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5 destinations to visit on your first trip to mainland Ecuador

Have you heard about Ecuador, a small but beautiful country? Ecuador is located in South America, a wonderful country with a territory extension of 256.370 km2, its capital is the city of Quito, through which it crosses the famous equatorial line, marking the north and south of the world.

Ecuador is also known as the country of the 4 worlds. But why has it earned this name? The presence of 4 very different regions along the territory offers its inhabitants and visitors the possibility to discover the mountain ranges in the Andes, the forests and jungles in the Amazon, the beautiful beaches on the coast, and of course the unique charm of the Galapagos Islands. Below, you will discover some of the destinations you should include on your first visit to this amazing country and some of the activities you can do. Are you ready?

Quito – the main gateway and the center of everything

Situated high in the Andes Mountains, Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is a captivating destination that seamlessly blends colonial charm, rich history, vibrant culture, and breathtaking natural landscapes. Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is a vibrant and historic destination nestled high in the Andes Mountains. Situated at an altitude of around 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) above sea level.

Additionally, Quito’s location makes it a convenient starting point for exploring Ecuador’s diverse ecosystems, its central location allows you to travel to other regions in a matter of hours, being the departure point by land and air, including the cloud forests of Mindo, the Cotopaxi National Park, Otavalo, Ibarra, and the lush Amazon rainforest.

It is also the point for domestic flights to Cuenca, Loja, Guayaquil, Coca, and Manta. All these cities are key because of their location to connect you to other destinations in the respective regions of the country.

Some activity options

  • Explore Quito’s historic center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Visit iconic landmarks such as Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square), the Cathedral of Quito, and the Presidential Palace. Don’t miss the stunning Compañía de Jesús Church, which is characterized by its baroque and churrigueresque style. Its façade is adorned with a profusion of ornate details, including carved stone figures and Solomonic columns. The interior is equally impressive, with elaborate decoration and a profusion of gold on its main altar.
  • Visit the Middle of the World, located just outside of Quito, where you can stand on the equator and learn about the cultural and scientific importance of this place. You can do the balanced egg experiment, an egg is placed upright on a flat surface, and the egg can be kept in balance without falling over.
  • Take a cable car ride up the Pichincha volcano to enjoy panoramic views of Quito and the surrounding mountains. Once at the top, you can go for a hike, enjoy a meal, or simply take in the breathtaking scenery.
  • Visit galleries and workshops of local craftsmen, as well as places where the history of the city and country is shown, such as the city museum, the national museum, the wax museum, and more.

What activity would you do on your first day in Quito?

Otavalo – a magic town

With its vibrant markets, traditional crafts, and breathtaking natural surroundings, the town of Otavalo is a dynamic and culturally rich destination that enthralls visitors. Otavalo provides tourists with a distinctive and immersive experience because of its rich indigenous heritage and thriving artisanal traditions.

The indigenous communities of Otavalo are also culturally enriched, they are true artisans and musicians who to this day protect these traditions. The descendants of the protected Kichwa people, the ¨Otavaleños¨, proudly maintain their customs and way of life. Their distinctive clothing, composed of intricately embroidered textiles and garments, is a reflection of their cultural heritage.


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Some activity options

  • Explore the famous Otavalo Market, one of the largest indigenous markets in South America. This vibrant market is known for its colorful textiles, handicrafts, jewelry, and traditional clothing.
  • Take a short trip to Peguche, a nearby village famous for its stunning waterfall. Enjoy a hike through lush greenery to reach the waterfall, where you can witness its impressive beauty up close. The area is also considered sacred by the indigenous communities and holds cultural significance.
  • Visit the picturesque Cuicocha Lake, located in the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. Take a boat ride on the crater lake and admire the surrounding volcanic landscapes. There are also hiking trails available around the lake, offering breathtaking views and opportunities for wildlife spotting.
  • Enjoy the natural beauty of San Pablo Lake, located close to Otavalo. You can take a boat ride on the lake, or simply relax by its tranquil shores. The surrounding area offers stunning views of the lake, mountains, and nearby indigenous communities.

Which would you choose first, a visit to the lakes or a shopping spree of culture at the market?

Cotopaxi National Park

The Cotopaxi Volcano at a staggering height of 5,897 meters (19,347 feet) above sea level, is part of the Cotopaxi National Park, which was established in 1975 to protect the natural wonders and biodiversity of the area. Is the highest active volcano in the world, which gives it an aura of mystery and fascination, Cotopaxi has great cultural and historical importance for Ecuador. For the inhabitants of the Andean region, the volcano is considered sacred and is shrouded in myths and legends.

The Park covers an area of approximately 33,393 hectares (82,560 acres) and offers a diverse range of ecosystems, including forests, grasslands, and paramo (high-altitude grassland) regions.

Some activity options

  • Cotopaxi National Park provides numerous trails that allow visitors to explore its stunning landscapes. You can embark on hikes of varying difficulty levels, ranging from short walks to multi-day treks.
  • For experienced climbers and mountaineers, ascending Cotopaxi Volcano is a thrilling adventure. Proper preparation, acclimatization, and the assistance of experienced guides are essential.
  • Experience the Andean highlands on horseback and immerse yourself in the local culture. Guided horseback riding tours offer a unique perspective of the Cotopaxi area, allowing you to explore its scenic beauty while learning about the region’s history and traditions.

