Ecuador is South America in miniature. It has the Andes, active volcanoes, the Galapagos Islands, the best highland market on the continent, and the Amazon rainforest — all within a few hours of each other. You could pack an awful lot into a short Ecuador itinerary, or you could explore the country for months.
3 weeks in Ecuador is the ideal amount of time to get a taste for what this country has to offer. So pack all your layers, strap on your hiking boots, and keep reading for the perfect itinerary!
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Key things to know while planning your Ecuador itinerary
If you’ve just started planning your Ecuador backpacking adventure, there are a few things you should know right off the bat.
First, mainland Ecuador is one of the cheapest countries in South America. You could get by on a minimum budget of around $30 a day here and you wouldn’t be depriving yourself. You don’t really even need to stay in hostels — most small guesthouses have private rooms for just $8-10 a night.
As cheap as the mainland is, the Galapagos Islands are the polar opposite. A Galapagos cruise could truly clear out a backpacker’s savings account. But even a DIY itinerary with day-trips from one of the main islands is pricey. Expect to pay a premium for everything from accommodation to food to activities.
Ecuador is also quite a difficult country to pack for. On the same trip, you may experience tropical conditions and be caught in a snowstorm on a mountain peak. Bring layers — lots of them.
Finally, Ecuador is much less touristy than most other South American destinations (I’m looking at you, Colombia). You can always find a handful of other backpackers to hang out with, but don’t expect tons of gringo amenities — and definitely brush up on your Spanish before you arrive!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive into the details of spending 3 weeks in Ecuador.
Days 1-3: Quito
Quito may well be the greatest city in the Americas. It has a spectacular location in an Andean valley. The architecture is gorgeous. The culture is lively. The people-watching is as good as it gets anywhere. And every weekend, it comes alive with the best street party I’ve ever been to.
Quito Old Town
Spend the first three days of your trip to Ecuador exploring this fascinating city, starting with the Old Town. This colonial-era neighborhood has churches and plazas galore.
Don’t miss the Compañía de Jesús, with its gold-plated interior. Check out the iguana gargoyles on the Basilica del Voto Nacional. And definitely don’t miss the Casa del Alabado — which has the best collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in the country. In between, be sure to grab a coffee from Tianguez in Plaza de San Francisco.
If you’ll be in Quito on a Friday or Saturday night, don’t miss out on the street party on La Ronda. You can listen to traditional Andean or modern music in any of the bars on the street, dance in the middle of the road, munch on street snacks, and drink hot sugarcane alcohol to warm you up on the chilly mountain nights.
Check out my Quito Old Town walking tour for a complete self-guided itinerary.
Elsewhere in Quito
Quito is more than its Old Town. On your second day, consider a day-trip to the Mitad del Mundo on the equator. The tourist complex contains a number of museums and exhibits on the unique geological properties of the area. You can also go hiking in a nearby canyon. You can get here by bus for $0.25 from the Ofelia station.
Don’t miss a ride up the TeleferiQo to Cruz Loma. It offers the best views of Quito, at over 4,000 meters. You can hike an additional 5 hours to the summit of another mountain if you’re well-acclimatized (don’t do it on your first day.
Finally, venture into the modern city to visit the National Museum. It’s one of the best in South America. The pre-Columbian ceramics collection is especially impressive.
Where to stay: I’d never consider booking anywhere other than La Posada Colonial (check prices and book here). It’s one of the few genuinely good deals in Old Town. And it’s steps from the party on La Ronda, but on a quiet street. Book in advance — as in, weeks, not days.
Where to eat: Tianguez and Cafe Dios No Muere for coffee. Cafeteria Modelo for lunch. Pekarez has lovely balcony seating in the Old Town for dinner.
Arriving: You’ll probably arrive at the international airport. Hop on a green public bus to the Rio Coca transit center. You can connect from here to the Trole/Ecovia system to get to the Old Town or Mariscal.
How to get around: It seems chaotic at first, but make the effort to learn the tram system. The Trole and Ecovia both connect Mariscal and the Old Town to bus stations, with onward connections to the airport. Tickets are just $0.25.
Weather: Beautiful during the day, chilly enough to need a fleece at night. Carry a raincoat/umbrella at all times.
Safety: Old Town is safe until around 10 pm weekdays/midnight on weekends. Take a taxi at all times in Mariscal and elsewhere, even if only going a few blocks.
Days 4-5: Mindo
Next on this Ecuador itinerary, it’s time to head to Mindo. This little town in the cloud forest is my favorite place to visit while backpacking Ecuador. Yes, it’s rainy. Yes, you’ll be covered in mud by the time you leave. But it’s still gorgeous, friendly, and accessible.
