Ecuador might be small, but it’s surprisingly varied. From the snow-capped volcanoes of the Andean highlands you can drive down to the lush and wildlife-rich rainforests of the Amazon Basin in a matter of hours. Modern meets colonial in cities like Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca. And of course there are the completely unique Galapagos Islands. It’s a destination for wildlife and outdoor lovers, but also for culture and history buffs. Ecuador has something for everyone, and this sample itinerary can help you decide where best to spend your precious time!
You’ll need a minimum of 2 weeks to get some idea of the country, but there is enough to keep you busy for a month! The country is well connected by regular internal flights, and most distances are also doable by car, so you can easily mix & match your own itinerary. My only recommendation is to go to the Amazon before the Galapagos, as the abundance and vicinity of wildlife on the islands will leave you spoiled!
2-3 days in Quito
No trip to Ecuador is complete without a visit to its picturesque high-altitude capital, Quito. This colonial jewel is a great place to immerse yourself in Ecuadorian culture, history and a burgeoning food scene.
Take at least a day to explore the plazas, churches and museums of Quito’s Unesco-listed historical center, the Old Town. Quito’s New Town and outskirts deserve a day as well, with several cultural and outdoor attractions. See Quito from above with the TeleferiQo cable car, spot hummingbirds in the Jardin Botanico or admire both ancient and modern Ecuadorian art at various locations. Last but not least, Quito has some excellent restaurants experimenting with local traditions and ingredients.
Check out my guide to 2 days in Quito for details!
4 days in the Amazon
A big chunk of Ecuador is part of the Amazon Basin, and the various pockets of pristine rainforest left here are well worth a visit. The largest of these is Yasuni National Park, one of the most biologically diverse spots on earth. There are several lodges within and near the park, but the best is Napo Wildlife Center. A great example of ecofriendly community-based tourism, Napo is owned and run by the local Kichwa Añangu people. A stay here (minimum 3 nights) is expensive, but the sumptuous and isolated location, which has an abundance of (relatively) easy-to-see wildlife, makes it worth it.
To get there, fly to Coca, a bustling but rather ugly jungle town. From there it takes 2 hours by motorboat on the Napo River and another 2 hours by paddle canoe on a wildlife-rich creek to get to the lodge. All transport is arranged by Napo.
The lodge has a scenic setting on the edge of a lake and you can see lots of wildlife from the comfort of your room or from the restaurant viewing tower. The best panoramic suites are built on stilts over the water and have views over both the lake and the jungle. It’s more luxurious than necessary, although I admit I secretly really enjoyed the jungle-view jacuzzi.
During a stay at Napo Wildlife Center, you have good chances of seeing up to nine species of monkey (golden-mantled tamarin, spider, red howler, squirrel, woolly, capuchin, pygmy marmoset, saki and night monkeys), sloths, giant otters, caiman and anaconda. Birdlife includes various kinds of parrots and parakeets (easily seen at two parrot clay licks), toucans, kingfishers, hummingbirds and more. There are lots of oropendola and hoatzin. Extremely lucky guests might see tapir or even the elusive jaguar.
Napo’s staff and guides, most of them from the local community, are very friendly and professional. The only minus is that they are very rigid with meal times, always together and with your guide. The food is good but unfortunately all western fare imported from Quito. If like us you’re curious to try something more local, ask and you might be taken for lunch at Napo Cultural Center, where food is still adapted to tourists’ tastes but more interesting. Arriving or departing from Coca, you can sample some Amazonian delicacies (if you dare) at the market not far from the embarkation point on the Napo River.
Rubber boots and rain ponchos are provided, as are refillable water bottles. This might be the Amazon rainforest, but bring something warm for windy boat rides and after rain showers, when it can get surprisingly chilly. I’ve never been anywhere in the jungle with a more pleasant climate: it’s warm and quite humid, but not overwhelmingly so, and the lake provides a welcome breeze.
If you’re spending to go here (and you are not traveling in a group or family), it’s worth considering paying for a private guide. Not being in a big noisy group makes all the difference when you want to see wildlife. It costs an extra 160 dollars for 4 days for a local, Spanish-speaking guide, but a lot more for an English-speaking guide. Speaking some basic Spanish is sufficient.
Flights to and from Coca are often delayed or cancelled, so it’s best to leave plenty of time between connecting flights. We decided to spend a night at Hacienda la Jimenita, near Quito airport, to leave for the Galapagos Islands the next day. La Jimenita is a charming old hacienda with cozy rooms and a wonderful garden populated by lots of hummingbirds.
5-12 days on and around the Galapagos Islands
When you travel to Ecuador, you can’t miss the iconic Galapagos Islands. Part of the country but 900km out to sea, you can fly there from Quito or from Guayaquil. They are completely different from the mainland, or any land for that matter, with otherworldly landscapes and crazy wildlife.
Although most visitors take a cruise, it is absolutely possible to visit the group of volcanic islands as an independent traveler. The three islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal each offer some DIY activities. It is worth visiting them all, but you definitely shouldn’t miss Isabela.
The Galapagos Islands are also a fantastic place for diving. I highly recommend booking a longer diving trip which also takes in the remote islets of Darwin and Wolf. Here you are almost guaranteed to see hammerhead and whale sharks (in season at least, from June to December). Other highlights are diving with marine iguana, mola mola and several endemic species like the red-lipped batfish.
If you don’t dive, consider adding a shorter cruise or some day trips to your land-based itinerary, maybe to Isla Bartolome or some nice snorkeling spots (snorkeling with marine iguanas, penguins or sea lions is a great experience). This will also allow you to check some other endemic wildlife off your list, like blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants.
For more details and a sample itinerary, check out my post about the Galapagos Islands.
7-10 days road tripping in the Andes
Finally, don’t forget about Ecuador’s fantastic highlands. Part of the Andes mountain range, this is perfect road trip territory where scenic roads take you past volcanic peaks, unique nature and traditional Andean villages.
Highlights include the colonial town of Cuenca, the ruins of Ingapirca, the national parks of Cajas, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, the Ruta de las Cascadas between Baños and Puyo, and the Quilotoa Loop. You can stay at beautiful old haciendas and explore colorful local markets along the way.
We decided to fly to Guayaquil from the Galapagos and drive back up to Quito, mostly via the Panamericana highway. You can of course also take this road trip the other way around, from Quito to Guayaquil (or just to Cuenca, from where you can hop on a flight back to Quito).
See my Ecuador highlands road trip itinerary for more details!