For many travelers, the South American country of Ecuador is associated almost exclusively with one bucket-list destination: the Galapagos Islands.
And while the volcanic archipelago is undeniably amazing, the excitement to get there often causes people to skip mainland Ecuador entirely. But this is a mistake. Ecuador, small as it is, is actually packed with unique things to do and see, from the jungle to the mountains to straddling the center of the earth.
Here are five places worth visiting in Ecuador in addition to the Galapagos Islands.
Most people associate the Amazon Rainforest with Brazil, but the sweeping jungle ecosystem extends into other countries, too – including Ecuador. You’ll find Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon in the country’s northeastern corner, with the towns of Coca, Tena, and Puyo being popular gateway cities. The Ecuadorian Amazon has plant and animal life that can easily compare to the Galapagos. In fact, it’s one of the most biodiverse areas anywhere in the world, and is especially great for bird lovers.
For a true Amazon experience, you’ll want to stay at a jungle lodge for at least a night or two. I stayed at the Shiripuno Lodge not far from the port town of Misahualli on the Napo River. The lodge is unique in that it’s run completely by women from nearby Shiripuno village, many of whom are from the indigenous Quechua tribe. This stay with Intrepid included things like jungle hikes, chocolate-making, learning about local plants, and getting a glimpse into the traditions of the Quechua people.
If you think this experience sounds cool, check out a similar itinerary on this 9-day Ecuador to Peru Adventure.
For those with an adventurous streak, you won’t want to skip the town of Baños de Agua Santa (usually just shortened to Baños). This town at 5,971 feet used to be most well-known for its mineral-rich hot springs, but today is also known as the adventure capital of Ecuador.
Baños sits on the northern foothills of the Tungurahua volcano (which is extremely active and has been spewing ash and lava fairly regularly since 2013), and offers up everything from zip-lining to hiking to white water rafting. My favorite short hike was up to the statue of the Virgin del Agua Santa because of the great views out over the city and mountains.
Afterwards, if your muscles are feeling weary, head to one of the thermal pools that the town is named after. There are a few different ones to choose from, but La Piscinas de la Virgen is the most popular with local Ecuadorians. These mineral-rich hot pools sit at the base of the Caballera de la Virgen waterfall, making for a great view to go along with your soak.
Other must-dos in the Baños area that aren’t quite as intensely adventurous include visiting the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall (see below image), and having a go on the giant swings at Casa del Arbol (which has views of the volcano on clear days).
There’s a monument just outside Quito called La Mitad Del Mundo (The Middle of the World), which celebrates the Equator that Ecuador is named for. However, due to lack of accurate GPS back in 1736 when the Equator was originally surveyed, the line actually lies 240 meters from where the current Equator monument stands.
If you want to straddle the true 0 degree line, head about an hour northeast of Quito to the town of Cayambe, which sits at the base of a volcano of the same name. Here you’ll find the Quitsato Sundial, another Equator monument that is more or less right on the actual dividing line between hemispheres.
RELATED: CHECK OUT OUR 8-DAY ECUADOR ON A SHOESTRING TRIP
Let’s be honest, Ecuador’s capital lacks the vibrant reputation of certain other South American cities. It doesn’t have the culinary or cultural fame of Buenos Aires or Lima, and pick-pocketing and petty theft aren’t unheard of here. But, as long as you take proper precautions and remain aware of your surroundings, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy a few days in Quito.
Quito really is a fascinating city. It sits at 9,350 ft above sea level up in the Andes mountains, making it the highest official capital city in the world. It’s historic city center is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it being “the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America.”
Wandering around the historic center is therefore a must. And if you happen to be in the city on a clear day, you might also want to take the Teleferico cable car to the top of the Pichincha Volcano that rises behind the city. And for more recommendations on this underrated city, check out our in-depth Quito guide.
Lastly, many visitors to Ecuador add on a visit to the town of Otavalo in the Andean highlands. Visit, and you’ll know why. Not only is Otavalo surrounded by volcanoes and other great scenery, but the town is also famous for is market in the central Plaza de Ponchos. Here, you’ll usually find colorful textiles and indigenous handicrafts for sale, which make great gifts for family and friends back home.
Insider tip: if you’re only taking a day trip to Otavalo from Quito, be sure to stop by The Pie Shop right on Plaza de Ponchos for a slice of one of their delicious homemade pies before you leave.
On the note of leaving, I hope it’s now clear that mainland Ecuador shouldn’t be left out of any Galapagos trip! Even if you’re planning a trip to the islands, be sure to allow some extra time to see the rest of the beautiful country. You sure won’t regret it.
Tempted by Ecuador’s sights and delights beyond the Galapagos? Check out our 9-day Southern Ecuador Highlights trip.
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock x2, Amanda Williams x4