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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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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Casa del Arbol Swing
38 Tours and Activities

In the Ecuadorian wilderness near Baños de Agua Santa lies a small seismic monitoring station that has capitalized on its perfect location on a mountain top 2,600 meters above sea level by installing a tree house with a swing. But the unique piece of playground equipment hanging from Casa del Arbol isn’t just like any other swing. It is often referred to as the swing at the end of the world and dares visitors to launch themselves out over a steep drop on nothing but a crude piece of wood. The adrenaline rush is worth it though, as the experience offers a breathtaking view the mountainous landscape and the Tungurahua volcano in the background.

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Cotopaxi National Park
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Cotopaxi National Park (also known as Cotopaxi Volcano National Park) lies 53 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of Quito and is the second most visited (and second biggest) National Park in Ecuador.

Cotopaxi National Park's main attraction is its still active volcano, which stands at a towering 19,000 feet (5,900 meters) above sea level, dwarfing the surrounding valleys, rivers and lagoons.

Referred to by the Incas as the 'Neck of the Moon,' the volcano has had over a dozen recorded eruptions, making it the most volatile volcano in South America. That doesn't deter the many climbers who attempt to climb it each year, however. It last exploded in 1877.

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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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Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santa Domingo)
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Santa Domingo Plaza graces the southern edge of Quito’s Old Town and is easily missed by visitors. It’s an airy plaza, dominated by the imposing Santo Domingo Cathedral on its southeastern side. In the center of the square a statue of hero Antonio José de Sucre points towards Pichincha Volcano where he won the battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822.

The Santo Domingo Cathedral dates back to 1581 and houses an impressive statue of the Virgen del Rosario in an ornately carved baroque-style chapel. If you visit the plaza at night, the cathedral’s domes look beautiful floodlit.

The Plaza comes alive on weekends when neighboring Quiteños converge on the square to watch the various acrobats, jugglers and magicians go through their routines.

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Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo)
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Who could resist the opportunity to visit the Middle of the World (Mitad del Mundo) and have your picture taken as you straddle the equator! This complex, built to commemorate the site where a French explorer calculated the world’s equatorial line, may be a shameless tourist mecca, but it makes for a fun day trip from Quito.

Take the elevator to the top of the enormous, trapezoidal monument for great views of the surrounding countryside. You’ll also find a scale model of colonial-era Quito here too, which really helps you get a sense of the old town’s layout.

You’ll also find an Ethnography Museum and a Planetarium at Mitad del Mundo, as well as several tourist shops, bars and restaurants. On weekends, locals hang out in the Middle of the World, which comes alive with folk music and dance shows.

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Seminario Park (Parque de las Iguanas)
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At the heart of Guayaquil’s colonial center, overlooked by the grand Cathedral of Guayaquil and centered on a monumental statue of Simon Bolivar, Seminar Park would be largely unnoteworthy, if it wasn’t for the sizable population of iguanas that inhabit the small park. Aptly renamed the ‘Parque de las Iguanas’ (‘Iguana Park’), the fenced public park is home to hundreds of green iguanas, which range from palm-sized babies to giant dragon-like creatures the size of a small child. It’s an incongruous sight, with the friendly iguanas roaming freely throughout the park, clambering on the benches, climbing the trees and slinking through the grass.

Although many tourists ply the iguanas with bread or fruit, visitors are discouraged from feeding or playing with them – instead visit during the daily feeding times, when the park attendants bring in piles of vegetables for the giant lizards to feed on.

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More Things to Do in Ecuador

León Dormido (Kicker Rock)

León Dormido (Kicker Rock)

46 Tours and Activities

The translation of Leon 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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Bartolomé Island (Isla Bartolomé)

Bartolomé Island (Isla Bartolomé)

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Isla Bartolome, located off the east shore of Sullivan Bay, is a small but beautiful island most famous for its iconic Pinnacle Rock, arguably one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Galapagos. This incredible geological site is a staggering rock face, formed from an eroded lava formation from the eruption of an underwater volcano. Visitors can summit the island via a 600-meter (about 2,000 foot) trail and enjoy some of the most breathtaking views of Pinnacle Rock, Sullivan Bay, Isla San Salvador (or Santiago), and Isla Daphne. Photographic opportunities abound at this ideal spot.

