Quick Guide to Visiting Ecuador
I can’t help but admit it: I love Ecuador. Ecuador was the last stop on my backpacking adventure in late 2013, and I absolutely plan to go back because there are quite a few places I’d still like to visit with a more open-ended schedule. While writing detailed posts about each destination is still in the plans, I wanted to compile a short guide with my recommendations of what there is to do and see in Ecuador in the meantime. My hope is that this helps you get a sense of the colonial cities, landscapes, and natural wonders that you can find in Ecuador.
Let’s start from the top of the country and work our way south. Quito is Ecuador’s capital, and home to beautiful colonial buildings, interesting neighborhoods, and an easy-to-use transportation system.
Since Quito is located near many of the major tourism sites in Ecuador, you’ll probably use it as a base as you explore the surrounding area. You want to choose a good hostel, and my recommendation is Community Hostel, located next to the market and easily walkable from downtown. To date, Community Hostel is still one of my favorite hostels in South America. They also offer a free walking tour, which is a great way to get to know the city if you are short on time (as I was).
When I finally made it to Ecuador, I knew I wanted to do the Quilotoa Loop. This is a two, three, or four day hike around the landscape near Laguna Quilotoa, which you see pictured above. We took a bus directly to Quilotoa, walked around the ridge of the lake and spent the night at one of the hostales that have sprung up in the tiny town.
The next day, we headed to Chugchilán on foot. This post gives you a sense of how confusing the hike can be; most of the sign posts have been removed by locals who want to earn a few extra dollars guiding lost hikers. I enjoyed my stay at Hostal Cloud Forest, where you can take a nice hot shower and rest in hammocks after your hike.
From there, you can head on to Isinliví on foot and stay at Hostal Llullu Llama, which also came highly recommended. Another good option is to visit the market of Saquisilí before heading back to to Quito via Latacunga.
Otavalo is the success story of the Andes, as the artisans of the region have built up successful businesses selling their beautiful alpaca textiles to tourists from around the world who flock there for the weekend market. It is a required stop for anyone interested in brightly colored souvenirs from Ecuador. I stayed at Hostal Flying Donkey, which was well-located.
Mitad del Mundo
You can’t visit Ecuador without visiting Mitad de Mundo, a giant tourist complex which has sprung up to take advantage of all the visitors who want to commemorate their visit to the center of the world. With restaurants, museums, theatres, and various monuments explaining what it means to be at the center of the world, it is an interesting place to spend an afternoon, and easily reached on public transportation. Don’t forget to get a stamp in your passport!
Since my time was limited, I wanted to make sure I got a chance to see some aspect of the jungle, so I headed to Mindo, only a couple of hours from Quito but a completely different climate. Mindo has lots of hiking options, where you can check out several waterfalls, or you can stay in town, eat well, and visit butterfly sanctuaries. It’s an easy day trip from Quito on public buses.
Without doubt, the highlight of my trip was the opportunity to see Volcán Cotopaxi up close and personal. While the volcano recently erupted, it was nice and tranquilo during my trip in 2013. I chose to stay at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, a luxury hostel located just outside the national park. With rustic cabins, delicious home-cooked meals, and a hot tub for guests, it’s a great place to spend a day or two reconnecting with yourself.
The hostel offers several trips, including a hike to a nearby river, but its value comes from the fact that you can see the Cotopaxi Volcano from its cabins! I woke up early one morning and spent a few hours walking through the farmlands, admiring the views. Amazing.
Baños is another popular stop for backpackers due to its many waterfalls, thermal baths, and options for adventure sports. It is also a pleasant town with lots of gringo-friendly restaurants.
The volcano is often erupting, which is just a fact of life for residents of Baños. The volcano was spouting ashes all over the town during my visit, and it is normal to just wear a face mask to protect your lungs.
Cuenca is popular among the expat crowds due to its colonial charms, established infrastructure, and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. It has several nice museums as well as interesting Incan ruins and is also close to Parque Nacional Cajas.
Of course, with so many foreigners making it their base for retirement or just a place to learn Spanish or teach English, there are a number of vegetarian restaurants, cute European-style cafés, and nice bars, but it also has an excellent market. I stayed at La Casa Cuencana, run by a friendly Ecuadorian family.
My first stop in Ecuador but the last on this list is Vilcabamba, a small town situated among gorgeous mountains. This area is known for its views and the healing energy of the surrounding mountains. Many fellow travelers in Peru recommended Izhcayluma for its lovely cabins, opportunities to get massages or other health treatments, yoga classes, hiking paths, and, of course, delicious food. I was not disappointed and even fantasize about returning there for another relaxing stay!
Border Crossing between Peru and Ecuador
If you are heading to Peru, I highly recommend the “back door” border crossing – head to Zumba from Vilcabamba, and then to La Balsa. While there are few people who actually cross here on a daily basis, it is an easy route, if one with many stops. This is your best if you plan to head to Jaén, Chachapoyas, Tarapoto, or Iquitos – and it’s fun. I traveled from Tarapoto to Jaén and then San Ignacio, spent the night, and then went from San Ignacio to La Balsa, La Balsa to Zumba, and Zumba to Vilcabamba in one (long) day.
The most common border crossing is Aguas Verdes, on the border between Huaquillas, Ecuador and Tumbes, Peru. While this used to be a hectic, even dangerous border crossing, in 2013 they opened up one giant immigration complex. You get off the bus, get stamped out of one country, stamped into another, and back on your bus. It’s completely safe as long as you book an international bus to take you between Piura/Tumbes and Cuenca/Loja, or your other Ecuadorian destination.
Ready to book your trip to Ecuador? I hope so! As I finish writing the more detailed posts on each destination, I will link them here, but if you have any questions in the meantime, please feel free to contact me.