Situated right on the equator and bordered by Colombia and Peru, this South American country is rich with biodiversity. Ecuador is home to the iconic Galapagos Islands and also boasts the Amazon jungle, the Andes mountains, and the Pacific Coast. This country should be near the top of any nature lover’s bucket list.
Where To Go?
In this itinerary, I’m going to act like this is my only trip to Ecuador I will ever take and I only have 10 days to see the best of Ecuador. The focus for many people’s trips to Ecuador is to see the Galapagos Islands. 10 days is a tight window to explore the islands while also seeing other parts of the country, but you can still get your money’s worth by going to either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal for a few days and taking day trips to other islands. You could opt for a 10 day trip just seeing the Galapagos Islands, but this itinerary focuses on seeing the most of Ecuador in a small amount of time. All flights to the Galapagos leave from Guayaquil, which feels like a more modern city than Quito and has some things to offer as well.
The capital city of Quito has some incredible colonial architecture and offers a myriad of amazing day trips including Mindo, Quilotoa Crater and the intimidating Cotopaxi volcano. If you’ve never been to the Amazon or are just a sucker for any opportunity to go into the jungle (I am!), Ecuador is a great spot to explore the Amazon rainforest and as it has some of the most biodiverse places on the planet, like Yasuni National Park.
The Galapagos Islands
The Amazon Jungle
Cotopaxi National Park
The Best of Ecuador Itinerary
Day 1 - Flight - Arrive in Quito
Day 2-3 - The Amazon Jungle
Day 4 - Quito
Day 5 - Cotopaxi National Park
Day 6-8 - The Galapagos Islands
Day 9 - Guayaquil
Day 10 - Fly Home
Arrive in Quito
The capital city of Quito is a great base for exploring Ecuador. Depending where you are traveling in from, you may arrive in the evening on the first day. Take time to relax this first day and grab dinner or a drink in town. If you have time, take an Uber to the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and check out the historic city center lit up at night. You’ll have time later in this itinerary to explore Quito if you get in too late. Get some rest as you will be leaving early the next morning for the jungle!
The Amazon Jungle
Take a scenic 4-5 hour bus ride up into the Andes mountains, through cloud forests, and down into the Amazon basin. The bus journey there is worth staying awake for as the scenery changes constantly. You’ll see tons of valleys, waterfalls (including the Three Sisters), and little towns dotting the road.
Your destination is Tena, a city surrounded by jungle and sitting at the edge of the Andes Mountains. Tena has become popular with backpackers due to inexpensive lodging and discounted tour rates. The city square was busy with locals dining, buying food, or just passing through town. We even saw some members of an indigenous tribe selling handmade jewelry.
You can choose to explore the jungle from Tena, but I would suggest staying at one of the jungle lodges. Outside of Tena, there are many jungle lodges (I stayed at Suchipakari Lodge) where you can base yourself for 2 nights to best explore the jungle. Different lodges will offer different excursions, and if you are with a tour company they will most likely have options for you to choose from.
That first night our naturalist guide from Exoticca, Andres, took us on a night walk around the property on the lodge. Using flashlights and phone lights, we saw plenty of creatures on the leaves and on the dirt path. Highlights included tree frogs, a tarantula, a giant cockroach, and crazy looking spiders. Bring a zoom lens because the opportunities will be there.
My favorite part about being in the Amazon is that you have to get around by boat. Being out on the water is the best way to see the Amazon, and any trip out is always a good opportunity for wildlife viewing.
On our full day in the amazon, our tour group (Exoticca) arranged a day tour with a local guide - we had to pay extra, about $78 USD per person, but it was well worth the money spent. The first stop on our tour was the property of a local family. There we were showed how to use a blow dart gun, and we each took turns firing the blow dart gun at a target.
Later, we enjoyed some fresh chicha - a fermented alcoholic beverage - served in glasses made by the family (I bought mine as a souvenir). We finished our stay by watching a demonstration of how they make chicha. They had many authentic items to buy as souvenirs and I think it’s great to support the locals so there is time to buy something if you’d like (my friend bought a blow dart gun and somehow made it back into the US with it).
Our second stop was at a wildlife rehabilitation center where they keep animals that were injured or rescued and rehabilitate them so they can return to the wild. Here we saw a plethora of animals native to the area including spider monkeys, macaw parrots, peccaries, and the endangered tapirs (they are wild to see in person!).
