Despite the size of the country the places to see in Ecuador are very diverse due to the fact that the country is blessed with one of the highest biological diversity in the world.
While most people are familiar with the popular Galapagos Islands and maybe the capital Quito they are missing out on “La Sierra” which is the Andean region of the country. Along the Avenue of the volcanos you are able to see Ecuadors most incredible landscapes. With this post I introduce you to the best things to do in Ecuador along this avenue from north to south.
[box type=”info”]Before any trip to Ecuador I highly recommend learning at least some basic Spanish, I used the online language courses from Babbel before I embarked on my first adventure to Latin America and highly recommend their courses. More Information about South America as well as more personal guides can be found in my South America overview![/box]
The Otavalo valley itself is worth a visit: the city of Otavalo is located approximately 1,5h – 2h north of Quito and is surrounded by 3 volcanoes. The reason for a visit is the fact that one of the largest indigenous markets for clothes in South America is taking place here every Saturday. Don't forget to bargain!
If you want to avoid the crowds you can also go there during the week, then the market is much smaller and doesn't spread over the whole city center. A trip to Otavalo is best to connect with a visit to Cuicocha (see next tip).
How to get there: by car from Quito in 1,5 -2h depending on traffic (start early in the morning)
Accommodation: Overview of Places to stay in Otavalo
The so called “lake of guinea pigs” is situated in a former volcano crater, better known as a “caldera” right at the foot of the volcano Cotacachi. The view from the edge of the crater is phenomenal, you can also go for a boat tour on the lake.
If you got some more time I recommend hiking the whole crater loop (20 km) which takes round about 5-6 hours depending on your own fitness level (consider the altitude and elevation and don't forget to bring sun screen and water!). Short term visitors shouldn't miss out on the opportunity to go at least for a brief walk along the crater edge using the path which starts at the visitor center (walk counterclockwise).
How to get there: take the Bus from Otavalo to Quiroga, from Quiroga by taxi (5$) to the lake // from Quito it takes 2h by car (which is what I did)
Accommodation: best is to stay in Otavalo
3. Middle of the World – Mitad del Mundo & Quitsato
One of the places to see in Ecuador for most travelers is the equator which is also responsible for the name of the country. The equator line is located north of Quito where you can find quite a few monuments.
The most popular place to visit is the monument “Mitad del Mundo” which was build on the exact spot where Europeans defined the position of the equator for the first time. There is only one problem: latest research via GPS showed that the actual equator is located 240m off that spot. Nevertheless it's worth a visit, especially if you connect it to a visit of the Intiñan Solar Museum which is right on the actual equator and awaits you with interesting experiments ;).
I took the chance and visited another spot on the way back from Cuicocha – the Quitsato Monument which is a huge Sundial near Cayambe deriving from the Inca culture. The monument is located exactly on the equator and you are able to spot the Cayambe volcano from there. Even better: there is no entrance fee as it is a non-profit project but if you want you can hire a knowledgeable local guide for 10$.
How to get there: take a bus (0.40$) or taxi from Quito – with cab drivers you should negotiate a flat fee (30-40 US$), the journey takes about 45min
Accommodation: Quito is the best starting point for this highlight
The capital of Ecuador is also the highest official capital city in the world with its old town being part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. You should plan at least a few days to explore the numerous sights of Quito and it's surroundings.
Quito is the perfect starting point for many day trips mentioned in this list, though the traffic can be tough when trying to get out of the city (a local driver is recommended). Even within the city limits you can go for a hike to a volcano – the starting point for this adventure is the cable car named “TeleferiQo”.
Accommodation: I stayed at 3 different places but my favorite spot was the B&B del Cielo in the party area Mariscal, followed by the much more expensive but beautiful 5* Hotel Patio Andaluz and the 4* Hotel Quito (great view to the Cayambe volcano). Quito offers a wide range of accommodations, more can be found at the Quito overview from Booking.
5. Termas de Papallacta
My visit to the hot springs of Papallacta was the relaxing finish of my trip, the village is located around 60km east of Quito. The pools are filled with thermal water from the surrounding hot springs. I highly advice you to go for the more expensive “Termas de Papallacta” which belong to the Hotel with the same name, the entrance fee is 22$.
