There is one country in South America that contains a little bit of everything that the continent has to offer. That country is Ecuador.
So, if you want to discover South America but only have time to visit a single country, we’d suggest you pick Ecuador. In Ecuador, you get to experience the Andes mountain range, the South American culture, the Amazon rainforest, plenty of volcanoes, colonial history and a beautiful coastline to spend relax on afterwards.
To top that all off, Ecuador also has the stunning Galapagos islands, with some of the most incredible wildlife you’ll find on this planet.
Another thing that makes Ecuador a great pick is that it’s quite a small country. Compared to its neighbours, Ecuador is tiny and therefore rather easy to travel around. So, if you’re a nature and wildlife lover, a hiker or an adventure seeker, head to Ecuador!
We spent a total of seven weeks in Ecuador. We weren’t in a hurry and we also decided to spend two weeks learning Spanish in Montañita. But you can see the best the country has to offer in a lot less time than that. Still, we recommend spending a whole month there if you can. There’s a lot to enjoy!
Here are our Ecuador travel guide and one-month itinerary. It will take you to all of the best parts of this incredible country.
Quito (4 days)
Most people arriving in Ecuador will land at the Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito. Quito is the capital of Ecuador and at just under 3000 metres above sea level, it’s also the highest capital city in the world.
Bear in mind that if you’ve come from close to sea level, it can take you a few days to adjust to the change in altitude. You might find yourself exhausted after climbing just a small flight of stairs!
Quito is a very nice city to explore. With its many colourful colonial-era buildings and its beautiful churches, Quito’s historical centre is stunning to look at.
For a birds-eye view of Quito, take the Teleferico (cable car) up to almost 4000 meters above sea level. There are also several other fabulous viewpoints around town where you can appreciate just how spread-out Quito is.
Make sure you visit La Mitad del Mundo, the Middle of the World! There you can hop back and forth across the Equator line, the line that separates the southern and northern hemispheres. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but hey, it’s still something you’ve got to do!
Find a hotel in Quito using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
Cotopaxi National Park (1 day)
Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s many volcanos and one that you can admire if you are lucky (it’s often covered in clouds!) since it’s not very far from Quito. Cotopaxi is still active and has erupted about 50 times since 1738. You can visit it for the day and hike to the top if you’re a fit hiker. Bear in mind that the hike starts at 4,810 meters, so it will be a tough hike. Come prepared!
Quilotoa Lagoon (1 day) or (3-4 days)
The Quilotoa lagoon is stunning and you can enjoy it on a day trip if you only want to walk down to the lake and back up. Alternatively, you can hike the Quilotoa Loop which will take you from 3 to 4 days. The loop takes you through stunning Andes villages where you’ll visit indigenous Quechua communities. The views are awe-inspiring. So if you enjoy a good hike and you’ve had time to acclimatise to the altitude, you should go for it!
Baños (3 nights)
Baños was probably our second favourite place in Ecuador, even though during our stay there we were unlucky enough to have some of the worst weather they’d seen in months.
Even with lots of rain and overcast days, we loved this little town. The main reason is that it’s beautiful. It’s surrounded by lush green forest and there are waterfalls visible all over town. When we visited in June, it was rather quiet but it does get fairly busy in peak season.
Baños is known as the adrenaline capital of Ecuador. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you can take your pick of zip lining, bungee jumping, biking, white water rafting and lots more. You simply can’t be bored in Baños. There are even thermals baths to soak in and soothe your muscles, after an action-packed day.
Find a hotel in Baños using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
The Amazon (4 days)
The Amazon is not just in Brazil, you can visit it in Ecuador too. From Baños, it’s only a 4-hour bus ride to Tena, the gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon. There, you’ll find dense rainforests, stunning rivers, incredible wildlife, and indigenous communities.
There is so much to see and do in the Amazon and a trip to South America would not be complete without visiting the most bio-diverse ecological zone on the planet. Bring your insect repellent and enjoy!
Find a hotel in Tena using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
Alausi (1 day)
Alausi is a pretty little town, whose main claim to fame is the Devil’s Nose (the Nariz del Diablo) train ride. This train ride takes you past some breathtaking Andes mountain scenery.
