If you’re considering a visit to Ecuador, I highly recommend it! In this travel guide to Ecuador, I’m sharing our day-by-day travel itinerary from Quito to Cuenca, with recommendations for where to eat, what to do, helpful travel tips for Ecuador, and some really unique dining, cultural, spiritual, and nature experiences you don’t want to miss!
We were in Ecuador over the Christmas holiday, for a total of ten days. This is apparently the high season for Ecuador, so expect to have fairly large crowds for the main excursions and attractions.
Because of this, we weren’t able to visit the Galapagos Islands as we’d originally planned. While I do hope we’ll make it to the Galapagos at some point, this trip was absolutely amazing even without the Galapagos as part of our itinerary.
I’d have to say it was one of the most unique trips we’ve taken (and one of the busiest!), in part because of the special spiritual aspects of the trip (more on that later in the post).
OUR ECUADOR ITINERARY
Our itinerary was pretty agressive . . . Ecuador is a big country and there are so many different experiences — natural attractions probably top the list, but there’s also so much history and culture to explore.
We wanted to experience as much as we could during our time there, hence the aggressive itinerary. But even if you don’t want to follow our itinerary, you’ll find some great ideas of how to make the most of your visit to Ecuador!
Ecuador day 1 — travel day
For once, we didn’t have an early morning flight, so we were able to have a leisurely day before heading to the airport. We flew Copa Airlines out of Orlando (MCO) to Panama, and then on to Quito, Ecuador. We departed at 4pm and arrived in Quito at midnight. A driver and guide picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel, which was about a one-hour drive.
We stayed at the JW Marriott in Quito. We’re Marriott people, so whenever we want the convenience and ease of staying in a Western hotel, we generally go with a Marriott. It was a very nice and comfortable place to stay our first night in Ecuador.
ECUADOR DAY 2 — EXPLORE QUITO
We had to be up early the next morning to meet with our guide, so we just had a quick breakfast in the lounge at the JW, which was delicious! This hotel has a really nice lounge with awesome food for breakfast (I filled up on amazing fresh fruit and smoked trout), so I highly recommend getting the lounge access if you stay here.
Our guide met us in the lobby and we were with her for the whole day. She was wonderful and we learned so much about Quito and Ecuador in general while we were with her.
Our activities for this day were visiting the Equator and Old Town. I highly recommend both of these activities while you’re in Quito!
Intiñan Solar Museum
This museum is a cool outdoor exhibit where the “actual” Equator line falls. I say actual because there is another museum just a short distance away with a huge monument, Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”), which also claims to be the site of the Equator. We learned that this monument, built by the Ecuadorian government in 1979, is in the wrong location and is not the actual Equator! It’s a huge tourist attraction, but if you want to truly be on the Equator at 0 degrees Latitude (confirmed by GPS technology), you’ll want to go to the Solar Museum instead.
One article I read about this museum described it as “campy,” and that’s probably a good word for it, but I loved it. There are little exhibits throughout the grounds where you can learn about Ecuador, its history, and the indigenous people and cultures. They have English-speaking guides, so that was really helpful.
In another section of the museum grounds, you have the actual location of the Equator painted in a red line. There are several activities you can participate in and observe that show the really interesting ways the energy on the Equator affects things, like balance and the direction that water will drain.
TIP: Bring your passport with you and they’ll stamp it for you. Having the Equator stamp on your passport is pretty cool!
Our tour guide (not at the museum but our private guide) told us more about the significance of the Equator to the indigenous people of Ecuador, and it was fascinating to learn about.
The indigenous people in this area were astronomers and very much in tune with the cosmos. They revered Father Sun (Inti) and Mother Earth (Paccha Mamma). They also accurately figured out the significance of their location in relation to the Sun and the exact location of the Equator long before modern civilization.
Old Town is the city’s historic district, and dates back to the 1500’s when it was built by the Spanish colonists after they invaded Quito. It’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because it’s so well-preserved.
Old Town is a really cool area, and you’ll find it especially interesting if you’re into history. Admittedly, I was way more interested in the ancient history of Ecuador and its indigenous people and cultures rather than the colonial history, but I could still appreciate the history and Spanish influences of Old Town.
Our tour guide walked with us through various parts of the town, and we toured several old and stunning cathedrals. To be honest, Catholic cathedrals aren’t really my thing. I appreciate the artwork and the history, but just seeing one or two is plenty for me.
But, if cathedrals are your thing, then this will be a great spot for you because there are a ton of very old and very elaborate cathedrals, many of which you can tour.
Plaza de la Independencia is a beautiful plaza that I definitely recommend seeing during your time in Old Town. There’s an amazing monument there that celebrates Ecuador winning its independence from Spain (see photo above), and for me it was one of the most memorable sites in Old Town – truly amazing craftsmanship, and our guide was able to tell us in detail the meaning behind the different aspects of the monument.
