Often overlooked as it’s situated between two tourist-bound behemoths, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador is an underrated travel destination in South America. Most travellers know it for the Galápagos Islands where they flock to spot giant tortoises, sea lions, and blue-footed boobies. For my recent trip, I looked inland instead at cities like Quito, Baños, Tena, and Papallacta to find a plethora of heart-pumping activities, curious wildlife, lush mountain ranges, and rich indigenous culture.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect landing in Quito as I, self-admittedly, didn’t know much about Ecuadorian food, culture, or even what to do in my free time. But boy-oh-boy, starting on day one of Ecuador Quest I went from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds and loved every minute of it. Here’s my round-up of the best things to do in mainland Ecuador:
1: Saddle up in Baños
On the second day of our trip, we hopped on a bus from Quito and made our way to Baños, the adventure capital of Ecuador. We were spoiled for choice of optional outdoor activities including waterfall canyoning, rock climbing, paragliding, and (my choice!) horseback riding. Yee-haw! This activity is made for all riding levels. We saddled up and explored the mountainous countryside on horseback while walking, trotting, and galloping with our experienced guide, José.
We stopped halfway to learn more about the flora and fauna and were led to a flowing river. José asked us to pass our water bottles and he filled it up with refreshingly delicious natural carbonated water, or “gas water” as they say in Ecuador. Natural carbonated water means there’s a volcano nearby and we were lucky enough to see the tippity-top of Tungurahua volcano as we trotted along down the mountain.
2: Swing at the end of the world
While in Baños, our group made our way by bus to Casa del Arbol for photos of ourselves overlooking Tungurahua volcano. This exact spot was made famous in 2014 by a traveller who won a National Geographic photo contest when they snapped themselves swinging while the volcano began to erupt (in case you’re wondering, it’s unlikely the volcano will erupt when you visit). It was such a heart-thumping experience to swing and feel like a kid again with the wind in my hair. And I got to snap a winning shot of my own!
Can’t make it out to Baños? The capital city of Quito also has a swing that overlooks the entire city. For around $9 USD, hop on the TelefériQo Cable Car for a 10 minute ride up the foothills of Pichincha Volcano. Rise up 4,000+ metres and follow the arrows once you hop off the cable car. It leads you to the spot where you can take pics of yourself swinging high above the clouds.
3: Join a free walking tour in Quito
Speaking of Quito, the capital city is known for its rich history, music, and culture. If you’re keen to see the main plazas in Old Town, outdoor markets, colonial churches, and maybe even find live music and dancing on the streets, this free locally led tour is for you! The tours are led by English-speaking Ecuadorians and held Monday through Saturday, 10:30am and 2:30pm in Old Town. I asked the front desk of my hotel exactly where this group meets and they handed me a map with detailed coordinates on how to find them. The tour happens rain or shine so prepare for the weather (layers are always better!) and comfortable shoes.
4: Journey into the Amazon Jungle
Disconnecting from wifi and electricity sounded like a nightmare to my millennial self who browses TikTok every night before bed, but putting my phone down to live like the local people in a lush Amazonian rainforest was worth it. For two nights we met and lived with a Quichua family who warmly hosted us in their village. We stayed in rustic wooden huts and participated in endless activities like jungle walks, waterfall swims, whitewater rafting, mud masks, bike riding, and so much more. I forgot I even owned a phone!
I loved learning more about Quichua history and culture from our host family and watched a traditional ceremonial mock wedding, danced with my group, and even tried chontacuro worms (if I can do it, so can you). Staying in the Amazon was a unique experience I won’t soon forget and it’s worth noting that you can do a 7-day version of it on the Local Living Ecuador - Amazon Jungle tour.
5: Unwind in a thermal spa
After all of the high impact activity and running around, a break felt well deserved. In Papallacta, about a two hour bus ride from Quito, our group relaxed in natural mineral hot pools with grand volcanic views. We were spoiled and stayed at Termas Papallacta, a spa lover's dream. We enjoyed the private hot springs right outside our doorstep and soaked in the beauty of nature around us.
At the resort you can also go on a leisurely hike passing by flowing rivers, waterfalls, and (if you’re lucky) a group of friendly llamas. It was the perfect way to end a memorable, adrenaline-pumping trip.