Ecuador is a wildly diverse yet small country. And thanks to its compact size, there are many things you can do in Ecuador in a relatively short period. Adventure seekers will have opportunities for whitewater rafting in class IV rapids, mountain biking through Cotopaxi National Park, and climbing snow-capped volcanoes.
Travelers seeking a more relaxing experience can visit one or more of the five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cruise around the Galapagos Islands, or go shopping in Otavalo at the largest market in South America. There's no shortage of amazing things to do in Ecuador, whatever your style.
Top Ecuador Attractions
1. Cruise the Galapagos Islands
Tour the historic islands where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution.
Here are just a few of the wildlife experiences awaiting you in the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site:
- Swimming with sea lions in Gardner Bay.
- Observing blue-footed boobies on Espanola Island.
- Visiting giant tortoises on Santa Cruz Island.
- Getting up close and personal with marine iguanas on Isabela Island.
Plus, you'll learn the geology behind how this volcanic island chain was formed.
A pro travel tip that could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Book a last-minute cruise to the Galapagos once you reach Quito or Guayaquil if you've got the time. Be flexible with your departure dates; it's worth it.
Want to book a Galapagos cruise in advance? Compare these two fantastic trips from G Adventures:
- Galapagos Land & Sea North & Central aboard Estrella del Mar
- Galapagos Land & Sea Central Islands aboard the Xavier III
2. Explore Quito
Quito is the capital of Ecuador, and at an elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters), it's the second-highest capital city in the world (after La Paz).
Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adorned with colonial architecture like the intricate Church of La Compania de Jesus and the Plaza de la Independencia. Several local companies offer free walking tours.
For convenient city views, head up to El Panecillo, a hill overlooking the city crowned by a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Or, take a ride on the Quito Teleferico, one of the world's highest aerial gondolas, to an elevation of 13,451 feet (4,100 meters) for sweeping panoramic views. Once up there, experienced climbers can attempt to ascend Pichincha Volcano (15,695 feet / 4,784 meters).
Visiting the Equator, known in Ecuador as the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), is as easy as a few bus rides or a faster but costlier taxi ride from the backpacker neighborhood of La Mariscal.
Visit the actual Equator, marked by a series of exciting experiments, and the more massive Equatorial Monument, built in the wrong place about 300 feet (100 meters) away.
3. Mountain Biking Cotopaxi Volcano
Riding a mountain bike down an active volcano is one of the most adventurous things to do in Ecuador.
Cotopaxi is a 19,347-foot (5,897-meter) tall stratovolcano. It's Ecuador's second-tallest volcano and one of the world's highest active volcanos. Mountain biking Cotopaxi Volcano is an adventure activity accessible to most people, regardless of age. And it's an easy day trip from Quito.
On your tour, you'll be driven into Cotopaxi National Park and taken to the parking lot at an elevation of 14,764 feet (4,500 meters). There, you'll jump on mountain bikes for a fun and fast ride down to 10,827 feet (3,300 meters).
Tours typically include a picnic lunch at the bottom, where you can continue to take in the beautiful scenery of the Andes Mountains before pedaling over flat terrain to your departure point. It's one of the most exciting outdoor activities available in Ecuador.
4. Shop at Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market, about a three-hour bus ride north of Quito, is the largest marketplace in South America. It's known to locals as “Plaza de Los Ponchos” and “Centenario Market.”
It's the perfect place to practice your haggling skills while picking up a few authentic souvenirs for your family and friends at home.
The best time to go to Otavalo Market is Saturday when it swells to its largest size thanks to vendors from the surrounding region coming to sell their products.
5. Delve Into the Amazon Jungle
Ecuador is one of the cheapest places in South America to visit the Amazon rainforest. It's also one of the most amazing things to do in Ecuador.
Visitors can get up close and personal with the native wildlife like pink river dolphins found in the rainforest and learn about the indigenous people who call the region home.
The Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest is massive, so I highly recommend booking a tour with a local guide for the best experience.
The 14-day Inland & Amazon tour by G Adventures includes Quito, the Amazon, Banos, and Otavalo.
6. Trek the Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop is a three to four-day, high-altitude adventure mixing local buses with mountain treks. It's one of the most popular hikes in South America and things to do in Ecuador.
Altitudes can reach up to 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), so be sure to acclimate for a few days nearby or in Quito before starting.
The highlight for many is a view of the picturesque Laguna Quilotoa, a crater lake that offers stunning views of nearby volcanoes on clear days.
7. Thrill-Seeking in Banos
Banos is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of Ecuador and one of the most scenic locations in South America.
The popular mainland Ecuador mountain town is aptly named after the mineral-rich hot springs produced by the neighboring volcano.
The pueblo is home to a broad range of activities suitable for nature lovers and adventure travelers, including:
- Climbing Tungurahua Volcano
- Waterfall tours
- Whitewater rafting
- Hot springs
- Mountain biking
- Bridge swings
- The Swing at the End of the World
When the nearby Tungurahua volcano is actively erupting, it's possible to see the ash plume and even red lava spewing from the crater. Visiting this mountain town is one of the best things to do in Ecuador.
