I recently returned from yet another trip to Ecuador (my third in the last 12 months). I love the country for so many reasons, and every trip I discover something or somewhere new that keeps me coming back time and time again. I thought I’d put together my personal “best of Ecuador” list. I haven’t traveled everywhere in Ecuador – far from it – but I’ve seen a lot. It’s a geographically small country (about the size of Colorado), and I feel pretty confident that I’ve made it to just about every regularly visited part (and quite a few not so regularly visited) with few exceptions. Is it the definitive “best of Ecuador” list? Probably not. There are certainly plenty of folks that have lived and traveled there more extensively than I have, but I don’t think you’ll find too many other travelers taking objection to my picks. However, please let me know your suggestions for other “best of Ecuador” selections in the following categories:
Ecuador has dozens of stunning beaches studded along the Pacific Coast, but for the best that Ecuador has to offer, head to the Galapagos for white sands, azure waters, and few crowds (although you may find yourself sharing the beach with marine iguanas, sea lions, and other Galapagos wildlife). Of the many Galapagos beaches that could deservedly own the title of best beach, Tortuga Bay is my favorite. It is reached by a 2.5km walk from Puerto Ayora, the main port of entry to the Galapagos, through fragrant palo santo trees. The crescent shaped bay stretches for a kilometer of perfect white sand beach pounded by thundering surf in which marine iguanas swim. Swimming here for the average human, though, is not advisable due to the strong surf and the fact that there are no lifeguards or amenities. However, at the far end of the beach and across a narrow isthmus of sand is a back bay of sorts with tranquil waters, mangrove forests, and numerous trees to escape the repressive equatorial sun. Pelicans, and sometimes flamingos, are seen, though despite its name, no turtles. Head into town to the Charles Darwin Research Center for your tortuga fix.
Runners up for best beach include Playa Los Frailles, a secluded beach north of Puerto Lopez in Machalilla National Park, and Canoa’s beach, a long, wide stretch of beach perfect for surfing or just hanging in one of Ecuador’s most laid back beach towns.
Sustainable Summer participants in our Seeds of Change program visit both Los Frailles and Canoa. Participants in our Galapagos Extension program, which can be optionally added to Seeds of Change or Sustaining the Amazon, will go to Tortuga Bay.
Best place for wildlife
In my opinion, there’s one reason to visit the Galapagos. You can get really up close and personal with some fascinating wildlife. Due to it’s isolation and lack of predators, the fauna of the Galapagos archipelago never developed a fear of humans, which makes it a nearly unique opportunity for extremely close encounters with its native inhabitants. Swimming with sea turtles and posing for pictures with marine iguanas is just the beginning. The sea lions are notoriously playful and curious and will come right up to your mask while snorkeling or give you friendly nudge hello on the beach. Blue-footed boobies can be so abundant on trails that you have to navigate a veritable mine field of honking birds eager to show off their trademark blue feet. (The red-footed boobie, on the other hand, is much more inconspicuous). Snorkelers often see sharks (none typically aggressive towards humans), rays, and other aquatic wildlife.
One of my favorite spots to see an abundance of sea lions, boobies, iguanas, and, typically, sea turtles, is La Loberia, which we visit on our Galapagos Extension program. The lobitos (baby sea lions) are unbelievably cute.
Runner Up: Isla de la Plata. Known as the “mini-Galapagos,” you can get a lot of the same wildlife as you’ll find in the islands of its more famous cousin, such as blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and manta rays, but with the added thrill of seeing a humpback whale breaching on the boat ride from the mainland to the island. Students on our Seeds of Change program visit Isla de la Plata.
