The Complete Three-Week Ecuador Backpacking Itinerary & Route

Following the Andes mountain range south from Quito to Baños is the most popular travel route in Ecuador. Here it is, all planned into the perfect three-week backpacking itinerary with some alternative suggestions for how to adapt it at the end.

Contents

Day 1-2 -Quito

Day 1 - Historical Centre Walking Tour & Climbing The Basílica del Voto Nacional

Quito’s historical centre is filled with museums, European architecture, and cultural attractions that are more than enough to keep you entertained for a full day.

 

The best way to see the city is on the free walking tour. The tour takes you to the main sights in the historical centre including Plaza Grande – the main square which includes the presidential palace, and La Ronda – the popular tourist street filled with galleries, craft shops, and restaurants.

 

Then after the tour it’s time to climb the Basílica del Voto Nacional. The Basílica is the largest neo-Gothic church in South America and climbing to its tallest tower provides one of the best views of the city.

 

For more great things to do in Quito including chocolate tasing, museums, and visiting the equator, head to the guide below:

 

 

Day 2 - Riding The Teleferico & Hiking Volcano Pichincha

The Teleferico is Quito’s cable car that takes you from 3000m at the edge of the city, all the way to 3495m at the summit of Volcano Pichincha.

 

At the top, you will have unobstructed beautiful views of the city, as well as the many volcanoes surrounding Quito, but wrap up warm as it’s cold and windy at that height. It’s also up here where you can find Quito’s famous ‘Swing at the End of the World’ so jump on and get a photo for Instagram.

 

Then if you’re ready, it’s time to start your first trek in Ecuador. One day in Quito may not have been enough to have acclimatised to the altitude, so feel free to skip this if you aren’t feeling comfortable.  

The start of the Volcano Pichincha hiking trail is found once you get off the Teleferico and is clearly signposted.

 

Follow the path to the swing and then keep going. The trek takes roughly 3-4 hours (10km in total) and will take you up to 4,784 meters so come prepared. The views from the top are insane and worth the effort. This is a great acclimatisation hike if you are planning to do further treks in the country such as Cotopaxi Glacier which goes up to 5000m.

 

Our complete guide to the capital where these 2 days are broken down into a more detailed itinerary can be found here:

 

 

If you decide to skip the trek, then come back down to the historical centre to try Ecuador’s famous chocolate. We recommend The Kallari Cafe or Republic de Cacao.

 

Or if the chill of high altitude has got to you, head to La Ronda for a cup of the local drink canezalo – a spiced hot drink made by boiling water with cinnamon and sugar and mixing them with a local sugar cane alcohol.

 

If you’re hungry, La Casa Los Geranios is a restaurant along La Ronda to check out, known for serving traditional Ecuadorian dishes with flair. Can Ferran Restaurante is another place to try and the Trip Advisor reviews rave about the canezalo

 

If you are looking to sample some traditional Ecuadorian food then try the hearty soup, Locro de Papa, with a side of empanadas. Or if you are feeling brave, try deep-fried guinea pig which is a specialty in Ecuador.

Day 3-4 - Otavalo

Day 3 - Otavalo Market

Otavalo is a 2–3-hour journey north of Quito by bus and there are two reasons to come here: the huge indigenous market the town is famous for, and the crater lake hike at Laguna Cuicocha. 

 

Otavalo’s market is the oldest and largest Indian handicrafts market in all of South America.

 

It spreads out from the main square for blocks in each direction and sells everything from blankets and ponchos to jewellery, instruments, leather goods, spices, and more, all made by the talented indigenous craftspeople who live in the region. Saturday is the best day to visit as the animal market also joins the main one.

 

If you have time you can also fit in a visit to Waterfall Peguche, a short trek from the town centre along a beautiful nature trail.

 

For more information on the best things to do in Otavalo, read our guide:

 

 

Day 4 - Laguna Cuicocha Hike

If you decided to skip the hike in Quito, then now’s the perfect time to start. 3 days is more than enough time to acclimate to Ecuador’s higher altitude.

 

Laguna Cuicocha, which translates to Lake of Guinea Pigs, was given this name due to the shape of the two islands that can be seen in the middle of the lake. The lake was created around 3,000 years ago when the volcano erupted. The two islands in the middle then formed from the cooling lava and rainwater filling up the crater. A circular trail goes around the lake and you can hike around the entire thing for amazing views of the islands, lake, and Volcano Cotacachi off in the distance. 

 

The lake sits at 3,246 metres (10,650 ft). The hike can take anywhere between 3-5 hours depending on your fitness. 

 

For everything you need to know about getting to the Laguna and hiking it:

 

 

Day 5-6 - Mindo

Day 5 – Chocolate Farm & Tasting

The lush forest ecosystem of Mindo grows what is renowned as some of the best chocolate in the world.