Related: Best Hostels in Banos
8. Surf in Montanita
Montanita on the Pacific Coast has long been a favorite surf spot. Learning to surf on the sandy beaches here is one of the most popular things to do in Ecuador for visitors and locals.
Every weekend, vacationing Ecuadorians (especially those from nearby Guayaquil) flood town to visit the beach, surf, and enjoy the raucous nightlife.
It has undergone a construction boom in recent years as Ecuadorians and expats get in on the increasing number of tourists visiting this small town by the Pacific Ocean.
9. Walk Cuenca's Historic City Center
Ecuador's third-largest city also boasts its prettiest historic center, the main attraction. Filled with dozens of churches and one impressive cathedral, Cuenca is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the preservation of its colonial buildings and architecture.
The largest and most impressive church in the Old Town is La Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción (pictured above).
At 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level, the weather can vary considerably throughout the day, from cold mornings to hot, sunny afternoons.
For the brave culinary traveler, Cuenca is one of the best places in Ecuador to sample cuy (guinea pig). Guinea pig is considered a local delicacy and is unique to the Highlands.
Cuenca is also a great jumping-off point for visits to El Cajas National Park (elevation: 10,826 feet / 3,300 meters). Here, visitors will find glacier-formed valleys and have the chance to go on an independent or guided hike.
10. Vilcabamba (Valley of Longevity)
Vilcabamba is a great place in Ecuador to visit. The pueblo is in a valley about 45 minutes south of Loja. The town's claim to fame is that locals live longer than average, with many regularly reaching the 100-year mark.
The pueblo is an excellent jumping-off point for hiking in the surrounding mountains and acts as a gateway for travelers planning to use the inland border crossing with Peru.
11. The Ingapirca Ruins
The Ingapirca ruins are a captivating archaeological site in southern Ecuador (about 50 miles north of Cuenca). The name means “Inca wall” in the Kichwa language, and the site stands as the country's most significant Incan ruins.
Believed to have been both a religious and administrative center, Ingapirca features a fascinating mix of Incan and Cañari architecture.
The site's crowning glory is the Temple of the Sun, a meticulously constructed elliptical building made of precisely cut stones. These ruins offer a unique glimpse into the Incan empire's reach, influence, and cultural amalgamation with the native Cañari people.
12. Mindo Cloud Forest
The Mindo Cloud Forest is a beautiful and biodiverse region in Ecuador's western slopes of the Andes, just a few hours from Quito.
This lush, misty paradise is a magnet for nature enthusiasts and birdwatchers, boasting over 500 species of birds along with an array of fascinating flora and fauna.
Beyond birdwatching, Mindo offers plenty of activities, from ziplining through the treetops to hiking along trails that wind through the forest. Don't miss the chance to visit some of the area's stunning waterfalls on foot or via a scenic cable car ride.
13. Wildlife Viewing on Isla de la Plata
Often dubbed the “poor man's Galapagos,” Isla de la Plata offers a more budget-friendly yet still extraordinary wildlife experience.
Located off the coast of mainland Ecuador, this island is part of Machalilla National Park and is teeming with diverse marine life and bird species. You might even spot humpback whales in the waters from June to September during their migration.
Hiking trails offer panoramic views and encounters with the island's famous blue-footed boobies. Snorkeling here is another highlight, with the chance to swim among colorful fish, rays, and turtles.
14. Stroll Guayaquil's Malecon 2000
Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, offers visitors the Malecon 2000, a riverfront promenade. It's a vibrant urban renewal project that showcases the city's metamorphosis.
Stretching along the Guayas River, the Malecon combines modern architecture with historical landmarks, gardens, and cultural venues. It's a scenic place to walk, catch a river breeze, and even shop.
Attractions include the Rotonda Monument, commemorating the meeting of Latin American liberators Bolivar and San Martin, and the MAAC, a museum celebrating Ecuador's ancient cultures.
15. Eat Ceviche
Ceviche is more than just a dish in Ecuador; it's a culinary experience that captures the essence of the country's rich coastal culture. Unlike the ceviche in Peru or Mexico, Ecuadorian ceviche often features a tomato-based broth, giving it a distinct, tangy flavor.
Comprising fresh seafood like shrimp, fish, or even octopus, marinated in lime juice and mixed with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro, it's a refreshing meal that sings with zest and complexity.
Often served with popcorn, plantain chips, or corn nuts, this dish provides a delightful crunch that contrasts with the tender seafood. A must-try for foodies and culinary adventurers alike!
We hope this guide to the best things to do in Ecuador helped inspire you to plan a trip to Latin America.
If you're not comfortable going on your own, consider a small-group tour from G Adventures:
Ecuador Encompassed is a 17-day trip that departs from and returns to Quito. It includes seven of the ten places mentioned in this story, including Banos, Tena (the Amazon), Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Cuenca, and Montanita.
Inland and Amazon is a 14-day trip with a similar itinerary, minus the beaches.
Ecuador Mainland & The Galapagos Islands is a 14-day trip combining the best of both worlds. The tour includes Quito, Banos, Tena (the Amazon), and five days in the Galapagos.
Last Updated on October 17, 2023 by Dave Lee