The train ride is only two and a half hours long and Alausi is a small town; so you don’t need more than a day there unless you just want to chill out for a few days.
Find a hotel in Alausi using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
Cuenca (3 days)
Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, and it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. Some say it is the prettiest city in Ecuador because of its beautiful colonial buildings and its many churches and cathedrals. It’s certainly a lot more chilled out than Quito.
The best part about Cuenca though is its proximity to the Cajas National Park. You can explore this national park on a day tour from Cuenca and you should not miss visiting it, especially if you’re a nature lover and enjoy hiking amongst breathtaking scenery.
Find a hotel in Cuenca using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
The Galapagos Islands (7 days)
If there is one place in Ecuador that you absolutely should not miss, this is it. Yes, it’s expensive but I swear that you won’t regret a penny that you spend in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands are incredible and I wish I could find a better word to describe them. There is wildlife everywhere, the weather is beautiful, the scenery is breathtaking, the sea lions are just the sweetest, the sea turtles are super chill and the birdlife is abundant!
We loved the Galapagos and we were very sad to leave. For us, it was by far the highlight of Ecuador. As much as we enjoyed many of the places we visited in Ecuador, you just can’t beat the Galapagos. During our trip, we took a boat trip around the islands of San Cristobal, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Santiago and Bartolome. You can read all about it here.
Montañita (5 days)
Montañita is the party capital of Ecuador and if you need some time to relax and blow off some steam, this is the place to head! With clubs open until the early hours, it’s party, party, party in Montañita.
However, Montañita is also a great place to relax and enjoy the beach and the surf. If you’d like to learn Spanish, the best Spanish school in Ecuador (and one of the top five schools in the world), Montañita Spanish School, is located right off the main road that runs through the town.
We did two weeks of Spanish School in Montañita but you can do as little as a week (Monday to Friday) or up to a month or more if you have time.
Find a hotel in Montañita using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
Puerto Lopez (1 day)
Puerto Lopez is especially popular from June to October during whale season. From Puerto Lopez, you can take a whale-watching cruise to check out some of the many humpback whales that are either heading up north or back down south.
We had an amazing whale watching experience because the whales were everywhere and came so close to our boat! We’d done whale watching in Australia but this was much better. However, maybe we were just lucky on the day. You are dealing with wild animals after all! Our boat, however, was not up to Australian standards! But that’s to be expected in Ecuador.
You can also visit the Isla de la Plata from Puerto Lopez, which is known as the poor man’s Galapagos. It offers similar birdlife to the Galapagos at a fraction of the price. If you really can’t afford the Galapagos, this is your next best option.
Puerto Lopez is only an hour from Montañita, so you can stay in Montañita and visit Puerto Lopez for the day as we did.
If you are visiting outside of whale season and are also visiting the Galapagos Islands, I would suggest giving Puerto Lopez a miss. The town itself is little more than a small fishing village.
Find a hotel in Puerto Lopez using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites.
Back to Quito or Guayaquil
So that brings us to the end of your amazing trip around Ecuador. Sadly all good things must come to an end! Depending on where you are flying home from, you can take a long bus ride back to Quito or take a shorter bus ride to Guayaquil airport.
Hopefully, you’ll have enjoyed Ecuador as much as we did.
Things to know about Ecuador
Ecuador uses US dollars, so if you come from the United States you won’t need to exchange money. If you are travelling from other places, this makes Ecuador a bit more expensive than other countries in South America (such as Colombia). However, it’s still a whole lot cheaper than Europe or Australia!
The notes are the same as the ones in the US but Ecuador has some different coins, such as an Ecuadorian Dollar coin.
Since it’s located right on the Equator, Ecuador is very close to the sun. It means that even on a very overcast day, you can still get burnt! Always wear sunscreen. If you visit the Galapagos, make sure to bring sunscreen with you because the ones sold on the islands are very overpriced (I’m talking $25 for a tiny bottle!).
Try and learn some basic Spanish
Even though we had no problem travelling around Asia, Africa and most of Europe with English, Ecuador is not the same. Some people do speak English, but not everyone who works in the tourism industry does.
