Ecuador’s natural sights are some of the most coveted around the world, from the Amazon rainforest to the Galápagos Islands and even the Andes mountains. If you’re an adventure-seeker and nature lover, you’ll want to add Ecuador high up on your bucket list!
First, you’ll want to start your adventure off slow by relaxing on one of Ecuador’s gorgeous, sunny beaches. Los Frailes Beach is regarded as the country’s best beach due to its exclusiveness—allowing visitors to feel as if they have the secluded beach mostly to themselves. It’s located in Machalilla National Park and features golden sands, rocky cliffs, and tree-covered hills, providing endless picturesque sights. The park itself has lots of other offerings besides the beach, with day trips to Isla de la Plata, an island where you can spot rare birds and even beautiful marine life like whales, manta rays, and sea turtles via diving opportunities. Archaeology buffs can enjoy the small community of Agua Blanca, where ancient ruins can be discovered. There’s also a museum where visitors can view ancient artifacts such as obsidian-knapped arrowheads and animal-shaped figurines. areasprotegidas.ambiente.gob.ec
While the beaches in Ecuador are a joy, to truly experience an idyllic beach you’ll want to plan a day trip to the Galápagos Islands, right off the coast. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its biodiversity, remaining a home to unique species of animals like marine iguanas, lumbering tortoises, doe-eyed sea lions, prancing blue-footed boobies, sloths, toucans, river dolphins, and a host of others. Birdwatching is a popular activity thanks to the countless species of birds that live here, including 28 that are solely unique to the Galápagos. Be sure to stop by the Charles Darwin Research Station, where you can take an educational tour to learn about the efforts to conserve the flora and fauna of the Galápagos.
Next, you’ll want to visit the Quilotoa Loop, a bumpy, ring-shaped road that travels from the Panamericana far into the backcountry of Cotopaxi province. Riding along the loop takes you through indigenous villages, where you can meet the Kichwa-speaking indigenous people, and you can also hike through ancient trails that snake through the mountains. Perhaps the most famous attraction on the loop is Laguna Quilotoa, a luminous turquoise lake within a volcanic crater. The Quilotoa volcano erupted in 1280 and hasn’t been active since, but that Earth-shattering eruption left behind a huge crater that spans 1.8 miles across, which is where the lovely blue lake resides today.
After all of that hiking and exploring, you likely just want to unwind. The perfect place to do that is in the secret Papallacta Hot Springs. Head to Hotel Termas de Papallacta, located high in the lush cloud forest of the Andes. The hotel offers one of the best hot spring pool experiences— strip down and let your body melt into the therapeutic hot waters as you enjoy the spectacular views. The pools are surrounded by sky-piercing mountains, hummingbirds, and tropical flowers, all overlooking the tiny Andean village of Papallacta. termaspapallacta.com
Earlier when you were marveling at the extraordinary Quilotoa Loop, you were close to the Cotopaxi province. Gather your bags and ride back up that way to get a glimpse of some breathtaking grasslands. Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is a national park that offers amazing hiking opportunities and wildlife sightings like the Andean fox, Andean condor, white-tailed deer, and little red brocket deer. The 82,515-acre park is great to explore on the back of a horse—you can arrange for a horseback ride/tour at one of the old haciendas near the entrance of the park. Perhaps the most marvelous scenic view in all of the park is of the páramo (Andean grassland), where you can stare out and observe Volcán Cotopaxi, a volcano that boasts Ecuador’s second-highest peak. ambiente.gob.ec
Cajas National Park contains an abundance of sparkling lagoons, lakes, and plenty of peaceful grasslands and valleys to gaze upon. Located near the city of Cuenca, this park is perfect for those looking to set out on a great hike or pursue a rock-climbing adventure. Cajas National Park also contains more than 157 bird species, making it a popular birdwatching spot.
Another sight in this geographical region worth checking out is La Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose). It is in this mountainous area that you will hop on one of the world’s most dangerous train rides. In 1899, 4,000 men were brought to work on a transportation project that would connect the cities of Quito and Guayaquil. But the men were soon faced with a challenge when they came in contact with La Nariz del Diablo, a near-vertical wall of rock. To continue the railroad tracks and complete their mission, the solution was to create a series of tight switchbacks out of the rock. This idea allowed the train to descend in a zigzag formation, making for the dangerous and iconic train ride it is today. Thrill-seekers, you’ll want to book a seat on this train!
