I started my South American backpacking adventure in Colombia with the idea of making it down to Patagonia before the weather became too frigid. I figured I’d first spend some time in Colombia, and cruise my way through Ecuador in two weeks or less in my sprint to get to the southernmost regions of the continent. After all, Ecuador is tiny. What could possibly hold my attention for more than two weeks?
When I arrived in Ecuador, I discovered that this itty-bitty country, with it’s insanely diverse terrain, was a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure-seekers. I ended up staying in Ecuador for two months, and here’s why:
1. Climbing Volcán Chimborazo
If you’re really into mountaineering, then Chimborazo is the mountain of your dreams. Standing at 20,564 feet (6,263 meters), this volcano is no joke. To climb it, you’ll need to hire a tour guide, most of which will provide you with gear and proper clothing. The tours normally take about two days; one to reach the summit and one to head back down where you can catch your breath after the oxygen-depriving climb. The climb features some of the most stunning views in the country, including other nearby volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Fun Fact: Chimborazo recently dethroned Mount Everest as the highest point on Earth. Because, science. So if you really want a challenge, look no further than Volcán Chimborazo.
2. Climbing Volcán Cotopaxi
Volcán Cotopaxi is one of the most popular climbing experiences in Ecuador. Because the volcano is active, hikers can only climb up to the Refugio at 15,958 feet (4,864 meters) where you can have a snack, get a cup of hot chocolate, or even get your passport stamped. To get to the volcano, you must hire a guide at the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park who will drive you to a museum, a café where you can drink coca tea (to prepare you for the climb of course!), a magnificent lake, and finally, to Volcán Cotopaxi itself, all for about $30. The climb should take no more than an hour and you can do it self-guided.
Fun fact: Because of the altitude, Cotopaxi is the only glacier in the world situated on the equator.
3. Trekking the Quilatoa
The Quilotoa Loop is a three-day self-guided trek in the Ecuadorian Andes near the town of Latacunga. You can either start the trek in the north or in the south, but most people tend to start on the northern end because you get a grand finale on your last day: Laguna Quilotoa.
Start in Sigchos where you can then hike to Insinlivi, Chugchilan, and finally Quilotoa over three days.
If you’re not up for a three-day trek, no worries. You can still (and should) see Quilotoa, and can even hike around the lagoon in five hours.
4. Waterfalls, Hot Springs and Adventure Sports in Baños de Ambato
Baños de Santa Agua is an absolute haven for outdoor adventures. One of the most popular is Waterfall Road, a 61km route that takes you to about a dozen stunning waterfalls. You can go by bus, but if you want the full experience, biking is the best option. The route is mostly downhill and some of the most popular waterfalls are only 20.5km away, including Pailon del Diablo and Machay. Bring your swimsuits, too, because you can swim in Machay!
Along Waterfall Road, you’ll encounter numerous adventure activities such as bungee jumping and ziplining. When you’ve seen all the waterfalls that you can handle for a day, take a truck back into town for relaxation in one of Baños’ numerous natural hot springs.
While you’re in town, you can’t miss out on one of the most picturesque adventures in Baños: Casa del Arbol. You can hike up to the Casa in about two hours and play daredevil on one of the swings that take you flying right over the edge of the canyon. In photos it looks like you’re swinging into oblivion!
5. Kite Surfing in Santa Marianita
Although there is plenty of surfing along the coastal towns of Ecuador, if you’re looking for something a little more out of the ordinary, look no further than Santa Marianita.
This tiny, quiet beach town is notorious for kite surfing. Whether you’re an aficionado, or you’d like to learn how to surf the wind, you can find everything you need here from boards to lessons.
6. Visiting the Middle of the World
About an hour and a half outside of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, you’ll find yourself at the middle of the world, or ‘El Mitad del Mundo.’ It is literally the middle of the world because this is where the equator, for which the country was named, can be found.
But beware. There are actually two “middle of the worlds.” In the 18th century, the equator was incorrectly calculated and a massive monument was planted just a tad askew. Head past the monument about 200 meters and you’ll find yourself at the true equator. Here, you can do all kinds of experiments that can only be done on the exact line. For example, ever wondered if water really does turn in opposite directions on either side of the equator? You can find out at el Mitad del Mundo!
7. Hiking Cajas National Park
Situated about an hour outside of the quaint town of Cuenca, Cajas National Park is a fantastic self-guided hike with several routes to choose from. With wild shrubs, wind-twisted trees, and sudden glimpses of water everywhere you turn, this is definitely a bucket-lister for your Ecuadorean adventures.
But bring warm clothes! Cajas National Park is a tundra, so it can get quite cold, especially if you decide to camp there, which you can do for about $3.