Our third and final stop on our day trip was at another family’s property along the riverbank. There we enjoyed a great lunch prepared by the family and watched how they gave a demonstration of how they make pots from clay and hand paint them using natural dyes. It was really an unbelievable process and it blew me away to see how skilled they were in creating these pieces of art so quickly. They had quite a bit of cool handmade crafts to buy as a souvenir so I bought a few.
Aside from the rehabilitation center, I saw plenty of wildlife in just two days in the jungle, Highlights include squirrel monkeys, lots of caiman, bullet ants, stick bugs, and a toucan that was hanging out at our lodge one morning. The amazon jungle is a magical place that needs to be visited to truly understand the experience it offers.
The Amazon Jungle - Mitad del Mundo - Quito
Leaving the Amazon early in the morning, we took another long bus ride back to Quito, but on the way we stopped at Cuidad Mitad del Mundo, or, the Middle of the World. Mitad del Mundo sits on the equator and has a giant monument honoring the location. It’s a highly touristy area so be prepared to see a lot of people.
We happened to be visiting on a day of celebration, as an entire Ecuadorian dance troupe was putting on a performance in the main square to hundreds of visitors. Watching the cultural dances and feeling the joyous vibe in the air was the highlight of the day for me. You can read more about my experience at Mitad del Mundo here. The town square is filled with restaurants and gift shops, catered to the tourist. If this doesn’t seem that exciting to you and you want to avoid crowds, I would skip and just drive straight back to Quito.
Back in Quito, use the rest of the day to explore the city. If you didn’t get a chance to see the Old Town on your first night, I would dedicate this day to exploring it. Highlights include Basiílica del Voto Nacional, San Francisco Church & Covenant, and La Compaña.
In the evening I would highly suggest visiting El Panecillo, a hilltop overlooking the city of Quito. On a clear night, the view is breathtaking and you may even see Cotopaxi volcano lurking in the distance. On El Panecillo lives the giant winged statue of La Virgen de Quito - you can walk up to the top of it, or simply admire it from the outside. There are also a lot of food trucks that draw a lot of locals in the evenings. Early morning could be another great time to visit as the view on Cotopaxi may be clearest.
Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s most iconic landmarks. The active volcano nestled in the Andes mountain range has a peak of 19,347 ft (5,897 m) - the second highest summit in Ecuador. Cotopaxi’s last eruption started in August 2015 and lasted until January 2016. Cotopaxi National Park includes the area surrounding the massive volcano and makes for an unforgettable day trip from Quito.
My friend and I decided before our trip that this was high on our Ecuador bucket list and wanted to hike the volcano. We took a private tour with an English speaking guide that drove us there and back. On the way there we drove down “volcano road” where our guide pointed out at least seven or eight volcanoes you could see from the highway. He certainly knew his volcanoes. And he knew Cotopaxi inside and out.
Luckily we had a very sunny and clear day so we weren’t battling any weather. We hiked to Cotopaxi base camp, the refuge sitting on the side of the volcano at 15,760 ft (4,810 m). Everything above base camp was a glacier, covered in snow. I am starting to realize that hiking in high altitude doesn’t really cooperate that well with my body, so let’s just say I took my sweet time walking to base camp. Read about my brutal hike up and the rest of our Cotopaxi National Park trip Here. After lunch and a coca tea in the refuge, the way down was a breeze.
On the way out of the park, we stopped at Laguna de Limpiopungo, a lagoon on the outskirts of the volcano. We took a short 30 minute hike around the lagoon. The views of the volcano from the lagoon were beautiful and had some of my favorite vantage points to admire the Cotopaxi from. We saw some birds at the lagoon and a few wild horses driving in, but in general wildlife wasn’t too common here - the all mighty Cotopaxi steals the show.
If Cotopaxi isn’t of interest to you, there are several other day trip options that would be great substitutes - Mindo (waterfalls), Quilotoa Crater, or the Otavalo Market to name a few. You can also spend the day at your leisure in Quito exploring the city.
The Galapagos Islands - San Cristòbal
Here we go, it’s finally Galapagos time! You’ll be spending your next three days in the Galapagos Islands, but first, you will have to go through a bit of travel to get there. You will first take a quick flight from Quito to Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil. After a layover in Guayaquil, you have about a 2 hour flight before landing on San Cristobal island in the Galapagos. You can also fly into Santa Cruz island for a different experience, but my tour package included the trip to San Cristobal and I’d highly recommend it by following this itinerary. For a full review, you can read about my Top Things to do on San Cristobal Island.If you want to make your entire ten day itinerary the Galapagos Islands, then read The Ultimate 10 Day Galapagos Islands Itinerary.
