Ecuador might be small in size, but it's certainly not small in experiences. With its idyllic beaches, glacier capped mountains, and lush jungles, it's got enough natural wonders to keep even the most avid adventurer in thrills and spills - and that's to say nothing of the delights that await you at the charming colonial cities scattered around its landscape.
Regardless of what kind of vacation you're dreaming of, Ecuador will hold you enthralled from the moment you arrive to the second you leave. But with so many things to see and so much to explore, how can you possibly know where to start? If drawing up an itinerary has left you with a headache, take some inspiration from our round up of the 20 best things to do in Ecuador for first timers - pack as many of these into your trip as possible, and we promise you won't leave disappointed.
20. Buy a Panama hat
Despite what most people think (and despite what the name implies), the Panama hat actually comes from Ecuador, not Panama. If you're in the market for an authentic Panama hat, head to Montecristi where you'll also get the chance to learn more about the history of the legendary head gear, and meet a few of the master weavers that make them as well. Just be sure to bring your wallet - an authentic Panama hat doesn't come for free.
19. Explore the lava tubes
According to nomadicmatt.com, one of the best things to do in Ecuador involves taking a tour of the lava tubes, Located just north of Puerto Ayora, the lava tubes consist of a series of underground tunnels that have been formed over the ages from molten-lava. A self-guided tour costs the bargain-basement price of just $1, although you can also opt for a guided tour if you prefer.
18. Take a trip to La Chocolatera
La Chocolatera is a national park with a lot to say for itself. Named after the way the foam that's formed when the waves break on the rocks looks like a big bowl of chocolate, it's a stunning natural wonder that also ranks as one of Ecuador's best places for surfing. Although it's possible to walk to La Chocolatera from Salinas, most people recommend taking a taxi unless you want to be a puddle of sweat by the time you arrive.
17. Wonder at the Temple of the Sun
As Ecuador’s premier Inca site, a visit to Ingapirca is a must for any visitor with an interest in the country's rich culture and history. Although there's no shortage of fascinating things to see, a special mention has to go to the Temple of the Sun, a circular building created from intricately carved stones that's unquestionably the star attraction of this impressive site. A guided tour might be expensive at around $40, but it's worth the expense.
16. Hike Darwin Lake
Darwin Lake is a thing of wonder. A salt water lagoon with twice the salinity of the ocean, it's located in a tranquil, picture perfect setting that was almost made for Instagram. The hike around the lake consists of a 2km trail that leads you to the lower lava slopes of Volcán Darwin. Along the way, expect to see Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants, and even a scattering of historical graffiti. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you if you come - the heat can get relentless.
15. Tour the monuments at Mitad del Mundo
Mitad del Mundo is a stretch of land that's packed with more monuments and museums than you could visit in a week, all of which are dedicated to celebrating Ecuador's unique position on the equator. It's also one of the very few places in the world you can have one foot on the Northern Hemisphere and the other on the Southern Hemisphere at the same time. Just a small selection of the venues worthy of your time include the Monument to the Equator, Ethnographic Museum, and the Intinan Solar Museum.
14. Visit Charles Darwin Research Station
If you're in the vicinity of Puerto Ayroa, don't miss a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Even if you're not in the area, it's worth the drive anyway. As one of Lonely Planet's top picks for things to see in Ecuador, it's a fantastic place to see and learn about the country's native tortoises. Created as the headquarters for The Charles Darwin Foundation, the primary purpose of the station is to conduct scientific research and promote environmental education. A number of the few remaining subspecies of tortoise live here, as do a gang of very impressive land iguanas. As you walk around the arid-vegetation, you'll see no end of other native varieties of flora and fauna, including saltbush, mangroves and prickly pear, and several variety of land birds, including Darwin's finches. For kids, a visit to the baby-tortoise house is a must.
13. Surf at Montañita
Montañita is a relatively new addition to the backpacker's trail, but already, it's developed a fine reputation for its pristine beaches and laid-back vibe. For surfers, it's heaven - grab a board and prepare for some of the best waves in the country. Without the crowds of bigger resorts, it also makes a great option for travelers looking for an easy-going place with plenty of cheap accommodation options, live music, and like-minded folk.
12. Hike Quilotoa Lake
Quilotoa Lake is one of Ecuador's most stunning locations, and a must visit for anyone who wants to experience the true majesty of the country's natural landscape. Blissfully serene and with the kind of tranquility you'd drive a lifetime to find, it's an outstanding place to pull on your hiking boots and stretch your legs. If you prefer, you've also got the option to rent a kayak and spend the morning floating around the lake's glossy surface.
11. Swing over the Amazon Rainforest
If you don't like heights, feel free to skip on to our next activity. If you do, and if you don't mind taking your life in your hands from time to time, you're not going to want to miss one of the most exhilarating experiences Ecuador has to offer: swinging across the Amazon Rainforest. The swing (which has been given the very fitting name of the “Swing at the End of the World”) is located near the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Despite being created almost exclusively for the tourist market, you'll soon forget about the lines of people below once you start flying over the top of the Amazon.
10. Mountain bike at Cotopaxi Volcano
If climbing Cotopaxi Volcano seems too much like hard work, take the fun route and bike it instead. Take gobackpacking.com's advice and drive to the parking lot located a short way up the volcano before jumping on a mountain bike and freewheeling your way back down. It's fast, it's furious, it's exhilarating, and it's a heck of a lot easier than walking.
