Bisected by the mighty Andes, with the Amazon on one side and the Pacific Coast on the other, mainland Ecuador only looks small on a map.
Don’t be deceived; you could spend months exploring this country. But if you’re a vacation-deprived North American, take heart: you can still see a lot in a single week.
This 7-day itinerary takes you along Ecuador’s mountainous spine from Quito to Cuenca, its two main colonial cities.
Day 1: Quito
Start your exploration of Ecuador in capital city, Quito. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito’s colonial center deserves the best part of a day. Wander the narrow streets and rest in the leafy squares. Take it easy today as Quito sits at an altitude of 2850 meters (9350 feet), and you will feel easily out of breath.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the ridiculously ornate interior of the Compañía de Jesús and San Francisco churches. The latter sits on its own pigeon-strewn plaza, complete with an outdoor café that is perfect for people watching.
In the evening, head to Calle La Ronda, a cobblestone street lined with whitewashed buildings. Have dinner at one of the many restaurants serving typical Ecuadorian cuisine to the sound of live musicians.
Day 2: Quito
Since Quito tends to be sunnier in the morning, start the day with a bird’s eye view over the city. To do this, you have a few options:
- The Basilica del Voto Nacional provides wonderful views of the Old Town and the Virgen de Quito statue on a nearby hill. Be warned that accessing the viewing platform requires crossing a bridge under the roof of the church, then climbing a few narrow ladders.
- If this is not your cup of tea, you could instead walk up to Parque Itchimbia for magnificent views of the city and lots of grassy areas to spread out a picnic lunch.
Those with the soul of an eagle can also ride the telefériQo (cable car) up the side of Pichincha volcano. Reaching a height of 4100 meters (13,451 feet), this gives you the most expansive view over the city and surrounding countryside.
In the afternoon, visit Mitad del Mundo, a 20-minute bus ride north of the city. This location marks the site of the Equator, represented by a monument and a line painted on the ground. Have your photo taken with a foot in each hemisphere. Yes, everyone does it!
Day 3: Baños
Set amid gorgeous mountain scenery, Baños is the center for outdoors activities in Ecuador’s highlands. If you don’t arrive too late, eat a cheap set lunch at a local restaurant or grab a bite at the Mercado Central. Also try the sugar cane taffy called melcocha, which is hand-spun in several shops here.
Wandering the streets of this compact town will give you an idea of all the activities on offer: hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, river rafting, as well as more extreme options. You may want to book something for tomorrow.
On your stroll, also check out Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa (Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water), a basilica made of volcanic rock that was built after the Virgin Mary appeared to a local priest in the late 16th century.
If you’re not too tired and have a couple of hours of daylight left, hike up to Mirador Bellavista for a bird’s eye view of the town hemmed in by mountains.
For dinner, try Mestizart for top notch Ecuadorian cuisine or one of the many high quality international restaurants such as Zumo (Japanese fusion).
Day 4: Baños
Today you get to indulge in some of your favorite outdoor activities. If you’re just keen on hiking, various trails of different degrees of difficulty leave right from town and take you through lush forests, along the sides of mountains, and past some waterfalls.
After exercising all day, a soak into one of the thermal baths that give the town its name may be just what your weary bones need. You could try the brand new facilities at Termas de la Virgen at the foot of a 79-meter (259 feet) waterfall, right in town. Active volcano Tungurahua is responsible for heating the water of the pools!
If you don’t like crowds, try a spa treatment instead. Jade Spa and El Refugio Spa Garden get very good reviews. Several hotels also offer them.
Either before of after your soak, stop by nearby Casa Hood, a popular and comfy hangout that serves Asian and vegetarian fare.
Day 5: Cuenca
Cuenca is my favorite place in Ecuador. It’s a mid-size city with beautiful Spanish-colonial buildings, friendly people, and plenty of restaurants and cultural venues. From Baños, it’s six hours by bus, so you will be getting here by mid-afternoon.
Start your visit of the Old Town by stretching your legs at Parque Calderón, the city’s main square and a pleasant spot to people watch. On the west side is the blue-domed cathedral, whose size you can better appreciate by walking along Calle Mariscal Sucre. Don’t forget to take a look at the flower market across the street.
Spend the rest of the day wandering the narrow streets of the Old Town and making your own discoveries. Then have dinner in one of the small local restaurants, or more mid-range and upscale ones along Calle Gran Colombia.
Day 6: Cuenca
After breakfast, walk towards photogenic Tomebamba River, which cascades over boulders and separates the Old Town from the New. A footpath follows the grassy banks of the river and lets you relax away from the traffic. Start by walking northwest, perhaps as far as whimsical little plaza Cruz del Vado.
Double back and head towards popular Moliendo Café where you can grab a cheap-but-filling lunch of Colombian arepas.
On nearby Calle Larga, two museums and some ruins deserve your attention this afternoon: Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes (Museum of Indigenous Cultures), the Ruinas de Todos Santos (a combination of Cañari, Inca, and Spanish ruins) and the Museo Pumapungo, which comes with its own Inca archaeological site.
Have dinner at El Maiz, one of my favorite Ecuadorian restaurants. At night, several bars and nightspots come to life in this part of town.
Day 7: Cuenca
Ingapirca is the largest Inca ruin in Ecuador, and while it’s not Machu Picchu, it’s definitely worth a look. The main structure is actually an unusual oval building of Cañari design. Local buses take only 1.5 hours to get there, and two hours should be enough to spend at the site.
If instead you prefer shopping and handicrafts, make a day trip to some of the artisan villages that surround Cuenca. San Bartolomé is known for handmade guitars, Gualaceo for weavings and fresh produce (including unusual Ecuadorian fruits), and Chordeleg for gold and silver filigree jewelry, ceramic pottery, and Panama hats. (Did you know that Panama hats originate from Ecuador, not Panama?!)
You can get around here by local bus, but it’s easier to join a tour, which also provides English commentary (and local guides) if you don’t speak Spanish. Pick up the perfect souvenir to finish up your incredible one-week trip in Ecuador.
Ready to take on this stunning South American country? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours in Ecuador.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x2, Marie-France Roy, Intrepid Travel x3, Marie-France Roy x2.)