all!
Practical Information About The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are by far the most expensive place to visit in Ecuador. You’ll pay an entry fee, which will go towards research and conservation (yay!). But expect prices to be much higher here for just about everything compared to the rest of Ecuador. The reason for this is that they’re islands: every single thing on the islands must be paid to ship from the mainland. So budget this week to be your most expensive week in Ecuador.
There are 2 ways to explore the Galapagos Islands: by cruise or by land. We chose to explore by land since it’s more budget-friendly. We spent about $800 each on an 8 day land-based trip. We’ve got an enormous guide to the Galapagos Islands by land with all the information you need for your trip – plus a massive downloadable guide to take with you!
If you’re strapped on time, a cruise is your best bet. You’ll travel from island to island while you sleep, which will save you a ton of time so you can squeeze all the magic of these islands into a few days! For the convenience of having your flights, meals, accommodations, and guides arranged without you having to lift a finger, you can expect to pay quite a bit more (although there are some deals to be found, like this 4-day tour). That said, there are several islands that you CANNOT visit without a cruise, and so paying for a cruise is the only way to unlock the magic of those hidden spots. We’re currently saving up for our next trip to the Galapagos, and yes, we plan to do a cruise!
One hybrid option that we didn't get a chance to try ourselves is to buy your own plane ticket to The Galapagos and then find a last minute seat on a cruise at a discounted rate. We hear you can find them in Santa Cruz for 1/2 the price, but you can score deals online too, like this one! You have to be a little bit flexible, but honestly, all cruises follow the same guidelines, and you'll still get to see a TON of wildlife and have an amazing time no matter what you choose. Depending on the length of your cruise, you can do a hybrid cruise + land-based trip, which is a great way to really see the most of the Galapagos Islands!
The Best Things to Do in the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are all about one incredible activity: seeing wildlife! The Galapagos are carefully preserved and protected as a marine research facility and sanctuary, which we LOVE. So you'll spend your day carefully observing animals in the wild as they go about their adorable business without touching or bothering them - yay!
Any land-based Galapagos Islands trip will center around these 3 islands: Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela, and San Cristobal. They are the 3 inhabited islands, and it is from each of them that you will be able to embark on tours and day trips to see everything that the Galapagos has to offer. Check out our guide to each island for more land-based trip details. If you're opting for a cruise, sit back and relax: they'll take care of all that for you!
Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
Cotopaxi is the largest volcano in South America, and it's surrounded and protected by Cotopaxi National Park. And yes, it's active (don't worry: pretty much every volcano in Ecuador is active. You'll be fine, probably). The volcano looks exactly the way you imagine a volcano to look, right down to the snow capped top. It's absolutely stunning! We visited Cotopaxi specifically to stay in The Secret Garden Hostel in a Hobbit Hole, which was awesome.
Practical Information About Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi is a bit off the beaten path. To get there, you'll need to take a series of buses, or - if you're staying at The Secret Garden - arrange a private shuttle.
But because Ecuador is tiny, you can also do Cotopaxi as a day trip from Quito if you're pressed for time! It's only an hour and a half outside of the city Here's one you can book online, and here's one with horseback riding.
The Best Things to Do in Cotopaxi
Cotopaxi National Park is an outdoor lovers' paradise! Go horseback riding at the base of the volcano. Hike to the summit (don't worry, they drive you most of the way up).
Or, just wrap yourself in a cozy alpaca poncho and sit on a giant hammock staring at the volcano, which is most of what I did while Jeremy was hiking and horseback riding.
We stayed at an amazing hostel called The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. They can arrange tours for you. Plus, the hostel itself is fantastic. It's remote and off the beaten path, but well worth it! Stay in a Hobbit Hole, if you can.
The Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
The Quilotoa Loop refers to a collection of indigenous Quecha communities located high up in the Andes. It's called The Quilotoa Loop because most folks do a loop through these towns that either begins or ends at Quilotoa, where there is an absolutely stunning glacier lake.