 

A tour around a chocolate farm will show you how the cacao plant is grown and harvested. The best part however is at the end when you get to make some yourself, and of course, taste all the different flavours and combinations made by the company! El Quetzal Café and Chocolate Tour give tours for $10.

 

 

For a great evening activity, try the Mindo Jungle Night Tour.

 

When the sun sets, the cloud forest comes alive with various species of frogs, snakes, spiders, and other creepy crawlies. Going into the forest at night is like entering a completely different world but a word of warning, this is for the biologists and nature lovers only. The chorus of frog ribbits surrounds you, your torchlight will reflect off the eyes of reptiles sitting casually in trees, and your guide will easily turn over leaves to uncover huge insects hiding underneath.

 

Read our complete Mindo guide here with even more great things to do such as tubing and birdwatching:

 

 

Day 6 - The Route Of Waterfalls Hike

Mindo is home to hundreds of waterfalls and there’s a fantastic route in the cloud forest that will take you to not just one but seven of them.

 

Reaching the trek requires riding a cable car across the forest, flying 150 meters above the canopy, and from there, you have a 2–3-hour hike will take you along jungle paths to secluded waterfalls.

 

For more information on the waterfall trek in Mindo:

 

 

Day 7 - Quito

Travelling back to Quito from Mindo takes 2-3 hours so you may want to take a day here to relax. If you arrive early enough you could visit the equator line at Mitad el Mundo.

 

Or if you fancy a drink and a night out then why not jump on one of the popular backpacker hostel bar crawls on offer. 

 

Community Hostel and Secret Garden Hostel both run great bar crawls to Plaza Foch, the entertainment district of Quito. You will mix with backpackers and locals alike and have a great time dancing the night away.

 

For more on Quito day tours and hostels:

 

 

 

Quick tip – best to stay at Secret Garden Hostel so you can take advantage of their free shuttle bus in the morning to get to Cotopaxi

Day 8-9 - Cotopaxi National Park

Time to get treated to one of the best hostel experiences in all of South America.

 

Booking a two-night stay at Secret Garden Cotopaxi Hostel is the best way to see the National Park and experience the stunning Cotopaxi Volcano. The hostel sits directly opposite the volcano and the views are unrivalled. 

 

For $95, you get three meals a day and your accommodation along with two guided hikes. Great value for money. 

 

If you want to stay longer than 2 days you can, or if you want to pay for extra activities you can do that as well. You have two full days to hike any of the 3 mountains found in the park, including climbing up to Cotopaxi Glacier itself and then riding back down on mountain bikes. 

 

Everything you need to know about booking and staying at Secret Garden Cotopaxi can be found here:

 

 

Day 10 - Latacunga / Travel day

Finish up your morning at Secret Garden with one final trek into Cotopaxi National Park, enjoy their delicious homemade soup for lunch, and then catch the bus to Latacunga.

 

It’s a basic town with hardly anything going on apart from the fact that this is where you start the Quilotoa Loop trek. 

 

You could try and go straight into the Loop if you want but we wouldn’t recommend it. A three-week itinerary gives you time to slow down so you aren’t rushing. Take the evening in Latacunga to pack your bags and prepare.

 

All you need to know about preparing for the trek where to stay in Latacunga can be found here: 

 

 

Day 11-13 - The Quilotoa Trek

You will need to set aside 3 full days to complete the Quilotoa Trek. This self-guided trek through the beautiful Andean countryside comes to 40km in total. The final day of the trek ends up at the spectacular Quilotoa Crater, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ecuador. 

 

This was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences we’ve ever had whilst backpacking in Ecuador and we think everyone should try it.

 

For more on the trek:

 

 

If the full 3-day trek isn’t for you then you have two options: you can skip it altogether and head straight to Baños and use these 3 days elsewhere in Ecuador, or you can visit Quilotoa town for a single day and visit the crater from there.

 

Hiking around the crater takes 3-4 hours and is a nice single-day hike if that suits you better.

 

Check out the comparison below to help you decide:

 

 

Day 14 - Quilotoa / Return To Latacunga

After 3 days of hiking an average of 13km a day, you are going to be knackered.

 

Head out one last time in the morning to see the Quilotoa Crater before heading back to Latacunga on the bus. Again, if you want to save time then catch a bus straight to Baños that evening, but we decided to find a nice hotel and rest and recuperate. 

 

For everything you need to know about Baños, start with our guide below:

 

 

  • The Best Things To Do In Baños, Ecuador

Day 15-17 - Baños

Day 15 – Massage and Spa Day

Baños is the adventure and backpacker capital of the country, and you’ll want to spend a little longer in this beautiful valley as there is so much on offer.

 

But first, why not start with a spa and massage day with treatments fuelled by the volcanic activity around the town?

 

After all that trekking, you deserve it. 

