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Things to Do in Ecuador

Ecuador, though one of the continent’s smallest countries, is a microcosm of South America: Andean peaks, sandy beaches, smoking volcanoes, big cities, and diverse wildlife showcase the continent’s allure. The jewels in Ecuador’s urban crown are Quito, the capital, and Cuenca, about 285 miles apart (460 kilometers) each with their colonial architecture, charming plazas and outstanding food joints. In the former, ride the Teleferico (gondola) up a mountain to see the city from above, with a hike or horseback tour at the top, while the latter gives visitors access to nearby small artisan villages. The isolated and volcanic Galapagos Islands, sit 885 miles (1423 kilometers) from shore, meaning multi-day island-hopping cruises are pretty much the only way to experience the archipelago’s biodiversity. Back on the mainland, natural wonders range from the greenery of Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest to the high mountain browns and whites of Cotopaxi National Park, both accessible on day-trips (about two hours) from Quito. Otavalo Market (a two-hour drive) and The Middle of the World Monument (Mitad del Mundo, less than an hour away) provide a cultural introduction the country. If you want to trek through the Amazon, hike to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, or surf on the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, cosmopolitan Guayaquil, 270 miles south of the capital (2709 kilometers) serves as an excellent base, while the small town of Baños (three hours from Quito)—named for its thermal hot springs—lures thrill-seekers looking to go white-water rafting, zip-lining, and canyoning.
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Mindo Butterfly Farm (Mariposas de Mindo)
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At Mindo Butterfly Farm (Mariposas de Mindo)—tucked in the ethereal Ecuadorian cloud forest region—get up close and personal with more than 1,000 species of butterflies at all stages of the life cycle. Even travelers not crazy about butterflies will be charmed by the small koi pond, fluttering hummingbirds, and picturesque surroundings.

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Casa del Arbol Swing
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In the Ecuadorian wilderness just outside Baños, Casa del Arbol Swing is a seismic monitoring station that has capitalized on its perfect mountaintop location next to the Tungurahua Volcano by installing a treehouse with a rope swing. The Swing at the End of the World, as it’s often called, offers thrills with an unobstructed view of the volcano.

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Cotopaxi National Park
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With sweeping plains, rocky mountain trails, and glassy lagoons, Ecuador’s largest and most-visited national park is a spectacular setting for an outdoor adventure. Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Cotopaxi National Park is most famous for the much-photographed Cotopaxi volcano, the highest active volcano in South America.

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El Cajas National Park
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With its rolling lakelands, ancient quinua woods and sprawling cloud forest set against a jagged skyline of rocky peaks, the El Cajas National Park is a natural playground for adventurous travelers. Famous for its array of native wildlife, the park plays host to white-tailed deer, pumas, tapirs, llamas, Andean gulls and Violet-tailed Metaltail, as well as rare species like Andean condor and cougar, and colorful flora like wild orchids and rare bromeliads.

The 29,000-hectare reserve is dotted with some 230 lakes and a vast network of walking trails, making it a prime spot for hiking, fly-fishing, horseback riding and camping. Notable highlights include the Tres Cruces and Avilahuyco viewpoints, Lake Toreadora, the Taitachungo Lagoon and Lagartococha.

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Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS)
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A must-see while in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, the biological research station known as the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) is a great way to take in some interesting facts about the environment of the Galapagos many take for granted while relaxing on the beach and having a pina colada. On display, the center has available information on local conservation, habitats, and other interesting relevant statistics.

Certainly the station's most impressive attraction is the tortoise breeding center, where you can see tortoises of all shapes and sizes, including the famous Lonesome George, at 90+ years old, and the last remaining member of the Pinta Island subspecies. Access to the tortoises is quite open and visitors can feel free to walk amongst them as well enjoy a last-minute photo-op.

