Updated: Sep 18, 2018
Find amazing things to do in Ecuador with our itinerary for must visit places and helpful tips for four action-packed days in the country (other than Galapagos Island).
Itinerary breakdown: Day 1 - New Town Quito
Must visit: Guayasamin Museum, La Caroline Parque, TelefériQ, Church of El San Fransisco
Day 2 - Quilotoa Crater Lagoon
Day 3 - Old Town and Cultural Center Quito
Must visit: Plaza Granda, Archbishop/Presidential Palace, Plaza San Fransisco and the La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, El Panecillo
Day 4 - Cotopaxi Volcano
Over the summer, we visited the continent to do a bit of country hopping. When we first planned this trip, a lot of my friends were extremely surprised that we chose to visit Ecuador…well, that actually surprised me. Ecuador is a stunning country with amazing culture, history and food. Plus, there is the visa on arrival. There was no way I was passing on this place.
While Quito has enough to keep you occupied for days I would recommend venturing out to the neighboring towns on day trips to get your adrenaline pumping. All the major attractions are just within reach and there will be no shortage of things to do.
Pro Tip: when I plan an itinerary, I like to balance our activities between adventure and laid back (since I prefer to be on the move but Mr. A likes his down time). This itinerary alternates between a busy day and chill time within the city.
Ecuador is so much more than the Galapagos islands. There is plenty you can do without spending a fortune going back and forth from the Islands. From trekking up active volcanoes to zip-lining through cloud forests, Ecuador has something for everyone.
Best time to visit
From June to September - when the temperatures are mild. Their busiest period starts from July when the U.S. and Europe enjoy time off from school but the temperatures are slightly higher too. Avoid the rainy December season.
Flights and Visa
We chose to fly with Avianca within South America. The flights were spacious, with good in-flight entertainment and courteous service.
Visa on arrival for Indians and is valid for a maximum of 90 days. Just carry your return ticket with you for immigration purposes.
Spanish is the official language in all Central and South American countries. Mr. A and I are quick to learn languages. We enjoyed learning a few useful Spanish words. Buenos Dias (good morning), adios (bye), hola (hello or hi), Si (yes), cuanto (how much), salida (exit), entrada (entrance), caliente leche (hot milk) and numbers from 1 to 10.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel Insurance is always recommended. US Dollars have been officially accepted as Ecuador's official currency.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Casa Q hotel in new town Quito.
Pro tip: I would recommend saving yourself the trouble of haggling for a cab at the airport. When you book your hotel, make sure you ask for a pickup service from the airport. It should cost no more than $25 to get to the city.
The room was not too big but it was spacious enough for the two of us. The room had plenty of light though. The breakfast spread was good with fresh bread, yogurt, fruits and pastries. The best part is that this place is just a stone’s throw away from the city where you will find cabs, buses, malls and plenty of great restaurants.
A word of caution: since this is right in the city, it got very loud during the night from activities on the street. I wouldn't recommend this place if you are a light sleeper.
They also had a cozy recreational area with books and board games. I love to read books in buses, so this definitely got them few extra brownie points.
Don't forget to check out the cute garden, which is the best place to hang out after a tiring day out. I was ready to move in here!
Cost and getting around
Ecuador seemed to be one of the cheaper countries in the continent. The cabs cost us under no more than $2 to $3. The food was also very reasonable. The meaty street food was no more than couple dollars!
Pick your Tour
If you are planning to do day trips, you can book tours on Viator. Alternatively, your hostel or hotel will have several tour agencies that they work with and can recommend the best ones. You can also just walk to the city bus stop and book your own day tour or get the city hop-on hop-off bus tour within Quito. The tours range from $75 to $100 per person depending on whether you opt for a private or group tour.
Pro tip: If you have enough time, I would recommend doing the overnight stay at Cotopaxi and finishing at Quilotoa. While it is more expensive to do this, you can explore both places at your own pace and enjoy the stunning Andean landscape. It would be approximately $150 per person including transport, a guide and food for all 4 times.
We found Quito to be much safer than its neighboring country Colombia. Everyone was polite and helpful. We had no issues during our short stay. Of course, it is always better to stay vigilant no matter where you travel. Mind your belongings, carry all important documents with you, avoid carrying too much cash in hand and remember to have a fantastic time! :)
Ecuador is famous for its food (and beer, if you are interested). The hubs and I absolutely love trying out the traditional dishes. The breakfast at the hotel was fantastic, so we were covered until 1 or 2 in the afternoon.
We did get the chance to try a few exciting local dishes with our dear Ecuadorian friends who took us out to an authentic restaurant smack in the middle of old town. The place and the ambience was just amazing.