There are also plenty of little restaurants to stop for a bite. We had a delicious traditional Ecuadorian lunch with coffee, but unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of the restaurant (sorry!).
After touring Old Town, we were pretty tired so we opted to head back to the hotel to rest up and get ready for the incredible dinner that was ahead of us.
Dinner at URKO
The meal we had at Urko is one of my favorite meals of all time.
We did the Tasting Menu, which was actually recommended over the Chef’s Table by one of the staff. I’m glad we followed their advice because it was a really incredible culinary experience.
The food was creative and delicious, but what made it most meaningful to me is their respect for the traditional cultural beliefs of the Ecuadorian people relating to the Sun, the Moon, Pacha Mamma and the seasons, and how they incorporate these into their menu.
After a super tasty amuse bouche, the first few courses were served on the rooftop by their patio garden.
Before the meal began, they introduced us to the seasonal concept they use in everything they do. They showed us a diagram explaining the four Raymis. In their words “The Raymis are tributes to nature and the astral cycles, the construct of indigenous cosmovision in Andean communities, they define the agricultural calendar and indicate the products that are obtained from each season. The harvest, sowing, fertility, and flowering mark the sense of celebration of each Raymi.”
You can see why I was totally in my element here! Combining two of my loves – food with the astral cycles – was like a dream.
After our first few courses, we returned downstairs to our table (everyone doing the tasting menu sat together at the bar on the rooftop, but after that each party had its own table). The remainder of our courses (there were 11 courses to the menu) were served here.
Fortunately, the courses were small bites so we didn’t leave feeling overly stuffed like we have with some tasting menus. I thought the amount of food was just right.
I really can’t say enough good things about URKO. If you’re a foodie and/or you’re really into the energies of the seasons and celestial cycles like me, then you CANNOT miss this!
(Note: If you’re not an adventurous eater, you might want to think twice. I ate ants for the first time here — tastier than I would have expected! — and llama and Guinea pig were also on the menu.) That said, they are very accommodating about adjusting the menu to suit your tastes.
After dinner, it was back to the hotel and straight to bed to rest up for an early departure the next morning!
Day 3: Mashpi Lodge
Mashpi Lodge is an amazing eco-lodge located in the rainforest of Ecuador, and has been named one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. If you love being in and learning about nature, experiencing it up close and personal in unique and adventurous ways, and being pampered with food fit for a foodie and luxury accommodations, then you will love Mashpi Lodge!
I’ll warn you that the trip to get there isn’t the easiest, but it’s so worth it!
Our transport picked us up from the hotel in Quito at 8am (we had a private transport), and it was a three hour drive to Mashpi lodge. We had a really awesome guide who taught us a lot about Mashpi and the cloudforest, Ecuadorian culture and history, native plants and animals, and more during our trip.
We stopped along the way to tour the Tulipe Archaeological site, which is a really cool little excursion if you love archaeology and history.
If you have a tiny bladder like me, be sure to ask at the start of the drive to stop for bathrooms before they’re out of range (bathroom availability is pretty limited).
The last hour of the drive to Mashpi is ROUGH — very windy roads, that later became super bumpy. It didn’t help that our driver drove like a bat out of hell. My husband and I were both a little car sick by the time we arrived.
If you have any issues with motion sickness at all, I highly recommend taking something before you go (wishing I had done that).
When we arrived, there was a really delicious buffet lunch waiting for us. After lunch, we got checked into our rooms, attended the orientation, and met our guide who would be assigned to us for the duration of our stay.
Next up was our first outing! We did the sky bike, which is basically a zipline where you pedal across the forest (super fun!), and then a short waterfall hike, plus the chance to swim in the waterfall for anyone who was up for it (several of the folks in our group did, but it was too cold for me!).
Then it was back to the lodge to get cleaned up and ready for dinner. They have a nice bar with a fun happy hour (you can also get yummy coffee drinks there throughout the day), and an a la carte menu for dinner. The dinner was quite good, but I really wish they had the buffet available for dinner, too — it was SO good!
The attire for dinner is casual, even though the setting looks much fancier.
Day 4: Our one full day at Mashpi Lodge
They really want you to be able to make the most of your time at the lodge, so the day gets off to an early start and is jam-packed with activities.
Breakfast is at 7am, then we met our guide at 8am. We did a long hike to the river, swam in the falls (I did it this time!), and then a long hike through the river to ride the Dragonfly Gondola back to the lodge.
There was another delicious buffet for lunch, and then we had free time till 3:00. It would have been nice to use that time to walk around the grounds, but by this time I was starting to having symptoms of altitude sickness, so we took a nap instead.
