What do you know about Ecuador? If your answer to that question is, well, almost nothing, you’ve come to the right place. This South American gem is rapidly gaining a reputation as an up-and-coming destination. Why? Well, how about beautiful architecture, stunning scenery and some of the world’s coolest islands? If that’s not enough for you, what about nights out to a soundtrack of infectious Latin rhythms and some of the best food in the Western Hemisphere? It’s time to discover Ecuador — and we’re right here to guide you.

Explore the mysteries of the Amazon rainforest

The vast Amazon rainforest spreads across nine countries in South America — and yes, one of them is Ecuador. You’ll need to put in a bit of effort to actually make it there, as the east of the country is still pretty underdeveloped, but that’s all part of the adventure! Spending a few days taking a boat down the river or trekking through the rainforest lets you enjoy some of the best stuff to do in Ecuador. You’ll feel like a true explorer as you leave civilisation behind, discovering one of the wildest places on the planet.

The Amazon is an absolute paradise for anyone who loves wildlife. Anacondas, pink river dolphins, tapirs, monkeys and jaguars all call this dense rainforest home. Drop a fishing line into the river, and you might just pull out an angry-looking piranha. Don’t panic — these notoriously snappy fish are actually a local delicacy, and you might enjoy them for dinner when you’re back at your jungle lodge, reflecting on the day’s adventures.

We love canoe journeys down the river, which let you see the Amazon as the local indigenous people have for thousands of years. Breathtaking, awe-inspiring and offering surprises at every turn, the Amazon should not be missed. It’s definitely earned its place in the top spot on our list of things to do in Ecuador!

Landscape waterfall nature ecuador

Scuba dive in the Galápagos Islands

Here’s another big hitter for adventure lovers. The remote Galápagos Islands have some of the best biodiversity on the planet, and much of that is under the water. Be warned: the sites here are strictly limited to advanced divers only, as there are treacherous currents to deal with. If you’ve already racked up enough experience in other parts of the world, then grab your wetsuit and get ready for the dive of a lifetime.

Many divers choose to explore the Galápagos on liveaboard trips, spending several days on a boat and enjoying multiple dives a day. From the surface, the sea might look quite calm, but as soon as you descend below the waves, you’ll find that it’s full of life. The Galápagos Islands offer you the chance to see rare sea creatures that you’ll struggle to spot anywhere else on the planet, including marine iguanas, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, whale sharks and spotted eagle rays. This is a true bucket list highlight for divers around the world.

A Whale Shark, Galapagos Islands

Meet the Galápagos giant tortoises

Yes, the Galápagos Islands are known for diving, but some of their most interesting sights can be seen without going under the water. Remember, these islands inspired Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution, thanks to the rare and magical creatures that live here.

The most intriguing of all are the giant tortoises, which live for over a century. These slow-moving reptiles are a sight to behold, and learning more about their unique history is one of the best things to do in Ecuador. The Galápagos aren’t just about the tortoises, either. You can expect to see sea lions, flamingos, penguins and more just by wandering around the islands. You’ll also be able to spot the adorable blue-footed booby. We’re not sure how this rare bird got its name, but it’s one of our favourite sights on this remote archipelago. If you’re a fan of nature, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Old Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Wander the historic centre of Quito

Ecuador’s capital city sits a massive 2,850 metres above sea level. That means you might feel a bit lightheaded as you wander its streets, but that could also just be the effect of the incredible sights of Quito’s historic centre. In fact, the centre of Quito is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the capital one of the best Ecuador tourist cities.

Some of our favourite Ecuador attractions and activities can be found in Quito. We love the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the Cathedral and the San Francisco church. This is the best-preserved historic centre in all of South America. Despite earthquakes, wars and other disasters over the years, Quito’s stunning architecture is still going strong and definitely deserves a closer look.

Quito Panoramic old Town

Try the local cuisine

While you’re in Quito, you mustn’t miss out on some of Ecuador’s best delicacies. Best of all is ceviche, which you might think of as the Ecuadorian version of sushi. Just like the Japanese delicacy, it features raw fish. However, the fish here is “cooked” using lime juice, which gives the flesh a firm, opaque appearance while still retaining that raw freshness. Ecuadorians also love bolón de verde, which is definitely not recommended for dieters. It’s a thick, tennis ball-sized lump of mashed plantains with a cheesy pork centre. Once it’s fried, it’ll keep you going for hours of sightseeing.

If you’re an adventurous eater, then there are a few challenging dishes to add to your list of things to do in Ecuador. The most intimidating has to be asado or roasted guinea pig. The little critters are roasted whole, which might make you lose your appetite, but the locals love this meaty treat, considering it a true Ecuadorian delicacy. Personally, we’ll be sticking to the ceviche!

See the old colonial streets of Cuenca

That’s right, the historic centre of Quito isn’t the only old town in Ecuador worth seeing. Cuenca is a spectacular city perched high in the Andes. It is known as the Athens of Ecuador for its stunning old buildings and remarkable history.

You can easily spend a day wandering through the streets of Cuenca’s old town, admiring the perfectly preserved colonial buildings, a legacy from the days of the Spanish Empire. Try climbing up the cathedral towers. You’ll need to follow a dizzyingly narrow spiral staircase, so don’t look down! When you get to the top, you’ll have the absolute best views in town.

the dome of Cuenca Cathedral

Explore the largest Inca ruins in Ecuador

Yes, you’ll have to head to neighbouring Peru if you want to see the world-famous Machu Picchu, but don’t worry. Ecuador has its very own spectacular Incan ruins, and they’re beautiful enough to earn them a spot on our list of the best things to do in Ecuador.

