The Best of Ecuador
Waves of purple grass ripple across the mountain tops, raising their flowering strands in praise to the heavens above. In the breeze, the trees take a bow and shake free of their full, ripe fruits like ornaments dropping to the soil. Below the cliffs flow the music of nature’s harp, the steady release of fresh, cool water that stimulates the lands. This is the Valley of Longevity. This is Vilcabamba. Like a valiant soldier, filled with loyal honor, I raise my flag to proclaim this place as my favorite in all of Ecuador!
After six full months of travel in the country we can reflect on grand places and fabulous people. We have not been everywhere, but it feels like we have. And without further ado, we present all of our favorite places in Ecuador, South America.
Our Favorite Villages in Ecuador:
For our family, villages are where it’s at. Small, sprawled out towns with bustling, humble centers. Great food, sweet people, and plenty of nature in the borders. Void of the smothering modern existence, yet not so stripped of it that life is difficult and uncomfortable. If you’d like to know where to go in Ecuador, many of these might be places you’ve never considered!
Tucked into the scenic countryside of the Loja province, this mountain village is cute and charming. The city center is reminiscent of the best town squares in the Midwest, USA. A brilliant, colorful church rises above green park benches and brick paved streets. Small, country stores and cafes framing the park are filled with everything you could ever need.
The community is big on ecotourism and agrotourism. The heart of the town is filled with healthy, hippie types from the world over. The outskirts are caked with the best Eco Farms in the country. The weekend farmers market is simply to die for!
Way up North, the beaches are green and serene! Like a remote, tropical beach, Mompiche is the place to get away and soak up the sun. Quaint and quiet, this little cove in the Esmeraldes province is Ecuador’s secret gem. The sandy lanes are full of decadent street food, seaside cafes, and sandy floor pizzerias! Traveling artists are in abundance here and you can be sure to delight in hand crafted jewelry, soulful music, and any array of street entertainment.
Authentic bamboo huts hug black sand beaches with luminescent tides and cliff dwelling reefs. Lazy afternoons melts into rhythmic evenings, where life is slow and simple. This daily existence is all about laying in the hammock, roaming the beach in barefeet, and sipping pina coladas.
Where to Stay: Beachfront Bungalows & Camping
Carefully balanced in the picturesque sierras, Otavalo is a scenic indigenous village nestled in the Imbabura Province. Famous for its local market, this is the place worth spending your hard-earned cash. Otavalo is rich in customs and crafts, festivals and carnivals. It is the perfect blend of modern and indigenous life.
More tiendas than one can imagine, this pedestrian paradise is ideal for window shopping and taste testing. Some of the best foods in Ecuador hail from this region! This is the opportune locale to try out cuy, hornado, fritada, espumillas, and helado de paila.
The surrounding area is full of serene volcanic beauty, and with a fabulous and cheap bus system, it is easy to visit an abundance of nearby lakes, volcanoes, and waterfalls.
The Best Lesser Known Destinations in Ecuador:
Kicking the dirt along skinny, forgotten trails we have wound our way through storybook forests and fairytale landscapes. We have sunk our aching bones into unimaginable volcano-top thermal pools and soaked our toes into the looking glass of a babbling, mountain spring. We have tossed open our camp on desolate, shell scattered beaches beneath sparkling, cobalt skies. We have dared to go where other tourists do not and we have been rewarded with spectacular experiences in lesser known destinations.
These are our favorite off-the-beaten-track destinations:
#1. Illinizas Ecological Reserve
There are many, many famous volcanoes in Ecuador, but the Illinizas…or the twin volcanoes are probably not at the top of the list. Especially with its close proximity to the most famous peak in Ecuador, the Illinizas are often over shadowed by the Cotopaxi Volcano.
By pure luck, we came across a guide who has recently opened an amazing, rural, hacienda-style hostel near the base of these volcanoes. With his companionship, we had the once in a life time experience of hiking to a matching orange waterfall and volcano top thermal pool. It was hands-down the most beautiful and unique excursion of our entire trip around Ecuador.
Read all about the stunning day trip here.
Where to Stay: Sacharuna
#2. Las Penas Beach
The coast of Ecuador is blanketed in hundreds of tiny, fishing villages that many travelers would never know about unless they discovered them by chance. Many of these beaches are remote and completely void of any tourism. They offer a unique perspective on humble villages and the remarkable lifestyles of fisherman the country over.
Depending on where you explore, many of these beaches offer glimpses of stunning, unique sea life species that hail to the Pacific coast from the nearby Galapagos Islands.