At 3:00, we met up with our guide and group again and hiked to the Life Center, where we saw so many incredible native birds (like toucans), tyras (land otters), wild guinea pigs, and more. We also spent time viewing the native orchid exhibit and the butterfly exhibit, which was fascinating. There was a lot I didn’t know about the life cycle of the butterfly, and they had some really beautiful species there.
After that, we hiked back to the lodge. I still wasn’t feeling great so I decided to opt out of the evening activities.
My husband and some of the other members of our group did a night hike where they saw some really cool things, like a hummingbird sleeping in its nest, tarantulas, and glass frogs. I was really sad that I missed it, but we still had several days to go and I wanted to make sure I could be well and make it through the entire trip.
After that, it was a late dinner and off to bed.
Day 5: Our last day at Mashpi and then returning to Quito
On our last day at Masphi, we had breakfast and then met with our guide at 8am for our final excursion.
We were driven down to the hummingbird center, where we saw SO MANY hummingbirds. And they were so gorgeous! Plus, you could get really close to them to see them up close and take pictures. We saw a lot of other birds, too.
After that, it was back to the lodge to get packed and ready to go. Then, it was a three-hour van ride back to Quito. We stopped at a really tasty Ecuadorian restaurant for lunch, and then arrived back at the JW.
We took the rest of the day to just relax. We were pretty exhausted and the change in elevation from the cloud forest to Quito hit me pretty hard, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and eat at the hotel. We decided on La Hacienda restaurant, which wasn’t great and I don’t recommend it.
A few helpful things to know if you’re going to Mashpi Lodge:
- Bring comfortable hiking clothes, and preferably something that’s fast-drying because you will get wet.
- Bring good hiking socks
- The lodge provides rain boots to wear during your hikes, so you don’t need hiking boots
- Consider taking something for motion sickness before the drive to and from the lodge
- Bring your swimsuit and wear it under your hiking clothes — you’ll have several chances to swim in the falls while you’re there, plus you’ll be more comfortable getting wet
- Bring a hat with a brim to protect you from both the sun and the rain. Being the cloud forest, it’s very humid and will probably rain during part of your stay there, so just expect to get rained on and to have crazy hair during your stay
- On that note, also bring a raincoat.
- The lodge has a really nice gift shop with a good selection of gear, so not to worry if you forget anything. I bought a pair of super cute hiking pants (I couldn’t believe they had some elf-sized pants that actually fit me!), hiking socks, and a hat.
Day 6: Quito to Cotopaxi
We left at 8am with our guide for the 2.5 hour drive to Cotopaxi National Park located high in the Andes Mountains.
On our way, we stopped to tour the DecoFlor rose farm. Rose farming/exporting is a new industry for Ecuador, but in just 35 years it has become their fourth top industry..
The roses were very pretty and it was interesting to learn more about the background of how this industry evolved in the country (roses aren’t native to Ecuador!). That said, I would have been fine skipping this one. I would rather have had the extra time to spend at the hacienda where we had lunch (more on that coming up).
We did some light hiking at Cotopaxi National Park. The setting and views were beautiful, and our guide taught us a lot about the plants that grow there.
She was very knowledgeable about the native plants used for natural remedies. Knowing this is something I’m really interested in, she took the time to point out some of these flowers and explain how they’ve been used there for centuries to treat a variety of ailments.
While we were there, we also saw whitetail deer, wild horses, and a condor!
Our guide told us that to see a condor is pretty rare, as there are sadly only 80 condor remaining in the wild. It was an extra special experience not only because of its rarity, but also for their spiritual significance to the indigenous Ecuadorian people.
They consider Condor to be the intermediary between the people of the earth and the gods and spirits. In Ecuadorian art, Condor always represents the indigenous people of Ecuador, and it’s also Ecuador’s national bird.
We learned that it’s the largest mainland bird, with a 3.5 meter wingspan — that’s about 11.5 feet! I felt very lucky to have seen it, and that the gods were smiling on us that day.
Before we started our excursion in Cotopaxi, our guide got me some coca leaf tea at the little shop and restaurant at the park. This tea has been used for centuries in this area to help with elevation sickness, and I do think it helped ease my symptoms.
After Cotopaxi, we traveled to the San Agustin de Callo Hacienda for lunch.
This place was incredible! It’s a very old hacienda in the countryside, out in the middle of nowhere.
We learned that it started out as an Incan resting station. The Incans developed their own system of roads, and these resting stations were places (sort of like hotels) where the Incan royal family could stop and rest during their travels across their empire.
The original Incan structure still exists, along with the additions made by the Spaniards after they conquered the Incans. Now it’s a working farm and a hotel.
