Things to Do in Ecuador
At Mindo Butterfly Farm (Mariposas de Mindo)—tucked in the ethereal Ecuadorian cloud forest region—get up close and personal with more than 1,000 species of butterflies at all stages of the life cycle. Even travelers not crazy about butterflies will be charmed by the small koi pond, fluttering hummingbirds, and picturesque surroundings.
In the Ecuadorian wilderness just outside Baños, Casa del Arbol Swing is a seismic monitoring station that has capitalized on its perfect mountaintop location next to the Tungurahua Volcano by installing a treehouse with a rope swing. The Swing at the End of the World, as it’s often called, offers thrills with an unobstructed view of the volcano.
Nestled in the historic downtown area of Quito, visitors find the first Catholic Church built in the city, the San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco). The amazing architecture of this Baroque church blends different styles that were incorporated over the more than 100 years of construction.
The church stands on the open San Francisco Plaza, where the city once drew its water, held weekly food markets and general meetings and where military and political demonstrations took place.
Construction of the church started in the 1530s, shortly after the Spaniards arrived in Ecuador. Although much of the church has been rebuilt due to earthquake damage, some of it is original, and it constitutes the largest colonial structure in the city.
The churches and cloisters stand on almost two whole blocks and include an atrium, a courtyard and a convent. The atrium runs along the length of the public square, with access to the plaza by means of a fan-shaped staircase. Franciscan fathers still live here and work to help the poor.
The entrance is adorned with images of the sun, decorations that were used to attract indigenous communities to the Catholic Church. Combinations of indigenous and Catholic symbols are repeated throughout the church. The interior of the church shows a Moorish influence on the walls and columns, which are covered in gold leafing. Of the 3,500 works of art, many are from the Quito School of art.
With sweeping plains, rocky mountain trails, and glassy lagoons, Ecuador’s largest and most-visited national park is a spectacular setting for an outdoor adventure. Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Cotopaxi National Park is most famous for the much-photographed Cotopaxi volcano, the highest active volcano in South America.
Bartolomé Island, located off the east shore of Sullivan Bay, is a small but beautiful spot most famous for its iconic Pinnacle Rock, which is arguably one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Galapagos. The staggering rock face is an eroded lava formation that was originally created by an underwater volcano.
With its rolling lakelands, ancient quinua woods and sprawling cloud forest set against a jagged skyline of rocky peaks, the El Cajas National Park is a natural playground for adventurous travelers. Famous for its array of native wildlife, the park plays host to white-tailed deer, pumas, tapirs, llamas, Andean gulls and Violet-tailed Metaltail, as well as rare species like Andean condor and cougar, and colorful flora like wild orchids and rare bromeliads.
The 29,000-hectare reserve is dotted with some 230 lakes and a vast network of walking trails, making it a prime spot for hiking, fly-fishing, horseback riding and camping. Notable highlights include the Tres Cruces and Avilahuyco viewpoints, Lake Toreadora, the Taitachungo Lagoon and Lagartococha.
Las Tintoreras is a small group of islands where lava formations have created several different natural habitats, thus enabling a wide range of Galapagos wildlife to inhabit the area.
There is a lagoon that reef sharks come to rest in, mangroves that make for marine iguana breeding grounds and a beach where sea lions and other marine life flourish. The turquoise waters of the bay lead to a shallow crevice, which at low tide makes it easy to spot wildlife even without getting in the water. While visitors are not allowed to swim in these waters, the nearby beach area grants the opportunity to see the sea life from below.
Perhaps the most unique sight of Las Tintoreras are the Galapagos penguins. Whether it’s penguins and sea lions playing or marine iguanas perched on lava rock, Las Tintoreras is a unique spot to see much of the Galapagos wildlife in one place.
Reach Mindo’s Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve and numerous waterfalls with ease, thanks to a thrilling, open-air cable car ride above the rain forest. Avoid having to hike all the way across the Nambillo River, and take in panoramic views while enjoying an experience available in few parts of the world.
The Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo) commemorates the site where the 18th-century French explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine once calculated the globe's equatorial line. A trapezoidal monument in the center of the park houses a viewing platform; a small museum on the equator pays tributes to local indigenous cultures.