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Bartolomé Island (Isla Bartolomé)
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Bartolomé Island, located off the east shore of Sullivan Bay, is a small but beautiful spot most famous for its iconic Pinnacle Rock, which is arguably one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Galapagos. The staggering rock face is an eroded lava formation that was originally created by an underwater volcano.

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Las Tintoreras
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Las Tintoreras is a small group of islands where lava formations have created several different natural habitats, thus enabling a wide range of Galapagos wildlife to inhabit the area.

There is a lagoon that reef sharks come to rest in, mangroves that make for marine iguana breeding grounds and a beach where sea lions and other marine life flourish. The turquoise waters of the bay lead to a shallow crevice, which at low tide makes it easy to spot wildlife even without getting in the water. While visitors are not allowed to swim in these waters, the nearby beach area grants the opportunity to see the sea life from below.

Perhaps the most unique sight of Las Tintoreras are the Galapagos penguins. Whether it’s penguins and sea lions playing or marine iguanas perched on lava rock, Las Tintoreras is a unique spot to see much of the Galapagos wildlife in one place.

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Quilotoa Lagoon
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Quilotoa Lagoon was formed when a now-extinct volcano collapsed and the resulting crater was filled with a startling emerald-green lake, the color resulting from volcanic minerals. Just south of Quito, the village and lagoon of Quilotoa have become a popular day-trip destination, affording spectacular views and photo opportunities.

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León Dormido (Kicker Rock)
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The translation of León Dormido, a giant rock formation rising sharply out of the ocean, is 'sleeping lion.' The remains of a lava cone split into two parts, in English it is also known as 'Kicker Rock.' The formations have eroded due to hundreds of years of weather and sea and now tower 500 feet above the water below.

Located off the coast of San Cristobal Island, boats that visit the rocks can navigate through the narrow channel between the two formations. Much marine wildlife does the same, and this is one of the most common places to see Galapagos sharks as well as turtles, rays and sea lions. It's an excellent spot for diving and snorkeling, as the mild current sweeping between the two rocks often means diverse groups of reef fish. Frigate birds are also common, and many other species can be seen above the water. Whether you conclude that the rocks resemble a lion or a boot, Leon Dormido is a Galapagos icon for a reason.

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Quito Old Town
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The historical heart of Ecuador’s capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito Old Town is the first port of call for most visitors to the city. Known for its cobblestone lanes, Spanish colonial architecture, and beautiful churches, it’s Quito’s most atmospheric district.

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More Things to Do in Ecuador

Sierra Negra Volcano

Sierra Negra Volcano

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There’s nothing quite like the view from one of South America’s most active volcanoes and the world’s second largest crater, Sierra Negra.

The last eruption from this large shield volcano occurred in 2005—and while it’s not likely lava will be flowing, there are several geological and thermal events to see. Visitors can hike the six-mile-wide rim of the caldera, walking through otherworldly lava landscape. The southern side of the volcano is often covered in mist and fog and is lush with green vegetation as a result. Walking along the northern side allows for views of the lava rock from the most recent eruption.

Hiking Sierra Negra is strenuous, but those who make it to the top are rewarded with sweeping views of the landscape below.

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Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo)

Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo)

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The Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo) commemorates the site where the 18th-century French explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine once calculated the globe's equatorial line. A trapezoidal monument in the center of the park houses a viewing platform; a small museum on the equator pays tributes to local indigenous cultures.

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Mindo's Cable Car (Tarabita de Mindo)

Mindo's Cable Car (Tarabita de Mindo)

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Reach Mindo’s Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve and numerous waterfalls with ease, thanks to a thrilling, open-air cable car ride above the rain forest. Avoid having to hike all the way across the Nambillo River, and take in panoramic views while enjoying an experience available in few parts of the world.