Practical Information About The Quilotoa Loop
There are 2 ways to explore the Quilotoa Loop: hiking from town to town, or taking transit from town to town. Honestly, it's easy to figure out which one you should do: if you're an insanely fit person who hikes a lot, hike the Quilotoa Loop! It's a fantastic (albeit incredibly difficult) multi-day trek and you'll get to sleep in hostels every night. We've got a full guide to our Quilotoa Loop hike, complete with downloadable instructions.
If you are not an insanely fit person who hikes a lot, take transit to visit each town. Plan your trip around the local markets. Or, visit Quilotoa Lake as a day trip from Quito with a tour like this one.
The Best Things to See Along the Quilotoa Loop
If you're hiking, you'll get to experience some of the most beautiful countryside in the Andes: rivers, valleys, vast countryside, a volcano, a crater lake, local communities, loads of farm animals, sweeping vistas, and cozy hostels. Check our complete Quilotoa Loop guide for a Reverse Route hiking route.
By far, the biggest highlights were Laguna Quilotoa (which will be either the first thing you see or the last, depending on which direction you hike) and Llullu Llama Hostel, which is an AWESOME hostel in Isinlivi and home to a resident llama named Tito who is friends with a giant Saint Bernard named Balloo. Also, there's a rad hot tub. What more could you want?!
Here are some other highlights along the loop. We didn't have time to do all of them (because we were hiking), but if you opt not to hike, plan your route around these!
Indigenous Markets along the Quilotoa Loop
These markets are one of the coolest experiences on the Quilotoa Loop. They're a totally authentic way to experience this region of the Andes. Plus, you can buy a llama, which like ... obviously you need a llama. Who doesn't need a llama?!?! Important caveat: the markets start very, VERY early. Like, 4am early. These are markets for farmers, not lazy backpackers. So be sure to wake up early so you can hop on the first bus or catch an early taxi! More information can be found here.
- Mondays: Guantualo Morning Market (near Chugchilan)
- Thursdays: Saquisilí Market (near Latacunga)
- Sundays & Wednesdays: Pujilí Market (near Latacunga)
- Saturdays: Zumbahua (near Quilotoa)
There is also a couple of local hikes in each of the towns along the way, which if you're mildly into hiking would be fun to do. One popular hike is from Chugchilan and leads to a cheese factory! And yes, you can buy some super cheap, delicious fresh cheese. Here's a detailed post about that hike and the cheese factory.
Where to Stay Along the Quilotoa Loop
- Latacunga: La Posada is a great budget-friendly place to store your bags while you're hiking the loop! Check pricing & availability on Booking.com. Alternatively, Hostal Tiana is a backpacker favorite; check pricing & availability on Hostelworld.
- Quilotoa: Hostal Chukirawa is located steps away from stunning Laguna Quilotoa, and every room has a wood burning stove for maximum coziness in the frigid high-altitude mountain air. Check pricing & availability on Booking.com.
- Chugchilan: Cloud Forest Hostel is roomy and comfortable. Your rate will include a hot dinner, too! Check pricing & availability on Hostelworld
- Isinlivi: Llulu Llama is hands down the best hostel on the entire Quilotoa Loop. Check pricing & availability on Hostelworld
Baños is Ecuador's adventure town! Baños de Agua Santa (its full name) is known for two things: naturally heated thermal baths – the namesake of Baños – and its many adventure opportunities! In Baños you'll find mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs to explore by canyoning, zip lining, RTVing, white water rafing, mountain biking, or hiking. We've got a full guide written up about the best things to do in Baños.
Baños was our 2nd favorite place overall in Ecuador (nothing beats the Galapagos) and one of our favorite towns in all of South America, and we would go back again in a heartbeat.
Practical Information About Baños
Baños is a pretty quick and inexpensive bus ride from Quito (3 hours) or Latacunga (2 hours). You can also take a direct bus from Cuenca to Baños for $10 with Amazonas.
The town of Baños is situated in a valley at the base of an active volcano: don’t worry, it’s far enough to be safe, though you might see some smoke or fire coming from the top! (Because, again, everything in Ecuador that isn't a llama is an active volcano).
