Last Updated on December 6, 2023
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Wedged between Colombia and Peru on South America’s Pacific coast, Ecuador is a fascinating country. It’s not only home to ancient and colonial civilizations but also exceptionally diverse, with some of the most amazing natural splendors on earth.
Ecuador has a wealth of wonderful places to visit. While many travelers are lured there by the Galapagos Islands, there’s much more to the country. It’s also home to some of the best colonial cities in South America, colorful Indian markets, dense rain forests, and jungle.
It’s also relatively small, allowing travelers short on time to visit different areas in a relatively short time. The rest of us can just take our time and savor all the country offers.
And the greatest surprise for many American travelers is that the country’s official currency is the U.S. dollar.
Visit Quito, the Best-Preserved Colonial Area in South America
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a fascinating place to visit. It’s an Old-World city that, in fact, is the best-preserved colonial area in South America. Officially named San Francisco de Quito, it’s also as hilly as its Californian counterpart. Perhaps even more so.
But unlike its California cousin, it sits at an elevation of 9600 feet on a high plateau four or five miles wide and more than 30 miles long.
Despite its well-preserved colonial heritage, we still found the large number of churches in Quito somewhat surprising. One is the Basilica of the National Vow, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. It’s an out-of-place-looking gothic church whose Ecuadorian-style gargoyles include huge tortoises, jaguars, giant sloths, and crocodiles.
The most outstanding, however, is the Church of St. Francis in the center of the Old Town. The Spanish quickly began construction of it just a month after they arrived in 1535.
Built atop an Inca temple. It’s close to the 16th-century La Plaza de la Independencia, also known as La Plaza Grande. Once the city’s main square, the Plaza is the heart of the historic center. It’s flanked on its four sides by the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Municipal Palace.
A Great City to Visit – Charming Cuenca
We fell in love with beautiful Cuenca, a fascinating mix of French and Spanish-Colonial styles and one of the most charming places to visit in Ecuador. But, of course, for many of its large expatriate population, it’s also one of the loveliest places to live.
Sitting high in the Andes in southern Ecuador, it’s a city that isn’t overrun with busloads of tourists.
The city’s main square, the jewel of the town, is strikingly different from the other city squares of the era. It’s of French design, not Spanish, and a beautiful place with walkways, flowers, and trees.
Walking about Cuenca, you find the city divided into different areas by type of business. For example, after leaving the main square, we walked through the “barbershop area.” Minutes later, we walked into an area of Panama hat shops and then through an area of embroidery shops. Practically every block is home to a different type of business.
Also fascinating is Cuenca’s Cathedral, the fifth largest in Latin America. It’s an enormous structure in which a local artist integrated many local influences into the stained glass he created.
The Gualaceo Valley
On a drive through the Gualaceo Valley, outside Cuenca, you’ll find many indigenous people walking along the highway. In their colorful clothes and customary fedoras, it’s a colorful taste of local life. Adding to the local color, are roadside stands with spits holding large pigs being carved for motorists stopping by for a bite to eat.
The valley isn’t one of the more popular places in Ecuador travelers visit, but it’s well worth a day or more.
On a morning ride through the valley, we visited an old farm where a local family demonstrated local weaving techniques to travelers. Although we were only two of a dozen or so visitors, the family was doing a brisk business selling their woven sweaters and blankets.
A few minutes down the road, we found another fascinating place, a small orchid farm catering to a global clientele.
Walking about the small complex of greenhouses, we learned it was home to nearly half of the 30,000 species of orchids in the world.
Stop By La Mitad del Mundo
La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) is a nearly 100-foot tall Equatorial monument north of Quito that encompasses a small museum highlighting the ethnic cultures of Ecuador. It’s only mildly interesting, however, and is the place tour companies shuttle you off to so you can stand right on the line “painted on the equator” for that memorable photo.
It’s one of the popular places in Ecuador that people visit but there is a caveat: it isn’t really on the equator. The actual equator is about 250 yards away.
It was never intended to be a sham, however. The mistake was made by a French expedition in 1736 that marked the wrong spot. Incredibly, the error wasn’t realized until relatively recently, after the Global Positioning System (GPS) was invented.
Unfortunately, since the Ecuadorian government had already built La Mitad del Mundo, the tour companies continue to bring you there instead of to the “real equator,” where some entrepreneurs have opened their own lively exhibit. So if you’re in Quito, make this one of the places you visit in Ecuador.
The Top Place to Visit in Ecuador: The Galapagos Islands
First made famous by Darwin on his historic voyage in 1835, the Galapagos is a mini-Jurassic Park of sorts, plopped in the Pacific 600 or so miles off the coast of Ecuador, about a 2½-hour flight from the mainland.
The Galapagos Islands are the top place to visit in Ecuador because you find species unlike any other in the world. They include marine iguanas that look like little dragons (the only sea lizards in the world), birds with blue or red feet, albatrosses with seven-foot wingspans, and gigantic 100+-year-old tortoises weighing more than 500 pounds. The best thing about a visit to the Galapagos is that there you can get quite close to the animals and birds since they have no fear of humans.
To protect the islands, the government of Ecuador has placed strict controls on what you can do on them, including limiting where any tour company can go on a specific day. However, it all works well since you no longer have four ships dumping hundreds of people onto the same strip of beach, and you don’t come across other tour groups as you hike through the interior.
One of the Top Places to Visit in Ecuador for Nature Lovers: El Oriente
El Oriente is a vast area of the country. Encompassing about 25% of the country’s landmass, it extends from the Andes to the border of Peru. It’s also called Las Amazonas since its rivers carry the mountain snow melt to the Amazon. As with the Galapagos, it’s one of the top places to visit in Ecuador for lovers of nature.
It’s a naturalist’s dream since 57% of all Ecuadorian mammals live in the area; you’ll also find 500 species of tropical birds and 15,000 species of tropical plants.
As in the Galapagos, an eco-tourism industry has also blossomed here, with several jungle lodges now catering to international travelers.
Wander About the Indian Markets
One of the wonderful things about visiting many places in Ecuador is the opportunity to visit the indigenous Indian markets. There you can find local Indians selling various goods ranging from animals and produce to woven goods and handicrafts.
The market at Otavalo, about two hours north of Quito on the Pan-American Highway, is the most well-known and touristy. However, the Sunday market at Gualaceo, about 40 minutes outside Cuenca, is more authentic.
Other markets include Cotacachi (famous for its leather works), about a half-hour north of Otavalo, and Saquisalí, two hours south of Quito.
South of Gualaceo is the town of Chordeleg, famous for its silver jewelry. You’ll find it sold in many shops in the center of town.