A visit to the hot springs is best to connect with a day hike at the nearby Natural Reserve Cayambe Coca (next tip).
How to get there: By car from Quito (ca. 2h)
Accommodation: either at the very expensive but very popular Hotel Termas de Papallacta or in Quito
6. Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve (Laguna Banos)
The “Reserva Ecologica Cayambe-Coca” is one of the most beautiful National Parks in the north of the region and perfect for hiking trips. You can easily add a stay at the hot springs as you actually drive past them on your way to this hike.
In this part of the park you will find a trail which is easy to walk and takes you to waterfalls and lagoons – perfect for a day trip!
How to get there: see 5) – from there you should take a cab or drive further to the park guard bulding
Accommodation: see 5)
This is one of my favorite places to see in Ecuador – similar to Cuicocha it is a huge crater filled with water. On clear days you can enjoy an extraordinary panorama. Beside the popular viewpoint at the village named Quilotoa I recommend checking out the harder to access viewpoint “Shalala” which is mostly unknown (this is where the cover photo for this article was taken).
Again also a hike along the edge of the crater is possible and takes about 5h (especially here you shouldn't forget sunscreen and water!). From the viewpoint at Quilotoa you can also hike down to the lake (takes about 1,5h – 2h one way), down there you can rent paddle boats.
How to get there: by bus or car from Quito (through Latacunga), approx. 3h
Accommodation: in Quito, Latacunga or in Riobamba (if you plan on traveling south)
8. Tren Crucero & Devil's nose (Nariz del Diablo)
A trip with the Tren Crucero is considered to be one of the most picturesque train rides – in 3 days the train runs from Quito down to Guayaquil and passes all possible climate zones and landscapes on its way. I was lucky enough to ride the section between Riobamba through Alausi to Bucay and was blown away by the views.
The whole trip with the Tren Crucero will cost you round about 1400 US$ (4 days / 3 nights – hotels, meals and tours are included) but you can also go for the budget option and take a tourist train for 30 US$ which only does the section from Alausi along the devil's nose. Here the train drives down the steep mountain in a zick-zack before you come to see the formation which is named the devil's nose.
How to get there: by car to Alausi then take the tourist train
Accommodation: Alausi is a lovely tiny village with a few nice places to stay
Close to Cuenca you can visit the most important Inca site in Ecuador. The whole complex is a bastion and a sanctuary at the same time – very similar to the structures you can find in Peru. The architecture and the walls reminded me of the buildings I saw in Cusco.
If you've been to Machu Picchu and similar sites before you might be disappointed – for everyone else it is a day trip worth taking from Cuenca!
How to get there: it's best to take a bus or car from Cuenca (2h)
Accommodation: right next door (pretty good!) or in Cuenca (see next tip)
The third-largest city of Ecuador is also home to a very beautiful old town which is part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage and definitely worth a visit. Beside the architecture including the huge cathedral I liked the relaxed atmosphere. Cuenca is also well known for its nightlife.
If you visit you should checkout the restaurant “Los Tiesto”, which I found to be the best restaurant I ate at during my entire trip. The chef is one of the best in Ecuador and the meals (try the Lomo!) alone are worth traveling to Cuenca!
How to get there: from Quito its best to take a flight (LAN and Tame offer daily flights)
Accommodation: I stayed at 4* Hotel Victoria which was phenomenal (especially the breakfast is great), find more budget friendly options wihtin the Cuenca overview at Booking.
My Videos from Ecuador
Apart from nice photographs I also managed to film a mini video series along the way which features all of the discussed things to do in Ecuador and how I experienced them. Come and travel with me:
More Places to See in Ecuador?
I've been traveling for 2 weeks through the Andes and I'm looking forward to more tips from other travelers and Ecuador experts. Have you been and know of some cool places? Let us know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: My trip to Ecuador was made possible by the Ministerio de Turismo de Ecuador where I have been part of an art project called Feel Again Projekts. Nevertheless more than 50% of the content was created during private funded trips which i took on my own before and after the campaign. All opinions, recommendations and views are my own.
This post contains Affiliate Links for services and products I’m using on my travels – therefore I can highly recommend using them. By using these links you won’t pay any additional fees!