Would you like to visit this beautiful National Park?

Guayaquil – pearl of the Pacific

The largest city in Ecuador and a humming metropolis is Guayaquil, situated on the southwest coast of the nation, it is a lively and dynamic city that serves as Ecuador’s economic and commercial center and is renowned for its extensive history, diverse attractions, and cutting-edge construction.

On the Guayas River’s banks, close to the Gulf of Guayaquil, is where you’ll find Guayaquil. Guayaquil is famous for its delicious gastronomy, and delicious coastal dishes such as ceviche, encebollado, seafood rice, and more. Guayaquil is home to the Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport, another gateway to Ecuador and a departure point for the Galapagos Islands. Temperatures are warm throughout the year, with an annual average of around 27 °C.

Some activity options

  • Take a leisurely stroll along the Malecon 2000, the iconic waterfront promenade. Enjoy the beautiful views of the Guayas River, visit the various monuments and statues, and stop by the shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues along the way.
  • Climb the steps of Cerro Santa Ana, a hill located in the ¨Las Peñas¨ neighborhood. At the top, you’ll find colorful houses, art galleries, and panoramic views of the city and the Guayas River.
  • Visit Parque Seminario (Iguana Park), and spend some time in this unique park where you can observe and interact with the iguanas that freely roam around. It’s a great opportunity to take photos and learn more about these fascinating creatures.
  • Visit Guayaquil’s Historical Park, where the city’s history and cultural heritage are on display. Explore traditional Ecuadorian architecture, learn about local customs and traditions, and enjoy the park’s recreational areas and gardens.

Which activity would you do first?

Cuence – the hidden jewel of South America

At 2,538 meters above sea level, Cuenca, the provincial capital of Azuay in the south of Ecuador, is situated in a lovely valley surrounded by Andean mountains. Unquestionably one of the most stunning cities in the entirety of South America, with one of the best preserved historic centers in the world, which led to its designation as an Ecuadorian cultural heritage on March 29, 1982.

This lovely city, which has a total area of almost 16,000 hectares, is located in the Andes Mountains. The temperature in this city is typically constant between 14 and 18 degrees Celsius, making it a comfortable and popular destination for everyone.

Some activity options

  • Explore the Historical Center, as it is truly one of the most beautiful old towns in Ecuador, and take a stroll through the narrow cobblestone streets, and admire the colonial buildings, such as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Church of San Blas, and the Church of Santo Domingo. Don’t miss Parque Calderon and the central square. Visit Museums and Art Galleries, like Pumapungo Museum, which showcases Ecuadorian history and archaeology.
  • Discover the Tomebamba River, which runs through the city and offers beautiful riverside trails for walking or biking. Enjoy the panoramic views, and visit the ruins of Puente Roto (an Inca bridge).
  • Take a day trip to Cajas National Park, located just outside of Cuenca, the park is a stunning nature reserve known for its lakes, mountains, and unique Andean páramo ecosystem. Ideal for hiking, bird watching, as well as camping in this picturesque setting.
  • Visit the Ingapirca Ruins, the largest and most important archaeological site in Ecuador. Once you arrive, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the fascinating ruins of an Inca fortress, the ceremonial center, the Temple of the Sun, the Museum, and the Interpretive Center, and enjoy the hiking trails.
  • The thermal waters of Baños de Cuenca are known for their therapeutic properties and mineral content. These waters are believed to have health benefits, such as relieving stress, relaxing muscles, and improving circulation.

Which of these activities has gained your attention?

Now you know which destinations you should visit on your first visit to Ecuador, and if you already know them, why not visit them again? Let me know in the comments which destination catches your attention the most.

Marcel Perkins is CEO at Latin Trails. Latin Trails is an incoming destination management company specialized in bespoke tours, with a focus on offering unique experiences throughout Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru.

If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Marcel Perkins

Marcel Perkins is CEO at Latin Trails. Latin Trails is an incoming destination management company specialized in bespoke tours, with a focus on offering unique experiences throughout Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

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  1. Some of my friends called in on Quito on their way to the Galapagos last year and were surprised by how much there was to see. They said they wished that they’d added a couple of extra days into their trip so that they could do the city properly.

    1. Hi Ben, I’m glad to hear that your friends got a good concept of Quito despite their short stay in the city, in my experience I recommend that you need at least 3 days in Quito to visit all the iconic tourist spots and some nearby destinations for a daily tour.

  2. We’d never even thought of visiting Ecuador, to be absolutely honest it was nowhere near our travel bucket list. This post has really changed my perceptions and I now think that we ought to take a deeper dive into what Ecuador has to offer.

    1. Hi Lorraine, thank you very much for your comment, I’m so glad this post has given you a better idea of what Ecuador has to offer. I hope you will soon be able to enjoy a full trip to the country.

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