When it comes to things to do in Ecuador, the options seem limitless. Though I spent a lot of time researching before my flight arrived in Quito, I found I was constantly pulled in different directions upon discovering new possibilities for adventures while on the ground.
Part of travelling is meeting new people and taking their advice and recommendations. While some of the activities on the following list of my most memorable experiences in Ecuador were planned before I arrived in South America, a few were definitely last-minute decisions that turned out to be some of my favourite adventures. Any of these experiences are worthy of their place on your own Ecuador bucket list. Let’s get on with it (in no particular order).
1. The Quilotoa Loop
Though I said I would start these in no particular order, I can’t help but place what was perhaps my favourite experience at number one.
Quilotoa is the most Western volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes. Today, everyone heads there to see the emerald crater lake—the laguna. The loop is a circuit that many travellers choose to traverse. It is a multi-day hike which leads through villages and canyons in the surrounding area.
Going to Quilotoa and hiking the loop could have made my trip on its own. This is one of those experiences that makes you really feel immersed in a country and culture while pushing your body. It’s not a tough hike, but it’s not easy — and the altitude certainly plays a role in that.
Despite the fact that it’s quite well known, you will definitely feel a sense of seclusion on this circuit. I created an itinerary and video with more information on the route if you’re interested for your own trip to Ecuador.
2. Taking Spanish Lessons
Ecuador is a go-to country for Spanish language learners because of the neutral accent and slower pace of speaking. I studied in the quiet beach town of Ayampe (a recommendation from a fellow traveller), though many choose to study in historic Cuenca.
I signed up for 20 hours of Spanish lessons over 5 days — which felt like a lot. Before I left for South America, I spent over half a year taking weekly Spanish lessons with a tutor and studying on my own. This was something completely different. It was tough, it was frustrating, it felt like 1000 hours at times, but it was completely worth it.
I was amazed by how quickly I progressed in my language skills in just that one week of intensive Spanish — even more than studying by myself on and off for years. Taking this week to practice speaking near the beginning of my backpacking trip in South America really helped set me up for a better journey overall. If I had my time back, I likely would have stayed put for another week.
3. Climbing Mountains in the Andes
Climbing Illiniza Norte was incredibly difficult for me — it was perhaps one of the toughest days of my whole backpacking journey. I consider myself to be a generally fit person, but I am no mountaineer.
At 5,126 m in elevation, this was the highest point I’ve ever reached (with my feet on the ground, of course). And I felt the altitude in my head, in my lungs, and in my stomach. I complained relentlessly, took countless breaks, and generally was a miserable person to spend time with for the 12-hour excursion.
It wasn’t until I was back in Latacunga with a beer in my hand and my boots tossed in a corner that I really felt the joy and gratitude for all I had achieved and experienced in that day. My eagerness to repeat the experience is questionable, but the memory is deeply entwined with my whole experience in Ecuador.
I booked my excursion with Tierra Zero Tours. Their office is right beside Hostal Tiana in Latacunga (which I also recommend highly).
4. Having Adventures in Baños
I can’t separate all the activities in Baños simply because one goes to the city for the sole purpose of having adventures. A couple that definitely stand out for me are canyoning and biking the waterfall route. Hopefully this video gets the point across:
Booking excursions is easy in Baños, since it seems that’s what everyone goes there for. As a result, you’ll find outfitters lining the streets. Ask around for prices and use your best judgement when booking.
5. Taking Yoga Classes
This point could be combined with number 2 above, since I did take my yoga classes while also studying Spanish in Ayampe, but the experience deserves its own space.
Taking morning yoga classes in the outdoors, with the sounds of the waves rolling in the background, sounds a bit like a cliché, I’ll admit — but it’s also one of the best things ever. This kind of serenity redefined my practice and is really what renewed my dedication to it. The setting gave me a focus that I’d never achieved in any classroom, and like my Spanish, I felt changes in my ability even in as little as one week.
If you are a casual yogi looking for the inspiration to really commit to a practice, taking classes while on the road can be the motivation you’re looking for.
6. Touring Isla de la Plata
The “Poor man’s Galápagos” was on my list from the beginning, and it didn’t disappoint. The marine life was incredible.
Everyone I met who went to the Galápagos went as a bucket list item and they adored it. Yes, I would have loved to have gone there, the environmental biologist that I am, and I’m sure I will make it there when my budget allows. However, I did honestly meet those who visited both the Galápagos and Isla de la Plata and still found Isla de la Plata incredibly impressive.
For under $40 USD (prices vary depending on where you book), I would say this excursion lives up to its hype as a Galápagos alternative for the budget traveller.
7. Wandering Cuenca’s Historic City Centre
Cuenca is such a deviation from the normal Ecuadorian city. Its city centre is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, its streets are generally clean, and it has a distinctly European feel. It’s definitely one of the most (if not the most) touristy places I visited in Ecuador, and I was surprised at how much English I heard and saw while there. It has a fairly significant population of foreign (American, in particular) retirees, and that has certainly shaped some of the culture in the city centre.
Aside from all this, what’s important to appreciate in Cuenca is the architecture. I decided to consult a guidebook and do my own walking tour of the city — something I highly recommend to anyone visiting Cuenca in the future. The architecture defines this charming city, so getting to know it should be high on your list when you visit.
8. Multi-Pitch Rock Climbing Beside Pre-Inca Archaeological Ruins
Despite the popularity of the ruins of Incapirca, I would have to put my experience at Cojitambo at the top of my list when it comes to ruins I visited in Ecuador. It wasn’t just that we had the whole place to ourselves, but also the fact that we had a knowledgable climbing guide who gave us an overview of the history of the whole area. This was after I’d just had one of the most terrifying experiences of my life (fear of heights — climbing in general is usually tough for me) on my first multi-pitch climb, which I describe more here.
Despite the fact that this was one more experience where I was less-than comfortable during, I truly appreciate the memory and definitely would not give it up.
We had to make a special request with a tour operator for this rock climbing excursion since they didn’t have enough interest to regularly schedule outings. While we ended up paying a bit more, it was completely worth it to have our own private guide.
9. Walking Tour of Quito
We decided to do a free walking tour of Quito on our first day in Ecuador, despite the fact that we’d arrived late at night after a long day of travelling, were quite jet-lagged, and certainly not accustomed to the altitude of the city. We were disoriented and grabbed a couple of croissants from a random bakery as breakfast before the tour started at 1 pm.
I am a big fan of these tip-based walking tours no matter where I go. My first was in Sydney, and I’ve since done them in Reykjavik, Lima, and Valpariso. This one in Quito was one of my favourites, not only because it was my first introduction to the entire continent, but also because afterward the guide and a few of the other tour participants accompanied us for almuerzo and really helped us get our bearings in Ecuador in general.
Another point I should add to this one is the introduction we got to Quito’s Mercado Central, where we got sugary fruit smoothies that we desperately needed and cheap and delicious breakfasts for the next couple of days.
10. Eating Tons of Fresh Fruit and Veg
Not so much one particular experience, but something I experienced plenty during the 5 or so weeks I spent travelling in Ecuador. As a new vegan, I had a ton of trouble figuring out what to eat in Ecuador. Options were certainly limited in terms of restaurants, but luckily the produce available was simply amazing. And everything was dirt cheap. It pains me to pay $2+ CAD for an unripe avocado here in Canada when I think back on the massive and perfectly ripe ones I could get for a few cents back in South America.
Staying in hostels with kitchens was definitely the easiest option when it came to food, but if you’ve got to subsist on ready-to-eat fruits, Ecuador is one of the best places to do it.