Mindo is most famous as a destination for bird-watchers. More than 250 species have been recorded. If you’re not up for trekking through the forest in search of rare species, then you can just pay a visit to the hummingbird sanctuary instead.
If you like adventure, Mindo is a good place to get it during your 3 weeks in Ecuador. You can go tubing down the river, or try the zip-lining course through the cloud forest.
Save most of a day for the 20-km hike into and around the Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve. It’s about 7 km out of town (a very pleasant walk with great views), after which you’ll have to take a terrifying cable car across a valley. From here, a 7 km trail passes five waterfalls. You can swim in a few of them. The birding is fantastic here as well.
Finally, don’t miss the awesome and delicious chocolate tour at El Quetzal. You’ll learn the complete process of this micro-production, and you’ll even get to taste a bunch of chocolate products at the end!
Where to stay: The lovely owner of CasKaffeSu (check prices and book here) will make you feel at home right away. The restaurant is great too!
Where to eat: Beehive for international fare. El Quetzal for the chocolate cake, obviously (do not miss it). El Chef and Arepera for local eats (Arepera is veggie-friendly).
Arriving: Buses run a few times a day from Ofelia bus station in the northern sector of Quito. You can find the schedule here (under “second option – public bus”). Get to the bus station 30 minutes early to buy your ticket, earlier on weekends.
How to get around: Mindo is incredibly walkable. Even if you’re heading to the out-of-town adventures, clear signs and good footpaths allow you to walk.
Weather: Very rainy and warm, but not tropical. Wear t-shirts, long pants and rain gear.
Safety: Very safe, although there have been some issues with the zip line course in the past.
Days 6-7: Otavalo
After adventuring in the cloud forest for a few days, it’s time to get your culture on. The next stop for your 3 weeks in Ecuador is Otavalo, the home of one of the largest highland markets in the Andes.
It’s really important to time your visit to Otavalo on a Saturday morning. This is when Plaza de Ponchos and all the surrounding streets come alive with craft vendors. During the week a low-key market operates during the day, but it’s nowhere near as interesting. Plus, you can only visit the animal market on Saturday mornings at the crack of dawn. (If you care about animal welfare, stay away.)
The most prominent goods for sale at the market are textiles, but you can find anything from tourist knick-knacks to alpaca-wool blankets to quality leather products. Nearly everything is produced in the surrounding villages, and you’ll see plenty of locals shopping here as well. If you want to buy anything, be sure to bargain, but not too hard.
While Otavalo’s market is one of the top things to see in Ecuador, there’s plenty more to this town — so it’s worth a full two days of your trip. For one, don’t just visit the market — visit the sources of the crafts in the villages surrounding Otavalo. Peguche is a particularly charming village, where you can learn all about traditional weaving methods and see Andean music demonstrations.
The natural attractions are also worth a visit. The Reserva Ecologica Cotatachi-Cayapas is just outside of town. A day hike around Lake Cuicocha (“Guinea Pig Lake”) is the highlight.
Where to stay: Valle de Amenecer has $8 a night single rooms with breakfast included. Book in advance for Friday nights.
Where to eat: Eat at Shenandoah Pie Shop as many times as you can stomach. The blackberry pie with ice cream is the best.
Arriving: Even though they look close together on the map, you’ll need half a day to get to Otavalo from Mindo. First, hop on a bus all the way back to Quito. Then, from the Ofelia bus station, take a taxi to Carcelen bus station (about $3, 20 minutes). You can pick up one of the frequent buses to Otavalo from here (another 90 minutes). Buses drop passengers of on the Panamerica, a 15-minute walk from central Otavalo.
How to get around: You can walk around the town center and to the animal market. The easiest way to explore the surrounding area is on a tour with Runa Tupari. They have an emphasis on community engagement and their tours are affordable.
Weather: Chilly all the time. You’ll be comfortable in a fleece during the day, but consider a jacket in the evenings.
Safety: Central Otavalo has few crime issues. The road to Cuicocha Lake is dodgy — take a cab or a tour rather than walking or hitching.
Days 8-10: The Quilotoa Loop
Easily the most spectacular part of Ecuador is the belt of Andean mountains that runs just south of Quito. Cotopaxi lures mountaineers (and wanna-be’s) with its snow-capped peaks and serious altitude. But the Quilotoa Loop is almost as beautiful and far more accessible.
The “Quilotoa Loop” refers to a rough network of hiking trails not far from the small city of Latacunga. You can walk between villages on a four-plus-day trek, or take Jeeps between them, or a combination thereof. The Jeeps make it possible to enjoy the scenery while barely exerting any effort, but on the other extreme, the full trek is quite difficult.
Nearly everyone in the area visits the town of Quilotoa and its eye-popping crater lake. If you’re pressed for time on your Ecuador itinerary, you could even do this on a day-trip from Latacunga. But I’d recommend staying at least overnight, so you can walk the crater rim trail the following day.
