Continental Ecuador itinerary
The great advantage for the traveler who visits Ecuador is that everything is close, so he/she can easily organize a trip that has a bit of everything: Amazon jungle, Andean mountains, Pacific beaches. That is, the dream scenario for the backpacker. Without needing many days (if you have them much better!), without much effort you can travel this beautiful country giving the chance to these three cultures that compete to be the favorite of visitors. The truth is that all three are winners.
The traveler must come to explore the hidden Amazon jungle; the traveler must visit the most Andean Ecuador, home to beautiful cities and towns, impressive mountains and volcanoes, lakes and waterfalls, cloud forests…; and the backpacker needs to travel next to the Pacific to get closer to the coastal culture, full of beautiful beaches, mangroves and friendly and fun people. These lands are honoured for having housed the first civilizations in South American (more than 11,000 years ago). It is also the place where Francisco Pizarro set foot on the continent for the first time, before initiating the Inca destruction. Come and meet their friendly people, eat delicious meals (the spectacular culinary of Manabí and Esmeraldas stands out) and sunbathe on the coastal route of the Spondylus. Lots of places worth a visit in this itinerary:
Podocarpus National Park
Cajas National Park
Montañita & Olón
Puerto López & Machalilla National Park (Isla de la Plata included)
Mompiche & Portete
Esmeraldas and surroundings
San Lorenzo & Cayapas Mataje Mangroves Ecological Reserve
Otavalo and surroundings
Cotopaxi National Park
If you are getting in the country via Peru it is recommended to do it through La Balza, as there are amazing landscapes along this route - jungle, Green mountains… -, beautiful cities and towns, and lovely people. Vilcabamba should be the first stop for most travelers. In a beautiful and peaceful valley lies this village, known for the high life expectancy that its countrymen reach. Therefore, this valley is also known as the Valley of Longevity. Nobody knows which part is true and which part is myth, but the fact is that many “vilcabambenses” have lived longer than 100 years. Probably the peace that emanates from its forests and rivers, the fantastic climate and the relaxed rhythm of life play a beneficial role for health.
People mainly come here to rest and disconnect by walking around (there are beautiful mountains and a river surrounding the city), as well as to meet travelers from many corners of the world. But there are other interesting additional plans, such as going to the southern part of the Podocarpus National Park or visiting some panela factory, a regional candy made with sugar cane (there are several factories nearby).
Nice university colonial city in a beautiful mountain setting, already close to the jungle. The capital of the homonymous province has some attractions that make it worthy of a visit: its streets and stately buildings, its beautiful parks, art and music expressions in every corner... And, of course, its proximity to the incredible Podocarpus National Park (northern section).
PODOCARPUS NATIONAL PARK
This protected area of enormous biodiversity, halfway between the mountain and the jungle, has three entrance doors: from Vilcabamba (south access), from Zamora (east), and from Loja (north). The northern and southern sectors are located at higher elevations, with a predominant forest habitat, while the eastern one shelters the green lowlands. I visited the north part, but all sectors are recommended. The Park has many trails (some of a few kilometers, others longer) that will take you through the leafy mountainous forest to powerful rivers and falls (is there anything better than cool off in a waterfall in the middle of the jungle?). There are places to camp and even some shelter.
Note. The podocarpus is the only native conifer species of Ecuador.
One of the most beautiful cities in South America: the Athens of Ecuador! Its spectacular Historical Center, its cultural richness, the past and present together, as evidenced by colonial and indigenous art, its delicious gastronomy, its location in the Andes mountain range, its dream surroundings... The traveler needs to come to the capital of the province of Azuay to discover its history, architecture, museums, people and surroundings. It is worth mentioning the Inca ruins of Ingapirca, picturesque villages and indigenous communities and, above all, nature in abundance. Cajas National Park stands out.
CAJAS NATIONAL PARK
Welcome to the high moor, where you can walk through the clouds, the inhospitable lands do not give life to many trees and yet, the vegetation is amazing (incredible little plants and colorful flowers), there are bodies of water scattered everywhere and birds are by far the leading figures. While this park is huge and has many routes, most are difficult to access, needing to travel small dirt roads. There is no public transport, so if you are interested in doing some particular hike you will have to rent a car or hitchhike to the start of the trail.
Most of us are ok with exploring the Park in the simplest way: going through the road that crosses the Park in the north, connecting Cuenca and Guayaquil. In addition to the viewpoints along the way, you will probably want to stop at the Visitor Center, next to the Toreadora Lagoon, from where a circular path of about 7 or 8 km starts. It is an exciting walk that takes you to go up mountains from which you get unparalleled views of that paramo ecosystem, go through quinoa forests, skirt small lagoons where reeds and tiny birds share the space and, best of all, breathe the purest air. Next to the Visitor Center there is an interesting Interpretive Center on the Park’s geology and biology. Near Toreadora also starts other route in a southerly direction where you can camp freely.