We arrived in the afternoon on San Cristobal and were transferred on a short bus ride to the capital Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We received a brief tour of the island upon arrival. The harbor was a beautiful setting with crystal clear water. The main boardwalk of the town faces the ocean and is lined with restaurants, hotels and gift shops. You will notice very early on that there are sea lions everywhere, and they don’t care that you are there. Obviously keep a distance from them as they are wild, but they most certainly aren’t afraid of you here on the Galapagos islands.
Take this half of your day to walk the Cerro Tijeretes hike that starts behind the Interpretation Center. This is one of the most scenic (and free) things to do on San Cristobal. The easy hike will take you up to Frigatebird Hill where you will have magnificent views across the ocean and onto Kicker Rock. The path leads to Darwin’s Cove - the first spot in the Galapagos Islands that Charles Darwin visited. There you can look for marine life and pose in front of Darwin’s statue. We saw a marine iguana stretched out over the path, seemingly blocking our entrance down to the cove.
The trail then leads to Punta Carola beach, a very scenic beach filled with sea lions. We arrived there around sunset which was perfect timing for some magic hour photos. We walked along the rocks where we found a whole group of marine iguanas. Later we saw frigate birds flying overhead, some pelicans perched out on the rocks, a few sally lightfoot crabs, and a blue footed booby. (My first time seeing one had me geeking out - although by the end of the trip I had seen my fair share). This beach had a good amount of wildlife condensed onto this relatively small beach - a great spot to spend your first day in the Galapagos.
Get dinner in town, maybe grab a drink or do some shopping, and then head to bed since tomorrow will be another full day of adventure.
The Galapagos Islands - San Cristòbal
Today will be your full day to explore San Cristobal island. I was with a tour group so they had organized a day tour around the island hitting all the highlights. If you are not in a tour group I would suggest finding a tour in town to give you a full day San Cristobal tour, or hiring a taxi to take you around for the day. The tour consisted of three spots: The Giant Tortoise Reserve, Puerto Chino beach, and La Loberia.
The Giant Galapagos Tortoise Reserve, officially called Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, is a must for anyone visiting San Cristobal. Located in the highlands of San Cristobal, the outdoor conservation area feels like you are just hiking through the forest with a bunch of giant Galapagos tortoises. They are everywhere and they are MASSIVE. They also closely resemble E.T. - I see where Steven Spielberg got the inspiration from. You’ll have tons of great photo opportunities as they don’t move very quickly and aren’t too afraid of humans. At the end of the trail there is a breeding center where you can see baby Galapagos tortoises. This was probably my favorite part of the San Cristobal and I wouldn’t miss this activity on your stay.
Puerto Chino was a nice, picturesque beach with clear blue water, tons of sea lions, and a rocky stretch that you can climb up for a nice panoramic view of the area. On the rocks I saw several blue footed boobies and sally lightfoot crabs.
La Loberia was another beach area that had a good amount of sea lions and some decent snorkeling. I hopped in the water to snorkel and floated around with 2 sea turtles for a while. There were some sea lions in the water but they stayed away from me while I was snorkeling, unlike my snorkeling experience at Española Island where they came right up and played with us. I saw quite a few tropical fish and two stingrays resting in the sand - which was a little unnerving as it was very shallow and people were walking all around the area.
In general both Puerto Chino and La Loberia were nice to visit, but weren’t anything better or different than Punta Carola beach. Seeing the giant tortoises was the highlight of San Cristobal for me so I would suggest adding that to your plans. If you wanted to focus your trip around scuba diving or world class snorkeling, you can opt for a day trip to go snorkeling/scuba diving at the famous Kicker Rock jutting out of the sea off the coast of San Cristobal instead.
The Galapagos Islands - Española Island
My mentality while going to the Galapagos Islands was the I may never make it back here again, so I wanted to see as much as possible. And given we only had three days, I wanted to see at least one other island besides San Cristobal. Española Island is an easy day trip (albeit expensive) from San Cristobal and really the only other island you can visit from there on a day trip. It’s also one of the most popular islands in the Galapagos and was the highlight of my entire Ecuador trip. For a more in depth look at my experience, read my Guide to Visiting Española Island.