Chugchilan and Isinlivi are the other popular villages, mainly because they both have outstanding hostels. But you could mix and match different route options depending on how difficult you want to make your trek and when there are market days.
For a full guide to all the options for your Quilotoa Loop hike, check out this article.
Quilotoa Loop practicalities
Where to stay: In Latacunga, Hostel Tiana (check prices and book here) is the best choice. They have hiking maps and bag storage. Unfortunately all the hostels in Quilotoa kind of suck, but everyone loves Llullu Llama in Isinlivi.
Where to eat: At guesthouses along the way. There are almost no standalone restaurants. Pack some snacks if you’re hiking.
Arriving: Latacunga is two hours south of Quito. Buses leave half-hourly from Quito’s southern bus station. From Latacunga, you can get a bus to Quilotoa daily at 10 am.
How to get around: On foot! Or on the Jeep’s and trucks that ply the mountain roads. Note that most vehicles depart only once a day, so be on time to the departure point.
Weather: Very, very cold. Pack lots of layers, including a jacket, hat and gloves. You’ll need sunglasses due to the altitude.
Safety: There are two main risks on the Quilotoa Loop — altitude and dogs. Don’t attempt this hike on your second or third day in Ecuador, or you’ll risk altitude sickness. Give yourself a few days to acclimatize in Quito/Otavalo first and expect to take twice as long to hike distances you’re comfortable with at sea level. Stray dogs along the way are very aggressive. If they attack, pick up a rock and pretend to throw it at them. Finally, expect to get lost, a lot. You’ll never be far from the main trail but it might be a brutally steep climb back to it if you take a wrong turn.
Days 11-12: Tena
If you’re sick of freezing in the mountains, I have good news. The next part of this itinerary for Ecuador takes you into the Amazon rainforest — one of the genuinely tropical parts of Ecuador.
Tena is a lovely jungle city on the shores of the Jatunyacu River. It’s not far from nature, but urban enough that you won’t have creepy-crawlies in your hotel at night. But the real reason to come here is to go whitewater rafting on the world-class routes just outside of town.
The best company for rafting in Tena is River People. They run full-day trips in groups of 4-6. You’ll have an experienced guide and a safety kayaker along for the ride.
I’m not going to lie — rafting in Tena is a pretty intense experience. You’ll run Class IV rapids that occasionally flip boats. It’s not quite the Nile, the Colorado or the Zambezi, but it’s probably the best rafting in South America.
If you want something a little more sedate, consider doing a jungle tour. You can organize this through a handful of local agencies in town. Look for companies that give back to the rainforest communities — Indigenous politics are a big deal in Ecuador and this is an easy way to do your part.
Where to stay: Hostal Zumag Sisa (check prices and book here) has a lovely garden and private rooms for $12.
Where to eat: For such a small city, Tena has one of the best food scenes in Ecuador. Cafe Tortuga is the kind of backpacker place gringos dream about, with awesome comfort food. Chuquitos has good local fare in the $3-per-plate range. And if you’re hungry after a long day of rafting, splurge on a pizza from Pizzeria Bella Selva.
Arriving: Coming from anywhere on the Quilotoa Loop, you’ll have to pass through Latacunga again to head south. Hop on any bus on the Panamerica headed toward Riobamba. From here, you can change to a direct bus to Tena. It’ll take half a day total.
How to get around: You can walk everywhere. Rafting companies provide transport if you book a trip with them.
Weather: Very hot and humid. Bring more sunscreen than you think you could possibly need for rafting.
Safety: Tena is 100% safe, even if you brave the whitewater.
Days 13-15: Baños
Ahhh Baños. It’s definitely Gringolandia. It’s not as pretty as Otavalo or Quilotoa, nor as adventurous as Mindo or Tena. But for some reason, it’s just awesome.
This little town has a stunning location in a mid-altitude valley, surrounded by natural hot springs and waterfalls. It’s the kind of place where you can literally ride a mountain bike from an Andean peak to the Amazon jungle in half a day, then load your bike on a public bus to get back to town.
Baños is very well set-up for tourism. You can’t walk ten feet in town without stumbling into a travel agency. Popular activities include cycling, hiking, horseback riding, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, and waterfall tours. There’s even a giant swing. I’d highly recommend seeking out an option — whether cycling or on a truck tour — that gets you to the Pailon del Diablo waterfall.
When you’re tired of adventuring, go for a soak in the hot springs at the public pools in town. Sit in a cozy cafe and read a good book. It’s impossible to leave this place without a smile on your face.
Where to stay: I’m a loyalist to Erupcion Hostel (check prices and book here). The dorms are stupidly cheap and you can’t beat the social atmosphere.