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North Seymour Island (Isla Seymour Norte)

North Seymour Island (Isla Seymour Norte)

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Not to be confused with the island of South Seymour, more commonly referred to as Baltra (the location of the main Galapagos airport, as well as a military base), North Seymour Island (Isla Seymour Norte) is a small island that is flat and uplifted, unlike many of its volcanic neighbors. The most intriguing aspect of North Seymour for visitors is the renowned Blue-footed Boobies that inhabit the island. While walking along the visitor’s pathway, one can often catch the famous courtship dance of the boobies, along with incredible frigate birds, swallow-tail gulls, and other Galapagos birds. Watch along the coastline for marine iguanas and playful sea lions as well. Also be sure to take notice of the spectacular black-and-white lava rocks that surround the coast.

If you’re traveling to the Galapagos to dive, be sure not to miss the wonderful opportunities that Seymour has to offer. Keep your eyes open for Hammerheads, sea lions, the pacific green sea turtle, garden eels, and hundreds of beautifully colored tropical fish.

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Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santa Domingo)

Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santa Domingo)

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Situated at the southern edge of Quito’s Old Town, Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santo Domingo) sits beneath the shadow of the 17th-century domed Iglesia de Santo Domingo. A statue of Ecuadorean hero Antonio José de Sucre stands in the middle of the plaza, pointing toward the spot where the battle for independence was won in 1822.

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El Chato Tortoise Reserve (Reserva El Chato)

El Chato Tortoise Reserve (Reserva El Chato)

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See the famed Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild at El Chato Tortoise Reserve (Reserva El Chato), one of the few places visitors can watch these creatures roaming in their natural habitat. Then, explore the lava tunnels and nature trails, while looking out for other endemic wildlife, such as short-eared owls, Darwin finches, and more.

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Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve (Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua)

Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve (Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua)

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Only two craters in the world are inhabited—and Pululahua is one of them. Essentially a fog-filled, fertile bowl set 9,000 feet in the sky, Pululahua is the only crater in the world that’s also actively farmed. Though the area rarely ever receives rain, the rolling fog provides ample moisture for raising fields full of crops. Most people who visit, however, only make it as far as the overlooks, which are dotted along the crater rim and offer sweeping views of the basin. Those with a little more time, however, and a healthy dose of adventure, can hike, bike, or horseback ride the trails to the crater floor. Once here, walk amongst a rural setting that feels like it’s frozen in time. Gone are the urban trappings of Quito and the incessant hum of cars, which are replaced by the sounds of smiling farmers who still work the ground by hand. Aside from the trails, farmers, and fog, Pululahua is famously known for its ecological wealth. The crater is a geobotanical reserve with over 2,000 species of plants, and was the first place in South America preserved as a National Park. It’s even possible to sleep in the crater in simple, traditional hostels, and even if you can only spend 30 minutes admiring the view from the rim, this spot the Inca dubbed “cloud of water” is a site you’ll never forget.

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Devil's Nose Railroad (Nariz del Diablo)

Devil's Nose Railroad (Nariz del Diablo)

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Back in the early 20th century, in the heyday of trains and train travel, the railway connecting Guayaquil with Quito was one of the world’s best tracks. Aside from the fact it reduced the trip from nine days down to two, what made the line such global fame was the near vertical, harrowing ascent up the mountainous “Devil’s Nose.” Rising over 2,000 vertical feet in only 7 miles, the track was engineered in a way that the train goes forward—and then in reverse—as it climbs up the switchbacking track. The building process was laced with tragedy, from snakebites and floods to deaths, but finally the track in 1908 was complete between the two cities. By the late 1970s, however, road travel had made trains impractical and the tracks were in disrepair, until the government spruced up the Devil’s Nose and made it a high end draw. While it’s no longer possible to ride on the roof of the carriages like travelers of old, the views looking down in the valleys are just as spine-tingling and steep as before, and this marvel of modern engineering continues to thrive to this day.

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San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco)

San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco)

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Nestled in the historic downtown area of Quito, visitors find the first Catholic Church built in the city, the San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco). The amazing architecture of this Baroque church blends different styles that were incorporated over the more than 100 years of construction.

