By Briana Seftel
From beaches on the Pacific Coast to Andean cities and the Amazon, Ecuador is the epitome of "good things come in small packages." One of the best values in South America, a vacation to Ecuador will inspire dreaming long after you've left. Add these eight must-see places to your itinerary!
The Galapagos Islands, also known as the Enchanted Islands, scream "bucket list destination." Located 600 miles off Ecuador's Pacific Coast, this archipelago of volcanic islands is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet where you can come face-to-face with giant tortoises, iguanas and sea lions! Famous as the birthplace of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the Galapagos were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. In addition to the friendly wildlife, the Galapagos offer travelers plenty of diving, swimming and hiking opportunities.
Nestled high in the Andes Mountains, Quito is Ecuador's capital and beating heart. Founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city, Quito has the best-preserved historic center in Latin America. Start your sightseeing at Plaza de la Independencia, a historic square home to the ornate Presidential Palace and Town Hall. For peerless views over Quito, climb to the top of El Panecillo, a hill located right in the middle of the city. Even if you're not so into history, Quito has plenty to keep travelers entertained, with some of the country's best street food, craft beer and contemporary art.
The Andean town of Otavalo is home to South America's largest craft market. Dating back centuries, the daily market is a microcosm of Ecuadorian history and tradition. Food stalls spill over with colorful tomatoes, corn and beans as locals tuck into steaming bowls of chicken soup. If you're in search of traditional handicrafts, you're in luck because Otavalo is one of the best places to buy hand-woven textiles, brightly-painted ceramics, alpaca-wool sweaters and much more. Come early and leave an entire day to really take in the breadth of this vibrant market. Many say the best day of the week to visit the market is Saturday.
Yes, it really is possible to see the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador! Located in the eastern region, Ecuador's slice of the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse spots on earth! At Yasuni National Park, keep your eyes peeled for 150 amphibian species, 121 reptiles, 598 bird species, between 169 and 204 mammals and thousands of different flora species. You can also see a rich variety of wildlife and paddle down rivers at Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the Sangay National Park and the Podocarpus National Park. Don't miss the opportunity to visit local indigenous tribes like the Huaorani and Shuar.
Also known by its full name Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, Cuenca was founded in 1577 in accordance with the guidelines set by Charles V, the King of Spain. Set in a valley in the heart of the Andes, Cuenca quickly captures the hearts of travelers with its beautiful 18th and 19th-century architecture, namely the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (New Cathedral), famous for its three blue and white domes. Wandering down its paved, sunlit streets is the best way to experience the richness of this city. Looking for a souvenir? Try a Panama hat, which is actually made in Ecuador, not Panama.
Mindo Cloud Forest
With gushing waterfalls, blooming orchids, butterflies and colorful hummingbirds drinking sweet nectar, Ecuador's Cloud Forest looks like something out of a storybook. In fact, this natural paradise is only two hours away from Quito, making it a wonderful side trip with the capital. Perpetually covered in a light mist or heavy fog, the cloud forest beckons the adventurer in all of us looking to zip line, bike or hike. Its some 450 species of birds make Mindo one of the world's best places for birdwatching.
Cotopaxi National Park
About 30 miles from Quito is the active glacier-topped volcano of Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador's greatest natural wonders. Part of the chain of volcanoes known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, Cotopaxi rises majestically at 19,348 feet and is surrounded by the flat plains of the national park. Popular among day hikers and seasoned trekkers, the volcano last erupted in 2016, so beware!
Consider Ecuador's Pacific Coast the country's best-kept secret (but not for long). Anchored by Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city and main port, the 1,000-mile coast is home to spectacular beaches like Canoa and Mompiche. Grab a board and learn to surf the gentle waves, visit quaint villages, taste local cuisine and tour a cocoa plantation.