Where to eat: Eat at Cafe Hood for every meal you can. And if for some reason you get sick of it, brave the lines at La Tasca. Cafe Good serves cheap and delicious breakfasts.
Arriving: From Tena, it’s a two-hour bus ride directly to Baños.
How to get around: The downtown area is walkable. Rent a mountain bike to explore the mountains.
Weather: Perfect year-round. Warm and sunny during the day, not too chilly in the evenings.
Safety: Very safe, provided you don’t get knocked off a cliff by a speeding bus.
Day 16: Guayaquil
The last stop on this mainland Ecuador itinerary is Guayaquil — the country’s biggest city.
Guayaquil is a long bus ride away from Baños. So most of your day may be spent in transit if you opt for a daytime bus. But you could also take a night bus and give yourself some time to explore the city during the day.
The only real attraction in town is the Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporáneo. It has everything from pre-Columbian pieces to modern works by local artists.
Guayaquil is also the best place in Ecuador for nightlife. If you decide to check out the club scene, be sure to dress the part — locals go all-out.
Whatever you do, don’t miss your flight to the Galapagos tomorrow.
Where to stay: Casa de Romero (check prices and book here) gets points for a hostel vibe with hotel-like amenities.
Where to eat: If you’re going to splurge anywhere in Ecuador, Guayaquil is the place to do it. Here are some good top-end choices. Alternatively, street food and fast food is widely available.
Arriving: The bus from Baños takes ten hours. With flights to the Galapagos on the line, book your ticket at least one day early.
How to get around: You’re pretty much stuck with taxis in Guayaquil, and they’re not cheap. The downtown area is somewhat walkable.
Weather: Warm and humid — you won’t even need a fleece at night.
Safety: Guayaquil has a reputation for being dodgy, but most travelers don’t have any issues. Take taxis after dark and keep your guard up more than you need to elsewhere in Ecuador, and you should be fine.
Days 17-21: Galapagos Islands
This is it — the highlight of your 3 weeks in Ecuador!
The Galapagos Islands are one of the most bio-diverse places in the world. They’re famous largely as a result of Charles Darwin’s research, which demonstrated how different species evolved to fit their exact microclimates.
Basically if you want giant iguanas, giant turtles, unique species of sea lions, hammerhead sharks, and some of the best diving in the world, the Galapagos belong on your bucket list.
There are two ways to visit the Galapagos. You can fly to one of the airports on the habituated islands — Santa Cruz or San Cristobal, base yourself on those islands, and take day trips to some of the more remote islands. Or, you can go all-out with a multi-day cruise that involves sleeping on the boat.
Obviously the cruise is the more expensive option, but it also allows you to see far more of the region. Many of the islands are too far to reach on just a single day trip. For more on how to organize a Galapagos cruise on a budget, check out this guide.
Most backpackers base themselves in Puerto Ayora and take day trips elsewhere. For more on how to plan the perfect land-based Galapagos itinerary and the best Galapagos Islands tours, check out this guide.
Galapagos Islands practicalities
Where to stay: If you’re taking a cruise, you’ll sleep on the boat. Galapagos Best Hostel (check prices and book here) is the top budget pick in Puerto Ayora.
Where to eat: Anywhere with fresh grilled fish! It’s some of the best seafood in the world.
Arriving: You’ll fly into either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal from Guayaquil. Public buses and taxis ply major routes on each of the habituated islands.
How to get around: You’ll have to take tours to the outlying islands. You can walk to a few beaches from Puerto Ayora and other large towns; just bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Weather: Hot and humid — truly tropical.
Safety: Super-safe. The Galapagos’s entire economy is dependent on tourism and conservation, so locals are very friendly toward travelers.
After your Galapagos tour, your 3 weeks in Ecuador will be over. Hop on a plane back to Quito, or continue to Peru or Colombia overland. You’ll leave with some amazing memories of this surprisingly diverse little country.
If you have some extra time on your Ecuador itinerary:
- Try climbing Cotopaxi or spending a couple days on the lower slopes in Cotopaxi National Park. It’s a minimum of a 2-day/1 night trip.
- Hang out in Riobamba for a day or two. You can climb one of the three volcanoes outside the city, or go on a multi-day mountain biking adventure.
- Head deeper into the Amazon. There are tons of options for this, but this article will get you started.
- Did you know mainland Ecuador also has beautiful beaches? Montanita is a great little surfer beach just a couple hours from Mindo.
- The Nariz del Diablo train journey is among the most scenic in the world. It departs from Alausi. Just don’t do what I did and arrive too late to book a ticket.
- Cuenca is another gorgeous colonial town — similar to Quito, but much smaller. It’s a good spot to break up the journey between Baños and Guayaquil.
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