Is Ecuador worth visiting? You bet ya’ it is! Uber-welcoming, buzzy yet traditional, and steeped from head to toe in some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes you’ll ever encounter, this country straddling the Equator certainly does a lot to clamber close to the top of our bucket-list picks for the continent.
What’s on offer? Better to ask: Where to begin? From the salt-washed surf beaches of the Pacific to the biodiverse rainforests of the Amazon all the way to the incredible archipelago islands of the Galápagos out in the open ocean, there’s really no letting up in the steady stream of highlights in these parts.
This guide will run through what we consider to be seven of the most amazing aspects of Ecuador. We’ll touch on the national parks and the waves, the value for money you get and the enthralling capital. So, is Ecuador worth visiting?
The capital of Quito
Under the gaze of the cloud-haloed Cotopaxi Volcano, Quito spreads out on the plateaus of the Ecuadorian Andes like a city that really shouldn’t be there. It’s an audacious town to behold, what with mist-swirled calderas on one side and the lush ridges of the Cayambe-Coca sierras rolling out on the other.
Welcome to the capital of Ecuador. You’ll find its most enthralling quarter in the simply named Old Town, which was one of the two first urban UNESCO sites to be listed alongside Krakow, Poland, back in 1978. It’s hard to deny that the honor is deserved. Sights like the colossal Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, a gilded colonial church that occupies 40,000 square meters, and the mighty Gothic rises of the Basílica del Voto Nacional dominate the skyline. But the streets also bustle with life, with hawkers, with cantinas – you name it.
Quito is likely to be the place that you start your travels in Ecuador. It’s a fine intro, beginning by taking the breath away (sometimes literally thanks to the soaring altitude!) with visions of Andean peaks and finishing with a bout of real local art, culture, and heritage.
While the cost of vacations all over Latin America have hiked in recent years, Ecuador remains one of the real bargains of the region. One-way transport tickets still cost less than $0.50, a local beer is around about just $1.50, and the price of a coffee in a local café is a mere $1.40. Those should all be hints that this country is well below what you’d pay in destinations right across Europe and North America.
However, perhaps the best deals of all are in the hotels. It’s possible to score pretty decent stays close to the beach for $20 (check out the Hosteria Punta Blanca), pretty sleek surf hostels for around $30 within walking distance of the waves (take a look at La Facha Hostal Restaurant Surf), and highly rated historic and luxury hotels in the capital of Quito for under $100 a night (see if you can get a suite at the Hotel Casona 1914).
Finally, food in Ecuador is very well priced. A meal at street food vendor is usually $3-5. Sitting in at a midrange restaurant should cost about $10-20 a head tops. Then there’s the uber-cheap stuff you can get from the local markets and fish bazaars, which is great if you’re planning on saving even more dosh by going self-catering.
The Galápagos Islands
A whole world away – almost literally, since they are 560 miles from the Ecuadorian coast – from the buzz of the capital in Quito, the Galápagos Islands are one of the undisputed highlights of a trip to this South American nation. We won’t lie – getting to them is a challenge in its own right. You’ll have to pick up one of the short-haul flights from the mainland. There are no passenger ferries; no commercial boats. Oh, and there’s a $100 entry fee per person.
Don’t be put off. The reward for the extra hassle is an archipelago that’s nothing short of breathtaking. The 18 in the main island group all sprout from the glistening waters of the Pacific with cone-shaped peaks and strange prickly pear cacti groves, rolling down to coastlines dashed by ivory-white sands.
Of course, the main draw is well documented and has been ever since a certain Charles Darwin set foot here during his travels on HMS Beagle back in the 1830s. He documented some of the most isolated and unique species of animals on the planet and drew on that research to form his game-changing Theory of Evolution. Guests today can still encounter the great Galápagos tortoises, the strange iguanas, and the firey-hued Española lava lizards among others.