Visit the north beach for wonderful snorkeling opportunities. Swim with beautiful fish and Galapagos penguins, or visit the southern shore to see white-tipped sharks, spotted eagle rays, and stingrays. Keep your eyes out for the green sea turtles, especially if you’re there during mating season (typically November to January).

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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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The Church of the Society of Jesus, (in Spanish, Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), often called la Compañía, is a Jesuit church in Quito and is one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America.

The company in question is the Jesuit order, a powerful religious group that exercised authority in Ecuador. The first Jesuit priests arrived in Quito in 1586 with the mission to establish a church, school and monastery.

Construction of this church began in 1605, though the building was not completed until 1765. It is considered Quito's most-ornate church is and often called the country's most-beautiful church. During the colonial period, the church’s bell tower was the tallest structure in Quito, but it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859. Rebuilt within six years, it was again destroyed shortly after by another earthquake and was never rebuilt.

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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.
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Independence Plaza (Plaza de la Independencia)

Independence Plaza (Plaza de la Independencia)

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Plaza de la Independencia, known as Plaza Grande to the locals, was Quito’s main square in the 16th century, serving as central market and bullfighting area.

The plaza contains several important buildings: the Archbishop’s Palace to the north, City Hall to the east, the cathedral to the south, and the white, neoclassical Palacio del Gobierno (Government Palace) to the west.

The Government Palace (re-built in 1920 after its original 1650 building was destroyed by fire) is not open to the public, but you can take a peek inside the main entrance, which is a beautiful example of Moorish architecture. There is a tourist information booth just behind the entrance gate.

You’ll find more Moorish-inspired work in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace (built in 1852) where there is also a small craft market and a few shops.

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Quito Old Town

Quito Old Town

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Quito’s unmissable historic center, or ‘Old Town,' extends over 320 hectares (790 acres) and is the largest historic center in the Americas.

Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Quito has taken great pride in restoring its colonial buildings and sprucing up its public spaces to ensure that both locals and visitors continue to breath life into the old town.

Life is certainly not lacking in Quito Old Town. The streets and plazas constantly buzz with colorful locals and vendors selling everything from roasted peanuts to giant roasted pigs,. Tourists drink it all in as they shuffle between the overwhelming number of restored churches and chapels, convents and monasteries, mansions and museums.

And of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and shady plazas to rest in when sightseeing fatigue kicks in.

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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.
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Sierra Negra Volcano

Sierra Negra Volcano

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Otavalo Market

Otavalo Market

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Nestled in a valley at the foot of a volcano, Otavalo is a highland community of indigenous locals famed for their weaving skills and colorful textiles. The local people (Otavaleños) who sell their wares at the daily market, wear traditional clothing and have maintained their culture, costume and identity.

Saturday is the main market day in Otavalo but a weekday visit will be less hectic and provide more opportunity for some serious browsing. Within the market you’ll find traditional crafts, brightly-colored textiles and traditional weaving designs plus some musical instruments and carvings.

Even if souvenir shopping isn't your thing, Otavalo market is a popular day trip from Quito, and a visit to Otavalo and the surrounding area is a window into the world of some of the more traditional indigenous peoples of Ecuador.

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Calle La Ronda

Calle La Ronda

38 Tours and Activities
In downtown Quito, just one block south of Santo Domingo Plaza, you’ll find the emblematic street affectionately called Calle La Ronda. This pedestrian drag is lined with shops that provide a peek into the local culture and give visitors a chance to pick up popular Ecuadorian take-homes like Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador).
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Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

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