Must-See Destinations in Ecuador and Galapagos Islands
With three different zones on the mainland within a day’s drive and the Galapagos Islands just a two-hour flight away, Ecuador is a traveler’s paradise. Those lucky enough to visit this small South American country can travel through the Andes, Amazon, Coastal lowlands, and Galapagos in the vacation of a lifetime.
Ecuador’s Main Cities
Ecuador has three major cities that each have their own unique identity and attractions – Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca.
Quito is the Ecuadorian capital city and one of the most popular destinations for travelers in Ecuador. Located high in the Andes, the city’s colonial roots can still be seen in the well preserved colonial neighborhood, where cathedrals like La Compania de Jesus, San Francisco Monastery, La Basilica del Voto Nacional and El Sagrario stand proudly on the cobblestone streets in the company of the presidential Carondelet Palace. Overlooking the streets, churches, plazas, and markets of the colonial district is El Panecillo, a hill crowned with a towering aluminum winged Virgin Mary that keeps watch over the city from its panoramic vista.
La Ciudad Mitad del Mundo is the iconic complex built around the monument that straddles the equatorial line. Complete with shops, restaurants, and museums, it’s a great place to spend the afternoon. The TeleferiQo cable car is another popular destination in Quito, ascending the eastern side of the Pichincha Volcano. If you’re hoping to get some souvenir shopping in, don’t miss South America’s largest artisan market at Otavalo, just an hour north of the city. Here you can practice your bartering skills as you check out beautiful tapestries, leatherwork, handicrafts, and more.
Coastal Guayaquil, known as the “Pearl of the Pacific,” is the country’s main commercial center and port. Just a few hours from the Ruta del Sol, where pristine beaches and quiet resorts line the coast, Guayaquil has exploded as a major center of tourism in its own right, with a modern boardwalk (the Malecon 2000) featuring malls, restaurants, overlooks, parks, kids’ rides, museums, and South America’s first IMAX cinema. Just a few blocks from the Malecon is the impressive Cathedral of Guayaquil and Iguana Park, where hundreds of iguanas are eager to eat the lettuce right out of your hand (just make sure to move your fingers out of the way of their teeth!). At the other end of the Boardwalk is a small restored colonial street that winds up the base of Las Peñas, a neighborhood built on a hill with over 400 steps, each leading to a different bar or discoteca before arriving to the panoramic viewpoint at the top, where a lighthouse can be found.
Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador and one of the best-preserved colonial cities in South America. Radiating colonial charm, it boasts the number one retirement location of US expats for its pleasant climate and easy-going pace of life. Built around four rivers in the Andes Mountains, there are numerous cathedrals and plazas in town to visit and excellent opportunities to explore just outside of the city as well, including the gorgeous Cajas National Park and Ecuador’s largest archaeological site from the Inca civilization at Ingapirca.
Not far from the modern metropolitan centers of Ecuador is the mysterious and dense Amazon jungle, still largely unexplored. From the shores of the Rio Napo, eager explorers can quickly leave civilization behind with a hike into the verdant depths of the rainforest, where primates, jaguars, tapirs, caiman, butterflies, frogs, and parrots live in community with the countless species of plants. Here, you can enjoy hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and even swimming.
Mindo, Papallacta, and Baños are ideal destinations for adventure travelers, with opportunities for high adventure activities like rafting, mountain biking, nature hikes through transition forests between highland and rainforest, birdwatching, and rewarding dips in natural hotsprings.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are unlike any other archipelago in the world, with a vibrant host of native and endemic species and activities that immerse travelers in these pristine natural ecosystems.
Most cruises and tours feature these daily activities at the heart of their itineraries:
- Nature Hikes
- Panga excursions
- Visits to breeding stations
- Highland exploration
- Visits to important historical sites
Galapagos land-based tours are either on Isabela, Santa Cruz, or San Cristobal Islands.
No Galapagos vacation is complete without some quality time spent snorkeling in one of the world’s most vibrant marine sanctuaries. On par with the other magnificent turquoise snorkeling destinations of the world, the Galapagos promises travelers an underwater world of discovery – from elaborate coral structures to curious fish to fascinating submarine geology and even plenty of sharks and rays!