Ecuador Travel, More Than Just the Galapagos: What to Do, See and Eat

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Last Updated on November 7, 2017 by

Sure, we enjoyed our time in the Galapagos Islands. It’s difficult not to when you are surrounded by blue-footed boobies dancing their way to marriage and penguins torpedoing their way through the water.

But when travelers fly in and out of Ecuador only to see the Galapagos, they are missing out.

Showing Off His Donkey - Otavalo, Ecuador
Showing Off His Donkey. Village life outside of Otavalo.

We’ve had the benefit of visits to Peru and Bolivia to help us put Ecuador into Andean perspective. Ecuador's animal market culture and aesthetic diversity surprised us. As we continue to reflect on our travels through South America, a few experiences in Ecuador – some conventional, some not – stand out.

1. Quito: Blue Skies and Beautiful Croissants

We thought we knew what a blue sky was supposed to look like. Then we arrived in Quito. At 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) in elevation, it's just a bit closer to the sky than most capital cities. Walk around Quito's old town and you'll feel it — not only because of the slight shortness of breath you might experience, but also because of the inimitable cloud-popping blue sky overhead. It's so surreal that you sometimes feel you can reach up and touch it — if only you could stretch just a little bit more.

Throw in a few parks, dramatic staircases, and a few of Quito's impressive colonial churches like San Francisco Church below, and you've got yourself a visual that you just might never forget.

The altitude certainly helped, but were the skies really that clear?

Perhaps the thin air had affected our judgment. Or maybe we’d spent too long in the smoggy lowlands of Central American cities like Managua, Nicaragua where even the dimmest of blue skies barely existed.

But it wasn’t just in our heads. And no, that sky is not photoshopped.

Beautiful Day in Quito, Ecuador
Clear, crisp skies in Quito.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Quito is also home to some of the best value pains au chocolat (chocolate croissants) in the Americas — huge, flaky, buttery, generously stuffed, and chip cheap at $0.50 a pop. While the croissants at Spicy Café (Amazonas Ave. & Roca) may not be able to compete with those in Paris’ finest patisseries, they were edible gold to us — two travelers having just spent four months eating tortillas and dry bread in Central America.

Compare rates for hotels in Quito.

2. Otavalo: Window-shopping for carpets and cuyes (guinea pigs).

Imagine our disappointment arriving before dawn at Otavalo's Saturday animal market only to find out that a local quarantine meant no llamas or other livestock would be sold that day.

Our letdown was mitigated by the enthusiasm of the cuy vendors and buyers. Cuyes of all sizes – from babies to those plump enough to be served as that evening's feast – filled the air with their squeaks. Prospective buyers looked closely, hoping to find faults and negotiate a lower price, but indignant vendors fought back, rebuffing the criticism and pretending they didn't need the business. At the universal sport of bargaining, the Ecuadorans are tough.

Otavalo's main event, however, is the handicrafts market surrounding the Plaza de Ponchos. Even though we don't often buy souvenirs, we enjoyed being engulfed in the colorful sea of handwoven carpets and wall hangings.

Colorful Cloth - Otavalo Market, Ecuador
Stacks of fabrics to choose from at the Otavalo Saturday market.

Note: The market can be overwhelming. To refresh your eyes and regain your sanity, consider escaping to Shenandoah Pie Company on the square for a beautiful piece of homemade pie. Ask the owner about her thirty years of pie-baking experience.

3. Quilotoa Loop: Brush up on your fatalism. Hang out with llama vendors.

If you are planning to travel overland through the Andes, there may be no better place to begin your “fatalism training” than the Quilotoa Loop.

What is fatalism training?” you might ask.

Why, it’s overcoming the fear of falling off a cliff on a rickety bus by telling yourself: “If it’s going to happen, it's going to happen quickly.

The buses – some with sheep strapped on top, others with chicken boxes lashed to luggage racks – circle the Quilotoa Loop, a group of villages that ring Laguna Quilotoa, a volcanic crater lake. Although the buses’ departure times are often inhumane (think 3:00-5:00 A.M), the views and experiences they afford make it all worth the effort.

