Ecuador is very underrated on the backpacking circuit and there is so much to see for a country of its size. The jewel is the Galápagos Islands, which is a bucket list destination for spotting wildlife and diving. Mainland Ecuador is full of beautiful landscapes, colonial architecture, and strong indigenous culture. Plus, it is certainly of the most relaxed countries in South America. Here are the 10 best things to do in Ecuador!
1. Hike the Quilotoa Loop
This incredible 3-day hike through the highlands tops the list of the best things to do in Ecuador. It offers so much more than just beautiful landscapes. The Quilotoa Loop has top-notch hostels along the way with fantastic views and cozy atmospheres.
You’ll also meet plenty of locals as you pass through villages and will be on the receiving end of the biggest looks of disappointment when the kids find out you don’t have any chocolate. The fantastic hike earns a spot on the 10 best places to visit in South America.
2. Snorkel in the Galápagos
Visiting the Galápagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for observing wildlife. Despite what many think, visiting the Galápagos doesn’t require an expensive cruise. The snorkeling on the islands is downright spectacular. The water is crystal clear and the variety of marine life is unmatched. You’ll find penguins, sharks, eagle rays, seahorses, sea lions, turtles, and more. The most iconic place to snorkel is Kicker Rock which has intense currents and hammerhead sharks.
3. Spend Time With Sea Lions on San Cristóbal Island
San Cristóbal is nicknamed the sea lion island of the Galápagos because these cute creatures are everywhere. Spending a day snorkeling and observing sea lions is an incredible experience, and baby sea lions are one of the most adorable animals I’ve ever seen.
At the peaceful Playa Loberia, you can snorkel with sea lions and turtles. At night head to Punta Carola to watch the sunset and hang out with the hundreds of sea lions that live here. Watching the alpha male sea lion aggressively chase the other sea lions around the beach was jaw-dropping.
4. Hike Around Laguna Cuicocha
Laguna Cuicocha may just be Ecuador’s best-kept secret. It’s near the town of Otavalo, which is well known for its indigenous textile market. However, most visitors don’t stray beyond the town square. On the 4-hour hike around the lagoon, I only encountered one other group of hikers. This hike was undoubtedly one of the highlights of 8 months in South America.
5. Summit an Active Volcano
Cotopaxi is a national park near Quito with an active volcano that you can climb on a budget. Most visitors to Cotopaxi go to Laguna Limpiopung and hike to the Jose Ribas refuge at 4,800 meters. But, if you want the incredible experience of climbing a mountain, Cotopaxi is the perfect place to start. The mountain is beginner-friendly and it costs only $250, which is very cheap for mountaineering.
I didn’t climb Cotopaxi, but I did climb Huayna Potosí in Bolivia, and it was an unforgettable experience. Similarly, you will get to the summit for the sunrise and have fantastic views of the nearby mountains and the lights of Quito. If you have the time to acclimate and are in good shape, I recommend giving it a shot.
6. Visit the Churches in Quito’s Historic Center
Quito’s historic center is the largest in South America and it’s gorgeous. There are three spectacular churches that are a must-visit, no matter how many you’ve seen. The gold-plated interior at the Church of the Society of Jesus makes it one of the most beautiful in South America.
Basilica del Voto Nacional has panoramic views from the bell tower and is one of the best places to get pictures in Quito. Lastly, Iglesia de San Francisco is set beautifully along a picturesque plaza.
7. Bike La Ruta de Las Cascadas
Baños de Santa Agua might be the most scenic town I’ve been to, and it has all sorts of adventure activities. The thrilling bike ride along highway E-30, known as La Ruta de las Cascadas, passes 4 waterfalls in 15 km. The most impressive is the forceful El Pailon Del Diablo waterfall.
The ride is mostly downhill and the scenic journey is arguably more enjoyable than the waterfalls. Thankfully, there are trucks at the last waterfall that will bring you back to Baños to avoid 15 km of pedaling uphill.
8. Go Hiking in Cajas National Park
Cuenca is Ecuador’s prettiest city, and it also serves as the gateway to the spectacular Cajas National Park. The city of Cuenca doesn’t have much to do, but hiking in Cajas is one of the best things I did in Ecuador. The landscape here is completely different from the rest of Ecuador’s highlands, and it hosts a variety of ecosystems. It’s a 1-hour bus ride from the Cuenca bus terminal, and be sure to download the Parque Nacional Cajas app beforehand for trail maps.
9. Buy a Poncho at Otavalo’s Indigenous Textile Market
The town of Otavalo is home to the largest indigenous textile market in South America. The biggest day for the market is Saturday, and Wednesday is the second biggest. On Saturdays, the market stretches beyond the plaza for a few blocks in each direction and starts to get busy around 11 AM.
You will find ponchos, sweaters, socks, hats, and the odd guinea pig or chicken for sale if you’re ready to bargain. The vendors say most products are alpaca wool ($$$), but they are llama wool. Nonetheless, the clothing is high quality and I’m still wearing my llama sweater on a daily basis.
10. Ride A Cable Car to 4,000 Meters
Rounding out the 10 best things to do in Ecuador is a cable car ride that takes you up to 3,950 meters for the sweeping views of Quito and the nearby snow-capped volcanos. There’s a 5-hour hike from the upper cable car station to a peak of 4,785 meters, or you can opt for the short walk to the swing set. Pick a clear day and go early before the clouds and crowds arrive.