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Ecuador Travel Guide: What to Do in Ecuador

Imagine hiking along a remote crater lake, traversing seemingly endless plains via horseback or learning a traditional dance from members of an indigenous community. These are just a few of the unforgettable experiences you can try in Ecuador.

Given its small size, the variety of landscapes the country offers is impressive. Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest is packed with wildlife, while the Andes Mountains are home to numerous active volcanoes. And let’s not forget the iconic Galapagos Islands, which have a human history just as interesting as that of Darwin’s famous finches.

Click through our slideshow for some of Ecuador’s best experiences; then discover where to stay and how to get around.

Hike a Crater Rim

Hiking around Quilotoa’s crater rim is challenging, largely due to the high altitude (roughly 12,500 feet above sea level). Those who make the four- to six-hour trek are rewarded with breathtaking views of the green Lake Quilotoa below and, on a clear day, Cotopaxi Volcano in the distance. Start early and walk counterclockwise to conquer the toughest hills first.

Those looking for a less strenuous option can walk the first hour of the trail to a large observation platform, which offers some of the best views, or head down to the bottom of the crater. The descent takes about 30 minutes, and you can rent a kayak to paddle on the lake. But remember, you’ll have to make your way back up (or hire a mule to do the work for you).

Experience an Indigenous Community

Opportunities to visit indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest are increasing. The arrangement gives villages a sustainable income that doesn’t negatively impact the environment and offers visitors an authentic opportunity to see the traditional way of life. Due to their remote locations, multi-day visits are the norm, with guests staying in family homes or simple cabins.

One of the main city hubs for arranging a visit is Tena, where you can work through RICANCIE, a network of eight Kichwa communities. Qualified guides take travelers into the villages where they might learn ceremonial dances, take part in healing sessions with a shaman, ride in dugout canoes, hike to caves and waterfalls, or learn to use a blowgun.

Visit Parrot Clay Licks
From a viewing blind, watch the noisy, colorful spectacle of hundreds of parrots and parakeets eating at a natural clay lick. Clay licks are found throughout the Amazon rain forest. Some scientists believe the birds eat clay to help them digest unripe seeds and fruits, but no one knows definitively.

The two most accessible clay licks in Ecuador are open to travelers staying at Napo Wildlife Center, a remote, high-end ecolodge. Guests hike an hour in the morning to arrive at the first clay lick just before the action starts, and those eager for more can hike to a second clay lick that afternoon. Birders should get their life lists ready — hundreds of different species have been recorded here.

Bargain for Crafts at an Artisan Market

It’s tough to miss Mercado Artesanal in the center of Guayaquil — the building covers an entire block. Considered the best place in Guayaquil to buy Ecuadorian handicrafts, the market houses more than 250 booths packed with goods. Many of the artisans themselves can be found manning the stalls.

Try your hand at bargaining — an expected practice — for paintings, wool sweaters, ceramics, textiles and Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador). The market has been open for some three decades and is supported by the Chamber of Tourism, which hires onsite security guards and pipes music into the building. Safety remains a concern in Guayaquil, so you may want to travel by taxi to the market.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

My Land-Based Trip to Galapagos by vagabondginger
“Guayaquil was once a crime-ridden city, but urban renewal has changed that, and the Malecon 2000 is a real showplace. This promenade runs two miles along the river with gardens, fish ponds, monuments, food courts and entertainment, making it the most popular place in the city.” Read more!

Go Horseback Riding in the Andes

Horseback riding in the Andes Mountains dates back hundreds of years. Pay homage to the tradition while visiting Cotopaxi National Park, where riders can traverse the vast plains with one of the world’s highest active volcanoes visible in the distance. Take in the dramatic vistas of the sierra as you canter along ancient Inca paths. You might also come upon some of the wild, long-maned horses found in this area.

Local tour operators and haciendas offer trips ranging from a few hours to more than a week. Make sure to choose a reputable operation whose horses are well cared for, such as Hacienda Santa Ana or the company Ride Andes. Don’t let a lack of experience discourage you — both novice and expert riders can be accommodated.

Take a Chocolate Tour

Ecuadorian cacao is renowned around the world, and new evidence suggests that chocolate may have even originated here. Local chocolatiers are opening their doors to show guests the life of the chocolate bar from beginning to end.

Visit El Quetzal de Mindo’s chocolate factory — a small, family-owned operation — to take an hour-long “bean to bar” tour around the property. An English-speaking guide will teach you about the history of chocolate; then you’ll explore the farm, see the chocolate-processing machinery and watch chefs work their magic creating the final products. Afterward try a variety of products during the tasting, including a brownie that may well be the best you’ve ever had.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Ecuador Bird Watching Trip Report by Carl from Pahrump
We left around 7 a.m. on September 21 for the Mindo area. The first stop was at the big faded Cock-of-the-Rock statue on the main road to Los Bancos. It doesn’t look like much of a birding spot, but as soon as we arrived, we found a golden-headed quetzal (a very hard to find bird this time of year). It eventually moved to where we could get great photos. Read more!