Rumor has it that the far northern section of the Ecuadorian coastline is dangerous and should be avoided. We found nothing to be farther from the truth. In fact, we found the tiny, picturesque village of Las Penas in the Esmeraldes province to be quite the opposite. Not only was the beach one of the cleanest and quietest villages, it was also home to the friendliest people we have met in all of Ecuador.
We camped for FREE, right on the sand, in front of one of the beachfront restaurants. All we had to do was ask!
#3. Dos Mangas Forest
This stunning, remote forest is located up the road from Manglaralto, just south of Montanita. It was our very first stop on our ultimate road trip through Ecuador. While we would never recommend Montanita to anyone, and would in fact suggest skipping it altogether…Manglaralto and Dos Mangas are an appropriate reprieve.
Quiet and rural, the road that leads to the forest is full of EcoHostels that cater to the travelers exploring the vast forest. My only regret is that we did spend more time exploring the trails and waterfalls in the area. We stayed with a friend that lives within the forest, and truly enjoyed the spectacular bugs, birds, and critters that call the forest home.
View our favorite photos from this stop here .
Top Tourist Attractions in Ecaudor:
Standing high above an emerald green lake, crouching far below a freshly dusted volcano, and shielding our faces from the roaring mist of a massive waterfall…don’t be too surprised that we have seen some of Ecuador’s biggest tourist attractions. AND, we have loved them! It is easy to say that we don’t want to go where others go, or tread the trails that have been trodden a million times over. But, the truth is, it would be a shame to miss these spectacular locations based on those shallow reasons.
Tourists traps are clenchers for a reason, they have something beautiful to showcase that most people want to see! There are few tricks that we implement when we want to see these places but not the masses that go with them. First, we never go on a weekend. In fact, we usually go on a Tuesday or Wednesday when the crowds are still far from sight. Second, we arrive at dawn or as close to it as possible and try to be out by noon.
These rank as the tourist hubs most worth seeing:
#1 Cotopaxi National Park
If you want to see volcanoes and wild life, this is one stop you must make on your trip in Ecuador. Any type of traveler can enjoy this destination, by car, trekking, biking or even via bus route.
Depending on the status of the active volcano, you can even camp in designated areas. Many people love the challenge of hiking to the refuge area. Even expert mountain hikers come this area to get credit for this famous summit.
But, if roughing it is not for you, there are also hostels and high-end lodges in the area. Or you can visit the park just for the day or with multiple day trips.
With plenty of endemic plants and animals in the park, wild life spotters and birding enthusiasts could easily spend several days soaking up the incredible atmosphere. The massive rocks splayed all around and the dried of mud flows are just as interesting as the volcano itself.
Read more about our time in Cotopaxi here.
Where to Stay: Camp in the Park, Cabinas de Volcan
This tourist hotspot is not a place that we expected to love. But, we couldn’t help but be drawn in by the abundance of outdoor recreation and adventure sports. There is something here for everyone, whether young or old, adventurous or relaxed, Banos is a great place to get “trapped” for a few days or more.
Take your pick from historic, volcanic, thermal baths that catch the healing waters as they flow from the mountain tops. Or enjoy a remarkable hike to the Pailon del Diablo, over hanging bridges and through forested walkways that end beneath the misty stone towers that hug the gushing falls.
This is the perfect town for meandering through quaint taffy shops, glorious old churches, and perfectly manicured parks. But, if adventure is what you are seeking, you can find that, too! Soar over the Andes on the ‘Swing at the End of the World’, go zip-lining, mountain climbing, or river rafting just to name a few!
Dreaming of something awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, and travel-astounding? Quilotoa is the caldera lake that will leave you believing in the impossible! The incredible beauty and solitude of this remarkable green lake are enough to quiet the wanderlust in even the most proficient of traveler’s spirits.
Situated way up high and cradled in a crown of volcanic peaks, this place is just as beautiful as every picture you have ever seen! The trail begins from the top and winds its way down to the reflective lakeside coves. For novice and advanced hikers alike, the incline and altitude can prove this to be a difficult hike.
Luckily, the view can be relished from above with little or no exertion. A wide, wood deck dangling above the canyon offers the perfect picnic retreat. And the village is perfect for perusing local goods and sipping on hot cocoa or the famed coco tea!
Read more about our stay in Quilotoa!
Where to Stay: Overlanders can stay the night in the parking lot free of charge, Hostel
Interested in traveling to Ecuador? Read more about the country’s National Parks and Ecological Reserves in my Skyscanner article!