Cut through by the equator, Ecuador is a small country with a varied landscape and rich diversity of endemic flora and fauna. A journey of 125 miles takes you from sunny beaches, up into cool Andean grasslands, and down into tropical rain forests. Ecuador also includes the Galápagos Islands, about 620 miles west in the Pacific. Adventure travel doesn’t get much better, whether you’re hiking the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, canoeing the Amazon River, or swimming behind a white-tipped shark in the Galápagos. In the charming colonial towns and mountainside villages, you’ll find a melting pot of ethnic communities, many offering colorful marketplace wares, hearty traditional dishes, and artisanal chocolates.



When’s the best time to go to Ecuador?

The warmest time is December to May. June to September offers cooler and drier conditions for trekking the Andean highlands around Quito. Humpback whales also migrate along the Pacific coast during this time. October and November bring fewer tourists and variable weather—like sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. The western Amazon region is always wet, but less so August to November. The Galápagos is spectacular year-round, and if you’re on a multi-day cruise that restricts visitor numbers, you can snorkel the clear waters during the warm season of December to May and hardly notice that this is also the most popular time.

How to get around Ecuador

Direct flights from major North American cities now land at Ecuador’s two international airports. Quito’s slick new award-winning airport, Mariscal Sucre, has routes from New York’s JFK, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Lauderdale (as of February 2016). Guayaquil’s José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport has direct flights from JFK and Fort Lauderdale. Otherwise, stopovers at other major Latin American cities include Panama City, Lima, and Bogotá.

Traveling Ecuador’s dramatic terrain is memorable in itself. Fleets of comfortable buses link major cities, coastal towns, and many villages. Request a ticket for the ejecutivo or autobús de lujo to travel with AC, comfy seats, and the guarantee of no standing travelers. Thanks to a multimillion-dollar revamp, the luxurious Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) winds along Andean peaks, past snow-fringed volcanoes, and into Guayaquil. Check for multi-day trips. While inexpensive yellow cabs circle through major cities, renting a car proves a great way to navigate the main avenues. A series of well-built roads, including the Pan-American Highway, make driving simple. Drivers over 21, and with an international license, will find it cheaper and easier to rent a car and deal with road police along the way. However, heading into the winding highlands takes more planning, as GPS and phone signals fade and signage becomes nonexistent.

Food and drink to try in Ecuador

Potatoes and corn play a vital role in most dishes; Andean markets in particular are full of them. The 200 varieties of spud are often used in soups like locro, or the street favorite choclos (corn doused in cheese, guacamole, and cream). Seco de chivo (goat stew) and ceviche—with corn, of course—are common in most restaurants, though the country’s pièce de résistance is a fried rodent. Yes, cuy (guinea pig) performs an integral part of indigenous culture, not only for keeping as a pet but for its purported healing powers and sweet, smoky taste. Intrepid diners may want to wash it down with Ecuador’s corn beer, chicha de jora, or the sugarcane-based aguardiente—a sharp, potent, and dance-inducing liquor. The land erupts with fruits, making for delicious juices like maracuyá (passion fruit), tomate de árbol (tree tomato), and uchuva (physalis).

Culture in Ecuador

The experience of Ecuador’s melting pot begins in the capital. Declared as UNESCO’s first World Heritage site, Quito’s historic old town, with its baroque churches and palaces, is becoming Latin America’s leading urban getaway. Beyond the architectural beauty, you’ll find that Spanish and even pre-colonial influences still inform the street music, bustling plazas, and local cuisine. Up in the misty mountains, denizens of deep-rooted communities will travel miles with their goods to Andean towns. Market squares then display a kaleidoscope of colors, with handwoven garments and odd-shaped fruit, and the aromas of roasting meat and sounds of trade swirl along the streets.

La Mama Negra commemorates the Virgin of Mercy’s saving of Latacunga from a volcanic eruption in 1742. In September, and again during the first week of November, the streets of this small town throb with the sounds of drums, trumpets, and trombones from various parades (though the sight of a black-faced virgin and colorful transvestites may live longer in the memory). As the important Catholic festival before Easter, Carnival prepares devout believers for 40 days of fasting—with an almighty blowout. If you’re walking outside, expect to be covered in eggs, soap, and foam. The best way to enjoy the event is to grab a can and join in. At the beginning of December, Quito explodes into the weeklong Fiestas de Quito, celebrating the founding of the city in 1534. Open-air stages sprout up around the old town, featuring parades, street dances, and bullfights (without killings).

