Ecuador is a country of contrasts and with its diverse range of wonderful destinations, it's hard to know where to start. Visit UNESCO-listed Quito, the vibrant and charming capital with a beautiful colonial centre, explore the tropical diversity of the Amazon River basin, shop at Otavalo, the largest handicraft market in South America, take a dip in the picturesque spa town of Banos and more. To help you make this tricky decision we've listed some of the best places to visit in Ecuador.
Ecuador’s capital spreads across a spectacular Andean valley, flanked by volcanic peaks. At an altitude of 2,800m, the dizzy heights of Quito can take a few days to get used to but asides the stunning setting, there’s plenty to keep you entertained while you do. Designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the city’s historical centre is a maze of colonial splendour, rich in architecture and heritage, boasting no less than 40 churches, 17 squares, and 16 monasteries and convents. All in all, it’s a great quarter to wander around with several excellent museums and inviting restaurants and cafes. Much of the city’s charm lies in the vibrant working class and indigenous character of its people. Walking its narrow streets is to lose yourself in another world where women walk by carrying impossible loads and street performers play on guitars and accordions for your attention.
The beautiful Amazon rainforest covers most of the Amazon Basin of South America, the majority of which is contained within Brazil, then Peru and smaller amounts in Ecuador and Bolivia and other South American countries. Covering a large portion of Ecuador’s land mass, the Ecuadorian Amazon contains some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. The many rivers and tributaries that run through Ecuador’s rainforest support a staggering variety of wildlife though where this section of the Amazon truly excels is in the thousands of indigenous tribes that call it home, and the birdlife-rich cloud forests. On a visit the Amazon jungle, stay in jungle lodges or on board a riverboat. Spend your time enjoying hiking, swimming, canoeing and photography. Try and spot some of the many mammals from armadillos, honey bears, sloths, to the 60 varieties of bats, tapirs, peccaries, jaguar, monkeys, manatees and much more. Birds are the richest group of Amazon vertebrates, at approximately 1000 species. You may see hummingbirds, toucans, and tanagers on land, and darters, herons and gulls on water. There are naturalists on-hand to ensure you make the most out of your time in this fascinating eco-system.
Otavalo market has lots of interesting gifts from carpets and rugs with Indian patterns to jewellery, paintings and reed pipes, but is also a great place to go people watching. The handicrafts market is a maze of colourful stalls with Andean pipe music coming from ‘Poncho Plaza’ the square around which the market is centred.
Set in the Andean highlands under the smoke of volcano Tungurahua, Banos is one of Ecuador’s most enticing tourist destinations. The small city is hemmed in by luxuriant green peaks and adorned by a beautiful waterfall. The name Banos, which is Spanish for ‘baths of sacred water’, refers to the steaming thermal baths that the area is rich in and a number of professional massage studios have popped up making it a perfect place to relax. The natural surroundings have seen the city become something of an adventure capital and people flock here to hike, soak in the baths, ride mountain bikes, volcano watch and raft on the local rapids. Banos is also the gateway into the jungle and the downhill road leading east from town offers spectacular views of the Amazon Basin stretched out below.
Considered the colonial jewel of the south with a UNESCO-listed old centre full of many historic buildings, Cuenca is quite possibly Ecuador's most handsome city. With narrow cobblestone streets and grand whitewashed buildings topped with red-tile roofs, balconies and interior courtyards, Cuenca shares much of its architectural style with the old town of Quito. The sky-blue domes of the 19th century Catedral Nueva is Cuenca's most recognisable and equally impressive landmark. Stood opposite, the Catedral Vieja houses late 16th century frescoes and cyan toned murals. Off the main square the daily flower market takes place at Plaza de las Flores where chola women dressed in traditional skirts and checked aprons and sporting long plaited hair and Panama hats sell their colourful and fragrant wares. Look beyond the colonial grandeur and you'll find a surprisingly modern side to Cuenca, championed by the city's large student population. As well as glorious architecture from a by-gone era you'll also find thoroughly international restaurants, trendy art galleries and cafes and plenty of bars in elaborate settings.