If you want to discover South America but have only a few weeks in front of you, Ecuador is certainly the destination I will recommend. Andes, coast, amazon rainforest, traditions, colonial history… you can experience in Ecuador most of what South America has to offer, without wasting too much time in transportation (the country is one of the smallest of the continent).
In this article I put together my recommended itineraries for 2 or 3 weeks, both will allow you to discover the country and many of the things it has to offer. You will also get ideas for alternatives and practical information about transportation.
Best of Ecuador, 3 weeks itinerary
Day 1-3: Arrive in Quito and spend a few days to explore the capital of Ecuador: its markets, its colonial streets and buildings but also its bursting modern neighbourhood. Take it easy on these first days to get acclimatised to the altitude. Recommended hostel: Colonial House Quito.
Days 4-7: Quilotoa Loop. For the ones who love hiking, the Quilotoa Loop gives you the opportunity to combine a beautiful trek with the discovery of the rural and more traditional Ecuador. I reviewed it as “one of Ecuador’s the best self guided trek” but honestly, it is one of the best of the continent! You have a bit of time, so go for the 4 days version and enjoy it fully.
Day 8: Baños. Located in an amazing setting, between steep gorges and surrounded by waterfalls, Baños is the home of adrenaline sports and… of hundreds of backpackers! Stop tehre for rafting, mountain-biking, zip-lining…
Days 9-10-11-12: Ecuador is a great place to get a taste of the Amazon rainforest: its climate, its bio-diversity and make friend (or maybe not) with millions of spies of insects, alligators, piranhas and giant trees. Choose a remote destination to properly experience it and make sure you will be there 3 full days.
Day 13: Go back to Baños where you can take the rest of the day to relax.
Day 14: Head off to the modern city of Guayaquil, on the coast, it is not a proper gem of the country but the flights to the Galapagos Islands only leave from there.
Days 15-20: Galapagos islands. Two adjective usually come to mind when hearing about the Galapagos: expensive and exceptional. There are both true. Galapagos islands are not especially a backpacker place but you can’t compare the experiences you will get there with anything else on the planet, you don’t even need to dive to see sharks! But you can really well do so as well...
Day 21: Fly back to Guayaquil and go back home.
Ecuador in a nutshell, 2 weeks itinerary
Day 1-3: Quito. Explore the capital of Ecuador.
Days 3-6: Quilotoa Loop. Even if have limited time, hike the Quilotoa Loop! Leave Quito on day 3 after lunch and make you way south to Latacunga where you will spend the night. Choose the 3 days version of the trek to make it fit in your schedule without missing the highlights.
Days 4-6 option 2: if you are not up for a trek, head north instead to Otavalo. You can there enjoy the market and do a few days hikes around that will still you give a taste of the Andes, including hiking to the top of mount Fuya-Fuya, 4263m above sea level.
Days 7-8: For adrenaline, choose Mindo (East of Quito) instead of Baños, it is closer to Quito and to the rest of the itinerary and you can enjoy similar activities.
Day 9: transition day, from Mindo head off to Quito airport and fly to Guayaquil
Days 10-15: A quick trip to the Galapagos. This is shortest reasonable trip you could do to the enchanted islands. To maximise your time, consider a short cruise.
Short on time in Ecuador: Amazonas or Galapagos?
Galapagos and the Amazonas are both incredible experiences for a trip to Ecuador, but both require lots of transportation time (getting to the coast + take a flight in the case of the first, and a 12h+ bus journey, followed by pirogue for the second). With only 2 weeks, choosing one of the 2 will allow you to have a much more relax trip and to actually be able to discover the country.
If you decide to skip Galapagos, replace Guayaquil by Montanita. In Montanita you can surf, enjoy the beach or snorkel.
If you decide to skip the Amazonas region, a visit to Mindo (only 2h from Quito) will allow you to experience a cloud forest and many birds and insects species.
Where to go in Ecuador and what to do
Compose your own itinerary, depending on your taste!
Best colonial cities: Quito and Cuenca
Best for mountain biking: Chimborazo
Best for mountaineering: the town of Latacunga will be your base! Popular summits includes the Illinizas as as well as active volcano Cotopaxi. Make sure you are properly acclimatised.
Best for adrenaline activities: Baños, Mindo or Tena will be perfect for river rafting, base jumping, zip lining.
Best Amazonas trip: accessible from Coca or Puyo (you can book in Quito, Tena or Banos)
Best for Beaches: If you are looking for the party style, Montañita is your destination. The Galapagos archipelago has among the best beaches of South America.
Best for Wildlife: Galapagos. If you want to traveler independently count at least 4 full days there. Cruises start from 5 days.
Travel times by bus in Ecuador
Compared to its neighbouring countries, Ecuador is a relatively small territory, allowing you to experience a variety of landscapes, climates and cultures within the same day. However, you should still not neglect transportation time when planning your trip. You will travel by bus, except to reach the Galapagos (2h flight from Guayaquil).
Below are approximate travel time by bus between the main points I recommended.
- Quito – Latacunga: 2h
- Quito – Tena: 5h
- Quito – Mindo: 2h1/2
- Quito – Otavalo: 2h1/2
- Latacunga – Banos: 2h
- Banos – Guayaquil: 6-7h, at least one change