The Ultimate Ecuador Bucketlist: 23 unmissable experiences
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Want to head over to South America for some Ecuador backpacking, but not sure where to go? I’ve put together an ultimate bucketlist for you to know the best places to visit in Ecuador and make the most of your travels here. It’s an insanely beautiful country, with heart-stopping backdrops and fascinating people.
It’s not particularly known for having tasty food, but one can’t deny that the local menú del días of menestras (bean or lentil stew), rice and a hunk of meat aren’t hearty. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities to burn all the heavy food off; Ecuador backpacking is full of adventure and adrenaline.
After you’ve read this Ecuador backpacking bucketlist of the best places to visit in Ecuador, have a gander of these posts:
This list of things to do when Ecuador backpacking can only really all be ticked off if you’re spending an extended amount of time in the country – an absolute minimum of one month. However, if you want to see how I’d would get around to a noble selection of these best places to visit in Ecuador during a shorter trip, be sure to check out my 2 weeks in Ecuador itinerary.
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Must-visits for a classic Ecuador backpacking experience
Perfect your balance at La Mitad del Mundo
The perfect opener for this list of the best places to visit in Ecuador. I mean, find me someone who doesn’t get excited at the thought of magically balancing an egg on a pin. FIND THEM.
La Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the earth) is the spot that was thought to be the exact equator line – in reality, it’s a number of miles out, but still close enough that you can play around with gravitational forces. It’s an easy half-day trip from Quito, best done with a guide so you know what you’re looking at.
Swing above the clouds at Baños treehouse
Here for the photos? Baños treehouse (Casa de Árbol) is a must for your Ecuador backpacking bucketlist. High up in the mountains that surround the town of Baños, this is a pretty insta-famous swing from which you can launch yourself over the valley.
Did somebody say… beach parties? While Montañita is decidedly not one of the best places to visit in Ecuador for architectural beauty and culture, it’s a popular place for tourists and city-dwellers to mingle on the sandy expanse of Ecuador’s coast.
Montañita is just a few hours’ bus from Guayaquil, and though it’s a lovely place to relax, surf and hike during the day, at night it comes alive with teeny street cocktail stalls and booming bars. Expect to meet plenty of other like-minded people on an Ecuador backpacking trip here.
Look over Guayaquil from Las Peñas
The sprawling city of Guayaquil is mostly flat, save for a few hills near the centre. One of these hills, Cerro Santa Ana, is where Spanish settlers built Las Peñas, their first neighbourhood in the area, and it has since become a historical landmark.
You can walk around this neighbourhood and up to the top of the hill, where you’ll find a chapel, lighthouse and fairly impressive views of the city.
Best places to visit in Ecuador for adventure seekers
Trek the Quilotoa Loop
The Quilatoa Loops is far one of the most popular hikes in the country, and a staple of Ecuador backpacking for many. This is a hike in – you guessed it – a loop, which takes you through the beautiful countryside to crater lakes and more.
What can I say, there’s a lot going on in the beautiful town of Baños de Santos Agua. The Ruta de las Cascadas, or ‘Route of the Waterfalls’ follows a mountain road out of town past many many – you guessed itagain – waterfalls.
You can get guided tours, hop on the back of a van/jeep or hire a bike and cycle down the route independently.
The highlight is the mega waterfall El Pailón del Diablo, which you walk bridges over or can crawl behind if you’re nimble enough.
Work off the menestras in Mindo
Just a little west of Quito, Mindo is sometimes seen as a less-visited alternative to Baños in that it offers so much to get your pulse to new levels.
Whether canyoning, rappelling down waterfalls, mountain biking or white water rafting are your thing, you’ll find something for every thrill-seeker here.
Hike the highlands of El Cajas
El Cajas is a national park just outside of Cuenca, known for its shrubby highlands and smattering of lakes in and amongst the long grass. As it sits in the south of the country, for many people making their way from Peru it’s the first hike of their Ecuador backpacking trip, and a great way to get warmed up!
You do not need a guide to hike in this part of Ecuador, but you can certainly find guided day trips.
Walk up the Cotopaxi Volcano
Though Argentina takes a lot of the limelight, it has to be said that for hikers in South America, one of the best places to visit is Ecuador.