The most inhabited city in the country, and capital of the province of Guayas, it was not a stop on my itinerary (I was only in the bus terminal), but there are some interesting points, and it is on the way if you are coming to the coast from Cuenca... Enjoy its boardwalk of almost 3 km facing the Guayas River, its street markets (such as La Bahía), the views of the city Santa Ana Hill, and have fun with the “Guayaquileños”.
Small fishing community in the province of Santa Elena whose main charm is that it does not receive tourists. Everyone jumps from Guayaquil to Montañita, forgetting than there are on the way authentic towns like this one. Here you will have the opportunity to watch the locals living from fishing (both going fishing by boat and selling the products at seafood stalls on the street), as well as engaging in conversations and sharing with these nice people. The beach is full of pelicans, gulls and frigatebirds.
MONTAÑITA AND OLÓN
The cradle of madness and crazy characters is called Montañita, a small tourist town on a beautiful beach where everyone gathers (people from all over the world!). If you are looking for meeting people, laugh and have fun this is your place. Excellent spot for surfers as well. But beware: we are faced with a trap in which many get stuck longer than they wish! Its relaxed atmosphere and, above all, your new friends/loves will probably make you want to stay longer "wandering". What a pity, right? By the way, if you are into crafts this is a good destination to settle a few weeks, as many travelers come and go so you will have a good chance to sell your Works.
On the other hand, if you are looking for peace, its neighbor Olón (you can walk from Montañita) will welcome you with open arms. This charming town is just the opposite: (almost) everyone is local, and its extensive, golden beach is waiting just for you…
PUERTO LÓPEZ AND MACHALILLA NATIONAL PARK
This beautiful town (in the province of Manabí) tucked into a beautiful bay is the main base to visit the only National Park of the coastal region in Ecuador. This is the star attraction of the area, turning it into a must on the Spondylus Route, but the town itself is also fantastic, with a beautiful beach, cozy streets where delicious food is offered and very cheerful people. Perfect to relax a few days.
The Park stands out for its exotic ecosystem of dry forests, its hidden beaches of yellow sand, its “pissed off” waters in the open ocean and calm (and transparent) sea in sheltered areas, its cliffs with splendid views, and its enormous variety of fauna: pelicans, blue-footed boobies, frigates, whales (June to October), dolphins, turtles, fish of all colors (coral formations) and even howler monkeys and anteaters (jungle area). Along the coast there are scattered fishing villages.
Several sections of the Park stand out for their popularity:
Playa de los Frailes. This is a very nice excursion that starts a few kilometers north of Puerto López, continuing along a trail that crosses the dry forest, moving towards the sea, passing through some cliffs with awesome views (photo above) and, finally, descending to sea level to enjoy several beaches with very few people. Camping on the beach is allowed.
Isla de la Plata. A must for lovers of nature and photography (wildlife watching very closely). The boats depart from Puerto López (several agencies operate this tour) and lasts a whole day. There is nothing for it but to pay up a “few” dollars… But believe me, the whales and dolphins following you along the way and the colonies of frigates and boobies on the rocks will make this experience worth it. To finish: a snorkel in a coral reef near the island, swimming with turtles and bright fish.
Just north of Machalilla National Park is this little fishing village in the province of Manabi, where tourism has barely arrived. Best: its beautiful and little-traveled beach (great for camping) where you can truly live the coastal culture. Amazing food.
Charming and quiet population of sandy streets, with a few businesses (rooms and restaurants) and a long beach. A paradise to rest. Sleeping in the sand, strolling along the beach (walk to the end of it to see some spectacular giant rocks), practicing some yoga or chatting with locals and travelers are the perfect pastimes here. You can spend the night in a room or with your tent on the beach.
MOMPICHE AND PORTETE
Magical place on the coast of the province of Esmeraldas. The relaxed atmosphere, its cheerful population, the coconut trees, the foamy waves, the sea breeze... All that will make you lose your shoes from the very first minute and walk freely through its dirt roads. The beach of the town itself is beautiful, but the one that remains behind the hill is just unbeatable. It is a beach of black and bright sand (it looks like it has glitter), guarded by walls of cliffs and lush vegetation. But there is more, it is nudist, for those (me!) who love swimming buck naked!
The island of Portete, separated from the mainland by a narrow strait (you need to cross it by boat), is fascinating: home to a small community, it is full of palm trees everywhere, it is a nesting place for several species of turtles and its waters are illuminated in the darkest nights (phenomenon of the bioluminescence of plankton). Not everything is perfect, though: there is a monstrous all-inclusive hotel at the beginning of the community. No worries, just walk a few meters on this sand that stretches for miles to have the beach and the ocean just for you.