The Best Things to Do in Baños
Have an adventure! There are SO MANY ADVENTURES in Baños. Go zip-lining, white water rafting, canyoning, ATVing, hiking, mountain biking, or bungee jumping. Do it all! This is THE spot to get your adrenaline pumping. You can book most tours in person if you're flexible and have some time, or you can book a few in advance:
The Swing at the End of the World, aka Casa de Arbol is one of the top reasons people visit Baños. everyone’s seen that iconic picture. But in addition to an awesome picture, you should visit Casa de Arbol because giant swings are super fun and there’s also a cable that you can swing on like a low-flying zipline, all for the $2 entrance fee. For the less-adventurous types (me), this is the perfect level of low-risk fun!
Relax in giant thermal baths at the foot of a huge waterfall. The namesake of Baños, Ecuador is well worth a visit. Despite its location right on the edge of town, next to a huge and awe-inspiring waterfall, the baths do not seem to be a popular tourist destination. We were in the vast minority of gringos enjoying the baths on a Friday night! But trust us, the thermal baths are not to be missed. Where else can you swim in 3 giant thermal baths of varying temperatures for under $5?!
In addition to a giant waterfall next to the thermal baths, Baños is also home to the famous Ruta de las Cascadas! The route through the valley passes 7 jaw dropping waterfalls, plus countless other beautiful views. You can complete the downhill route with a $6 mountain bike rental, or on a chiva/open air bus. Either can be booked at one of the many adventure shops in town. One of the highlights on the route is the Pailón del Diablo, a waterfall park complete with an enormous suspension bridge. You can also zip-line or take a cable car over the gorge!
Take a day trip to the Amazon. Even if the Amazon Jungle isn’t part of your itinerary, you can visit it as a day trip from Baños! You can book a tour online like this one, or reserve when you arrive if you’re flexible.
Baños, Ecuador is as much a spa town as it is an adventure town. When you’re exhausted from your harrowing near-death experiences, a massage or a spa treatment will feel like absolute heaven. (It also makes a great way to spend a day while your more-adventurous partner is out doing completely insane things, if you’re me.) Walking down the streets of Baños, Ecuador you will be offered multiple spa treatments and prices from the many shops offering a variety of the same experiences. From chocolate face and body masks to facials to those little fish eating the dead skin off your feet (whatever floats your boat, I guess), Baños offers a full range of budget-friendly spa activities.
Stop at Arome Chocolate for the best hot chocolate of your life. Ecuador is one of the chocolate capitals of the world, and Arome Chocolate is the best place to eat all of that chocolate. Our favorite thing on the menu? Hot chocolate created with a bar of ANYTHING in the shop. You literally pick ANY chocolate bar from their enormous collection, and they shave the whole bar and turn it into hot chocolate. We now fully understand the meaning of the phrase “like a kid in a candy shop.”
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third-largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Cuenca you'll find gorgeous colonial buildings, churches, and cathedrals.
Practical Information About Cuenca
Our big mistake in visiting Cuenca was that our day to explore the city was Sunday. Do not try to explore Cuenca on a Sunday! Everything is closed and you will be incredibly disappointed. If you can't avoid it, though, here's a guide to what to do in Cuenca on a Sunday. But we think that the best bet is to actually head a few hours out of Cuenca to visit the Cañar market, which is only open on Sundays. Here's a tour that combines the Ingapirca Ruins - the largest Incan ruin site in Ecuador - with a visit to the market in one epic day trip!
The Best Things to Do in Cuenca
We recommend taking a city tour like this one to learn about the history of Cuenca while seeing its sights.
Far away from Ecuador's other hotspots, just 50 miles from Peru's northern border, lies the small and relaxed town of Vilcabama. Rumor has it locals live to be over a hundred years old here because the town is so peaceful. That's why the area is nicknamed "The Valley of Longevity."
To the south of this tranquil town lies the beautiful Hosteria Izhcayluma, an amazing budget hostel and resort in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. That's what brought us to Vilcabamba: you see, Hosteria Izhcayluma is a resort that has a hostel-style dorm room option, meaning you can stay in a yoga resort for under $10 a night. Yup.