Here are few things I recommend you try if you are vegetarian:
Locro de Papa - this is a delicious rich potato and cheese soup that is usually topped with avocado. This is a classic Andean soup meant to be had in the mountains to keep you warm on a cold night. I had this soup at least twice a day - it made for such a hearty meal.
Empanada di Viento - your basic cheese stuffed deep fried bread
Llapingachos - fried potato, pancakes stuffed with cheese and purple yam
What to pack
We traveled in June so the days were bright and sunny. So bring sunscreen, caps/hats, and sun glasses. I would recommend packing a rain jacket and a light cardigan to keep you warm if you are planning to take trips outside of Quito.
Day 1: Explore the City (at least one half of it) New Town Quito
At 2850 meters above sea level, Quito is the highest capital city in the world. The city is divided into a modern downtown and a historic old town.. which means there is plenty to do for every kind of traveler.
After checking in, our first stop was lunch. After 10 days of no Indian food, the two guys in our party of three could take it no more. So we decided to load up on carbs. Tried Sher E-Punjab, which was just a 15 minute walk from our hotel. The food was authentic and finger lickin' good (there are no pictures because it was all gone before I could take pictures)!
With our tummies full, we were determined to make the most of our afternoon. Walking along the streets you will find colors everywhere.
A short while later you will come across a huge sign with Quito's national slogan Ecuador ama la vida, which means "love life". This, to me, pretty much summarizes the laid back attitude of the country.
As you stroll down the road, you will Walk through the La Carolina Park. This is a huge park with paddle-boats, bike paths, kid's play area and more important, plenty of shade.
This was the perfect spot to catch a break (you know, with all that Indian food) and avoid the afternoon sun.
We continued walking up a steep hill and along winding streets with beautiful views of the city below.
The streets are super funky with colorful houses all the way up..
After a 20 minute walk, you will reach the Guayasamin Museum. Oswaldo Guayasamin was a legendary artist, well known all over the world for his artistic talent and quirky Colombian collection of artifacts. His stunning house has been converted into a museum to house all of these collections (unfortunately, you're not allowed to click pictures on the inside).
You can easily spend few hours here and enjoy the mind blowing views right from his balcony. I can only imagine how amazing he felt with the early morning light streaming through the windows.
Our last stop for the day was Church of El San Fransisco. This is a 16th century roman catholic church.
Noteworthy mention: If you have the time, I would also recommend going to the TelefériQ. This is one of the highest cable car lifts in the world (rises up to an altitude of around 2.5 miles). We skipped this since we did the cable car in Bogota, Colombia.
Day 2: Hike to the Quilotoa
Our second day was spent trekking to the absolutely stunning Quilotoa, a volcanic crater lagoon 3 hours outside of Quito. This is one of the best day trips to do from Quito.
You will board the bus at 8 a.m. and reach Quilotoa around 12 with a few stops along the way. The drive up is just as scenic.
Try not to sleep through it.. or you will miss the gorgeous green mountains and cute villages!
The tour includes few light munches - fruits, cookies, chips and water followed by lunch. Your first stop will be just outside off the lake - the Quilotoa Crater Rim.
You will have amazing panoramic views of the crater. This will be your first sighting, so there is a good chance you won't want to leave and continue staring in awe at color of the water.
but nope...get ready to run (or roll) down a steep path. The mud is extremely light with tiny bits of rocks.
Pro tip: make sure you are wearing proper hiking shoes with good grip for this hike.
You will slip a fair few times but that's part of the fun (as long as you are careful not to slip on mule dung). Jokes apart, enjoy the trip down because the trek back up is going to be extremely tiring. There will be mules that can carry back up if you are exhausted.
It's all worth it. The lake is absolutely fascinating. We went on a sunny day, so the lake was a stunning shade of blue and green. It would be difficult to describe the feeling of seeing this place in the flesh.
Dissolved minerals in the water create the deep blue-green color in the lake. You can see the water turn different colors at different times during the day.
The mountains tower above the lake and the clear sky above reflect in the deep waters below to create a blue that would be hard to describe. I especially loved the pretty lavender flowers. The entire place was dreamy.
We spent close to an hour taking pictures in every direction...before making the 40 minute trek back up.
You will stop for a traditional lunch on the way back - soup, corn, cheese, salad and rice.
You will be back in Quito by 7. You will have the best views to dream about that night.
Day 3: Explore the other half of the city Old Town Quito
We took the city bus to do this. You can get on the hop-on hop-off bus at the city center bus stop. It covers all major tourist attractions and is the best way to hit all the must-see spots around town. Of course, you can also walk or take cabs.
At 2,800 meters in elevation, Quito is a bit closer to the sky than most capital cities. That’s what stood out for me - the sky. There was a stunning cloud-popping blue sky overhead. I just wanted to reach up and steal a piece of it to take home with me - if only I could stretch a little bit more.
