In recent years, Ecuador has soared in popularity as a tourist destination over the last decade, yet it still preserves its authenticity. This small South American country located at the center of the world stretches along the Pacific coast, the Andean Mountains, the Amazon basin, tropical dry forests, rainforests, volcanoes and colonial cities. This is probably what makes a visit to Ecuador worthwhile: in just a few days’ time you can visit all these places. Which is why we’ve come up with a list of Ecuadorian gems you cannot miss during your trip to the place in which the treasure of the last Incan emperor was hidden.
Quito – It’s probably wise to start with the capital before taking off into the wilderness. Surrounded by volcanoes, this chaotic yet charming city is home to the least altered, and best-preserved historic center in the Americas, which was declared World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1978. So after you recover from “altitude sickness” – Quito is located at 2,850 m (9,350 ft) above sea level – you can visit all the treasures that are to be found downtown, including a magnificent baroque church known as “La Compañía”, that has a facade built out of volcanic rock and is decorated with seven tons of gold leaf inside. Another must-see is the Capilla del Hombre (the Man’s Chapel), which is a museum dedicated to Osvaldo Guayasamín, Ecuador’s most prolific painter. You should also walk around the Guapulo neighborhood, literally a time machine, with its small streets and colonial architecture. And last but not least, you should not leave Quito without visiting the National Museum, found at the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana. In addition to an amazing gold sun-shaped sculpture, its collection of Pre-Columbian treasures is truly breathtaking.
Otavalo – Located approximately 110kms away from Quito and also surrounded by volcanoes – this city has a large indigenous population and it is famous for its Saturday market, where you will find all sorts of native crafts, textiles, jewelry and leather goods, among other souvenirs. It is fun to see and walk around its narrow, color splashed streets while contemplating the traditional costumes worn by the otavaleños. You can then stop at a local restaurant to have some “Fritada” (fried pork) or “Cuy” (guinea pig, yes, that’s right) before heading to see the Cuicocha Lagoon and passing through Cayambe town to taste its famous “leaf cheese”.
Baños de Agua Santa – This spa city, which has a series of delightful hot springs, is also home to the active volcano Tungurahua, and is surrounded by magnificent sights such as the “Devil’s Cauldron” waterfall, a true natural spectacle. In Baños you will also get to eat “melcocha”, a sugar cane candy elaborated with a fascinating technique that makes it even more tempting. With the right dose of sugar in your blood you can then visit the “Casa del Árbol” and sit on the “End of the World Swing”, that is located atop a 2,600-meter abyss.
Ambato – An hour away from Baños you can find the lovely city of Ambato, also known as the “Garden of Ecuador” or the “City of Flowers and Fruit”. With a series of attractions, like leafy parks and an eccentric cathedral, it is also a great place to taste “Llapingachos” or try the traditional potato soup, “Locro de Papas”. Hometown to famous historical intellectuals such as Juan Montalvo, Juan León Mera and Juan Benigno Vela, it is also the place in which Hall of Fame card player Juan Carlos Mortensen was born. Not far from Ambato is the Llanganates National Park, that, apart from being a great place to see llamas, vicuñas and alpacas, is also where the Treasure of the Llanganates was allegedly hidden.
Cuenca – Known for its cultural events, this fascinating World Heritage Site colonial city – considered by many to be the prettiest city in Ecuador – is located in the highlands and is a fun place to go out at night after visiting its many landmarks, which include the Old Cathedral, the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures, the Museum Taller del Sombrero (hat atelier) and its picturesque streets.
Now that some of the cities worth visiting in Ecuador have been mentioned, we can start exploring its natural treasures, which is probably what makes this country a unique place in the world.
Machalilla National Park
It would make sense to include the Galapagos Islands in this list, but this top Ecuadorian destination needs no introduction, and it is usually part of the itinerary of many travelers visiting the country. I’ve chosen to include Machalilla National Park instead as it is less touristy – as well as less expensive to visit – and has some treasures of its own. The only coastal park in the country, it is comprised of different areas which include desert, tropical dry forest and “matorral”, as well as the beautiful Isla de la Plata and the famous archeological site of Agua Blanca. This not to mention some amazing unspoiled beaches like “Los Frailes”, and fauna that includes iguanas, pumas, parrots and blue-footed boobies (like those found at the Galapagos Islands), as well as the whales that pass through the region since the beginning of June until September, providing a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle to visitors.
Same & Tonchigüe – Ecuador is quite famous for its beaches, particularly loved by travelers looking for waves. A popular destination among surfers, the Ecuadorian coast is also home to some unforgettable havens that, unlike towns such as Montañita or Mompiche, remain unspoiled. This is the case of beaches found near the towns of Same and Tonchigüe, that are harder to access and are therefore peaceful oasis. There is one place in particular that is worthwhile visiting called Playa Escondida, as it is located in a unique spot surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and some bizarre rock formations that can only be seen when the tide goes down. And since you’re at the coast you should try the delicious Ecuadorian “ceviche de camarón”, which is also supposed to be great for hangovers!
Yasuní – This National Park could not be left out from this list. Nicknamed “the lung of the world”, it is famous for having close to one million hectares of virgin tropical forest. Home to indigenous tribes and to an infinite number of species, this park is currently under threat because of oil diggings that have been taking place in the area. However, the global struggle to preserve it continues and with a very sustainable tourist program, there is no way you can leave Ecuador without visiting Yasuní.
Mindo – If you’ve made your way back to Quito and still have some time left, you should rent a car and go to Mindo, a cloud forest which is located in the western slopes of the Andes, where two of the most biologically diverse eco-regions in the world meet: the Tropical Andes and the Chocoan lowlands. What this basically means is that you will not cease to be amazed by all the fauna and flora found in Mindo, where you can also do rafting or tubing. Spend the night there and listen to all the species: it will be the best lullaby you’ll hear in your life.
So little, yet so diverse, that is what makes Ecuador special. This without mentioning its people – and its truly excellent food – who will be more than happy to welcome you in their own special and warm manner as you make your way through colonial cities, picture perfect beaches and green forests.