Ecuador may be a relatively small country, but there are many great experiences for travelers to enjoy. Whether you're a first-time traveler or revisiting, there are secret gems in Ecuador waiting for you to explore.
If you're arriving by plane, make sure to check out our Quito Airport Guide to helpful resources and tips to know for first time travelers!
Without further ado, let's find out what they are by figuring out just why people flock to Ecuador every year!
Ecuador is one of South America's most fascinating countries, with various indigenous cultures, colonial architecture, scenic landscapes, and dense rainforests. Called "four countries in one" by the locals, Ecuador's landscapes are a stark contrast. With such a wide diversity of things to do and see in Ecuador, it's no wonder Ecuador's tourism takes in thousands of visitors year-round.
Ecuador's great outdoors
For outdoor sports enthusiasts, there are endless mountaineering and trekking adventures to join. What's more? Ecuador's lush and ecologically vital forests and the famous Galapagos Islands attract nature lovers. Trying to find the perfect spot for sunbathing? Ecuador's pristine tropical beaches are widely considered the most beautiful and unspoiled beaches globally.
Ecuador was also part of both the Inca Empire and the Spanish Empire and is still heavily influenced by both groups. There's perhaps nowhere else are these lasting effects more noticeable. Here you can experience the rich culture of the people and the magnificent colonial architecture of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Check out this list of top things to do in Ecuador and learn more about this beautiful South American country!
Discover the Galapagos Islands
If you ask anyone what Ecuador's known for, they'll probably answer with Galapagos Islands.
Located off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are unique on the planet. Named after the island's giant tortoise, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has a unique ecosystem that has evolved significantly without external influence. Visitors will find wildlife and endemic species not found anywhere else. As a result, visits to this pristine area offer the opportunity to observe extraordinary wildlife. You can see a variety of rare creatures both on land and in the surrounding sea.
The Galapagos Islands are also where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Be sure to book a behind-the-scenes tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island. A tour of this important research facility can be booked before arrival, and it is definitely worth it.
This precious ecosystem can only be visited with a guided tour to a designated visitor site. However, one or two areas can be seen without a guide, including popular areas for divers.
Explore Ecuador's historical capital, Quito.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is located high in the Andes with many well-preserved colonial buildings. Quito is South America's largest and least changed historic center. Through this recognition, Quito became one of the first cities in the world to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its many ancient churches, beautiful public squares, and world-class museums, the city has become a favorite of artisans. In fact, you can find cool and local artisan arts and crafts, from pottery and wood carving to colorful clothing.
The historic center offers both cultural significance and many attractions. Most of the Baroque buildings in Quito's old town have survived despite the earthquake and modernization. It is truly mesmerizing to walk through the busy South American capital and among the beautiful buildings that have survived for nearly half a century!
San Francisco Church
The most famous attraction is the San Francisco Church at Plaza San Francisco. The church's whitewashed twin towers were built in the first half of the 15th century and are adjacent to the entrance to this massive complex on either side.
One of the exciting things to do in Quito is to visit the equator in Ecuador, Mitad del Mundo, which has been translated into English as the Middle of the World Monument.
However, be sure to visit the actual equator, marked by a series of exciting experiments, and the bigger monument, which was built in the wrong place, about 100 meters away.
Visit Cuenca's historic Center!
The beautiful city of Cuenca is officially known as Santa Ana de Rosquatro Rios Cuenca. This quaint town in southern Ecuador is a fun place to visit and explore on foot. Cuenca's fascinating colonial cityscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, creates a European atmosphere. The nickname "Athens in Ecuador" reflects Cuenca's architecture, cathedrals, archaeological sites, and the city's long history as a center of culture, arts, and crafts.
One of the main attractions in the historic center is Cuenca's old cathedral, Iglesia del Sagrario. Built in 1567 using the stones of the nearby Incan building, highlights include the old organ of 1739, the clock tower of 1751, and the Religious Museum. Also worth a visit is Cuenca's huge New Cathedral. Built in the 1960s, there are three beautiful blue domes that you can't miss. The San Sebastian Church, which has a mixture of Gothic and classicist elements, is also worth visiting.
Lastly, spend some time exploring the many squares and parks while strolling through the lovely narrow streets of Cuenca. Among the best is the Calderon Park in the heart of the Old Town and the San Blas Square, where you can also see the marvelous San Blas Church. In San Francisco Square, vendors sell textiles and other local goods.
Climb to the top of Cotopaxi.
Not only is Cotopaxi one of the most beautiful volcanoes in South America, but the surrounding national parks are also breathtaking. Parks surrounding Cotopaxi are home to wild horses, llamas, foxes, and awe-inspiring Andean condors. Just two hours from the capital, the 33,400-acre park offers a fantastic experience of Ecuador's gorgeous wildlife.
Hike or Horseride through the park
You can hike or horse ride at the low altitudes of the park for a glimpse of beautiful scenery and wildlife. Don't forget to look up to find some of the 90 species of birds that fly around Cotopaxi.
Or, for a different experience, cycle with a sprinting horse and stop at Laguna Limpio Pungo to find birds that nest on the reeds at the water's edge.
Also, visit the museum near Campamiento Mariscal Sucre to learn more about the park's history and geology.
Is Cotopaxi difficult to ascend?
Cotopaxi may have a beauty like no other, but climbing it is not easy. The climb from the refuge to the peak is about six to ten hours, and it is best to leave the shelter at midnight to begin trekking to the 5,000-meter summit.
Once on the top, see breathtaking perspectives of the sprawling park and search for Quito's twinkling lighting fixtures in the distance.
Ride the Devil's Nose train
A breathtaking visit to Nariz del Diablo, the Devil's Nose, should be on everyone's bucket list. Built during the 1900s, Devil's Nose train line is a railroad route through the Andes. It is one of history's most impressive engineering feats.
The route runs almost vertically from Alausi to Sibambe. You can catch the best views if you sit on the right side. Look out the open windows and marvel at the mountain scenery as you pass through thunder waterfalls, sparkling rivers, and knee-shaking canyons.
Look back and see the rest of the train weave around the mountains behind you.
Spend the night in Alausi!
Due to the early departure, it is advisable to spend a night in Alausi. Perched on the top of the canyon, Alausi is a traditional mountain town with narrow streets lined with quaint, old-fashioned houses, many dating back more than a century. Once in the city, you won't miss the enormous monument of St. Peter, the patron saint holding his red Bible in his white robe.
Visit during the city's annual festival in late June for a livelier experience. If you're staying in Alausi on a Sunday, you can visit the busy market. Find out how locals from the surrounding villages get together to exchange animals, fruits, and fish and enjoy a feast of homemade regional cuisine.
Explore the beautiful places in Ecuador!
Ecuador is no doubt an ideal destination for an authentic South American experience. There are plenty of things to do with so many captivating tropical beaches, stunning landscapes, and flavorful indigenous markets. Now that you know all of the best things to do in Ecuador, make sure you start planning your trip with Pilot!