Best for birding
Ecuador is typically consider one of, if not the, top birding destination in the world. For sheer diversity, the only other country that may rival it is Indonesia. There is fantastic birding throughout Ecuador, especially in the cloud forest (transition zone between the highlands and the lowlands) and the rainforest. Mindo, in the western slope cloud forest has long been a birding hot spot. On the eastern slope cloud forest, the towns of Baeza and Cosanga are more or less void of tourists except for serious birders in the know. But for the best birding in Ecuador, take a trip into the Amazon rain forest to the Yasuni Biosphere. There is still good birding based out of a jungle lodge in Napo Province, which is relatively easily reached from Tena (about 5 hours from Quito, followed by 1 to 3 hours travel into the jungle by road or canoe), but there has been enough development in the region that a lot of the wildlife has been forced to relocate further downstream. This is especially true for the large jungle mammals, like monkeys, tapirs, and pumas, but also for birds, making the protected areas of Yasuni National Park and Reserva Waorani the best, reasonably accessible places for birding in Ecuador. Getting to a jungle lodge in this area requires some effort, either a 1-hour flight or 7-hour bus ride to Coca, a once gritty oil town starting to come into its own as a traveler’s destination, followed by some overland travel and a canoe ride. From Coca, it’s about 6-hours of total travel to reach Shiripuno Lodge, run by one of Ecuador’s finest naturalists and birding guides. Of the over 600 different species of birds known to inhabit the massive Yasuni Biosphere, considered by most estimates to be the most biodiverse place on earth, virtually all live near Shiripuno, and local guide Fernando has seen well over 500 of them in the wild. Daily sightings of scarlet macaws and toucans are complimented by spottings of less typical species like the yellow-billed jacamaw and the mannequin, famous for it’s mating dance, which involves flipping acrobatically to attract the attention of a female.
Sustainable Summer participants on our Into Yasuni program visit Shiripuno Lodge.
Tena, Ecuador’s most important and enjoyable jungle town, is nestled at the foot of the Andes mountains where the imposing Llanganates Cordillera gives way to the Amazonian plain. All the rivers on the east side of the Ecuadorian Andes drain into the Amazon basin, although the uppermost reaches of the thousands of tributaries are too steep for whitewater paddling. However, as rivers near the final stage of their precipitous descent out of the mountains on Ecuador’s eastern slope, the combination of topography and precipitation makes for some of the world’s finest whitewater. Ecuador is an international paddling destination that attracts kayakers from all over the world to its warm water, crystal clear jungle rivers, and incredible whitewater rapids. For the non-kayaker that is looking to get out on a river in a guided raft trip, there is no better destination than Tena. The town, in addition to serving as a gateway to many jungle expeditions, has developed a robust rafting industry. Several different sections of river are commonly rafted, including the Jondachi, the Misahualli Canyon, and even overnight trips on the Hollin, however the classic river trip for people of all ages and abilities is the Jatunyacu, meaning “big water” in Kichwa. It is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, with big, crashing waves followed by calm recovery pools.
Gina’s in Baeza
Almuerzo means lunch in Spanish, but it is also the term for a set lunch in Ecuador. Every local restaurant will have one. It is always a soup, followed by a plate of rice with either chicken, pork, fish, or beef with fresh fruit juice to drink. Often a small salad, steamed vegetables, and/or a minestra of beans or lentils will accompany along with aji, a salsa made from tomate de arbole. It is what the locals eat and it is far and away the best value food you can find while traveling, typically $2-4. I have had many, many almuerzos in Ecuador. My favorite is Gina’s Restaurant in Baeza. Although Baeza is rarely a stop for travelers to Ecuador, Gina’s is somewhat legendary. Often while traveling, people will ask you where you’re going to or from where you’re coming. As it so happens, I’m one of the few travelers who regularly visits Baeza (it’s a great destination for whitewater kayaking, one of my passions), so when I reply that I’ve just come from or that I’m going to Baeza, I frequently am met with a response to the effect of “there is a restaurant in Baeza that has the most amazing trucha (trout) and sopas (soup).” That’s Gina’s they are talking about. It’s really a gem. The food is fresh and delicious and the proprietors, Gina and her husband, Vicente, are among the friendliest Ecuadorians I’ve met.