Not far from the Quilotoa Loop, Cotopaxi is another very popular trail that leads you part-way up a volcano. You can do it as a day-trip but staying in a lodge or camping overnight will give you an epic sunrise view.
Swim with hammerhead sharks at Kicker Rock
Name something else in an Ecuador backpacking bucketlist that will have your heart racing quite this much. What adds to the fact that you’re swimming with hammerheads in 300m of sea surrounding protruding rocks with a very thin, dark channel between them is that the water is often so murky that you can only see a few feet in front of you, and almost nothing below.
This means a shark could appear out of nowhere – and believe me, they do. Obviously I freaked the capital F out and ended up back on the boat quicker that you can say ‘stupid place for a snorkel‘.
Watch lava meet the sea on Isla Puná
Barely on the Ecuador backpacking tourist trail, Isla Puná sits on the south-west coast of Ecuador, close to Guayaquil.
It’s known for its historical importance as the place where the indigenous Tumbez people managed to hold off Spanish conquest, meaning the people living there today are still direct descendants of the original inhabiters of this land.
Other than the interesting culture, a reason this makes the list of best places to visit in Ecuador is the level of volcanic activity. There are tours that will take you to watch the point where lava flows into the sea, a crazy sight to behold!
Ecuador backpacking must-sees for culture vultures
Find a bargain at the Otavalo markets
Famed across South America, the small town of Otavalo is said to have the largest artisanal market on the continent, which makes it a solid contender in the best places to visit in Ecuador.
On a Saturday morning, it also holds an animal market just outside of the town, where you can see locals sell their livestock.
It’s an indigenous stronghold, so many things are done as they have been for centuries.
Besides the markets, Otavalo is a really nice place to spend a few days during your Ecuador backpacking trip, and there’s lots to go and see such as Peguche Waterfall and Lago San Pablo. It’s just a few hours out of Quito, so a day trip is possible if you’re short on time.
Take a historical tour of Quito
I’m not a yuuuge fan of Quito, but as the capital it’s obviously a key part of any Ecuador backpacking trip, and one of the best places to visit in Ecuador for architectural glory. The historical city centre is where it’s at, so get yourself on a tour to discover all the fascinating stories this area holds.
Say hola to La Virgen del Panecillo in Quito
Looming pretty over the city of Quito, the statue of the Virgin Mary atop a perfectly round hill is hard to miss from the historical city centre. She is said to bless the rich side of the city which she faces – what a lovely gal. You can either take a long walk or get the bus up to the top of El Panecillo, and gain access to ole María for only $2. And hey, maybe she’ll bless your Ecuador backpacking trip, too…
Watch ancient rituals in Cuenca’s markets
While Otavalo offers artisanal markets for fabrics, clothing and souvenirs, Cuenca’s markets offer something a little different.
Every Tuesday and Friday, in the depths of the Mercado 10 de Agosto, you’ll see indigenous ladies set up their stalls to perform spiritual cleansing, which in some cases includes cracking an egg on someone’s head.
As it’s so relaxing, some clever sausage has even made a series of cleansing recordings as ASMR videos.
Experience Amazon life in Ecuador’s river towns
The East of the country is worlds apart from the West, and there’s no better place to see these cultures come together than in the towns along the Napo River.
One that stood out to us was Puerto Misahuallí, where small town vibes exist around indigenous provenance, with a handful of luxury river lodges thrown in for good measure.
It’s a place to respectfully learn about Amazonian indigenous culture without being intrusive, and one of the best places to visit in Ecuador if you want to experience the wonders of the Amazon rainforest without straying too far from a reliable supply of electricity.
Best places to visit in Ecuador for nature-lovers
Spot pink dolphins in the Amazon River
*Once-in-a-lifetime-experience Alert*, the Amazon river is indeed home to pods of pink dolphins, and is it possible to sail out on small fishing boats into lagoons where you’ll be more likely to catch sight of them.
Plenty of the lodges in the faraway land of Cuyabeno offer this excursion, but as always, just make sure you’re not in a boat that feeds the dolphins to get them to approach humans. It’s really bad for their learned behaviours and therefore the ecosystem as a whole.