You will also notice that Old town Quito is bustling with energy and is a great mix of both culture and character. Sidewalks are decked with street vendors. It's charming the way the historic monuments were towering the small colorful buildings.
Did you know Quito was the world's first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
The Independence Square or the Plaza Grande in Old town is culturally significant with plenty of historic plazas and churches. This is where you will find plenty of historic plazas and ancient churches. There are key monuments all around the square.
The bus will take you to all the main spots around the independence square, so you can just jump off at the La Compania de Jesus church and spend some time exploring the interiors of this 17th century church.
It is actually covered with gold and is the largest gothic structure in the continent with cool Ecuadorian animal inspired gargoyles. It's a must visit in the city.
Your next stop will be the Archbishop palace. Get off at this place and walk around for few hours before getting your next bus back (the buses pass by once every hour).
Followed by the Quito's Cathedral. The entrance is free.
Next head on to Plaza San Francisco (yes that is what it's called). This is where you will find street vendors, amazing food, cute corner cafes and much more. Take your time admiring the colonial streets as you wander on.
After lunch, get the bus to the top of the hill - also the last stop on the bus. El Panecillo. From here you will have some of the best views of the city.
What amazed me was that this is a land of beautiful contrasts. It’s a sprawling metropolis, yet you’re never too far away from serene Andean mountain peaks.
The El Panecillo is actually an iconic location with a 40 meter tall aluminum mosaic statue of La Virgen de Quito (Virgin of Quito) sitting on top of the hill. The statue is adorned with a crown of stars, wings and she appears to be chained to a crocodile (I actually thought it was a dragon).
You can see the busy & sprawling metropolis, yet you’re never too far away from serene Andean mountain peaks. On a clear day, you can even see the Cotopaxi Mountain from up here.
Our last stop for the day was Cumbaya valley. A quaint suburban 30 minutes away. Had the best hot chocolate, gelato and more beautiful views.
I really wanted to go here but it was all the way across town and a long bus ride away. This park is famous for its big orange Quito Sign against the mountains. As I researched more about it, the place seemed like a great place to hang out and relax after a long day out. This place might be worth checking out if you want that the gram' worthy picture.
You will hear a lot of hype about La Mitad del Mindo - this is where the equator passes through Ecuador. Do I think it's worth a visit? A visit to del Mindo is a half day activity. It's out of the way from the city and it will be a struggle to club with a city tour.
If you have more than a few days in the country and want to explore every inch of Quito - yes, it's worth a visit. If you are looking to maximize your time in the city, give this one a miss.
Day 4 - Visit Cotopaxi - the world's third largest active volcano
On the fourth and last day of our trip, we took another day trip to the Cotopaxi Volcano. Again, you will find plenty of tours doing trips from Quito. We went with a tour company that was recommended by our hotel. The trip is about two hours from the city.
This snow-capped beauty is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world and is the 2nd highest point in Ecuador.
Don't worry - you will drive up on dirt roads and eventually you will reach the mouth of the crater. That's where you hike begins.
The hike is steep but relatively short - little less than 1.5 miles, one way. It was pouring when we started our trek but on our way back down, the skies cleared and we had stunning views of the volcano. The sudden drop in temperatures and the wind hitting our face, made the climb challenging but it was still a relatively easy climb.
Did you know it’s one of the few glaciers located on the equator? The mountain is famous for its snow-covered crater and can even be spotted from Quito on clear days.
Once you reach the base camp, you can enjoy a hot chocolate or a coffee at the cafe.
The summit is 5,897 meters (that's an elevation of about 3.6 miles). We really wanted to do the summit but we didn’t have the time. If we ever decide to visit Ecuador again, we’ll definitely head back here.
The descent was much more challenging. You will slip and slide all the way down.
We even fell down a few times. The entire experience was incredibly thrilling in the cold weather.
Post your climb, you will drive back towards the city for lunch en route Quito. Catch the sunset on your way back, grab dinner and catch a good night's sleep!
Ecuador surprised us. A thriving metropolitan city. A fascinating historical tradition. Vast natural scenery. That’s not even mentioning the art, architecture and gastronomy. Perched just below the equator, Ecuador certainly seems willing to step up to the challenge of one country having it all.
We usually don't stay in cities but my biggest advise for Ecuador is don't skip out on Quito. Sunny days, cool nights and mountainous surroundings make this city unique.
This country is teeming with goodness, and has yet to be spoiled by an onslaught of superficial tourism. Ever since we visited Peru, we have wanted to be back. With its stunning tapestry of landscapes, islands, coasts, culture and wildlife, South America is one gorgeous dream.
Stay tuned for more adventures from Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru.
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