Best highland market
Ecuador is known for its highland markets, typically once or twice weekly markets scattered throughout the Andes where the local people have, for centuries, gathered to trade. The traditional highland garb is still worn and it is one of the most authentic experiences travelers can participate in while visiting Ecuador. There are countless smaller markets and several larger regional ones that draw folks from many miles around. Visiting a highland market is a must for any traveler. So which highland market should you try to visit? Forget the tourist market at Otavalo – discerning travelers head to Saquisili for Ecuador’s most fascinating and colorful highland market. Indigenous people from all over the central sierra journey here every Thursday to purchase and trade animals, vegetables, grain baskets, woven goods, and much more. It’s a bustling scene, but unlike Otavalo, it hasn’t been commercialized by the ever-present stream of tourists that shuffle in daily as part of a package tour. Yet, you’ll still find plenty of interesting purchases to make, notably textiles, in addition to being able to watch the occasional steer or sow change hands.
Students on our Seeds of Change will get to visit the Saquisili highland market and practice their bartering skills.
The Black Sheep Inn
The Black Sheep Inn frequents annual lists of top eco-lodges around the globe, so it’s no wonder that it gets my nod as top pick in the category for Ecuador. What is an “eco-lodge?” Although I’ve stayed in dozens of ecolodges all over the world, I’ve actually never thought too much about that question myself, so I turned to HowStuffWorks.com for some inspiration in answering that question (great podcast, by the way, that I often listen to on long bus rides and flights while traveling). Anyway, Conservational International Foundation defines the term as: “An industry label used to identify a nature-dependent tourist lodge that meets the philosophy and principles of ecotourism.” Additionally, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), a good ecolodge should:
- Provide comfortable rooms and common areas that reflect the designs and heritage of the local culture
- Offer a natural setting that has been carefully preserved and contains local plant life
- Use locally harvested and sustainable and/or recyclable building materials
- Purchase food from local farmers
- Use environmentally-friendly energy, water and waste systems
- Offer opportunities for interaction with local owners, managers, staff and guides
The Black Sheep Inn was started by an American couple back in the 90s. The lodge was built in Chugchilan, a remote village in the Andes along the Quilatoa Loop, along all of the “ecolodge” standards referenced above (and then some more). For instance, the Inn practices permaculture and a zero-waste philosophy; they employ only local people and are actively involved in sustainable development and education initiatives in the community; and the Inn was constructed using natural building principles. A couple of years ago, management of the Inn was transitioned over to a local fellow named Edmundo, who trained and worked in the Quito hospitality industry before returning to his home in Chugchilan to run the Inn. The Inn continues to be a destination in and of itself, but its location amongst the dramatic scenery of the Andean highlands sets it apart. The local culture in this part of Ecuador is extremely well-preserved, and traditional customs and dress are retained, seemingly impervious to the slow trickle of outsiders that venture into this remote region for a taste of the highlands.
Students on our Seeds of Change program stay at the Black Sheep Inn.
Best Day Hike
Laguna Quilatoa to Chugchilan
In a country with so many striking natural features, there must be thousands of contenders for best day hike. One of the finest is surely the classic trip from the rim of iconic Laguna Quilatoa to Chugchilan. It’s a challenging hike owing more to the elevation and length than to the terrain. The hike starts out at over 12,000 feet in the tiny town of Quilatoa, where one can shop for all manner of alpaca textiles. If you’ve underestimated the weather, you may find yourself purchasing a new, hand-knit sweater to fight off the cold and wind that seems an ever-present presence until you get to the leeward side of the namesake laguna, just about 100 yards from the town. The crater lake is stunning even on clouded, wind-blown days, but when the sun is shining, it’s green waters sparkle in an almost surreal way. After posing for photos, the hike takes you about a quarter of the way around the rim, offering a few different vantage points for additional photos, before dropping off the back side of the rim and down through fields of wildflowers. It’s pretty much downhill the whole way for a couple of kilometers to a village. Although mostly subsistence farmers, a few enterprising folks have set up small tiendas selling water and other basic provisions if you’re running low. It’s a good idea to stock up because the hardest part of the hike is still in front if you. Just past the village is a deep canyon. Descending the switchbacks, you might pass a local woman hauling produce back up to the rim. After a rest at the bottom, recall how effortless she made it look as you labor up the ascent to the other side. Eventually the worst is over and the terrain levels out as you begin the walk into town. This part is always deceptively farther than it seems and you still have several hundred feet of elevation gain to go, but after about an hour you arrive in Chugchilan. It’s hard to imagine a better way to wrap up a great hike than with a sauna session at the Black Sheep Inn, followed by a delicious meal from the Inn’s inventive, all-vegetarian menu.