Hiking the Quilotoa Crater

When our alarm went off at 4:00 A.M., I cursed it and was tempted to roll over. But I knew if I had, I'd regret it. I had a volcanic lake to visit.

After a bumpy chicken bus ride, we finally arrived at the lake's edge. The sun was just coming up and we were among the very few people there.

Hiking Along Lake Quilotoa - Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
Hiking along the edge of Laguna Qilotoa. Worth the early morning rise.

Note: If you are staying in Chugchilan (we enjoyed Cloud Forest Hostel), consider hiking back from Quilotoa Lake. The route is not very well marked as local guides conveniently pull out trail signs to create demand for their guide services. It still remains doable on your own without a guide. Ask your guest house to draw you a map and keep asking locals you meet along the way to be sure you are headed in the right direction.

Weekly Indigenous Market along the Quilotoa Loop

The Quilotoa Loop is also known for its weekly indigenous markets, with the Saquisili Thursday market being perhaps the most famous or frequented by travelers.

This small town grows exponentially in size on Thursdays, its weekly market day. In the wee hours of the morning, people from nearby mountain villages pour into town, poised to buy, sell, and trade everything from huge, squealing pigs to baby guinea pigs to piles of tree tomatoes.

For the Saquisili Thursday market, spend the night before in town so you're ready to catch the early morning market action before the buses from nearby towns begin to descend. We rose at 5:30 AM to catch the early morning trading scene at the animal market on the town's edge. The atmosphere is surprisingly intense, featuring expressive, heated bargaining, particularly between indigenous women.

Saquisili weekly market along the Quilatoa Loop in Ecuador
Early morning and sheep trading at the Saquisili weekly market.

Although Saquisili gets the mention in guidebooks for having the best weekly indigenous market along the Quilotoa Loop, our preference goes to smaller Zumbahua on the other side. The benefit of being deposited in Zumbahua on Saturday at a dark, frigid 5 AM? You get to see animals being taken to market: unruly goats here, squealing pigs there, docile sheep aligned in rows.

Then, of course, you have the iconic llama — and its iconic owner. We hung out with this woman as she turned down offers left and right for her two beauties. We believe that secretly she didn’t want to sell them.

Prized Llamas - Zumbahua, Ecuador
Prized llamas, Zumbahua Market. Quilotoa Loop.

4. Puerto Lopez: Whales up close.

Having spent a year at graduate school in Monterey, California, I associate whale watching trips with, “I’m going to spend a lot of money for a 10% chance to see a whale.”

Not so off the coast of Ecuador at Puerto Lopez.

Humpback Whale Backflip - Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
Humpback Whale Backflip – Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

If you time your visit right (June – September), you can spend $20 and be surrounded by a party of humpback whales jumping around your boat. It’s not uncommon to see whale families swimming together, with whale babies doing aerial gymnastics.

Compare hotel rates in Puerto Lopez.

5. Cuenca: Milk a goat at the market.

Goat milk doesn’t get any fresher than straight from the doe. At Cuenca’s main market, Feria Libre, that’s how it’s served. Watch as your serving is fresh-squeezed right before your eyes.

A Boy and His Goats - Cuenca, Ecuador
A boy and his goats at Cuenca's Feria Libre.

We had been told – many times in Ecuador in fact – that unpasteurized goat milk helps boost the immune and respiratory systems, making it a natural remedy for asthma, swine flu and other respiratory ailments.

Although we weren’t quite thirsty enough to try a glass straight from the source, we did try it in a cappuccino served at a creative little café in the northern Ecuadoran city of Ibarra.

It tasted OK, but I'll take my goat milk in the form of cheese next time, thank you.

Compare hotel rates in Cuenca.

6. Rural southern Ecuador: Challenge a group of indigenous women to a soccer match.

When we are on a photo shoot, we usually attempt to capture every moment. So when a group of women from a Kiva microfinance savings group invited us to their village and began a game of pick-up soccer (football), we were tempted to follow our usual form by taking photos.

