Ecuador is called “El pais de 4 mundos” (The Country of 4 Worlds) for good reason. In just one day you can pass through the Oriente (Amazon), Sierra (Andes), and the coast! Ecuador is such a beautiful country and has SO MUCH to offer for a traveler on a budget.
If you are backpacking, you can make it on $20 a day IF you are being strict with your spending. There is however an industry of eco-tourism which is mostly targeted at foreigners and where you can get a much more luxurious Ecuadorian experience. While the Galapagos is beautiful, it is not easy on the wallet and thus is not included on the list (try Isla de la Plata, also known as “the poor man’s Galapagos” instead!). After a year of living in Ecuador, here are my recommendations for places not-to-be-missed!
CUENCA (+ CAJAS NATIONAL PARK)
Cuenca has a special place in my heart so I might be biased, but I would say it is a must-see for Ecuador travelers. The town is quaint and historic – one could pass the city in a couple of days, or wind up spending months and never getting bored.
Whether you’re roaming the streets, museums, or cafes, or swinging over the city at Turi, Cuenca won’t disappoint.
Also not to be missed – Cajas National Park! Just 30km outside of Cuenca, a day trip to hike is a must-see. Take the Occidental bus (8:45am) from Feria Libre (their stall is located at Mariscal Lamar and Miguel Heredia) and get off at Toreadora (Ruta 1 is the best for first-timers looking for a moderate hike approx 4 hours, or for something more leisurely trek around the Torreadora lake for a 2 hour walk). You’ll be at high altitude (4,000 meters) with unpredictable weather (hiking boots, layers, rain jacket, sometimes even a hat and gloves!). Check out this ultimate how-to guide to maximize your Cajas experiece!
BANOS DE AMBATO
Banos de Ambato seems to be at the top of everyone’s list for foreigners and Ecuadorians alike. Banos lies on the edge of the sierra and the jungle, providing gorgeous scenery and plenty of environment to explore. Be sure not to miss the “swing at the edge of the world” at Casa de Arbol, and the Pailon de Diablo steps that face a gorgeous huge waterfall. Some of my personal favorites? Rent a bike for $5 and ride the waterfall trail down to Pailon de Diablo. Jump off the bridge nearby the bus station ($20). There are tons of tour companies in town who can help you book a jungle day trip ($30 including food and transportation), white water rafting, or an adventure sport day. To relax don’t miss the hot baths!
Getting a peak of the jungle will be a highlight of anyone’s trip to Ecuador. Puyo is a town that is accessible and has so much to offer for those seeking adventure. It is best if you have a tour guide so you can explore the jungle properly. Some personal favorites are taking a wooden canoe down Rio Puyo, visiting indigenous villages like Cotacachi (accessible only with a guide), the Reserva Ecologica Hola Vida with gorgeous hikes and a waterfall, and the Indichuri overlook with hammocks and a jungle swing. Adventure waits. Get. to. the. jungle. You won’t regret it!
Vilcabamba is nestled into the mountains and is full of chill-peace-and-love vibes. The town itself is small, but if you’re looking to relax and take in nature this is the place. A personal favorite is Hosteria Izhcayluma, located just 2km out of town. This is every hammock-lovers paradise. Take a yoga class in the gorgeous outdoor yoga shala and pass your day on a hammock drinking coffee or wine, or go for a hike on one of the trail heads just by the hostel.
COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK
Cotopaxi Volcano sits just 50km from the capital city, and on a clear day you can see it all the way from Quito. Cotopaxi is over 19,000 ft tall. The best way to visit the volcano is to book a hostel within the Cotopaxi National Park, each of which should have expert guides. Whether you’re looking to hike, bike, or horseback ride, you’re guaranteed to take in spectacular views (and potentially get quite the work out). One of my favorites was the Secret Garden Hostel, which has a few hobbit homes (pictured above) that you can reserve! Secret Garden also has a hostel in Quito with direct transportation to their Cotopaxi location.
If you’re seeking out volcano adventures, Chimborazo is also a fantastic adventure! If you pick Chimborazo be sure to stop by the town Alausi a couple hours away for the Nariz del Diablo train!