Ruins dot the country, but you’ll find the best near Cuenca, in the Parque Arqueologico del Pumapungo. Here, you can see all that remains of the ancient city of Tomebamba. This was once a proud Inca settlement. However, after the Spanish conquest, the buildings were torn down, and the stone was used to build Cuenca. Today, only the foundations and some fragments of the old walls remain, offering a tantalising glimpse at a way of life that has totally disappeared from the planet.

Trek through the glaciers of an active volcano

A volcano with glaciers? Yes, it may sound like a contradiction, but that’s exactly what you’ll find at Mount Cotopaxi. This is the second highest point in this very mountainous country, sitting at a jaw-dropping 5,897 metres above sea level. It takes serious skill, determination and strength to get to the top. Oh, and Cotopaxi is still an active volcano, so your trek may just be cancelled if the volcano gods are starting to rumble. Despite all this, we think that Cotopaxi is one of the best things to see and do in Ecuador.

Hiking Cotopaxi is not something to decide on a whim. It’s an overnight trek that will see you camping out on the mountainside, accompanied by expert guides. If you’d rather do something a little more attainable, try following the hiking trail to base camp, set at a slightly more manageable 4,864 metres above sea level. This camp is located right at the snow line, giving you great views of the glaciers higher up the slopes.

Go horse riding around Cotopaxi National Park

Maybe you’d rather not risk the ascent to the top of Mount Cotopaxi or even the trek to base camp. No problem, as Cotopaxi National Park offers plenty of cool things to do in Ecuador, and here’s another of them.

There are several tour operators that offer horse rides through the glacial landscape. Saddle up and let your faithful steed do the hard work as you enjoy the magical high-altitude views. Put on a traditional Andean poncho to keep warm and get into the spirit of things. You might even spot a rare Andean condor or two soaring far overhead!

Go whale watching in Isla de la Plata

A trip to the Galápagos Islands is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime adventure that bucket lists are made of. If you’re not going to make it that far, try Isla de la Plata. This charming island offers a taste of Galápagos on a budget, with plenty of wildlife to see, some cool diving sites and, best of all, the chance to see majestic whales swimming out in the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Isla de la Plata is a lot closer to continental Ecuador than the Galápagos, making it more accessible for travellers. You can’t stay there overnight, as it’s part of a protected national park. Take a boat out there for a day trip. Whale season extends from June to October, marking the area as one of the world’s most reliable spots for whale sightings.

Whale jumping in the deep blue sea

Take a death-defying ride on the Devil’s Nose Train

Can a train ride offer the thrills of a rollercoaster? In the case of the Devil’s Nose Train, yes! A ride on this narrow, mountainous track will have your heart in your mouth and your adrenaline pumping. No wonder we had to add it to our list of the best things to do in Ecuador.

The Devil’s Nose Train holds the reputation as the trickiest railway line ever constructed. Engineers designed it over a century ago to transport goods from the coast to Quito across some of the world’s highest mountains. The train zig-zags up the side of the mountain, and if you’re sitting by the window, you might well find yourself praying. Don’t worry, it’s all under control, but it won’t feel like it!

In the past, visitors in search of even more thrills were allowed to sit on top of the train. Sadly, this led to some pretty gruesome accidents, and today, you’ll have to stay inside the carriage. Still, the Devil’s Nose gives you a chance to enjoy the incredible scenery of one of the most thrilling train rides on the planet.

Take a hike to a crater lake

With so many mountains and volcanoes, there are some truly spectacular natural sites to see in Ecuador. We particularly love the country’s jaw-dropping crater lakes, set high in the calderas of extinct volcanoes. Laguna Cuicocha, El Altar and Laguna Quilotoa are all worth a visit, and there are even more lakes waiting for you off the beaten path.

You’ll be able to get to some of these lakes with an easily accessible bus tour, but make sure you bring your hiking boots. You’ll want to follow the trails around the rim of the craters to enjoy the views from every possible angle. When you’ve done that, you’ll see why we added these lakes to our list of the best things to do in Ecuador.

a viewpoint of Cuicocha Lake

Spend a day or two relaxing on the beach

After so much time exploring dramatic mountains, why not hit the beach for a change of pace? Ecuador has some great coastal areas, too. Travellers flock to Salinas for its upmarket resort charm, but if you want something a little more rustic, we love the bohemian vibes of Montañita. This laid-back town has a permanent population of surfers, reggae musicians and hippies, and it’s also popular with backpackers.

As well as surfing, you can try paragliding from the cliffs that surround the town. There are also hiking trails to nearby waterfalls, but if you’d rather just kick back on the beach with a plate of ceviche and a bottle of something cold, we understand.

Drink the water of life in Vilcabamba

Who wants to live forever? Well, this is one of the places to go in Ecuador if you’d like to be immortal. Okay, Vilcabamba may not actually have the legendary fountain of youth, but it offers the next best thing: mineral-rich water that is apparently responsible for the unusually high life expectancy in the area. Well, it can’t hurt to try!

While you’re in this green, pastoral town, you’ll find other reasons why we added Vilcabamba to our list of the best things to do in Ecuador. Relax in a spa, hike to a waterfall or shop at the farmer’s market. Embrace the slower pace of life in this charming Ecuadorian mountain town.

Ready to see Ecuador for yourself? Our 11-day trip will take you from the Andes to the Amazon, showing you the very best that this South American destination has to offer. Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!

Are you fascinated by South America? Then read also Your complete travel guide to Machu Picchu.

WeRoad Team
Written by WeRoad Team