There’s a saying in Ecuador that you can have breakfast on the coast, lunch in the Andes, and dinner in the Amazon. This isn’t just a saying – within this tiny country, you’ll find tons of diversity, every climate you can think of, from the tiniest of villages to sprawling cities in Ecuador, all within just miles of each other.
Planning your own visit to the mountains, beaches, towns, and cities in Ecuador? After living in Ecuador for more than two years, these are what we consider to be the best cities in Ecuador for your ultimate Ecuador itinerary.
Best Cities in Ecuador
Ecuador is an increasingly urban country, with cities stretching out their bounds across the country. You’ll find bustling cities around the country, though Guayaquil on the coast and Quito in the Andes Mountains are the most prominent cities in Ecuador. As an international traveler, you’ll likely travel through one of these cities to enter the country.
This list of the best cities in Ecuador for travelers includes big and small cities of particular interest to visitors. You’ll find everything from small towns in some of the country’s most beautiful and unique spots to the biggest and most bustling cities, with enough to keep travelers busy for weeks.
Quito is by far the most impressive city in Ecuador and one of the best cities in Latin America for travelers. I might be biased – I called Quito home for more than two years, after all – but there is so much to see and do here that you certainly don’t want to miss this incredible and vibrant city.
Old Town Quito is an impressive living monument to Ecuador’s history and is well known as the most extensive and best-preserved historic centers in Latin America. You can easily spend at least an entire day exploring this neighborhood – it is one of the best things to do in Quito.
You’ll also want to enjoy the incredible topography of Quito – wedged between high mountains and volcanoes, you can see up to five snow-capped volcanoes from the top of the TelefériQo cable car and riding to the top of Pichincha volcano via this cable car is a must when visiting.
Quito is also an excellent spot to base yourself for a shorter trip to Ecuador, as easy day trips from Quito can bring travelers to some of the country’s most impressive attractions and areas. Within a short distance, you’ll find cities and towns in the Amazon Rainforest, the cloud forest, and the rest of the impressive Andes mountain range.
While you’ll find plenty of hiking options around Quito – Cotopaxi, Pasochoa, and Rucu Pichincha volcanoes are famous climbs – you’ll also find unique markets, waterfalls, cultural events, and much more.
Named for the bubbling hot springs, heated by volcanic activity, that surround the city, Baños is both a spa town and a destination for adventure sports, giving travelers the best of both worlds when visiting.
Some of the most popular activities in Baños include canyoning – which involves repelling down a series of waterfalls on a thrilling (though safe!) journey – as well as white water rafting, bungee jumping, and paragliding. You’ll also find countless waterfalls outside of town that you can visit by bike or taxi.
However you’d prefer to travel, make sure to visit the famous Pailón del Diablo waterfall, known in English as The Devil’s Bathtub, for how the waterfall shoots down into a narrow canyon. It’s the most famous and impressive waterfall in Ecuador.
Just around three and a half hours south of Quito, Baños is a popular day trip destination, though you’ll get much more out of a trip if you’re able to spend at least two or three days here.
Best known as the home to the sprawling Otavalo Market, the tiny city of Otavalo is one of the most popular cities in Ecuador for international visitors. Located just a few hours north of Quito, travelers can easily visit Otavalo as part of a guided excursion to Otavalo – or independently – in just a day.
However, don’t write off Otavalo as just a great day trip destination. Nestled in the heart of the highlands, Otavalo is home to spectacular scenery and natural beauty that has enough to keep a visitor busy for days.
Don’t forget to visit the stunning Peguche waterfall just outside Otavalo and the stunning Cuicocha Crater Lake. Cuicocha is an ancient volcano – one of Ecuador’s most impressive volcanoes! – whose cone collapsed in a massive explosion centuries ago, leaving a crater with an enormous lake and two “islands” in the center.
Visitors can take a boat ride on the lake or hike the crater’s rim for an unforgettable experience at this unique spot.
What To Pack for Ecuador
Check out our Ultimate Ecuador Packing List to help you pack for your trip – we’re sharing exactly what to bring to Ecuador and what we never travel without.
Often overshadowed by Baños for offering similar adventure activities like ziplining and canyoning, the small town of Mindo, just two hours northwest of Quito, is not to be overlooked or underestimated. In fact, after visiting almost everywhere in Ecuador during my two years here, Mindo is the town I most frequently dream of returning to.
What makes Mindo so special? This small town between the Andes Mountains and the coast is brimming with excellent activities, hostels with hammocks by gurgling rivers, waterfalls to hike to, and delicious, fresh food – international and Ecuadorian – served in cool cafes by awesome locals and expats.
Favorite activities in Mindo include adventure sports, hiking to waterfalls, finding hidden swimming holes, and learning how chocolate is made (and trying your hand at making it!) at a local chocolate shop that sources cacao from the cloud forest.
Mindo is an oasis of relaxation, perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of Quito for a few days. The temperature is about 72°F (22°C) year-round, near perfection. Some visitors have loved this little slice of paradise surrounded by lush cloud forest so much they’ve never left.
Located on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest, Tena is another one of the most popular cities in Ecuador for backpackers, drawn here by the easy access to the stunning biodiversity of the jungle. From here, many travelers head out on full-day or multi-day treks or excursions into the Amazon.
If you’re looking for a trip to the Amazon Rainforest in Amazon and have a bit more to spend, consider heading deeper into the Amazon with a trip to Cuyabeno or Yasuni, two of the best places to visit for a deep Amazon trip.