The translation of León Dormido, a giant rock formation rising sharply out of the ocean, is 'sleeping lion.' The remains of a lava cone split into two parts, in English it is also known as 'Kicker Rock.' The formations have eroded due to hundreds of years of weather and sea and now tower 500 feet above the water below.
Located off the coast of San Cristobal Island, boats that visit the rocks can navigate through the narrow channel between the two formations. Much marine wildlife does the same, and this is one of the most common places to see Galapagos sharks as well as turtles, rays and sea lions. It's an excellent spot for diving and snorkeling, as the mild current sweeping between the two rocks often means diverse groups of reef fish. Frigate birds are also common, and many other species can be seen above the water. Whether you conclude that the rocks resemble a lion or a boot, Leon Dormido is a Galapagos icon for a reason.
More Things to Do in Ecuador
Quilotoa Lagoon was formed when a now-extinct volcano collapsed and the resulting crater was filled with a startling emerald-green lake, the color resulting from volcanic minerals. Just south of Quito, the village and lagoon of Quilotoa have become a popular day-trip destination, affording spectacular views and photo opportunities.
The historical heart of Ecuador’s capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito Old Town is the first port of call for most visitors to the city. Known for its cobblestone lanes, Spanish colonial architecture, and beautiful churches, it’s Quito’s most atmospheric district.
Situated at the southern edge of Quito’s Old Town, Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santo Domingo) sits beneath the shadow of the 17th-century domed Iglesia de Santo Domingo. A statue of Ecuadorean hero Antonio José de Sucre stands in the middle of the plaza, pointing toward the spot where the battle for independence was won in 1822.
A must-see while in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, the biological research station known as the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) is a great way to take in some interesting facts about the environment of the Galapagos many take for granted while relaxing on the beach and having a pina colada. On display, the center has available information on local conservation, habitats, and other interesting relevant statistics.
Certainly the station's most impressive attraction is the tortoise breeding center, where you can see tortoises of all shapes and sizes, including the famous Lonesome George, at 90+ years old, and the last remaining member of the Pinta Island subspecies. Access to the tortoises is quite open and visitors can feel free to walk amongst them as well enjoy a last-minute photo-op.
Only two craters in the world are inhabited—and Pululahua is one of them. Essentially a fog-filled, fertile bowl set 9,000 feet in the sky, Pululahua is the only crater in the world that’s also actively farmed. Though the area rarely ever receives rain, the rolling fog provides ample moisture for raising fields full of crops. Most people who visit, however, only make it as far as the overlooks, which are dotted along the crater rim and offer sweeping views of the basin. Those with a little more time, however, and a healthy dose of adventure, can hike, bike, or horseback ride the trails to the crater floor. Once here, walk amongst a rural setting that feels like it’s frozen in time. Gone are the urban trappings of Quito and the incessant hum of cars, which are replaced by the sounds of smiling farmers who still work the ground by hand. Aside from the trails, farmers, and fog, Pululahua is famously known for its ecological wealth. The crater is a geobotanical reserve with over 2,000 species of plants, and was the first place in South America preserved as a National Park. It’s even possible to sleep in the crater in simple, traditional hostels, and even if you can only spend 30 minutes admiring the view from the rim, this spot the Inca dubbed “cloud of water” is a site you’ll never forget.
The Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional), often called La Basilica, is one of the most beautiful Roman Catholic churches in Quito. Set up on a hill and visible from almost anywhere in the city, it’s particularly striking after dark, when it is illuminated.
Construction began in 1883 on what became the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, measuring 459 feet (140 meters) long and 115 feet (35 meters) wide, and reaching a height of 98 feet (30 meters) in the nave. The two front towers stand 377 feet (115 meters) tall.
The neo-Gothic decoration has an interesting twist — it features gargoyles and ornaments that depict local animals such as armadillos, iguanas, pumas, monkeys, tortoises and condors. The abundant artwork also includes bronze statues, stained-glass windows and impressive stonework.
Get the best views by climbing to the top of the three towers, where you can see a large portion of Quito and the surrounding mountains. Walking from one tower to the next on wooden bridges and steep ladders adds to the thrill.