Make some scaly friends in Guayaquil’s Iguana Park
Yes, you read that right. In the centre of Guayaquil, in Parque Seminario, there lives a ‘naturally occurring’ population of iguanas.
They came for the area’s mangroves, and once they realised they would also be fed a steady supply of lettuce by the locals, they stayed. And they grew. And they bred.
What exists now is essentially a free wildlife park where you can get up close to these almost-domesticated creatures.
Get lost in Mindo’s cloud forest
Mindo isn’t just for adrenaline junkies; it’s also is one of the best places to visit in Ecuador for nature-lovers.
This teeny destination offers everything from butterfly farms and chocolate factories to a chairlift over the treetops, all with the sheer beauty of the Ecuadorian cloud forest surrounding you.
Sail around the Galapagos Islands
Although this was the most expensive 8 days of the whole 26 months in Latin America, it was also by far the best.
Long story short, my parents booked to come visit Andy and I in the Galapagos Islands as it was something they’d always wanted to do. Sad that we’d been living in hostel bunk beds so long, they splurged on 2 cabins in the Galapagos Islands’ last true sailboat so that we could live in boat bunk beds for a short time, instead. The sailboat has since unfortunately been dismembered so that a luxury cruise could take its charter route (the charters are limited so they are more valuable than the vessels that sail them), but there are hundreds of other tourist boats to choose from, all with slightly different itineraries.
I’d steer clear from the large boats like National Geographic which look like the Pacific equivalent of a Saga cruise; find one with a max capacity of 30, and if you can’t afford it, hang out at the Santa Cruz pier for however many days as it takes to wait for a cheap cancellation space to come in.
ANYWAY, I’ve gotten side-tracked. Point being, the 8 days we spent on that boat were some of the best of our LIVES – visiting 8 islands (including a few that you cannot access without a chartered boat), sailing through the night, snorkelling, hiking and kayaking every day with a personal guide who was crazy knowledgeable.
Just a short list of the wildlife we saw up close and personal during this Ecuador backpacking highlight: hammerhead sharks, reef sharks, sting rays, eagle rays, sea lions, seals, eels, turtles, so many fish we couldn’t begin to name them, dolphins, killer whales (from a distance!), penguins, finches, nazcas, frigates, flamingos, blue- & red-footed boobies, albatross, eagles, giant tortoises, and & marine iguanas, lava lizards, AND MUCH, MUCH MORE.
Since there are no real predators in the Galapagos Islands, many of these species are completely unafraid of humans. Pure insanity.
Ecuador backpacking must-visits for laidback travellers
Soak up the thermal springs of Baños
This is what sleepy Baños originally became famous for among Ecuadorians, and a holiday town was quickly built up around the many natural thermal springs that exist in the valley.
After a day of adventure, it’s something rather special to put on your swimming cap and sit in a hot pool of mountain-spring water surrounded by pot-bellied local men enjoying their moment of relaxation. If you’re super-brave, dip your toes into the hottest pools of up to 45 degrees Celsius and try your hardest not to squeal.
Unwind on Mompiche’s beach
Less often visited by those backpacking Ecuador, Mompiche is a sleepy, no-frills fishing village on the edge of beautiful beaches with waves prime for surfing. Staying in the town itself, Mompiche is a lovely place to unwind on the sand.
And if you want to step into some luxury during your Ecuador backpacking trip, there is the somewhat odd placement of a resort from the hotel giant Decameron just on the outskirts.
Clear your mind in Ayampe
Wanna work on your surf without distraction? Ayampe is the chilled little sister of Montañita, with just a short bus ride between them. The village is quiet and laidback, with a smattering of small restaurants and a surf school built next to clean sand stretching as far as the eye can see.
A couple of days here will be enough to find peace!
And that’s my ultimate list of the best places to visit in Ecuador backpacking! If you have any more you can add, I’d love to hear them in the comments so other readers can add them to their bucketlists. Don’t forget to check out my 2 weeks in Ecuador itinerary if you’re here on a smaller timeframe.
Now that you’ve read this Ecuador backpacking bucketlist of the best places to visit in Ecuador, take a gander of these posts: