Ecuador might be one of South America's smaller nations, but it offers an incredible array of diverse travel experiences and some truly memorable things to see and do. Within its borders it provides visitors with direct access to the Amazon Rainforest, misty cloud forests, colonial era cities and colourful indigenous markets. The Andes mountain range and the Avenue of the Volcanoes provide spectacular backdrops to one of the continent's best train journeys and some 600 miles out in the Pacific Ocean lay the Galapagos Islands, where specialist cruises carry visitors around the archipelago to enjoy some of the most intimate wildlife encounters on earth, with some of its most bizarre and fascinating creatures.
Let's look in more detail at some of the best places to visit in Ecuador.
Explore Quito's colonial centre
Most journeys in Ecuador start at the high altitude capital Quito. The city is dramatically located, surrounded by the high peaks of the Andes and towered over by the Pichincha Volcano. Quito's attractive colonial centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is charactarised by pretty whitewashed facades and buzzing local life and is home to some of the most impressive Baroque style churches in South America and a wonderful collection of insightful museums. Visitors can also soar over Quito on the cable cars, for wonderful panoramic views over the city below and the surrounding Andean mountains. Just north of the city is the Equatorial Monument, which marks latitude 0º - the Middle of the World. Here you can stand with a foot in each hemisphere.
Quito's historic centre
Shop at Otavalo's Sunday market
One of the best things to do in Quito is actually take a short ride out of the city, on roads surrounded by volcanic peaks and through a subtropical valley to visit the small village of Otavalo. This place is famed for its colourful indigenous Sunday market, where a mixture of colonial and ancient Inca influences have shaped modern life. Visitors here can shop for textiles, silver jewellery, wall hangings, hats, paintings, wood-carvings, sweaters and much more, as well as observe traditionally-dressed locals going about their daily business.
Other interesting day trips from Quito include the tropical cloud forests of Mindo or Bellavista and also the Cotopaxi National Park, home to the world's highest active volcano and a great place to see llamas, wild horses, frogs and maybe even the Andean Condor. Another popular alternative is to climb up to the crater of Pululahua volcano, surrounded by fertile farmland at its base and supporting orchids and local birds on its crater walls. It is thought to be the only volcano cultivated by its inhabitants.
Discover the delights of the Cloud Forest
Slightly further afield, but still accessible on a day excursion from Quito, is the Bellavista Cloud Forest, in the Tandayapa Valley. On walks led by naturalist guides you can enjoy sweeping views of the misty canopy and learn about the many varieties of plants which thrive in these conditions. Unsurprisingly, exotic birds flourish here, particularly hummingbirds, and it is also possible to spot butterflies and perhaps some small mammals and reptiles.
As you may have seen on the recent BBC series, the Mashpi Lodge is the best place to stay to experience the full exuberance of the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Located in the heart of the forest, this luxurious and highly specialised hotel is surrounded by millions of verdant trees in which a huge numbers of birds and frogs live.
Sights of the cloud forest (photos by Mashpi Lodge)
Visit the Amazon Rainforest
Leaving behind the capital, you can either fly across the Pacific to the Galapagos Islands, usually via Guayaquil, head south through the Avenue of the Volcanoes or fly east to Coca in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest.
Visitors to the Ecuadorian Amazon may choose to cruise down the Napo River on a traditional riverboat, either the Manatee or the luxury Anakonda, on three, four or seven night trips. Alternatively, you could choose to stay at a specialist jungle lodge, usually reached by motorised canoes, with itineraries lasting three or four nights.
Daily excursions showcase the extraordinary biodiversity of the world's biggest rainforest. In the water it is possible to observe river dolphins, giant otters and caimans, whilst various species of monkeys, three-toed sloths and a huge array of exotic birds live high in the trees. Another highlight is a visit to a clay lick, where colourful macaws and parrots congregate en-mass. Besides the wildlife, you can enjoy spectacular rainforest scenery, including towering trees, flooded forests and memorable sunsets. The tours often have a cultural aspect, introducing you to indigenous communities to learn about life in the jungle.
La Selva jungle lodge, Amazon Rainforest
Drive through the Avenue of the Volcanoes...
Returning to Quito, you may choose to continue your journey southwards through the spectacular Avenue of the Volcanoes, either by road to Cuenca, or by luxury train to Guayaquil on the Pacific coast. Both offer magnificent views of the Ecuadorian highlands, including the perfectly conical snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi Volcano.
Road journeys stop overnight at Riobamba, known for its thermal springs, and finish at the attractive colonial city of Cuenca, via the Inca archaeological site at Ingapirca. Cuenca is perhaps best known for its flower market, magnificent cathedral and local Panama hat industry. it is within easy reach of the fertile Gualaceo Valley and the Cajas National Park, a great spot for bird and nature lovers.
...or take the Train of Wonders
Alternatively, you can ride the Train of Wonders through the Avenue of the Volcanoes, enjoying intimate cultural encounters with woodcarvers, weavers, painters, musicians and even an ice merchant. On the way you'll pass through ever-changing scenery, from high mountains and river gorges to rural quinoa fields, tropical forests and banana and cocoa plantations. One of the highlights of the trip is the chance to ride the Devil's Nose Railway, a series of dramatic switch-back tracks that represents a miraculous feat of engineering.
Once in Guayaquil there really is only one place to head next...
Train of Wonders
Mavel at the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands
So high mountain peaks, towering volcanoes, tropical forests and colonial city centres sounds like the basis of a pretty good itinerary right? Whilst some choose to create a memorable holiday on the Ecuadorian mainland, for many the highlight of (an already highlight-packed) trip here is the chance to fly 600 miles out into the Pacific Ocean to board a Galapagos cruise.
We could write thousands of words about the archipelago, made famous by Charles Darwin, but we'll try to keep things simple here and then allow you to dive into our range of cruises and.
Cruises here range from short three night introductory tours, limited to one part of the islands, up to seven night cruises, some of which can be combined for a comprehensive two week cruise. There is a wide range of boats of different shapes and vessel styles and to suit different budgets.
A typical day involves a morning shore walk led by a licenced naturalist guide, following either a dry dock landing or a wet landing on a beach. Here you will enjoy incredible close-up encounters with the naturally tame wildlife of the archipelago, all of whom demonstrate remarkable characteristics thanks to centuries of isolated evolution and adaptation to the unique conditions here. Once back on board, there will be time for snorkeling or kayaing in the clear waters, followed by a second afternoon shore walk after lunch.
In the evening you will enjoy an indulgent dinner and perhaps attend a nature lecture and you'll have plenty of opportunities to admire stunning sunets, socialise with your fellow guests and relax in comfort. Overnight the captain will travel the larger distances to other islands, ready for you to disembark and explore afresh in the morning.
Learn more about how to visit the Galapagos Islands.
Excursions in the Galapagos Islands
Ecuador Visitors Guide
Where to Combine with Ecuador
Ecuador can be easily combined with other South American countries by air, particularly Peru and Brazil. Our multi-country Landmark Tours combine Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with the Inca Heartland and Lima in Peru, with possible extensions into Bolivia or Brazil.
When to Visit Ecuador
Given that the Equator runs through the country (hence why it is so called), Ecuador is a year-round destination. Average temperatures in Quito remain remarkably consistent throughout the year, at around 14 degrees. The city receives more rain between February and April and in September and October, with June to September being the best in terms of sunshine.
The Ecuadorian Amazon also enjoys a relatively stable climate, with temperatures averaging a hot and humid 26 degrees and rain falling throughout the year. As with Quito, perhaps the best time to visit is during our summer, between June and August, when wildlife particularly flourishes as rainfall peaks. The same consistency applies to the Galapagos, with the possible exception of September, when the seas are choppy and some boats go into dry dock.
How to Get to Ecuador
The most common way to get to Ecuador is to fly with Iberia from London, Edinburgh, Manchester or Birmingham to Quito (or Guayaquil), via Madrid. KLM, Air Europa and Avianca also fly to Quito or Guayaquil, via Amsterdam, Madrid and Bogota respectively.
Better with experts
Travelling in any Latin American country can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time here. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life, giving you their inside knowledge and offering an authentic and personal perspective, that will leave you both informed and inspired.
The Veloso Tours website has all the ideas and inspiration you'll need to get you started on your Ecuadorian adventure. Now that you know where to visit in Ecuador, our expert consultants would be delighted to work with you to sort out all the little details and craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip to Ecuador with Veloso Tours.
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The Pichincha Tour
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This tour includes the Amazon rainforest, a Galapagos cruise and an insight into the colonial charm of Quito, high in the mountains
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The Bellavista Tour
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The Ninos Galapagos Family Tour
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