Looking for the feeling of a lodge on a backpacker budget in Tena? Stay at Hostal Pakay – this charming hostel and boutique hotel on the edge of Tena is conveniently located to access the rest of town while making you feel like you’re immersed in the jungle. Hostal Pakay also offers incredible jungle tours for small groups and can organize specialized trips with private guides.
Tena is also an adventure sports hotspot in Ecuador, particularly known for being the white water rafting capital of Ecuador. Tours embark daily for rapids of all levels, meaning everyone from beginners to more advanced rafters will enjoy tours here.
The sprawling port city of Guayaquil is Ecuador’s biggest city and significant capital in South America. Here, you’ll find the center of Ecuador’s business and finance sector and one of the major international airports in the country.
What does Guayaquil have to offer travelers? Well, not much. While there are a few attractions worth visiting if you find yourself in town, like the Malecón 2000 river walk or the charming and historic neighborhood of Las Penas, there isn’t enough to draw visitors here.
If you’re headed to the incredible beaches in Ecuador, you’ll likely pass through Guayaquil – whether at the airport or the bus station. Thankfully, the bus station here is relatively clean, quite safe, and has buses to every corner of the country and every tiny beach town that is calling your name.
Read More: Guayaquil, Ecuador Travel Guide
Often overlooked by travelers to Ecuador, most of whom don’t travel south of Cuenca on their trip to Ecuador, Loja is a hidden gem city near the Peruvian border. Surrounded by national parks, rolling hills, and charming small towns, this lovely city in Ecuador is well worth considering as you plan your itinerary.
Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador and has a lot of history to show for it. The city is packed with charming plazas, churches, and colorful buildings. Don’t skip the lovely and vibrant Lourdes Lane, lined with colorful storefronts – though a bit touristy, it has plenty of shops and cafes worth checking out.
You’ll also want to pay a visit to the stunning Basilica de la Virgen del Cisne. Just outside of Loja, this is one of the most important religious destinations in Ecuador, and people make pilgrimages of multiple days to visit this stunning and significant site.
Most travelers will head onward from Loja, about 45 minutes south to the town of Vilcabamba. This tiny town is home to plenty of long-term travelers and expats, drawn here by the lower cost of living, perfect year-round temperature, and natural beauty. You’ll find plenty of cute cafes and restaurants, breweries, yoga studios, spa retreats, and much more.
Head out of Guayaquil and directly to the coast as soon as possible – Salinas is a great first stop and one of the favorite cities in Ecuador on the beach. While there aren’t many true cities (rather than towns or villages) along the coast of Ecuador, Salinas is one of the largest and nicest, making it an extremely popular beach vacation spot for Ecuadorians.
Visitors can enjoy the many amenities here for tourists and travelers: you’ll find countless places to stay – at all price ranges – great restaurants, and of course, the charming malecón walkway along the ocean. Salinas is busy during the high season, from November through April, though it empties out the rest of the year.
If you’re looking for more of a beach town rather than a small city like Salinas, there are countless great options in Ecuador – doing a proper tour of them all would take at least a month or two!
Favorite beach towns in Ecuador include Canoa, Mompiche, Ayampe, and Puerto López, though you’ll find each backpacker who has taken their own trip up the coast will hotly debate the best coastal towns and villages.
Read More: Salinas, Ecuador: Ultimate Travel Guide
Located just a few hours south of Quito, Latacunga isn’t a tourist hotspot by any means. There isn’t much to Latacunga as a city in Ecuador to draw visitors and keep them in town, other than a few pretty and historic buildings around the town’s main square and market.
However, Latacunga is the perfect base for exploring some of Ecuador’s most beautiful natural wonders.
Latacunga sits just south of Cotopaxi Volcano, one of Ecuador’s most stunning natural spots and a must-visit destination for travelers to the Andes. Though my top recommendation for Cotopaxi visitors is The Secret Garden Cotopaxi (by far my favorite hostel and boutique hotel anywhere), Latacunga makes an excellent base for exploring the National Park, or an overnight after climbing the volcano.
Latacunga is also the start of the famed Quilotoa Loop, one of South America’s most famous and scenic multi-day treks.
While visiting Latacguna isn’t right for every traveler, it’s an excellent option for adventurers and those looking to get off the typical tourist path in Ecuador. Spend your days here eating local food, visiting the market – or the indigenous market in the nearby town of Saquisilí – and exploring the natural beauty surrounding the city.
Last but certainly not least on this list is Cuenca, the charming and historic city that is a hands-down favorite among many visitors to Ecuador.
Located towards the south of the country, Cuenca is chock full of lovely colonial architecture and has some excellent day trips nearby you won’t want to miss. In addition to touring the beautiful Cuenca Cathedral, one of the country’s most beautiful religious spots, visitors can spend hours wandering the charming and historic center of town.
You’ll also want to visit El Cajas National Park – this stunning and dramatic national park just a short ride from the city looks like a Martian landscape. Plus, nearby Incan ruins at Ingapirca make for another excellent excursion from the city.
Most visitors should choose Quito over Cuenca. While you can take easy day trips or overnights from Quito to the Amazon, the cloud forest, and many other incredible spots in the Andes, Cuenca is much further from these spots, making exploring harder.
Read More: Cuenca, Ecuador: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.