ESMERALDAS AND SURROUNDINGS
As one goes up on the Ecuadorian coastal map, the population becomes increasingly black. From Esmeraldas onwards, the Afro-Ecuadorian community is the immense majority, an incentive for the traveler, who will not want to miss this magnificent culture full of rhythms. Precisely music and dances are not lacking in the capital of the homonymous province, all malecón’s bars filled to the brim at night. Enjoy the party with these happy souls.
Apart from nightlife, Esmeraldas city has little to offer (wander through its streets and that’s it). You need to walk a few kilometers to find picturesque villages and wild beaches. Some nearby places with easy access are Atacames (bustling, like its neighbor), Súa, Same and Tonchigüé (quiet).
SAN LORENZO AND CAYAPAS MATAJE MANGROVES ECOLOGICAL RESERVE
Town that seems to fall apart in the extreme north of the coast of the country, already close to Colombia. Not many travelers pass through here, but it is one of the places I recommend most to everyone, because it has the two main things a backpacker seeks: 1) amazing culture, local (untouched by tourism) and different (a black population that contrasts with the white, indigenous and Creole from the rest of the country); 2) beautiful (and different) landscapes. A giant mangrove, the largest mangrove I have seen so far. From the pier of San Lorenzo there are boats out to Limonales, a fantastic journey through brackish waters in which you can see various species of birds (herons, frigates, etc). You can stay in Limonales chatting with locals and trying typical dishes or go a little deeper into the mangrove. You must ask the boatmen to take you to lost communities and other points of interest.
OTAVALO AND SURROUNDINGS
One of the must-see in your Andean adventure is this small town in the province of Imbabura. Its hallmark is its magnificent market of native products (especially textiles), one of the most impressive indigenous crafts markets in the entire continent. The Otavalo Market in Plaza de los Ponchos is full of shapes, colors and smells, the perfect place to buy a pair of warm (and cheap) alpaca sweaters and try delicious local food..
The other strong point of Otavalo are the stunning surroundings. There is much to do a few kilometers away, here we go with some:
Lagunas de Mojanda. More than 4000 meters above sea level is this stratovolcano (Mojanda) full of aquatic surprises. Up to three lagoons "grow" in their craters: Karikucha (the largest one), Yanakucha and Warmikucha. The paramo landscape is wonderful with several trails to hike the area.
Laguna Cuicocha. Another impressive volcanic lagoon, now "only" 3000 masl. Being at lower altitude makes the vegetation (the landscape) look so different, greener in general, with taller bushes and colorful flowers. There is a path along the caldera of the volcano.
Peguche Waterfall. Nice water curtain in a wooded setting through which runs a cute little narrow path to walk
The capital of the country (as well as the province of Pichincha) is an architectural gem at almost 3000 masl that exudes grandiosity and history (founded in 1534) in every square, church and nook of the Old City. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, perhaps because of the interesting mix of colonial and native heritages; the wide squares, home of (almost always) a spectacular church, temple, basilica or cathedral, and the narrow streets, headquarters of elegant houses and businesses with amazingly well-preserved facades; the enclave in which it is located, surrounded by snowy peaks (among them the Pichincha). Perhaps for all this it was the first city in the world (along with Krakow, Poland) to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (1978).
All this you can do in Quito: tour the historic center in search of architectural treasures; climb the hill of Panecillo, in the heart of the Historical Center, offering fabulous views; enter any of the 60 museums it houses; go to the Monument of Mitad del Mundo and witness interesting activities and facts about the equator (like seeing how the water of a toilet rotates in one or the other direction being north or south of the equator); go hiking to the surrounding mountains. In addition, the Ecuadorian capital enjoys a splendid location, within walking distance of various country's must-see destinations such as Otavalo (north), Mindo (west), or Cotopaxi National Park (south).
If you are a lover of birds, or butterflies, or plants this is your place. The Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve gives life to more than 500 species of birds, 90 species of butterflies and 170 varieties of orchids, to name a few. Strolling through the magical cloud forests, brimming with life, you will have the opportunity to see different species of hummingbirds, the cock-of-the-rock, and much more. There are also several butterfly farms and orchids gardens in the area. The Forest Area is very extensive, with some amazing excursions to do. A very popular one is the one that takes you by tarabita (a kind of a cable car) over the leafy forest to a trail that starts abruptly downhill, then runs parallel to a river (the Mindo River), passing by beautiful waterfalls and pools in which to cool off.
On the other hand, the village of Mindo is really nice, very pleasant to walk through its streets and relax..
COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK
The first National Park of continental Ecuador shelters one of the most emblematic volcanoes in South America: the Cotopaxi Volcano. This perfect snow cone of 5897 meters is the second highest point in the country (after the Chimborazo Volcano) and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. This, coupled with the bleak landscapes guarding it are worthy of a visit. Most visitors do not climb to the top, but to a station/shelter less than an hour’s walk from the parking. But, if you want to do it, no worries my friend, it is not such a hard climb, as the journey already starts from a very high elevation (it is actually the most popular ascent in Ecuador). Depending on your fitness, the entire climb can take between 5 and 9 hours (plus another 2 or 3 downhill). What is essential is to be well prepared, acclimatized to the height and have a pair of good snow boots. And then the reward: a crater half a kilometer in diameter welcoming you with its vapors and its fantastic panoramic views from the (almost) highest spot of Ecuador.
Photo taken by Julia Sevillano
This is an amazing journey around small Andean communities (some with market fairs) whose star attraction is the Quilotoa volcano, with a turquoise green lagoon occupying its crater. You can walk around its perimeter, admiring this beauty from above, and you can also descend to the water level down a hillside. Although this is the excursion that every traveler that comes near must do, if you are still eager to hike through these unique lands you have a few treks in the Ecological Reserve Los Illiznas (which takes the name of a twin peaks), that combines paramo and cloud forest ecosystems.
The towns that are passed through in the Quilotoa Circuit are: Latacunga (capital of the Cotopaxi province), Saquisilí, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilán and Sigchos. Of these, the most beautiful to travel and/or overnight stays are Saquisilí, a charming Andean village famous for its “Mercado de los Jueves” ("Thursday Market") and Chugchilán, surrounded by beautiful places to get lost.
This popular settlement located at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano welcomes travelers looking for different sensations, from rest and relaxation in its spas and massage centers to multi-adventure tourism doing rafting, zip-line or bungee jumping (among others). In addition, the town is at the end of the Andes and the beginning of the Amazon (or vice versa), receiving travelers who want a change of scenery in their respective Ecuadorian adventures. Everyone wants to stop here because there is so much to do, especially in the surroundings. The best way to explore its forests, rivers and waterfalls is by bicycle (there are many agencies in the town for renting one). Lots of cool excursions, being perhaps the most popular the one known as Ruta de las Cascadas (this is, the Waterfalls Route).
It is a 15-km-descent along the road that leads to Puyo, ending at the star waterfall: the Pailón del Diablo. The landscape is wonderful, with thick cloud forests on both sides and parallel along the Pastaza River canyon (this river is also famous for its white-water rafting). Although only a few kilometers, the tour deserves a whole day, as there are many stops along the way: several viewpoints that offer views of waterfalls on the green of the mountain; tarabitas (cable-car) that cross you to the other side of the river (more virgin and wild), where you can walk in search of exotic plants, observe little birds or sit next to a creek to eat; canopys (zip lines) that fly over the canyon and make you feel like Superman; Beverage, fruit and other food stalls to recharge your batteries... At the end you reach the steep downhill trail to the thunderous Pailón del Diablo (the bike must be left on top). The return (uphill) to Baños can be done by bike as well, but most prefer to do it in some large trucks (developed for tourism) that take both you and your friend on two wheels.
TENA AND SURROUNDINGS
The capital of the province of Napo rests on the jungle… Welcome to the Amazon! Here you can enjoy the culture of a city in the middle of the jungle and, above all, explore some of beauties that surround it. Two places that are very worthwhile (and are hardly known) are:
Jumandy Caves. Here you can bathe in a thermal water pool and get guided throughout aquatic caves in search of stalactites, stalagmites and other geological formations with several stops to take a dip in rivers and underground waterfalls. You can get to the entrance by taxi from Tena (or hitchhiking, but it is close).
Grand Canyon. Exciting route that crosses a very authentic rural community and penetrates the torrid rainforest. The best thing about this excursion is its powerful river, splitting the jungle in two and, above all, some crystalline water pools surrounded by high walls where lianas hang and giant plants bloom. You made it to Eden (photo above)! There is no one around, it is ideal to bathe stark naked!
Village in the middle of the jungle specialized in offering tours to the jungle (there are a few agencies). One of its curious distinctive are the monkeys that inhabit the community itself, sharing the plaza and the main streets with the locals and tourists. The jungle tours are made to measure, from one day to a week (or more if you want). If your budget is small, two or three days should be enough.
It is not easy to see wildlife, so do not count on seeing many animals, beyond some small primates, alligators, insects (termites, spiders, mosquitoes) and several birds. But rest assured that you will live an exciting and different experience, climbing hillsides, canoeing rivers, camping, sleeping in hammocks or in small cabins in the jungle, visiting indigenous communities... And listening to the wise advice of your guide, as well as great stories.