Ecuador certainly doesn’t have the longest coastline in South America, but the 1,300 miles that is on offer can lay claim to some spectacular surf breaks. Thing is, they haven’t hit the headlines like the ones in Mexico or the long, left handers of nearby Peru, which means they tend to be less busy and the surf towns tend to be a bit more chilled.
Top of the list for would-be surfers heading this way would have to be Montanita. A bit of a lively party town, it’s got a gnarly barreling point break known as La Punta and plenty of beach peaks for the total beginners. It’s also packed with surf instructors and surf camps.
But that’s not your only option. You could also plump for the more remote surf hub of Mompiche. That’s known for its long, left-hander points and rustic hostel stays. Canoa is another possibility, but it’s limited to beach breaks that don’t work that well all year round.
Again, that 1,300 miles of coastline might not be the most photographed in this corner of the Americas but there are some hidden gems worth knowing about. We think they are a prime choice for tacking on a little R&R once you’re done with the hustle and bustle of Quito, hiking in the Andes, or safaris out to the distant Galápagos Islands.
Arguably the finest of the lot are in Salinas. Clutching a headland that pokes into the Pacific from the edge of Santa Elena province, the sands there include the gold-tinged run at San Lorenzo and the wide, open beachfront of Playa de Chipipe. There’s also Puerto Cayo, which is way more relaxed and emptier, but brings whale watching and dolphin spotting with it.
The Galápagos Islands themselves also host some jaw-dropping beaches. They are the closest thing that you’ll get to the Caribbean vision of white sand and aquamarine seas in these parts. Check out Tortuga Bay Beach or hit Gardner Bay on Espanola Island to share shoreline space with a colony of sealions.
The Ecuadorian Andes score right up the heart of the country, crashing through the midriff of the land in a show of sheer natural wonder. At their pinnacle they top out at a Kilimanjaro-dwarfing 6,310 meters above sea level (at the glaciated summit of Chimborazo) but also drop to lush valleys of cloud forests and coffee plantations.
As you can imagine, there are endless adventure opportunities packed into this oxygen-dipping hinterland. Trekkers have loads to pick from, whether it’s a short 2.2-mile loop around the lowlands of the Cotopaxi National Park near Quito or a hardcore romp along the crater rim of the Quilotoa Loop. There’s even a short section of the legendary Inca Trail here; nowhere near as trodden as its compadre over in the Cusco Andes of Peru.
Once the boots are sufficiently muddied, you could also look to the mountains of Ecuador for horse riding, whitewater rafting, coffee plantation visits, safaris in the biodiverse cloud forests – the list goes on and on folks!
Once you’ve hopped over the snow-dusted, cloud-gathering peaks of the 6,000-meter-plus Ecuadorian Andes, the landscapes change considerably. Gone are the dusty, sunbaked shorelines. In their place are vast forests of emerald-green trees, snaking riverways, lakes, and marshes. Welcome to the Ecuadorian Amazon, hailed as pretty much the only spot in the Americas that can rival Costa Rica on the biodiversity front.
Yep, there are all sorts of species here. The stats bear that out: Over 670 different sorts of trees in a single hectare of woodland, over one third of the world’s entire reptile species, 500 freshwater fish species, and the single largest array of insects known anywhere on Earth. Talk about superlatives!
There’s no getting around the fact that this part of Ecuador, a bit like the Galápagos before it, isn’t the easiest to reach. Long bus rides or propeller planes are really the only way in. The focal points for tourism are two national parks: Yasuni and Sangay. The first is the deep Amazon while the latter is the wetter, eastern half of the Andes, complete with cloud forests and medium-altitude woodland habitats.
Is Ecuador worth visiting? Our verdict
Is Ecuador worth visiting? We think the answer can’t be anything other than 100%, yes! This nation occupies an awesome corner of South America. It’s not the largest there but it still manages to offer snow-capped Andean peaks and lush Amazonian rainforests and glorious beaches. It also starts things off with a lovely capital city that’s packed with colonial-era relics. Oh, and the whole trip shouldn’t cost you too much, either!