Small but perfectly formed, Ecuador might be one of the smaller countries in South America but it packs a whole lot of attractions into its dramatically beautiful landscapes.
Bordered by the Pacific to the west, Ecuador’s coastline offers sandy beaches, great surf and fascinating wildlife: watch whales and sea lions galore in Machalilla National Park. Once dangerous, the city of Guayaquil has been thoroughly gentrified, with pastel-coloured buildings and a host of new restaurants, and is a good starting point for drives up the coast.
Moving inland in Ecuador you soon hit the Andes, where snow-topped peaks soar to over 6,000m. This is where you'll find the capital, Quito, a majestic colonial settlement with churches and cathedrals, threaded with little alleyways and dotted with Indian market stalls.
South of Quito a line of volcanoes, many still active, run down the Andes past the hiking centre of Banos to the colonial city of Cuenca. North is the pretty little colonial town of Otovalo, with probably the best Indian market in South America. From here a network of trails thread past fields tacked onto impossibly steep slopes to reach remote mountain farming villages far off the grid.
Cross the Andes to the east and you're into the Oriente, Ecuador’s hunk of the Amazon basin. The Andes squeeze rain from the sky to feed a biodiversity hotspot, crawling with wildlife and dense, tropical growth. Indigenous tribes are now exerting direct control over this wild, remote region: stay at an ecolodge owned by the locals to learn the area's secrets.
And that’s just the Ecuadorian mainland. Offshore, the Galápagos Islands, Darwin's 'Laboratory of Nature', offer close encounters with a natural world that has never learned to fear man. Explore the archipelago on live-aboard yachts to meet blue-footed boobies and swim with sealions.
Learn a little Spanish – the Ecuadorians will appreciate it and it's a great help when travelling in more remote areas. Research your Galápagos trip before you book and decide what’s important to you. You may be able to get cheaper deals if you book a cruise locally but by that time the best boats are likely to be booked up, especially in the peak months.
When to go to Ecuador
Ecuador has several climatic zones, meaning it’s always the right time to be somewhere in the country. Ecuador’s capital Quito and the highlands have spring-like weather year round: warm days and cold nights, generally cooler and wetter from September to April. The Ecuadorian Amazon (or ‘Oriente’) is wet year round, though driest from December to March. The Ecuadorian coast is wet January-May and dry (but more overcast) June-December. The mountainous middle of Ecuador is driest June-September. The Galápagos Islands offer great wildlife-watching all year, though seas are choppier July-October. Semana Santa is enthusiastically celebrated at Easter throughout Ecuador.
Mariscal Sucre International (UIO) 10km from Quito; José Joaquín de Olmedo International (GYE) 5km from Guayaquil
Bus is one of the easiest ways to travel: these are cheap, frequent and serve most areas of Ecuador. Hiring a car is best if time is limited; all major rental agencies are represented in the big Ecuadorian cities. Train travel is an interesting sightseeing option: the Devil’s Nose is a hair-raising ride from Riobamba to Alausí along a series of gravity-defying switchbacks. Internal flights within Ecuador are useful for accessing remote lodges deep in the Amazon.
Accommodation in Ecuador comes in all shapes and sizes, and is generally very good value – especially the mid-range small hotels. Most interesting are Ecuador’s converted haciendas, family ranches that have been converted to put up the odd traveller; many are extremely characterful and offer activities such as horse-riding and country walking. Ecuador also has many homestays where you can learn Spanish and get involved in the life of a local family; Otavalo is a good bet for these. There are some incredible Amazon rainforest lodges buried deep in the Ecuadorian Oriente, accessible only by boat or small plane. These will give you an immersive Amazon experience; look for places owned by local tribes.
Ecuador’s soups are excellent. Try locro de papas, made of potatoes with cheese and avocado. Llapingachos are tasty potato and cheese cakes; corn dishes, such as tamaleshumitas and , are also common – and good options for vegetarians travelling in Ecuador. Most meals do contain meat, however. Roast cuy (guinea pig) is available in some places; roast pig is more popular, presumably because there's a lot more of it. Fresh seafood is widespread on the Ecuadorian coast. If on a budget, look for almuerzo (set lunches) but don't burp afterwards: it's considered very rude. Ecuadorian fruit juices are very good, and include moro, made from blackberries. Ecuador's national beer is Pilsener and decent wine is increasingly easy to get.
Opportunistic theft is a risk. In Quito, take taxis at night, especially in La Mariscal area of the New Town. The altitude can take some adjusting to – Quito, entry point for most travellers arriving in Ecuador, is 2,850m. Take things slowly for the first couple of days and drink lots of water. Malaria is a risk, especially along the north coast and in the Ecuadorian Amazon region; seek advice on prophylaxis, take DEET-based insect repellent and cover up.
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