 

The town’s full name, Baños de Agua Santa, means bath of holy water. The name comes from all volcanic springs surrounding the town where mineral-rich water feeds thermal pools. Dating back to the pre-Inca civilisations, these hotspots are now home to spas and resorts that help melt away the stress of travel.

 

El Refugio is the best choice and one of the many public baths in town.  Along with thermal baths, they have saunas, steam rooms, and offer a range of spa services such as massages, mud baths, and pedicures. You pay roughly $15 to use their pools, and then any other service on top will be extra.

 

For the best backpacker accommodation options in Baños:

 

 

Day 16 – Biking The 'Route Of Waterfalls' And Visiting Pailon Del Diablo

A single main road winds its way through the Baños Valley, with waterfalls dotted at almost every corner and bend on the way. This road is known as the ‘Ruta de las Cascadas’ or ‘Route of Waterfalls’ and it’s perfect for riding down on a bicycle. 

 

The best stop along the route is Pailon del Diablo, an insanely powerful waterfall that plunges 61 metres (200ft) into a pool of powerful rapids. With bridges and paths running through the gorge, and multiple platforms and viewpoints, this is an incredible natural wonder not to be missed.

 

 

Our complete route guide has all the information you need on where to rent bikes and where to stop:

 

 

Day 17 – White Water Rafting

You can’t visit the adventure capital of Ecuador without doing one of the many activities on offer. You can go waterfall rappelling, mountain biking or hiking, but we decided to go for white-water rafting.

 

We booked with Geotours which cost $30 for a half-day rafting trip which included transport, lunch, and pictures and videos of the day.

 

Then in the evening, it’s time to enjoy another night out. The nightlife in Baños is all contained to pretty much one street so you won’t be able to miss it. Start with some drinks at your hostel, grab a crew and head out to Calle Eloy Alfaro where all the bars are located. Everyone in town ends up partying in ‘The Leprechaun’ by the end of the night – nice and easy! 

 

For more information on all of these activities in Baños including restaurant and transport guides:

 

 

Day 18 - Travel Day To Montañita

The journey to Montanita is a long one – a 7–8-hour bus to Guayaquil then 3 hours further to Montanita.

 

But best to get it all done in one day because you’ll soon be surfing and partying by the beach. Feel free to make the stop-off in Guayaquil if you want, but it isn’t the best town for backpackers.

Day 19-21 - Montañita

The sea level tranquillity of Ecuador’s famous surf town Montañita will be a welcome respite from the high altitude of the Andes.

 

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. Montañita also has some of the best language schools in the country and many of them offer surf and Spanish lesson combos. 

 

This is the perfect place to extend your trip for a week or two!

 

Our complete guide Montañita including Spanish schools, surf tips, and nightlife guide can be found here:

 

 

Backpacking Ecuador - Alternative routes

Whilst travelling through Ecuador and hitting the highlights is easy when following the Pan American highway south, there are a couple of other routes you might want to consider after Baños: 

Galapagos Islands Backpacking

After Baños, you can travel to Guayaquil and stay the night before flying out to the Galapagos Islands early the next morning.

 

Whilst the Galapagos Islands aren’t a huge backpacker destination due to the cost, they are still accessible and can be done on a budget relatively speaking. 

 

We visited for a week and spent $900 but you can go for 5 days and keep your spend below $700.  

 

If you want to add this once in a lifetime visit to your Ecuador backpacking trip, then our guides have everything you need:

 

 

 

And if you want to turn this itinerary into a full month with the Galapagos Islands included, then we’ve planned that out as well:

 

 

Cuenca

If Montañita seems like too much of a journey from Baños or you just want to continue south and on into Peru, then Cuenca is the next best option. Cuenca is a quaint and colourful colonial town and has a lot to offer from historical sights, nightlife, and cuisine. This is on our list for when we return to Ecuador someday soon. 

 

It also works well if you wish to carry on into Peru over land. Check out our Peru itineraries here to see how they work together:

 

 

For more South America backpacking routes and itineraries, follow the links below:

 

 

How Much Should I Budget For Backpacking Ecuador?

With everything included – hostels, food, and activities – you should budget between $30-40 a day whilst backpacking Ecuador.

 

Here’s a breakdown:

Average Cost (Per Day) Monthly Spend
Accommodation
$8-10
$240-300
Food
$6-10
$180-300
Transport
$5
$40
Activities
$10-15
$300-450
Total
$31-40
$930-1,200

So, for a three-week itinerary, budget $651 on the low end and $840 at the high end.

 

We always think it’s better to be on the safe side, so for three weeks backpacking in Ecuador, we recommend taking around $900.

 

There will always be a tour that takes your fancy at the last minute, or an extra night out, or meals out in excellent restaurants. No one wants to eat at markets twice a day for a whole month, no matter how excellent the food is.

 

For more on budgeting whilst backpacking around Ecuador or South America, check out the posts and budget breakdowns here:

 

 

For more South America backpacking itineraries, check out the posts below: