South America is known for many things, charming towns, rich indigenous history and culture, and plenty of wildlife and wilderness adventures. Ecuador is not to be overshadowed by some of it’s bigger, more famous neighbors, the country is teeming with exciting experiences and natural beauty. From my many times visiting this stunning and unique country, here are the best most beautiful places to visit in Ecuador…
Cotopaxi National Park – one of the most famously beautiful places to visit in Ecuador
Cotopaxi National Park is a remarkable area that is home to not one, but three volcanoes. Cotopaxi’s namesake, a massive, glacier-topped beast, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. But don’t worry—the last major eruption was in 1908, and the top of the volcano has since frozen over—literally.
The distinct glacier topping Cotopaxi is a rare feature on volcanos. The site has become popular not only for gawking at the volcanoes’ unique beauty but for hiking—the area surrounding the volcanoes is full of lush, green fields, sparkling little lakes, and horses grazing on grass. There are several loops available for trekking, from easy 1.5 hour hikes to longer and more difficult trails that venture up the volcanoes. If you prefer, there are also tours on horseback available, some of which even head up to the top of the volcano.
Canoa Beach – one of the most stunning beaches in the country
There is something special about Canoa beach. First of all, it is truly breathtaking: a long stretch of sand (the longest in the country at more than 17km) bordered by massive cliffs. The waves can get quite large and often attract surfers.
Canoa is one of the least developed beaches in Ecuador, meaning you won’t find too many restaurants or hotels right on the beach. Local legend says that Canoa natives fled to the hills when they saw foreign invaders approaching the beach, and it’s been deserted ever since. But this perhaps adds to its beauty, making Canoa a rugged yet peaceful paradise and the perfect place to spend time relaxing surrounded by nature’s powerful forces.
Las Peñas neighborhood, Guayaquil – one of the best and most interesting places to explore in Ecuador
Guayaquil is a wonderful city in itself, but one of its historic neighborhoods stands out as something truly special. Made up of colorful colonial houses with flora seeping from window boxes, Las Peñas will charm you the second you set foot in its colorful narrow streets. Among its features are the tall Santa Ana hill and chapel, as well as a lovely boardwalk along the river.
Las Peñas is energetic and vibrant, with plenty of authentic places to eat and shop. The area is made up of artists, so there are many artistic and cultural events throughout the year, as well. Or, you can simply wander the streets and feel like a local, or make your way up to the top of Santa Ana hill (the steps make it easy) for a gorgeous view of Guayaquil.
Known as the “most extensive and important complex” of pre-Incan Empire ruins, Cochasquí is a vast network of ancient pyramids and archeological constructions of the Cara people. These were strong people, and they fought off Inca invaders for two years before finally falling.
As it was used for ceremonial and astronomical purposes, the side was of great significance to the indigenous peoples who built it. In the whole compound, there are 15 pyramids and 21 burial mounds, as well as several educational museums about the site. While some of the compound is excavated, much of it still lies underground waiting to be uncovered. Still, it is a mystifying area to explore, with the massive Mojanda volcano looming in the background, adding a flair of drama to the whole scene.
It might sound strange to include a cemetery on a list of beautiful places—but this isn’t just any cemetery. The cemetery of the town of Tulcàn is a maze of green, with walls made of hedges styled into twisting shapes and sculptures, towering arches, and even animals.
Tulcán replaced the old cemetery, which was damaged in an earthquake in 1932. The topiaries were sculpted by a gardener and caretaker of the cemetery. His creations help make a walk through the cemetery an other-worldly experience. You can rest easy knowing the dead have found their peace in such a beautiful, whimsical place.
The Mindo Cloudforest is just that—a forest high up in the clouds. This is just as magical as it sounds, with clouds permeating the thick trees and hundreds of birds and butterflies fluttering about—over 400 species of birds and over 1000 species of butterflies, to be exact.
You can explore the lush forest on a hike, on horseback, or even by zip lining. Considering its location, rain should be expected when visiting the forest. The climate is mild, though, and the temperature feels like spring all year. The birds are most active in the rainy season, October to May, reaching their peak activity in December. If you prefer to avoid the rain, visit in the dry season, from June to September.
Head to the little town of Otavalo on a Saturday, and you’ll a surprise: the biggest market in South America. The local Otavalo market will immediately overwhelm your senses with its vibrant sights, sounds, and smells.
The townspeople, called Otavaleños, are famous for making gorgeous colored textiles, which surround the market and turn it into a flurry of colors and patterns. You can also find an abundance of handmade goods, from jewelry to indigenous dress, dreamcatchers to shrunken heads (not real ones, of course!). You’ll also find that the Otavaleños can be generous, and will bargain with you so long as you can learn a few works in their own language. Even if you don’t feel like shopping, getting lost in this lively market is a charming experience in itself. Easily one of the best places to visit in this wonderful country!
Tortuga Bay Beach
Known as one of the most beautiful beaches to explore in the Galapagos, Tortuga Bay is located on Santa Cruz island, one of the only islands in the Galapagos that is inhabited by people. Tortuga Bay truly is a stunning sight to behold: crystal clear water and ivory sand create a stark contrast with the black rocks jutting out into the beach.