The church stands on the open San Francisco Plaza, where the city once drew its water, held weekly food markets and general meetings and where military and political demonstrations took place.

Construction of the church started in the 1530s, shortly after the Spaniards arrived in Ecuador. Although much of the church has been rebuilt due to earthquake damage, some of it is original, and it constitutes the largest colonial structure in the city.

The churches and cloisters stand on almost two whole blocks and include an atrium, a courtyard and a convent. The atrium runs along the length of the public square, with access to the plaza by means of a fan-shaped staircase. Franciscan fathers still live here and work to help the poor.

The entrance is adorned with images of the sun, decorations that were used to attract indigenous communities to the Catholic Church. Combinations of indigenous and Catholic symbols are repeated throughout the church. The interior of the church shows a Moorish influence on the walls and columns, which are covered in gold leafing. Of the 3,500 works of art, many are from the Quito School of art.

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Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional)

Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional)

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The Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional), often called La Basilica, is one of the most beautiful Roman Catholic churches in Quito. Set up on a hill and visible from almost anywhere in the city, it’s particularly striking after dark, when it is illuminated.

Construction began in 1883 on what became the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, measuring 459 feet (140 meters) long and 115 feet (35 meters) wide, and reaching a height of 98 feet (30 meters) in the nave. The two front towers stand 377 feet (115 meters) tall.

The neo-Gothic decoration has an interesting twist — it features gargoyles and ornaments that depict local animals such as armadillos, iguanas, pumas, monkeys, tortoises and condors. The abundant artwork also includes bronze statues, stained-glass windows and impressive stonework.

Get the best views by climbing to the top of the three towers, where you can see a large portion of Quito and the surrounding mountains. Walking from one tower to the next on wooden bridges and steep ladders adds to the thrill.

The church is technically unfinished, and local legend has it that when La Basilica is completed, the end of the world will come.

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Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

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This white sandy beach area is one of the most famous in the Galapagos, both for its beauty and for its wildlife. Sightings of marine iguanas, sea lions, crabs, birds and, of course, turtles are frequent.

There are two main stretches of beach; the first is popular for surfing, though currents can be strong, while the second is more conducive to swimming and snorkeling. Colorful reef fish, rays and white tip reef shark have all been spotted here.

To get to Tortuga Bay, you must hike a stone and boardwalk path through trees and cacti, where you might spot some of the Galapagos’ famous birds, such as flamingos, finches, pelicans and the blue-footed booby. Whether you come for the sand or the wildlife, Tortuga Bay is one of the Galapagos’ best offerings for both.

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Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús)

Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús)

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Quito’s Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), often called La Compañía, is one of the most significant works of Spanish baroque architecture in South America. The incredibly ornate and beautiful church boasts gold leaf ornamentation, gilded ceilings, and religious paintings by artists of the Quito School.

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Independence Plaza (Plaza de la Independencia)

Independence Plaza (Plaza de la Independencia)

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Flanked by several important buildings—the Archbishop’s Palace, City Hall, Government Palace, and the cathedral—Plaza de la Independencia (Plaza Grande to the locals) has been part of Quito’s streetscape since 16th century. What was once a central market and bullfighting arena is today a shady square.

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Isla Lobos

Isla Lobos

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Isla Lobos is a small, flat island located off the coast of San Cristobal Island known for its snorkeling and diving. Beside its rocky shores lie calm waters in which conditions for swimming and viewing marine life are optimal and visibility can reach up to 40 feet.

The island is most known for its resident sea lion population, where dozens of them play in the turquoise water and dot the white sands to rest. Bird watching for blue-footed boobies, Darwin finches, brown pelicans, and frigate birds is also feasible here.

Isla Lobos is the closest dive site to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. With the right timing, it is even possible to see baby sea lions or marine iguanas eating seaweed and swimming in the water. The channel the island creates next to San Cristobal makes for excellent conditions to encounter wildlife.

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