Brazil usually gets the majority of the attention when it comes to venturing through the Amazon Rainforest, but a considerable portion of it spills over into Ecuador as well. To really discover the Amazon in Ecuador, you’ll need to make your destination Yasuni National Park. This 3791-square-mile park is the county’s largest mainland park and its staggering biodiversity led UNESCO to declare it an international biosphere reserve. Because this pocket of life was untouched by the last ice age, a diverse pool of species has thrived here throughout the centuries, including more than 600 bird species, 150 amphibians, 120 reptiles, 200 mammals, and 380 fish, some previously unknown elsewhere. Getting here requires some planning in advance. First, you must take a flight to Coca, the town that provides the nearest gateway to the park. Then you must travel by boat down the Napo River to Yasuni, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour ride. Once you arrive, prepare your accommodations, as you will have to sleep at one of the lodges throughout the massive park. La Selva Amazon Lodge is one of the best accommodations in the rainforest, offering luxury suites with amenities like mosquito nets, turn-down service, Wi-Fi, luxury bed linens, towels and robes, rainforest showers, and even private balconies with tubs and hammocks. laselvajunglelodge.com
For the city-dwellers out there, Quito is where you’ll want to be. The city is the capital of Ecuador and contains plenty of historic and cultural sights. In fact, it’s such a hub of culture and history that it was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. Walk the charming cobbled streets to set your eyes upon lived-in pueblo homes, gilded Spanish plazas, and painted colonial edifices. Then make sure to check out the most iconic sight in the city: San Francisco Church. Dating back to the first half of the 1500’s, the church’s white-washed twin towers flank each side of the entrance to this massive complex. A main feature is the Baroque interior and the Convent Museum of San Francisco, which contains religious paintings, sculptures, carvings, porcelain, textiles, and even handcrafted furniture. A second-must see attraction is La Compania de Jesus Church, a church that was listed by UNESCO as one of the top 100 most important buildings in the world. Constructed in the early 17th century, this church is famous due to its large central nave, which is elegantly decorated with gold leaf, gilded plaster, and wood carvings. fundacioniglesiadelacompania.org.ec
Cuenca, mentioned earlier, is adored by travelers and locals alike. Much less busy than Quito, Cuenca is cherished for its tranquil vibe, friendly people, and attractive colonial buildings. The city center is where you’ll want to begin your sightseeing, with the Old Cathedral of Cuenca being first on the list. This striking cathedral, built in 1567, has a ton of historical artifacts, including an organ from 1739 and a clock tower from 1751. If you’re itching to gain a deeper understanding of the culture of Ecuador, stop by Museo Pumapungo, a free museum that showcases rescued birds, fine art, artifacts, displays of the country’s geographic regions, and even shrunken heads! The collection of shrunken heads is from the Shuar people of Amazonia. A long time ago, this indigenous culture would encourage boys to kill an enemy and shrink their heads to keep it as a sort of trophy—this was considered a significant coming-of-age ritual. Today, although the Shuar still exist, they shrink sloth heads instead of human heads, a more humane way to preserve their cultural rituals.
The last city to flock to on your Ecuadorian journey is Baños. Just remember to note, there’s no space for fear here! This city is an adrenaline-junkie’s paradise, with opportunities for white water rafting, bridge jumps, mountain biking, and more. It’s also where one of South America’s most active volcanoes, Tungurahua, is located, for an additional exhilarating aspect! When you’re done getting your heart rate up, visit the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall for a mind-blowing excursion. You can view the magnificent waterfall from up high on a cable car, or you can enjoy the fresh mist from the water down below, by climbing up the numerous steep steps leading up the side.
Ecuador is one of the most geographically diverse areas in the world, as you have seen on your journey. Whether you’re appreciating the iguanas and tortoises of the Galápagos, riding a dangerous train in the mountainside, dancing through the streets of Quito, or staying at a lodge in the Amazon Rainforest, this country will provide you tales and memories to last a lifetime.
By Aaliyah Pasols