Aside from the beach’s natural beauty, Tortuga Bay features tons of wildlife to behold. Sea lions slither through the water and lounge on the sand, barking at each other, while marine iguanas sunbathe on the volcanic rocks. And, of course, there are the black sea turtles which nest there, though it is forbidden to touch or interact with these turtles if you spot them.
Nariz del Diablo
Nariz del Diablo, or “Devil’s Nose,” is a railroad stretch that runs through a sharp, narrow passageway in the Andes mountains. But its shape isn’t the only reason for its name. Nariz del Diablo is actually one of the deadliest and most difficult railways in the world—but not for reasons you might think.
When a track was commissioned to link Quito and Guayaquil in the 1800s, the workers had to deal with plenty of obstacles, from the hot, humid climate to steep mountain terrain. By the time the track was completed, nearly 50 later, over 2000 workers had lost their lives. While much of the original railway has been destroyed by landslides, the Nariz del Diablo passageway can still be visited by train today, and is a beautiful, thrilling trip through some of the highest mountains in Ecuador.
Quito’s historical center
At nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, Quito is a gorgeous city set amongst the dramatic backdrop of the Andes. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its historic old town, which is considered the best-preserved historic old town in the Americas and is most definitely one of the most beautiful places to visit in Ecuador,
As you wander through the old town, you’ll come upon vast plazas, intricately-designed churches and cathedrals, and tons of authentic restaurants and bars. You could spend hours just getting lost in the winding streets, and the whole experience will make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.
Pailon de Diablo waterfall
At 80 meters high, the Pailon del Diablo is the tallest waterfall in the Ecuadorian Andes. The English name is “Devil’s Cauldron,” and it’s easy to see why. Upon a visit to the waterfall, you’ll be stunned by its sheer height and power, as the water flows at a near-perfect vertical drop before thundering to the rocks at the bottom.
Don’t be fooled by the name, though—the Pailon de Diablo is perfectly safe to visit. In fact, it is a must-see in Ecuador, especially for those who love hikes or waterfall-chasing. The entire journey to the waterfall is a stunning sight to behold, featuring the sparkling Rio Verde, the river which forms the waterfall, and framed by massive green mountains. This is one breathtaking natural site you won’t soon forget.
Quilotoa may be a stunning sight to visit, but the crater lake was born out of disaster—the catastrophic eruption and collapse of the Quilotoa volcano 600 years ago. Since then, water has rushed in and filled the crater, with minerals giving the water its distinct, vibrant turquoise color.
Visitors can explore the site by bus, and upon reaching the crater, there are a number of hikes to do ranging in difficulty and length. There are also hot springs, and camping and swimming is permitted at the bottom of the crater—meaning, you can actually say you’ve slept inside a volcano!
Catedral Nueva of Cuenca
The domes of Cuenca’s Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral) rise above the city, proclaiming the cathedral’s beauty to anyone who sees. The closer you get to the cathedral, the more stunning it becomes, with intricate designs you could stare at for a lifetime.
The cathedral owes its beauty to a heady blend of architectural styles—you can spot Romanesque Revival, Gothic, Baroque, and even Renaissance elements. The style is as eclectic as the list of nationalities who helped create the church—a German friar came up with the plans, the stained-glass windows are created by a Spanish artist, the domes are covered in tile from Czechoslovakia, and the floors are made of Italian pink marble. This makes for a remarkable sight to behold, made even more fascinating by the knowledge of the many contributions from around the world.
Pink dolphins of the Amazon
Yes, you read that right. The biggest of the species of river dolphins, the pink dolphins, known locally in the Amazon as “bufeo”, are a soft pink color, and can be observed in the rivers of the Amazon. Experts aren’t yet sure what gives them their distinct pinkish tone, but suggest it could be mineral consumption, exposure to sunlight, or the location of their capillaries.
The best place to spot pink dolphins is in the Cuyabeno preserve. This is a great area for wildlife spotting in general as Cuyabeno is a flooded forest, making the animals more concentrated. You can’t swim with the pink dolphins, of course, but you can spot them on river cruises, and observe them leaping gracefully through the water like rose-colored spears.
Yasuni National Park
As the point where the Equator, the Andes, and the Amazon meet, Yasuni National Park is actually the most biodiverse place on Earth. It is rich in many different types of species including amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Among the wildlife, you can spot are jaguars, spider monkeys, giant otters, and giant armadillos—all of which are endangered.
Yasuni is also home to the last two uncontacted tribes in Ecuador. These tribes are protected in an area of the park known as the “Untouchable Zone,” but don’t worry. You can still experience the culture of indigenous peoples like the Huaorani, some of whom have moved into settlements. You can explore the rest of this lush area on hikes or river cruises but no matter how you do it, the experience of being surrounded by so much nature and wildlife will stay with you for the rest of your life. Easily one of the most stunning places to visit in Ecuador!
Written by Pandora Domeyko. Pandora is a Barcelona-based travel writer and blogger, and the creator of travel blog Pandora Explores. On her blog, she covers solo travel and ex-pat living in Barcelona and beyond. You can find her on Instagram, Medium, Facebook, and Pinterest.
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