Española island is the most southerly island of the Galapagos archipelago and has a very dry climate. It’s known as a bird watcher’s paradise and is the only place on the planet where the waved albatross nest.
After about a 2 hour boat ride to the island, we anchored at a bay to snorkel. A few seconds after jumping in we saw a sea turtle and swam right up to it. About a minute after that, a sea lion darted towards us out of nowhere. It scared the daylights out of me and I immediately reached for my underwater camera. The sea lion played with us for about 45 minutes, darting back and forth, jumping out of the water for us, coming within inches of our faces and even swimming upside down in a playful way. A few more sea lions joined on our snorkeling adventure which was one experience I will never forget.
After departing the snorkeling cove, we arrived at a beach to depart for our hike around the island. Pulling up to the beach felt like a safari. Sea lions stacked the beach with one male swimming back and forth patrolling the coast and barking out at us. Marine iguanas walked along the white sandy beach. Nazca boobies and waved albatross flew overhead. This felt like the Galapagos I came to see.
Immediately after getting off the boat, we saw tons of marine iguanas basking in the sand, sally lightfoot crabs clinging to the rocks, and an entire group of sea lion puppies playing in the shallow tide pools. Our guide quickly pointed out a lava lizard and an Española mockingbird. All the wildlife on this island were super unique and they were everywhere.
We followed our guide on a 2 hour hike around the island that led us to some incredible views over cliff tops and to the famed breeding grounds of the waved albatross. Seeing these birds up close was a highlight as they are massive, clumsy and only seen on land at this specific island.
We also came face to face with hundreds of Nazca boobies - the only place I saw them on my Galapagos stay - which were some of my favorite birds to see in person. I got up close and personal with some blue footed boobies which also was a highlight. We also spotted a Galapagos hawk that was stalking the Nazca Boobie breeding grounds looking for vulnerable babies.
A day trip to Española island is a must if you are visiting San Cristobal and it was the highlight of my entire Ecuador trip. When I think the “Galapagos islands” in my head, Española island was what I pictured. You’ll be back in San Cristobal around sunset as the whole day tour takes about 8 hours.
You will leave the Galapagos this morning on a flight back to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city. It’s located on the Guayas River and feels like a modern South American city. Given it is the gateway to the Galapagos, I’d say Guayaquil is worth exploring for one day, but don’t feel like it’s a must-see destination while visiting Ecuador.
If you have one day to explore I would suggest walking the Malecon 2000, which is a boardwalk overlooking the Guayas River lined with shops, kiosks, and restaurants. Walk through the Las Peñas Historic Neighborhood and climb the 444 steps up to the top of Santa Ana hill for a great view of the city. You can also opt to take the Aerovia cable car across the river to Durán and back.
If you want to see more iguanas on your trip, head to the Parque Seminario (aka Parque de Las Iguanas). These however are land iguanas and are very easy to find and photograph. The park is also located right in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil which is very beautiful.
If you have more time, there’s a great option for a day trip (you know I love a good day trip) to visit the Manglares Churute mangrove reserve. This tour includes a serene boat ride through the mangroves, a hike in the forest to find howler monkeys, and a visit to a family owned chocolate farm to see how they make chocolate. This day trip was one of my favorite things I did in Ecuador and recommend it if you have the time. You can read about my Day Trip to the Manglares Churute Mangroves here.
Guayaquil - Flight Home
Day 10 you will sadly say goodbye to Ecuador and head home on a flight from Guayaquil.
Packing It All In
10 days is a tight amount of time to see all that Ecuador has to offer but in this itinerary you can get a good taste of everything. It's perfect for a first time visit. It will also spark ideas of what you’d like to see again when you return in the future. Quito, Cotopaxi, the Amazon Jungle, and the Galapagos Islands were the centerpieces for me and make for a once in a lifetime trip.
For me, this itinerary satisfied my Ecuador fantasies but also gave me an idea of what I’d like to see more of if I go back someday.
If I had a few more days on this trip, I would spend all of the days exploring more of the Galapagos islands with maybe another day in Quito to squeeze in another day trip to Mindo or Quilotoa Crater.
If I plan another trip to Ecuador, I would focus exclusively on the Galapagos Islands to see some of the other islands. Specifically Isabella, Bartolome, Floreana, and Fernandina.
This itinerary can be adjusted to your personal taste and the amount of time you have to explore Ecuador, but should provide a good base highlighting the must-see attractions the country has to offer.