Local travel tips for Ecuador

Ecuador’s population of some 16 million is 71 percent mestizo, and the official language is Spanish. Although many of the country’s 27 indigenous groups—speaking at least 15 languages, most derived from Kichwa—do take part in community tourism initiatives, Ecuadorians as a whole remain committed to maintaining their unique customs and lifestyle. Ecuador moved to the U.S. dollar in 2000, stabilizing the economy after dangerous levels of inflation. In 2008, Ecuador was the first country in the world to uphold the “Rights of Nature” in its constitution, aiming to protect the country’s rich biodiversity. The majority of its environmental wonderlands lie in 51 protected areas, making up 19 percent of the land, including national parks and the Galápagos Islands.

Guide Editor

Simon Willis

Simon is a travel writer and freelance journalist flirting with both South America and Europe. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Independent, Yorkshire Post, Colombia Reports and Argentina Independent, among other publications. Simon is a sports nut, and when he is not adventure-seeking he is following his beloved Barnsley Football Club.

Read Before You Go
The South American country has increased security measures in response to a recent spate of violence following the prison escape of drug kingpin José Adolfo Macías earlier this month. Here’s the latest.
Yes, you can sleep on the edge of a volcano.
Resources to help plan your trip
Air Canada’s frequent flier program Aeroplan can get you to more than 1,300 destinations using points. Here’s how I flew to Ecuador and Panama in business class using just 85,000 points round trip.
A curated list of ethical (and magical) experiences viewing wild animals around the world.
Animal-friendly pathways provide safe passage for all kinds of critters and score big points for communities interested in ecotourism.
In January, Ecuador designated a new marine reserve in the Galápagos, preserving a critical migratory route for the islands’ most at-risk wildlife.
The spectacular biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands comes to life in these 13 essential experiences.
Ten tips for making the most out of a week on the wildest islands on Earth.
Cruises are the best way to discover the Galapagos. Ecuador’s archipelago is home to a diverse eco-system that is best explored by land and sea. Small ships offer flexible itineraries that allow for maximum freedom to spend more time in pursuit of wildlife sightings. The archipelago’s islands and landscapes are dramatically different, be prepared for total destination immersion.
Ecuador’s high-altitude capital boasts a stunning World Heritage old town and a restaurant scene as diverse as its residents. Be sure to stroll the cobbled streets, ride a cable car (one of the highest in the world!), and experience a vibrant traditional market. At night, grab your partner and head down the emblematic La Ronda, stopping to sip a cocktail and feel the beat of live salsa.
Whether you’re ascending the world’s tallest volcano, Cotopaxi, or scrambling down into a vast crater, you’ll learn why Ecuador’s trails have gained legendary status. Acclimatize to the altitude with gentle walks. Then explore the grassland páramos and fairy-tale cloud forests. The reward for such strenuous hikes? A dip into one of the Andes’ steaming, natural volcanic baths.
A visit to the Galapagos is all about getting up close with nature and the best hotels make guests feel like Charles Darwin, providing incredible access to wildlife. Guests feel like true explorers at Galapagos Safari Camp where accommodations include “glamping” tents. For the best of land and sea, book a stay at Finch Bay Eco Hotel or Pikaia Lodge. Both sustainably-minded properties have their own yachts staffed with naturalists and stocked with snorkeling gear.
We’ve partnered with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, which serves to network, educate, professionalize, and promote the adventure travel industry to share some amazing things to do in Ecuador. See the jewel-like hummingbirds, traditional haciendas, and soaring volcanoes that lie beyond the city. If that’s not enough to convince you, thermal springs and one of the world’s most luxurious eco-lodges await at the end of your treks through the Andes.
As Ecuador reopens to international visitors, we recall a trip earlier in 2020 that feels like a lifetime ago.
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