Students on our Seeds of Change program hike Laguna Quilatoa.
Best beach town
Extending from the Chone estuary near Bahia de Caraquez north to the Rio Canoa is a nearly 20-kilometer stretch of unbroken sand beach. At its northern end sits the town of Canoa, which has slowly woken up from its fishing industry roots to embrace the steady stream of locals and tourists that come there to surf, swim, and relax. Extending back from the wide beach for a few square blocks is the town with hostels and shops scattered throughout, but the heart of Canoa is along the malecon (the beach front). There’s a surf shop, several restaurants and cafes, and lots of local folks selling crafts, fresh fruit juice, and the like. It’s a far cry from the type of beach resort that you’re likely to find in the Caribbean. Instead a colorful mix of locals, Ecuadorians on vacation from the highlands, surfers, and backpackers share in the laid-back vibe. When you’re feeling inspired to add a bit of excitement to the day, paragliding, sea kayaking, and, of course, surfing are waiting. The surf is biggest from December through February, when experts come to play. The rest of the year, the consistent and forgiving shore break makes for near perfect beginner conditions.
Sustainable Summer participants on our Seeds of Change program live at an organic farm outside of Canoa for 8 days. We head into town a couple of times to relax and surf.
Best hot springs
Although Banos del Agua Santa (better known as just Banos) is the country’s most famous hot springs destination, the hot springs in Papallacta are superior. Don’t get me wrong. I love Banos. It’s a great town for so many reasons, like all the nearby outdoor activities. It also has several great spots for enjoying hot springs, including one right at the base of a waterfall. However, Termas Papallacta is still my favorite for a few reasons. (NOTE: There are a couple of hot springs options in Papallacta, but I’m referring to the best known and fanciest option in town, called Termas Papallacta.) It has a multitude of pools of varying temperatures. The water is very clean and clear. They have an icy cold plunge pool, which is guaranteed to send the nerve receptors in your body into a frenzied overdrive (in a good way). The surrounding area, at 9000 feet of elevation, is stunning, with jagged mountain peaks and rushing streams. Plus, it has one of the best restaurants in Ecuador right next door, which makes a late lunch, followed by a leisurely afternoon in the hot springs, the perfect end to an active day exploring the area.
Cascada San Rafael & Cascada Magica
There are incredible waterfalls all over Ecuador. There are a few outstanding options along the Ruta de las Cascadas, outside Banos, which probably sees the most visitors, and for good reason. But for the best, you’ll need to head a little further off the beaten path. From Baeza it’s a little over an hour by private transportation to the trailhead to Cascada San Rafael. San Rafael Falls is certainly the biggest waterfall in Ecuador, which has earned it a prominent position in many brochures and other places that attempt to promote Ecuador’s considerable natural beauty. But nothing compares to seeing the entirety of the massive Rio Quijos drop 500 feet into a mist-filled cauldron surrounded by verdant green mountains. On sunny days, a huge rainbow arcs out of the depths to a cliff wall. Sadly, Cascada San Rafael will be partially dewatered by the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project, which is currently under construction.
San Rafael would be worth the visit in and of itself, but combining Ecuador’s biggest waterfall with a trip to Cascada Magica just up the road back towards Baeza is a winning combination. Cascada Magica comes spitting out of the jungle in a 100-foot plume that invites visitors to bask in its magical spray. It’s not very often that you can safely get up and close and personal with a waterfall of this magnitude, but for those who don’t mind getting wet, you can really get in there and feel the power of one of nature’s most primordial forces.