Instead, we decided it was time to put down the cameras and join in.

The women — despite their less-than-athletic shoes and the burden of babies strapped to their backs – were impressive on the football pitch. Surprisingly fit and unsurprisingly accustomed to the altitude, they ran circles around us gringos.

Best of all: their smiles and laughter. It was as if the women had become kids again and had, at least for the moment, let go of life’s worries.

Team Kiva-Espoir - Outside Cuenca, Ecuador
Pick up football in the hills with Team Kiva-Espoir.

Travel Details: Accommodation, Food, Transport and Activities in Ecuador


  • Accommodation: Casa Kanela is located in the Mariscal area of Quito, but is on a quiet side street so it doesn't feel like you're in the middle of bar and restaurant mayhem. $25 for a double room (shared bath), including breakfast. Free wifi internet. Address: Juan Rodriguez E8-46
  • Restaurants: The Mariscal area of Quito has endless choices for international restaurants. Our favorites include: El Maple vegetarian restaurant (Joaquin Pinto and Diego de Almagro) for great three-course lunches ($4) and tasty pasta dishes, Uncle Ho's (Jose Calama and Diego de Almagro) for an Asian food fix (also with a bargain lunch menu), and Al Forno (Diego de Almagro and Baquerizo Moreno) for thin crust, wood fired pizza with every topping you can imagine. Our best market food experience was a fistful of sea bass (corvina) and bowl of ceviche big enough for two ($3) at Don Jimmy's at Mercado Central (Central Market).


  • Accommodation: About four kilometers outside Otavalo in the hills is La Luna. It's a great starting point for hikes and to relax. Good fixed menus for dinner ($6-7 for three-course meal) and friendly dogs. Rooms run about $18 for a double room with shared bathroom.(2009 prices)

Quilotoa Loop

  • Accommodation: In Saquisili, we stayed at San Carlos Hotel on the main square. A double room with a great view of the square and ensuite bathroom was $10. In Chugchilan, we stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest just outside the town. The staff did a great job managing large groups of travelers and were great with providing information on buses and hiking. Half board including a double room (en suite bathroom), breakfast and dinner is $10 per person.
  • Transport: Buses are infrequent and often leave early, so be prepared to rise in the wee hours of the morning. Ask at your hotel for the latest times. From our experience, the bus from Saquisili to Chugchilan leaves at 11:30 on Thursdays (market day), Chugchilan to Laguna Quilatoa leaves at around 4-6 AM, and Chugchilan to Zumbahua departs at the ungodly hour of 3 AM on Saturdays.


  • Accommodation: After getting about 200 bed bug bites between the two of us in three days at a simple pension in someone's home, we went running to Hostal Macondo. Don't worry, we sent everything to the laundromat before checking in. With a pleasant courtyard, clean rooms and good breakfast, this place was worth stretching our budget. $23 for a double room with shared bath. Wifi internet struggles in the foyer, but it works eventually if you hold a vigil.
  • Where to Eat: Chicago Pizza (Gran Columbia across from Santo Domingo Church) serves up good pizza by the slice. We also ended many a meal with ice cream at Tutto Freddo on the main square.

Vilcabamba – not included above, but worth a visit

  • Accommodation: We booked for three days at Le Rendez-Vous Guesthouse in Vilcabamba and reluctantly pulled ourselves away after a week. Each room has its own little patio with a hammock and chairs facing a garden courtyard and view of the surrounding mountains. Breakfast includes homemade bread, eggs, fresh fruit and strong coffee. $25 for a double room with ensuite bathroom (2009 prices), $4/day for wifi internet. A lovely place to relax and write.
  • Where to eat: Because of the influx of foreigners to Vilcabamba (we wrote about that in another post), there's a lot of international food choices in this small town. Our favorites included fajitas at La Terraza (on main square), trout at Shanta's Bar (or, go for cuy/guinea pig), or Mexican fare at Sambuca on the main square.

