The equatorial, high altitude landscapes of Ecuador are a popular starting point for backpackers on an extended South America trip.
Starting in the lofty heights of Quito, you can spend time off the beaten path hiking in the northern indigenous town of Otavalo or chasing waterfalls in the cloud forest of Mindo. Or you may want to start following the Andes down south and marvel at Cotopaxi Volcano or hop straight on a plane to the natural wonders of the Galápagos Islands.
If those don’t take your fancy, then adventuring in Amazon basin is never far away or you can get yourself to the Pacific coast to tear it up in the famous surf and nightlife of Montañita.
The country has something for everyone, and whether you are visiting for a week or a month, our itinerary is a great place to inspire you to get started.
ONE MONTH ECUADOR ITINERARY
This one month itinerary is based on the 4 to 5 weeks we spent in Ecuador and the route we took from north to south.
- Day 1 – Land in Quito
- Day 2-3 – Otavalo
- Day 4-6 – Mindo
- Day 7-9 – Quito
- Day 10-11 – Secret Garden Cotopaxi Hostel
- Day 12-16 – Latacunga / Hike the Quilotoa Loop / Latacunga
- Day 17-20 – Baños
- Day 21-29 – Galapagos Islands
- Day 30-35 – Montañita
Ecuador is simple to travel with most of the popular towns following a north to south route alongside the Andes. The only detours you will need to take from this straight route is to the coast for the surf town of Montañita or to fly to the Galapagos Islands.
We’ve linked to all our other posts on specific cities and places if you want more detailed guides and information to help your planning further.
Day 1 - Quito
We decided to land and spend a night here. There’s a lot to do but it made sense to us to leave first and visit places in the North or West and arrive back to Quito on the weekend. Depending on what day you arrive adapt this section as you see fit.
Check out our list of the best backpacker hostels so you have a place to stay:
Day 2-3 - Otavalo
Two days and two nights here is enough to get your first trek underway at the breath-taking crater lake Laguna Cuicocha and visit South America’s largest indigenous market.
Read our two day Otavalo guide here.
Day 4-6 - Mindo
Instead of wasting time and stopping in Quito again, get a bus back to Quito and then straight to Mindo. The capital can wait for now.
Whilst in Mindo you are going to go hunting for waterfalls up in the cloud forest, go tubing down jungle rivers on grade III rapids and taste Ecuador’s finest chocolate.
Read our complete Mindo guide here.
Day 7-9 - Quito
Okay, now it’s time to finally experience Ecuador’s colonial-era capital.
On your first day get yourself on a walking tour to see the old town and then climb up the Basilica del Voto Nacional to get some beautiful views of Quito.
Your second day is heading to the equator line better known as the middle of the world, so you can have a foot in both the northern and southern hemisphere at the same time.
On day three take the cable car up to the summit of Volcano Machachi for more insane views of the city and then if you’re brave enough, trying guinea pig – a local delicacy. The capital is one of the best places to try it if you’re interested.
Day 10-11 - Secret Garden Cotopaxi
Book yourself into the Secret Garden Hostel for two nights and get treated to one of the best hostel experiences in all of South America.
It’s also one of the best ways to see the National Park and experience the stunning Cotopaxi Volcano.
Whilst staying at Secret Garden, you have two full days to hike any of the 3 mountains found in the park, including Cotopaxi itself. And, everything you need to know about booking and staying at Secret Garden Cotopaxi can be found here.
Or if you want to visit by yourself, we’ve outlined a bunch of tours and other ways of getting to Cotopaxi here:
Day 12 - Travel To Latacunga
Finish up your morning at Secret Garden with one final trek into the National Park, enjoy their delicious homemade soup for lunch, and then catch the bus to Latacunga. It’s a fairly basic town with hardly anything going on apart from the fact that this is where you will start the famous Quilotoa trek.
All you need to prepare and complete the famous Quilotoa trek can be found here.
Day 13-15 - The Quilotoa Trek / Latacunga
You will need to set aside 3 full days to complete the Quilotoa Trek and a day either side for rest, recovery, and onward travel.
The 3-day self-guided trek comes to 40km in total and has you hiking down into a valley and up out the other side of it each day, ending up at the spectacular Quilotoa crater on the last.
