Ecuador, as the name suggests, is located on the equator, the invisible latitudinal line that divides the earth into two equal parts. Like Colombia, Ecuador has no seasons; the sun rises and sets at the same time every day. Its enviable tropical climate enables flora and fauna to flourish in abundance. Indeed it boasts the 7th most biodiverse country in the world, despite its modest size of just 200,000km² – that’s ⅕ of Colombia or ⅓ of France. Its impenetrable jungle, tropical snow-capped mountains and idyllic beaches, hosted by friendly and helpful people make Ecuador a first-class destination for travellers. Check out our our overview of potential backpacking routes around Ecuador, including a personalised map, a guide to all the key places and travel tips.
The imposing Andes cordillera slices down the middle of Ecuador from North to South, splitting it into three distinct regions; La Oriente (East), the relatively small but dense portion of the Amazon basin; the La Costa, bordering the pacific ocean, where you’ll find the Ruta del Sol; and the Sierra, the monumental Andean cordillera, reaching up to 6200m at its highest point.
It is upon the Sierra where the Ecuadorian capital sits at 2800m above sea level. Quito, like Bogotá, does not correspond with your stereotypical image of Latin America. It is a mountainous, cold and chaotic city, far from the sea and abundant nature. A few days here is sufficient to see everything. Quito has a well-preserved, colonial historical centre, and numerous cathedrals with fantastic viewpoints.
A short trip from Quito, there are two unmissable places. An hour’s bus journey south from the capital will take you to the Cotopaxi Volcano, a perfect destination for hiking lovers – it is worth the almost 5000m climb for the the incredible peace and calm that only exists in the alpine mountains. Even further south, around 3.5 hours from Quito, you will find the Baños de Agua Santa, a small city surrounded by exuberant vegetation with dozens of hidden waterfalls, rivers and hot springs – great for both extreme sports and a casual hike.
On the other side of the cordillera, you will find the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun), a well-beaten track that connects a series of tropical beaches upon which the sun radiates nearly every single day of the year. The route starts in Mompiche, a spectacular place where the lush jungle reveals a thin strip of beach – a picturesque landscape that has been little altered by humans. This tranquility contrasts with the forceful waves crashing against the black sand that separates the green of the mountains and the blue of the infinite ocean.
Following the Ruta del Sol south, you’ll find Montañita, a little coastal town primarily known for its nightlife, and where you’ll undoubtedly want to stay for at least a few days. Aside from partying, Montañita is also the point of departure to get to Frailes. Frailes is a nature reserve which has some of the best beaches on the Pacific coast in South America; you won’t find any houses, hostels or shops or restaurants – only the jungle, the sea and golden sand. The park opens at 8am and closes at 4.30pm, so be sure to arrive early to make the most of the morning light and the time of day when it isn’t too hot – there are few shady spots! If you are lucky, you will be able to spot different animals also enjoying the beautiful beaches before flocks of tourists arrive and scare them away.
The Ruta del Sol continues south, connecting more beaches and towns of all shapes and sizes, each with its own particular charm. Finally you will reach Salinas, a touristy coastal town, which is quite popular among the locals, mainly due to its proximity to Guayaquil, the most populated city in Ecuador. You may choose to skip these altogether and head to the UNESCO heritage site of Cuenca. It‘s a charming, colonial town that seems as though it is stuck in time – a truly beautiful final stop with spectacular landscapes and friendly people. From here, it is easy to cross the border into Peru to continue your Latin American adventure.
- Quito and other destinations on the Andean cordillera are over 2,500m above sea-level, so take your time to allow yourself to acclimatise – I wouldn’t go for a run or try to climb any stairs too quickly!
- The Ecuadorian sun as incredible as it is dangerous, most people are not used to so many hours of sun nor such a powerful one and do not fully comprehend the risks – buy sunblock that is sufficiently strong (60+!)
- The seafood is fresh, delicious and an absolute bargain!
- Mosquitos! Unfortunately, Ecuador’s biodiversity is not limited to mammals, reptiles and plants, but these horrific, blood-sucking insects as well… In our experience Ecuador is worse than any other country in South America, so be sure to bring plenty of strong repellent, especially since most hostels don’t tend to give you mosquito nets!