A country celebrated for its mountains, jungles, coastline and colonial towns; it would be impossible to pinpoint just one must-visit corner of Ecuador. The surfers would say go to Montañita, the daredevils Baños and the art-lovers Cuenca. We say visit all three, and while you’re at it, there are seven more beautiful towns that we recommend too.
The capital city of this country of a million landscapes, Quito is situated at 2850 meters above sea level in the central north of Ecuador. With a population exceeding 1.6 million and a history rich in Incan heritage, Quito has the best of both the modern and the traditional worlds. Rich in architectural beauty, a walk around the city’s old town allows visitors to come within inches of stunning colonial buildings and churches. But for the best view of the entire city, head up on the gondola to the Pichincha Volcano. On a clear day the panorama from the viewpoint is unparalleled anywhere else in the city. Intrepid hikers can carry on up the volcano on foot for another few kilometers, while those preferring to enjoy the view with a cup of coffee and a cake can do so in the visitor’s café.
An UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in the south of the country, Cuenca is many people’s favorite town in Ecuador. Much calmer than the buzzing capital, the rhythm of life is slower here and the people friendlier. Rich in beautiful colonial buildings and picture-perfect steeples, a trip to Cuenca can often feel like stepping back in time. Cobblestone streets, gossiping nuns, and ladies in traditional dress are all common sites. While arguably not a week-long holiday destination in its own right, Cuenca certainly makes for a lovely day trip or overnight stay.
Famous for its leather shops, Cotacachi lies just a 20 minute drive from the popular market town of Otavalo. Popular with expats looking to retire in Ecuador and with holidaymakers seeking unusually cheap but great quality leather bags, belts and shoes, Cotacachi is commonly visited as a day trip. A much more tranquil shopping town than Otavalo, UNESCO named it the “City of Peace.” It’s a great place to take a stroll around and inhale the luxurious scent of fine leather any day of the week, but to really nab some bargains be sure to visit on Sunday – the town’s market day.
A thrill-seeker’s paradise, no trip to Baños is complete without a post-breakfast bridge jump or afternoon’s white water rafting. Immensely popular with backpackers, Baños is a town in which you are encouraged to let go of your inhibitions and live life to the fullest. Mountain bikers will love the downhill route from Baños to Puyo passing the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall en route. As well as its playground atmosphere, Baños is also loved for its stunning location. Afoot one of South America’s most active volcanoes, Tungurahua, and surrounded by trickling cascades and luxurious thermal waters, there’s plenty of sightseeing and relaxing activities to indulge in, too.
This seaside town is known for its laid back atmosphere and great surf. Each summer Montañita bursts into life with a fairly even mix of sun-worshiping foreigners and sea-loving locals. A trendy spot, there’s always a lot of 20-something backpackers in Montañita, many of whom end up staying much longer than they had planned as they become won over by the surfer lifestyle. An ideal destination for taking a break from the fast-paced lifestyle most of us are accustomed to, and taking some time out to enjoy walking around barefoot and discovering your inner hippie.
Ecuador’s most well known market town, Otavalo is situated just a short bus ride from the capital city, Quito. High up on most tourist itineraries, Otavalo is arguably the best place in the country to purchase souvenirs and gifts for loved ones back home. Trading has been taking place in these streets since pre-Incan times and still today this remains one of the biggest and most important markets in the country. The weekly Saturday market brings an eruption of color and noise to the town that budding photographers and bargain hunters won’t want to miss. That said, some market owners do try to rip off tourists so don’t be afraid to haggle for a fair price.
A haven away from the bustling cities, Mindo is situated within a beautiful cloud forest just a couple of hours drive from Quito. A popular retreat for nature lovers, bird-watchers and backpackers wanting to take a day or two out from the usual gringo trail, Mindo is a tiny town full of welcoming, hospitable locals. Visitors can enjoy the abundance of attractions and activities on offer including tours of butterfly farms, walks through fields of orchids, horse-riding excursions, mountain biking rides, and feel the wind through their hair as they hurtle down zip wires. Of course, for those looking for a more sedentary, relaxing couple of days, Mindo is also a beautiful spot for passing the time lying in a hammock and listening to the sounds of nature.
Thought to be the place to live if you’re keen on reaching your 100th birthday, Vilcabamba is known as the town of longevity. The locals say that so many of them live so long thanks to the clean mountain air and their stress-free lifestyles. Therefore it’s no surprise that this pretty town has become popular with retirees and younger people seeking a peaceful, relaxing vacation. The town’s surrounding mountains and national parks offer ample opportunities for hiking, long calming walks and horse-riding. The town is also buzzing with tourist offices and services so tired hikers can treat themselves to an indulgent massage or spa treatment to soothe their aching muscles, and all for a very reasonable price.
One for whale watching, Puerto López is a favorite destination for all ages in Ecuador. It may not be the most picturesque town at first glance, but it certainly has plenty to offer the seaside reveler. The best time of year to catch a glimpse of the whales shooting up into the sky out of the waves and entertaining fascinated tourists is between the months of June and September when they head to the area to mate and give birth. Another must-see while in Puerto López is the Parque Nacional Machalilla, the only coastal national park in the country and home to Ecuador’s last area of dry rainforest.
Visited each year by thousands of white-water rafting enthusiasts from every corner of the globe, Tena is one of those mesmerizingly beautiful and entertaining towns that people can’t help but keep return to year after year. On clear days, visitors are treated to the spectacular view of the Sumaco volcano over the vast expanse of jungle surrounding the town. Tena is also home to plenty of wild swimming spots, nature trails, peaceful waterfalls and restaurants serving hearty, healthy and delicious food.