There’s more to see in Ecuador than the Galapagos Islands. Across the mainland of this small South American country, you’ll discover stunning volcanoes you can hike, roaring waterfalls and moody mountain landscapes.
Check out five of the best destinations in Ecuador.
Located in the eastern highlands of Ecuador is the town of Banos. It’s an adventure lover’s dream and is also a gateway to the Amazon.
The highlight of a trip to Baños is heading down the Waterfall Route (Ruta de las Cascadas) to check out the waterfalls, including the impressive Paillon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) waterfall.
You can head out on an organised tour, but it’s more fun getting there on a bike. There’s plenty of agencies hiring mountain bikes throughout the town. Expect to pay $7USD for the day for the bike, helmet and bike lock.
To get to the breathtaking Devil’s Cauldron waterfall, you need to ride 20km along the Waterfall Route to the town of Rio Verde. Don’t worry, it’s mostly downhill.
Along the way, you can take a break at the many waterfalls you pass next to the road.
You can also take part in the many adventure activities that are set up next to the main waterfalls. Activities range from bridge jumps to ziplining.
Plan the bike ride to Rio Verde to take about two hours, including stops.
Once you reach Rio Verde, lock up your bike at one of the signed free bike parking areas and go check out the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall.
There’s two entrances to the waterfall, one before the bridge crossing the Verde River, and one after.
If you only have time and money for one entrance, make it the one before the river, however it takes a little bit of effort to find as it’s not well signed.
Before you reach the river, look for a side street on your right with a small sign tacked on a concrete wall saying Paillon del Diablo. Follow this down, turn left and you should see tourist buses parked and an entry booth behind it. This entrance takes you over two suspension bridges to look down at the falls. The entry fee is $2USD per person.
The other entrance takes you near the base of the falls. It starts near the bike parking area after the Verde River and you have to pass through a row of souvenir shops to get to the path. This entrance is well signed. Cost is $1.50USD per person.
If you rode a bike here, there’s trucks that will take you and your bike back to Baños. They’re easy to find near the bike parking area. The transport cost is $2USD per person. The trucks leave when they have about six people on board.
Once back in Banos, you can relax in one of the thermal springs or admire the local churches.
Baños can easily be reached by public bus from Quito, Ambato or Riobamba.
The hiking adventure out to the active Cotopaxi volcano may just be the highlight of your trip to Ecuador.
The snow-capped 5,897 metre Cotopaxi volcano is Ecuador’s second highest peak, and one of the country’s most visited volcanoes.
The adventure starts with a drive up to the 4,500 metre mark on the volcano, stopping below the Refugio Jose Rivas. The aim is to at least reach the refugio (shelter), which sits at 4,850 metres elevation.
The hike up is along volcanic sand so it’s a hard push up combined with the altitude.
You can continue a further 15 minutes from the Refugio up to the base of Cotopaxi’s glacier – and a great view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. At this point, you are 4,864 metres above sea level.
Return the way you came – and then you can opt to ride down the volcano road on a bike.
Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park is located in Ecuador’s south, near the university town of Cuenca. It’s a lake filled, moody mountain wonderland that reminded me of the Scottish Highlands – and was not what I expected to find only an hour out of Ecuador’s third largest city.
The park can be accessed by a one-hour bus ride from Cuenca at the budget price of $2 USD each way. It’s easy to reach the park independently and avoid the touted $70 USD tour price.
Buses leave for the park once every hour between 7am and 2.30pm. You’ll find the bus at the end of Cuenca’s Terminal Terreste (central bus station). Buy your tickets at the little hole in the wall Cooperative Occidental office. You’ll also need 10 cents to pay the platform tax when exiting the terminal to get on the bus.
Admission to the park is free, however arrive early as the park has a capacity of 92 visitors per day. You must register at the ranger station before starting your trek.
Trails are well marked with colour coded signs or spray-painted arrows marking the route.
The trails range from moderate to hard and you can choose one suited to your ability. The rangers can give you information about the trails at the ranger station but be aware that they only speak Spanish. However, there’s handy colour-coded track maps hung on the walls of the ranger station to show distance and elevation gain and loss.
The most popular hikes are the Cerro San Luis peak (very hard) or the Laguna Toreadora trail (easy).
You can find more information about the trails on the national park website http://parque-nacional-cajas.org/tracks.html
Vilcabamba, known as the valley of longevity, is located in Ecuador’s southern highlands.
Vilcabamba is popular among travellers seeking to hike, go horse riding or get a cheap massage.
You can go horse riding or hiking in Podocarpus National Park. Among the attractions in the park is the El Plato Waterfall.
You can reach Vilcabamba by public bus from Cuenca via Loja. Vilcabamba is popular among travellers wishing to continue onto Peru from Ecuador with buses leaving regularly from Loja’s bus station to Piura, Peru.
- Chimborazo volcano
The extinct Chimborazo volcano is Ecuador’s highest peak.
Chimborazo Volcano stands at 6,310 metres and while its summit is only achievable for mountaineers due to snow and ice obstacles, hikers still can get a taste of the mountain by hiking up to the second refugio (shelter).
The hike is only for travellers who have acclimatised to high altitudes as the highest point you’ll trek to sits at 5,100 metres elevation.
The volcano sits inside the La Reserva de Produccion de Fauna Chimborazo, which is located an hour’s bus ride from Riobamba.
The bus costs $2.50USD each way and you want a bus heading towards Guaranda from Riobamba. Ask the driver to drop you at the national park entrance. Admission to the park is free.
From the entrance, you can choose to hike the 8km up to the first refugio, or hire a driver at the entrance to take you up to the refugio.
From the first refugio (4800 metres), you can then take the hike up to the second refugio and the lake – an elevation gain of 300 metres. At this altitude, progress is slow. Take plenty of water and take regular breaks especially if you feel nauseous or a headache starts.
Also bring plenty of warm clothes including a beanie, gloves and a warm jacket as it can get really cold up there.
Things You Should Know:
- Bus travel is a cost-effective way to get around Ecuador. Buses leave regularly from central bus stations (Terminal Terreste) heading for destinations such as Quito, Ambato, Riobamba, Baños, Cuenca and Loja with stops at locations along the way. Bus tickets can be bought at bus company counters at each bus station. Expect to pay between $2-5USD for bus tickets depending on distance.
- When travelling by bus, keep bags with valuables on your lap. Do not store under seats or in overhead racks due to the risk of theft.
- Ecuador is a cash economy. The country uses US dollars as its currency. You will require coins or small notes to purchase bus tickets.
- Be alert for symptoms of altitude sickness. Many towns in Ecuador are 2,000 metres plus above sea level.
- Be prepared for all types of weather in Ecuador. It’s best to have warm clothing and a rainjacket on hand, especially if travelling between November and March when afternoon storms are common.