Why would you do this you madman I hear you ask? Trust us, aside from the wild breath-taking Andean scenery you’ll see over the days, it was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences we’ve ever had whilst travelling.
After 3 days of epic hiking, you are going to be beat.
Head out in the morning and see the Quilotoa crater with some fresh eyes. Then in the afternoon, head back to Latacunga on the bus and get a final night of much deserved rest and recuperation before heading to the popular traveller town of Baños. All accommodation and food options in Latacunga are included in the Quilotoa guide.
If you’re short on time you can head straight to Baños after picking up your bags in Latacunga. We chose to rest as we were shattered from the trek.
If you want to save some time here then you can always visit Quilotoa on an overnight stay.
Check out our comparison guide on the loop vs a day trip from Quito vs an overnight stay to see the pros and cons:
Day 17-20 - Baños
The adventure and backpacker capital of the country, you’ll want to spend a little longer in the beautiful valley of Baños as there is so much on offer.
But why not start with a spa day that includes a massage and hot baths all fuelled from the volcanic activity around the town? After all that trekking – you deserve it. From there onwards, you have a wealth of options from ziplining, white water rafting or visiting the town’s most popular attraction – Ruta de Las Cascadas (the route of waterfalls).
Our complete Baños guide has all the information you need.
Day 21 - Guayaquil
Guayaquil is the professional centre of the country. However, it doesn’t have a lot to offer for travellers and most locals will tell you to avoid it. Stay a night and get yourself prepared for your flight to the Galápagos tomorrow.
Day 22-29 - Galápagos Islands
Fly from Guayaquil to San Cristóbal in the afternoon and spend your first night on these famous islands. 7-9 days is the right amount of time depending on what you want to see, any less and you’re doing yourself a disservice.
There are three main Islands; Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, each with so much to offer, spending 3 days on each Island is sufficient to see the highlights. If you’re a budget backpacker or just worried about not being able to afford it then read our guide on visiting on a budget and our actual spend to help ease those fears.
Most people’s trips will end at after the Galápagos Islands but if you’re still with us then it’s time to let loose with some surf, sand, sea and nightlife. Flying back from the islands and hopping on a bus to Montañita will take up a full day.
Day 30-35 - Montañita
Maybe you feel like you’ve been up in the Andean high altitudes for your entire trip and, well that’s because you have.
The sea level tranquillity of Ecuador’s famous surf town Montañita will be a welcome respite. Catch your breath, catch some waves, catch some sun, and try not to catch anything else as you spend your days surfing and your nights dancing.
Or why not extend your trip a couple of weeks and sign up to one of the best language schools in the country, Montañita Spanish School. Our complete guide to Montañita is here.
ALTERNATIVE TRAVEL ROUTES IN ECUADOR
Whilst travelling through Ecuador and hitting the highlights is pretty easy as you’re just following the Pan American highway south, there are a couple of other routes you might want to consider and a few places we missed out.
The Coastal Route
The coast of Ecuador hasn’t established itself as a backpacking route yet but if Montañita is on your list and you love to surf, following the coastline could be a great option. Taking a trip to Puerto Lopez just north of Montañita will allow you to visit Isla de Plata (The Poor Man’s Galapagos) for a wildlife experience you won’t forget.
You may miss out on some of the great towns along the Andes such as Cotopaxi and Baños but if you have the time then why not turn it into a big circle?
There are many places both in Ecuador and South America to see the Amazon and all it has to offer. We didn’t head into the jungle here as Bolivia is the cheapest place to visit. So, we put it on the backburner for another day.
But if you are only doing Ecuador and want to fit it in then from Quito you can travel west to the town of Lago Agrio, and from there into the jungle.
A quaint and colourful colonial-era town, Cuenca has a lot to offer in terms of historical sights, nightlife and cuisine. This is definitely on our list for when we return and is a good place to take the bus to Peru.
The South and Into Peru
Doing a big South America trip? Then after your final spot in Ecuador start heading toward the border. Once close to the border, your next destination should be Mancora, another wild beach and surf town only this time in Peru.
Check out our collection of Peru guides to help you get started.