Bike the Waterfall Route

The Waterfall Route in Banos can be driven by vehicle, but for those with a moderate level of fitness, cycling is the most fun way to go. There are numerous shops that rent bikes inexpensively — remember to ask for a helmet and map. Pedaling the main 10-mile route takes travelers past about a dozen waterfalls and through lush vegetation. Some cyclists opt to continue another 25 miles to the town of Puyo.

Cable car rides are offered at two of the falls, and there are multiple opportunities to take a ride on a zip line — stunning scenery flying past you. The journey’s grand finale is Devil’s Cauldron, the most dramatic waterfall of the day. The hike down and back up is strenuous but worth it. Those who don’t mind getting wet can shimmy through a small tunnel to arrive behind the falls for a different perspective.

Overachievers may choose to bike back to Banos; everyone else can catch one of the numerous return shuttles for a small fee.

Stay in a Historical Hacienda

During Spain’s colonization of Ecuador, grand estates were built on large pieces of land in the picturesque highlands. Today many of these haciendas accommodate guests in luxurious lodges that combine historical decor with modern amenities.

Most haciendas offer horseback riding and hiking opportunities, including Hacienda Pinsaqui, located near the famous Otavalo market. The hacienda began as a textile workshop and now accommodates guests in 30 immaculate suites.

Some haciendas remain working farms, such as the family-owned Hacienda Zuleta, which lies two hours north of Quito. Visitors can learn to milk a cow, visit the creamery and explore the property’s organic garden.

Descend Devil’s Nose

One of the world’s most thrilling train rides, the rapid descent of Devil’s Nose takes passengers down a steep rock cliff by way of switchbacks. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the route helped connect Quito and Guayaquil and was considered a remarkable feat of engineering.

Today visitors can board in Alausi to take the 2.5-hour roundtrip journey. Make sure to reserve a seat on the right side of the car, as it provides the best view in both directions. The windows open, enabling you to take photos of the stunning mountains that envelop the train.

You’ll stop for an hour at Sibambe station, where a small but interesting museum explains the construction of the train and traditionally dressed locals perform dances and sell handicrafts. Then climb back aboard to travel the route in reverse.

Taste Guinea Pig

It’s not uncommon to find a rural Ecuadorian family with a few guinea pigs; however, they’re not pets. Cuy, as guinea pig is called in Spanish, is a traditional food in Ecuador often eaten during special celebrations. The practice dates back to the Incas — only later, when explorers took guinea pigs back to Europe, did they become pets.

Curious foodies will have no trouble finding the delicacy at many restaurants throughout the country. On your plate, cuy may be indistinguishable from other meat, or it may look exactly like its living brethren — ears and all. Though usually grilled, there are endless ways cuy can be cooked and seasoned, so you may want to try it a few times. You’ll see vendors grilling cuy on the street, but if a restaurant is more your style, try Mama Clorinda in Quito, which serves cuy along with other traditional Ecuadorian food.

See the Wall of Tears

Though natural history is what visitors to the Galapagos are generally most interested in, the islands also have a fascinating human past. The Wall of Tears on Isabela Island, near Puerto Villamil, is one such example. The rock wall was built in the 1940s and ’50s by thousands of prisoners who were sent to the Galapagos from mainland Ecuador. There was no purpose to the wall other than to keep the convicts occupied and miserable.

You can rent a bike to get to the wall or opt to walk — watch for giant tortoises and land iguanas along the trail. The route is well marked and there are plenty of worthwhile stops, including lagoons and lava tunnels, before you arrive at the wall. Alternately, you can take a taxi directly to the site.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

My Land-Based Trip to Galapagos by vagabondginger
I walked to the iguana crossing where I found the boardwalk and nature trail to lagoons of flamingos. While the flamingos are not a native bird and landed here on their own, they get along well with other species and their reproductive rate is very low so there was no need to eradicate them. The trail ended at the tortoise breeding center where I just took a quick walk through and then I headed for the most glorious white sand beach and walked for miles. Read more!

Best Time to Go to Ecuador

When to come to Ecuador depends on where you’ll be spending your time. If you’re looking for a rain forest getaway, avoid the rainiest months of December through April. In Quito and the surrounding highlands, the dry season runs between June and September. Headed to the Galapagos? You’ll find warmer water and calmer seas between January and May.

Ecuador on a Budget

Ecuador is a relatively inexpensive place to travel, and it’s even more convenient for American visitors because the local currency is the U.S. dollar. Consider a hosteria, hostel or guesthouse instead of a hotel to save money on lodging. While restaurant meals aren’t particularly pricey, you can save even more by picking up meals or snacks at local markets.

–written by Marsea Nelson

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