9. Soak up the sun at Tortuga Bay
If your ideal vacation involves lying around the beach, you're not going to want to miss a visit to Tortuga Bay. A rival to the best of South America's beaches, it's a stunning stretch of pristine sand lapped by crystal clear waters. For snorkelers, it's paradise, with sharks, tortoises, and just about every other variety of sea life you can imagine. You can also expect to see marine iguanas, pelicans and even the occasional wild flamingo. Just be sure to bring your own food and water - it's an isolated spot and the nearby facilities aren't exactly abundant.
8. Indulge your sweet tooth at Confiteria el Gato
Ecuador isn't all about high octane adventures and rich cultural history. It's also a great place to indulge in some of the simpler pleasures in life. Case in point: Confiteria el Gato. This legendary little sweet shop in Rocafuerte is a great place to treat your sweet tooth. Recommended by totraveltoo.com as one of Ecuador's top attractions, it's a treasure trove of local candies and sweet treats. Although some of the offerings contain slightly unusual (and very healthy) ingredients like cilantro and sweet potato, make no mistake - these little delicacies are packed with sugar. Escaping without a new cavity or two is almost mission impossible... but probably worth it, anyway.
7. Visit the Valley of Longevity
Visit the Valley of Longevity and not only will you get to experience one of the cultural delights of Ecuador, you might even add a few years onto your lifespan in the process. According to locals, something about the place has a very positive effect on your longevity, with many residents claiming to have hit the 100-year mark and beyond. Whether or not it's hiding the fountain of youth, who knows? What we do know for sure is that it's surrounded by some of Ecuador's most gorgeous natural scenery, with more trails and views than you could take in in a lifetime.
6. Tour the churches at Cuenca
As Ecuador's third biggest city, Cuenca is a vibrant, lively place with all the shops, bars, restaurants, and entertainment options you'd expect. it's also considered the intellectual capital of Ecuador (so much so, in fact, it's been described as the "Athens of the Andes”). If you're into lively debate and stimulating discussions, take a pew in one of the coffee shops and prepare for some deep thinking. Otherwise, just enjoy walking the streets of this charming UNESCO World Heritage Site with their gorgeous colonial buildings, churches, and cathedrals.
5. Visit Baños
if you like living life on the edge, don't miss a visit to the small town of Baños while you're in Ecuador. Described by nomadicmatt.com as the country's adventure capital, it's packed to the gills with things that are guaranteed to get your heart pumping and your adrenalin flowing. Whether you're into biking, bungee jumping, or climbing waterfalls, you'll find plenty to keep you occupied. If all the adventure gives you sore muscles, take a dip in one of the many hot springs scattered around- their healing powers are said to be legendary.
4. Shop 'till you drop at Otavalo Market
Recommended by psimonmyway.com as one of the top things to do in Ecuador, Otavalo Market is heaven for shoppers. Packed with hundreds of stalls selling colorful textiles, woven goods, local crafts, ceramic, leather, wood, silver, and metal products, along with almost every other kind of art and craft you can imagine, it's a must for anyone looking for something unique and lovely to bring home with them. Just be warned that as one of South America’s largest outdoor markets, it gets incredibly busy - if crowds aren't your thing, visit mid-week when the number of visitors is a little less intense.
3. Bus around the Quilotoa Loop
If you want to see the rich culture of Ecuador's high mountain villages for yourself, take velvetescape.com's advice and take a bus tour around the Quilotoa Loop. As well as giving you an eagle eye view of the gorgeous crater lake Quilotoa, it also offers a fascinating glimpse of the numerous Andean villages that surround it. Once the bus makes its way into the village of Quilotoa, take a few hours to explore the numerous little shops and charming local eateries that line its streets - you'll also find no shortage of cozy little hostels if you're in need of a room for the night.
2. Climb a volcano
Ever fancied climbing a volcano? No, us neither, but for people of a more adventurous spirit, it's the kind of thing that tops the bucket list. And where better to do it than Ecuador, a country that seems to have almost as many volcanoes as it does cities. While some of the volcanoes are off limits to anyone who doesn't have at least a few years' experience behind them, others can be managed with the bare minimum of technical skills. If you can only manage one volcano during your trip, make it Volcán Chimborazo. As well as being the tallest mountain in Ecuador, it's also the furthest point from the center of Earth.
1. Take a trip to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands is like nowhere else on earth. Located just a short hop, skip, and a jump off Ecuador’s coast, it promises a once-in-a lifetime experience that no one, no matter how well traveled, is likely to forget in a hurry. Untouched for centuries and a haven for some of the wildest, weirdest creatures on earth, it's the kind of place that nature-lover's dreams are made off.
While you're there, take roamingaroundtheworld.com's advice and indulge in as many wildlife encounters as possible. Some of the things to pack in include diving with giant manta rays, visiting wild Galapagos tortoises, snorkeling with sharks, watching wild penguins frolicking with the wild flamingos in the bay, and swimming with sea lions. Aim to dedicate as much time as you possibly can to this little slice of natural heaven - and it stands to reason that you really, really don't want to forget your camera.
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Written by Liz Flynn
Read more posts by Liz Flynn