We had many places where we had to get by with our minimal Spanish and it was quite hard. It’s another reason why we decided to take Spanish lessons in Montañita. It made conversations with locals a whole lot easier.
If you want to travel around Ecuador and learn Spanish at the same time, the Montañita Spanish School offers a traveling classroom program which takes you around the country as you learn. You can read about it here.
The beds are weird
It might not be the same if you travel in style, but if, like us, you’re traveling on a budget, you may find that the beds in Ecuador are quite small compared to what you’re used to. Double beds are tiny!
But what annoyed us the most was that a lot of the time the sheets were not big enough to cover the whole bed. We constantly had to fight over the sheets and often woke up at night to find that they’d fallen off the bed altogether.
They love their sugar!
Everything in Ecuador comes with sugar. They just love it! If you have a morning juice “jugo”, expect it to be super sweet. If you don’t like it sweet, make sure you order it “sin azucar” without sugar. Many foods arrive accompanied by large amounts of sugar. Don’t expect to lose much weight in Ecuador 🙂
That’s right, bring your earplugs because you’ll need them. Ecuador is very noisy. Whether it’s the sound of Latin music blaring at night (hello Montañita), barking dogs, loud buses or noisy roosters in the morning, it’s tough to get a good night’s sleep in Ecuador.
How to get around Ecuador?
Local buses are the cheapest way to get around Ecuador. There are many buses a day to all of the popular destinations around the country. Sometimes they are direct, sometimes you may have to change buses. Prices are rather cheap (about $1 per hour) and you either buy the tickets at the station or simply hop on the bus and wait for the conductor to collect your fare.
The only issue with the local buses is that they are not always safe. You have to be extremely careful with your belongings. Do not put them on the overhead shelf, nor on the floor in front of you.
We almost had our laptops stolen within 10 minutes of getting on our first local bus from Cuenca to Baños (the bus attendant saw it happen!). We put them on the overhead shelf, not listening to previous advice we’d read. We learnt a valuable lesson. Don’t be stupid like us!
The other issue with the local buses is that even though most have toilets on board, they won’t let you use them! Why, well we can’t quite work it out! So if you have an upset tummy as we had once, it could be a hell of a journey, especially on a 10-hour bus ride! The worst part is that they hardly stop for toilet breaks. The drivers must be part camel!
Other than that, we found the buses to be way more comfortable than anything we had in Asia.
The Wanderbus hop-on-hop-off service
We loved the Wanderbus because although it is more expensive, it was much easier than taking the local buses. Not only could we decide to get on and off wherever we wanted along the way but we never had to worry about getting stuff stolen or when the next toilet break would be.
There is a dedicated English-speaking guide on board who explains things about Ecuador along the way. Wanderbus stops for breakfast and lunch and takes you to places that the local buses won’t. It’s an excellent and safe way to travel around Ecuador and we highly recommend it.
Well, if money is not an issue you can fly to most of Ecuador’s larger cities. Although internal flights in Ecuador are not quite as crazily expensive as international flights within South America, they are still way more expensive than buses. If you really can’t deal with long bus or car rides though, this is your only option.
Is Ecuador safe?
Ecuador is relatively safe but you do have to be careful with your belongings. If you don’t want them to be stolen, don’t flash them around.
If someone tells you not to go to a certain area, don’t go. Don’t walk around at night in dark streets, don’t get so drunk as to make yourself an easy target for criminals. Just be street smart.
Yes, things do happen in Ecuador. As I said earlier, we very nearly had our laptops stolen on a bus. We spoke to a traveller who was robbed not once, not twice but three times … in a single day in Quito! Imagine that.
Although that was probably just very bad luck on her part, I would still suggest being extremely careful. Leave all your expensive jewellery at home, only take the bare minimum with you when you head out and don’t walk around with your passport or a lot of money on you.
Calculate the rough amount of money you’ll need and only carry that with you. You can always go back to get some more. Also, don’t carry all your credit cards on you. Ecuador is pretty much a cash-based society and you’ll probably struggle to find somewhere that accepts credit cards anyway; so why risk having them stolen? Just leave them in the safe at your hotel.
Other than that, Ecuador is an awesome country to visit so I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!