Ecuador Photo Essays

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

26 thoughts on “Ecuador Travel, More Than Just the Galapagos: What to Do, See and Eat”

  1. I have to agree… you have so much detailed info in this post. How do you do it? I can barley remember what the cost of the meal is 1/2 the time, let alone the name and cross streets! lol Bravo for having photographic memory. 🙂

    I so wish I would have been able to met up with you guys when you were here. There is a kick ass little restaurant near Plaza Fosch in Quito, called Santiago’s. You can get a 3 course meal and juice for $1.50.

    Great photos as well. How do you get indigenous people to pose for you? Of all the countries I have been to I find Ecuador the hardest to shoot people pictures. If I throw up my camera in a general direction of any of them, them all just run away or turn their backs to me… as if I’m stealing their souls. Way different, then say Asia thats for sure.

  2. You two are the 21st version of Lonely Planet. I hope uttering this won’t curse me forever. This article is chock full of ideas and choices that I’ll be referring to when I venture to this part of the world. 🙂

  3. @Nomadic Chick: Glad that we were able to provide some ideas for when you travel in Ecuador! We find that the Lonely Planet guide is good for maps and booking a room if you arrive late at night, but after that it’s just walking around and using your curiosity to guide you.

    @T-roy: If you think photographing people in Ecuador is tough, try Bolivia! We almost gave up there. You are right – photographing people, especially indigenous, is more difficult in Ecuador than anywhere we visited in Asia. We had to put our charm and photography skills into overdrive to get people to agree for us to take a photo. I use my ignorance as an asset and will ask vendors the name of a vegetable/fruit in Spanish/local language, how to use it, etc. There were some people, like this family in Otavalo, who spent ages with us explaining their vegetables and then agreed to let us take photos as well. Another time, however, we got yelled at by a vendor for photographing her potatoes. You win some, you lose some.

    The friendliest market we found in Ecuador – Feria Libre in Cuenca. It rarely – if ever – sees tourists and people were really friendly. That’s where we met the family with goats and when we went inside, the meat vendors warned us about a pickpocketor lurking around and even had security keep an eye on us to make sure we were OK. Everyone giggled when we took the camera out instead of turning away.

    I’ll add Santiago’s to our list for when we return to Quito. We keep an envelope full of receipts, business cards and such from places we like. And, even though I have a hard time remembering people’s names, I can remember random details like cross streets, what we ate and costs.

  4. Well written article that touches on some very interesting & lesser known (apart from Otavalo of course) gems here in Ecuador. Of course, there are other gems here waiting for you guys to discover on your next return.

  5. Amazing post. My mother and sister are coming to visit me when I’m in Ecuador and I’ve sent them this link.

    Question for you, I looked into vaccinations for them and it says Yellow Fever is only needed for “Recommended for the following provinces in the Amazon Basin – Morona-Santiago, Napo, Orellana, Pastaza, Sucumbios, and Zamora-Chinchipe – and for all areas along the eastern slopes and to the east of the Andes Mountains.”

    Are these remote areas or common in the south? I’m not familiar with Ecuador and given the expense, I don’t want them to spend the money on the vaccination if they don’t need to. We won’t be doing any crazy hiking or be deep in the remote jungle. Would love your thoughts on these areas.

  6. Ecuador is definitely on our list and this is what we will be using as a guide once we are there. Thanks!

  7. I was in Ecuador for an internship about 3 years ago and spent most of my time in Quito and the town of Tena in the Amazon. A moment I recall as being one of the most beautiful was driving from the Amazon jungle to the town of Banos in the mountains. It was incredible how in 2 hours we went from being in the smuggy jungle to the cool fresh mountain breeze. The scenery was also incredible.
    Quito is such wonderful town to walk around in and pretty easy to manage, however, due to the elevation I was huffing and puffing. I loved it there and would love to go back soon. Great advice and insights!

  8. @Amy, Keith & Got Passport: Glad you enjoyed this and picked up some tips for upcoming trips!