The church is technically unfinished, and local legend has it that when La Basilica is completed, the end of the world will come.
This white sandy beach area is one of the most famous in the Galapagos, both for its beauty and for its wildlife. Sightings of marine iguanas, sea lions, crabs, birds and, of course, turtles are frequent.
There are two main stretches of beach; the first is popular for surfing, though currents can be strong, while the second is more conducive to swimming and snorkeling. Colorful reef fish, rays and white tip reef shark have all been spotted here.
To get to Tortuga Bay, you must hike a stone and boardwalk path through trees and cacti, where you might spot some of the Galapagos’ famous birds, such as flamingos, finches, pelicans and the blue-footed booby. Whether you come for the sand or the wildlife, Tortuga Bay is one of the Galapagos’ best offerings for both.
Quito’s Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), often called La Compañía, is one of the most significant works of Spanish baroque architecture in South America. The incredibly ornate and beautiful church boasts gold leaf ornamentation, gilded ceilings, and religious paintings by artists of the Quito School.
See the famed Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild at El Chato Tortoise Reserve (Reserva El Chato), one of the few places visitors can watch these creatures roaming in their natural habitat. Then, explore the lava tunnels and nature trails, while looking out for other endemic wildlife, such as short-eared owls, Darwin finches, and more.
Flanked by several important buildings—the Archbishop’s Palace, City Hall, Government Palace, and the cathedral—Plaza de la Independencia (Plaza Grande to the locals) has been part of Quito’s streetscape since 16th century. What was once a central market and bullfighting arena is today a shady square.
Back in the early 20th century, in the heyday of trains and train travel, the railway connecting Guayaquil with Quito was one of the world’s best tracks. Aside from the fact it reduced the trip from nine days down to two, what made the line such global fame was the near vertical, harrowing ascent up the mountainous “Devil’s Nose.” Rising over 2,000 vertical feet in only 7 miles, the track was engineered in a way that the train goes forward—and then in reverse—as it climbs up the switchbacking track. The building process was laced with tragedy, from snakebites and floods to deaths, but finally the track in 1908 was complete between the two cities. By the late 1970s, however, road travel had made trains impractical and the tracks were in disrepair, until the government spruced up the Devil’s Nose and made it a high end draw. While it’s no longer possible to ride on the roof of the carriages like travelers of old, the views looking down in the valleys are just as spine-tingling and steep as before, and this marvel of modern engineering continues to thrive to this day.
There’s nothing quite like the view from one of South America’s most active volcanoes and the world’s second largest crater, Sierra Negra.
The last eruption from this large shield volcano occurred in 2005—and while it’s not likely lava will be flowing, there are several geological and thermal events to see. Visitors can hike the six-mile-wide rim of the caldera, walking through otherworldly lava landscape. The southern side of the volcano is often covered in mist and fog and is lush with green vegetation as a result. Walking along the northern side allows for views of the lava rock from the most recent eruption.
Hiking Sierra Negra is strenuous, but those who make it to the top are rewarded with sweeping views of the landscape below.
In downtown Quito, just one block south of Santo Domingo Plaza, you’ll find the emblematic street affectionately called Calle La Ronda. This pedestrian drag is lined with shops that provide a peek into the local culture and give visitors a chance to pick up popular Ecuadorian take-homes like Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador).
Ringed by mountains, Quito has no shortage of viewpoints, but the ultimate view of the Ecuadorian capital has to be from the peak of the Pichincha Volcano, reached by the TeleferiQo. Opened in 2005, the gondola lift runs up the east side of the still-active volcano, reaching a height of 3,945 meters, which makes it South America’s highest aerial lift. The dramatic ascent, which takes around 10 minutes, offers impressive views over the city and surrounding mountain valleys, but the best lookout point is on arrival, from the top of the Cruz Loma plateau.
As well as riding the TeleferiQo, visitors can follow a number of marked hiking trails, enjoy a horseback riding excursion or dine at one of the mountaintop restaurants and cafés, while the Vulqano Park amusement park, located at the foot of the mountain, makes a popular distraction for younger members of the family.