Practical Information About Vilcabamba
Vilcabamba is far away from most parts of Ecuador. The closest large city is Loja. You can fly or bus in and out of Loja to get to Vilcabamba, but an easier solution is to book a shuttle through your resort.
The Best Things to Do in Vilcabamba
Honestly, we went to Vilcabamba specifically for Hosteria Izhcayluma, and most of our activity was centered around it.
We did sunrise yoga on their beautiful open-air yoga terrace. We ate breakfast while looking out over the cloud forest carpeted mountains. We went horseback riding. We swung in hammocks and relaxed. We got the absolute best massage and facials of our life in the spa.
It was the most luxurious weekend of our entire 4 months in South America, and it cost us under $10 a night. Can you blame us for never venturing outside of the resort into the rest of Vilcabamba?
Other Places to Visit in Ecuador
We're dying to re-visit Ecuador. Here are some of the spots we're most bummed that we missed out on - and where we're totally planning to stop on our next trip!
Located just 2 hours from Ecuador, Mindo is a beautiful mountainous cloud forest town filled with waterfalls. Kinda sounds like heaven, right? If you're a nature lover, you'll love Mindo: the cloud forests are filled with birds, butterflies, and orchids. You can easily take a day trip to Minda from Quito with a tour like this one, or this one which includes zip-lining.
Take the cable car above the trees to view waterfalls from above. Or go river tubing, zip-lining, or hiking in the forest. You can also tour chocolate farms in Mindo and taste delicious Mindo chocolate. We fully intend to visit Mindo when we return to Ecuador! Here is a great guide to Mindo.
Montañita is a beachy partying and surf town! If you're looking to surf, this is your spot (only 1 of us surfs - Lia tried once and it did not go well).
When you're not surfing, you can party it up, eat ceviche, and chill. And if you can't make it to the Galapagos, you can check out the Isla de Plata off the coast of Montanita, one of the only other places in the world where you can spot the ridiculously unmajestic Blue Footed Boobies in all of their silly glory.
Here's a rad guide to Montañta.
Seaside Guayaquil is one of the largest cities in Ecuador and it's largest port. You can fly to the Galapagos from Guayaquil. We hear there is amazing nightlife, awesome markets, and a rad riverside town square. But we mostly wished that we visited so we could tour the chocolate farms! Guayaquil is where Ecuador's delicious chocolate production is centered. And we LOVE Ecuadorian chocolate.
One of the coolest things to do in Ecuador is to take te Devil’s Nose Train from Quito to Guayaquil. This is a gorgeous train route winding through the Andes that will take you from Quito to Guayaquil. It's absolutely stunning, except for 1 part which is apparently terrifying (but in a stunning way). You can book a multi-day tour from Quito that will take you on the Devil’s Nose Train, like this one.
Visit the Ecuadorian Amazon and see one of the most incredible and diverse natural wonders of the world! Other than the Galapagos, that is. Ecuador kills it with the nature thing. One of the most popular places to enter the Amazon is from Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve.
Find an animal-friendly eco lodge to house your stay - and be sure to avoid any tours that advertise touching, holding, feeding, or otherwise interacting with the wild animals!
Here's some fascinating facts about the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Recapping all of the incredible places to visit in Ecuador made me want to go back ASAP!Did our 1 month Ecuador itinerary have you booking your flights??
Psst: Planning a trip to Ecuador? We've got a bunch of useful resources to help you plan your trip!
- 30 Things No One Tells You About Backpacking in Ecuador
- How to Visit The Galapagos Islands Without a Cruise: A Complete Guide
- Baños, Ecuador: A Complete Guide to What to Do in Baños
- Hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador: Reverse Route Travel Guide
- What to Pack for South America: 32 Backpacking Essentials
We've also created a massive 10-page eBook packed full of Ecuador travel tips. Sign up below and we'll send you our FREE Ecuador Travel Guide, plus email you with tips to help you plan your trip!
Which destination in Ecuador would you most want to visit? Leave us a comment below!
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