    @Robin: There is certainly much more of Ecuador for us to explore – I recently put the country on a “want to return to” list. We did go to some villages off the coast, in the north near Ibarra and around Cuenca for photo projects with microfinance organizations. But, we were only in each place for a very short time. We’ll certainly be in touch next time we return for advice on where else to visit.

    @Ayngelina: We didn’t go into the Amazon area of Ecuador where the Yellow Fever vaccination is required. If you plan on doing some sort of jungle trek or Amazon stay, my advice would be to contact the tour company or hotel and ask for specific advice about that area. But, if you plan to visit areas similar to where we were (Coast, Andes, South-central/west) then you should be fine. Enjoy your visit and have fun traveling with your family!

    @Mark: We felt like zombies the first couple of days we were in Quito because of the elevation! You do have to move slow, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia all have amazing landscapes – in a couple of hours you can go from high desert to Amazon rain forest. Really incredible.

  9. @Lauren: Thanks for your comment. It made us think about the how we represent a place through photographs and about what “modern” means.

    With the exception of the Quilotoa Loop and a photography project outside of Cuenca, we stuck to pretty developed towns in Ecuador. Our time in the sticks was actually fairly limited (I think that’s what Robin was insinuating in his comment). Ecuador’s indigenous population in Ecuador is quite large. So the Ecuadoran fresh markets (outside of the crafts market in Otavalo) and traditional dress are a part of their modern-day life.

    I think that photographers (we included) are drawn to things that are new or different for them or that are visually interesting. We didn’t take many photos of La Mariscal (a fairly modern neighborhood outside of Quito’s colonial old town) because it didn’t appear particularly visually interesting to us at the time.
    Contrast that to the sort of “modern development” we witnessed and took photos of in China. To our eyes, some of their modern buildings were interesting and unique (i.e., eye-catching). Those buildings also also struck us as representative of the country during the time of our visit in a way that Ecuador’s modern buildings did not.

    Thanks for bringing this up and getting us to think of what we’re drawn to photographically and why we choose to show the images from a country that we do.

  10. I love your photos, but at the same time there are not many of modern Ecuador, just the sticks. While that makes for more interesting (nat geo) type photos, I have to imagine the country has some pretty modern places too.

  11. Wonderful post! I’ve often wondered about South America and of course Peru. Although my upcoming trip is to Asia, I’m dying to find a way to include South America as well. I especially love your photos! Good luck with your continued travels!!

  12. wow, the whale shots are amazing!
    I´ve only been to Guayaquil, which was great! looking forward to discovering much more when I go back! (my sister lives there)

  13. I just wanted to thank you for writing about Ecuador (and also, not about the Galapagos).
    I just came back to Norway after 7 months in Ecuador and I think it’s really sad how little people know about this beautiful country. For me, every day was a great experience and it feels good to know the places and to be able to recommend to others that they should go. It definitely should be written a lot more about this amazing place and I’m sure that more people would go and fall in love 🙂

  14. @Spunky Girl: Glad you enjoyed the photos and hope you find a way to visit South America as well. Very different from Asia and important to see both continents, I believe.

    @Adriana: We visited Guyaquil for a short visit since my mother’s cousin lives there. She took us around to see the new Malecon. The city is becoming nicer, but as you see our favorite spots in Ecuador were outside Guyaquil. Hope you get to explore more of the country during your next visit!

    @Anneth: Seven months in Ecuador – it’s fantastic you were able to spend so much time there! Even though we spent close to two months in Ecuador, we still feel like there is so much more of the country to see and more to learn about its people. We hope that sharing photos and pieces like this encourage people to visit and see more than just the Galapagos.

  15. Love, love, love Ecuador. Thanks for the post. The Quilotoa Loop was one of my favorite spots. We met so many friendly people and had a lot of fun adventures. Our bus from Saquisili to Isinlivi got stuck in the mud and we joined in with the locals to dig it out. In a funny moment, one of the locals suggested that because Jeff was so much bigger and taller than everyone else that he just pick up and move the bus. We also stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest, and found the people there to be lovely. I think we were the only guests at the time, and they invited us to a birthday party where they kept giving us food and rum. It was really fun. It was also Carnaval when we were there, so there were constant water fights. We were planning to hike from Chugchilan to Quilotoa (the day before we’d hiked from Isinlivi to Chugchilan—beautiful and a great way to meet locals along the way) but after the party we weren’t quite up to it. Jose Luis at the Hostal instead offered to drop us off as he headed to market, and he wouldn’t take a dime from us. So nice. In Isinlivi, I recommend Llullu Llama as a place to stay. Anyhow, that was long… Thanks for giving me reason to reminisce about one of my favorite spots!

  16. Lovely to read your report on Ecuador. I lived in the country for over a year, and have returned numerous times since. and as soon as I saw “Croissant” in the title I was hoping you would mention Spicy on Amazonas! I love their chocolate filled croissant. Whenever I’m in Quito I have one. I would have loved for you to cover two cities close to my heart: Baños and Puyo. It’s hard to visit all of the loved areas of a country in one visit. Just be sure to add those areas to your to-see list next time you’re in Ecuador.

  17. @Theresa: We recommend the Quilatoa loop and Cloud Forest Hostel all the time to other travelers. The family running the hostel make you feel like home, even when it’s packed. And, the experience on the buses and almost falling off the cliffs going from village to village is…well, an experience. Good memories!

    @Beth: Dan discovered the chocolate croissants at Spicy on Amazonas our first week in Quito and I think we were there about 3-4 times a week. We picked up about six of them to take with us when we left Quito for good. We will definitely add Baños and Puyo for our next visit to Ecuador. Thanks for the advice!

  18. Thank you for talking about Ecuador and not the Galapagos. I just returned from three weeks there associated with my work and never saw them. That being said, I had a chance to explore some of the most beautiful vistas that mother nature has to offer!! My trip took me from just outside Puerto Rico (close to Puerto Lopez) were we stayed at the Hosteria Ecológica Azuluna. Five days of living just off the coast, in a ‘rain forest’ exploring the coast was wonderful. We then moved up to Cuenca, a substantial city that still feels like a small colonial town. I stayed at the the Mocando – room with a private bath – there are one or two. The staff was wonderful, the location just off the main square by a few blocks and a good pizzaria right across the road!

    Finally I ended up in Quito where I stayed at the Casapaxi, a wonderful guest house just outside of the touristy area, Mariscal. Centrally located and high on the slopes of the valley, the place offered amazing vistas of Cotopaxi, the famous volcano.

    All in all, Ecuador is small enough to see substantially in a few weeks, enchanting, economical and most importantly, friendly. I encourage people who are looking for a cross between the ‘cultural’ with the environmental, to give Ecuador a try.

  19. @Catherine: Thank you so much for your comment. Sounds like you had a full experience in Ecuador. It’s obviously possible — some might even say recommended — to visit Ecuador on its own, without necessarily feeling obliged to visit the Galapagos. In Cuenca, we stayed at the Mocando as well. Turned out to be a relief visit, because just days before we stayed with a man who ran a bed bug-infested guest house in Cuenca. And we ate at the pizzeria across the street. It was called New York, I believe (not to be confused with the much larger Chicago pizza in town).

    Casapaxi sounds great. We’ll have to look it up on our next time through Quito.

    Finally, I believe you’ve made a great case for visiting Ecuador. And I really like the the way you’ve summed it up in the cross between the cultural and the environmental. Could not have said it any better.

  20. I may be one of the few travelers who visited Ecuador without a trip to the Galapagos! It’s something I decided to save for a separate trip. I didn’t make it to all of the places on your list, but this gave me some inspiration for some more stops to add whenever I do go back!

  21. @Jon: Very happy to hear this! Glad you enjoyed your time in the Quilatoa loop and La Luna – very special places.

    @Ellen: We also left Ecuador with a long list of places we wanted to still visit, like the Amazon region. Glad that this post sparked some ideas for your next visit, whether you visit the Galapagos or not.

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