We had a lunch of traditional Ecuadorian food there, and both the food and the setting were fantastic. It was so peaceful and tranquil there; it really felt like you’d stepped back in time.
We also got to feed their llamas and alpacas! Watch out for the alpacas — they like to spit, and I was spit on twice! But it was still so cool to get to feed and pet them.
On my bucket list is to come back and do a mini-retreat for myself at this hacienda. I think it would be an incredible place to come rest, do creative work, and nurture my spiritual side.
After exploring the hacienda, we said goodbye to our awesome tour guide, Andrea, and met our new tour guide and driver, Flavia and Eduardo, who were equally awesome. Then we made the two-hour drive to La Hacienda de Leito where we stayed for the night.
La Hacienda de Leito is located at the Llanganates National Park in the Patate Valley, a remote location at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano, which is an active volcano.
We were only at this hacienda for one night; as it was just a stopping point along the way to Cuenca.
This hacienda has been restored so the buildings weren’t as old as the other hacienda where we had lunch. It was a quaint place, and our room was huge and had a fireplace. The grounds were beautiful and the setting was peaceful, with lots of birds singing.
We had dinner here at the inn with our guides, then went back to the room to sit by the fireplace and have some tea before going to bed.The food here was good and the service was very nice.
Day 7: From the Patate Valley to Cuenca
This was Christmas Day, and we started it with breakfast at the inn, then we left at 8:30am to see the waterfalls and hike.
The waterfalls here were amazing — they were huge and very powerful. We walked up and down the path to see the falls from the top and closer to the bottom. I have to say, this was an awesome way to spend our Christmas Day!
The setting here was stunning and I definitely recommend stopping here to hike and see the waterfalls. If you do the path that we did where you can see the waterfalls up close from the bottom to the top, prepare to get soaked! Wear a raincoat with a hood and bring dry clothes, shoes, and socks to change into afterward. A towel for drying off would be nice, too.
FYI, the path to the top is VERY narrow and low (we had to crawl during parts of it), so if you’re claustrophobic, you may want to skip this part of the hike.
From there, we made the short drive to the Casa del Arbol swing (“the swing at the end of the world”).
This is one of those times when a picture is worth a thousands words, so I’ll let the photo do the talking here (though even the pictures don’t quite do it justice). This was such a fun exciting experience, and it only cost one dollar! That was the best dollar we’ve ever spent!
From there, we drove into Banos and had lunch at the Samari Spa Resort. It had a nice atmosphere and very good food. And there were peacocks on the roof!
Next, we drove about an hour and a half to our hotel in Riobamba, Hacienda Abraspungo. We got a coffee at the bar and walked the grounds, which were very pretty and peaceful, before dinner.
Dinner at the hacienda was another delicious Ecuadorian meal (so much good food on this trip!), with live wooden flute music for entertainment.
After that, it was off to bed to rest up for an early start the next morning and another jam-packed day!
Day 8: Riobamba to Alausi to Cuenca
We left the hacienda at 6am and drove about 1.5 hours to Alausi to ride the Devil’s Nose Train. It was awesome!!
This railroad was completed in 1908 and took over 40 years to build. It’s truly an amazing feat of railroad engineering, built on the sheer walls of the mountain and with a tricky switch-back at the point called Devil’s Nose.
The train ride itself was such a cool experience, with amazing views and scenery along the way. The train stops at a remote village, and the native people who live in this area perform their cultural dances in their traditional outfits. It was a special thing to share with us.
There are also opportunities to explore and learn more about the history of the people and the train. I really loved this excursion.
From there, we drove two hours to the Incapira Village. We had a delicious lunch at a Posada Ingapirca, a 200-year old hacienda, then visited the Incapirca archaeological site. It has both Incan and older Canari ruins.
I love archaeology, so I especially enjoyed this excursion.
I also was enamored with the spiritual history of this place. We toured the Sun and Moon temples, and it was fascinating to learn how they used the Sun temple to mark the seasonal solstices and equinoxes. The fact that they were able to develop such a precise and accurate way to track the equinoxes and solstices is remarkable!
From there, we drove two hours to Cuenca to our hotel, Santa Lucia. This is a more modern hotel, so it didn’t have the character of some of the older places we stayed, but it was nice and conveniently located.
We walked to La Caleta for dinner and had their tasting menu. While it can’t compare with URKO, we thought the tasting menu was really interesting and tasty, and the restaurant had a very nice atmosphere.
The staff were great and provided terrific service, and did their best to work with our limited Spanish.
Interesting side note — we tried the traditional Ecuadorian drink, chicha, there (not the kind made with saliva, so I guess I can’t say it’s truly traditional). It was pretty good!
Day 9: Exploring Cuenca and then back to Quito
We had breakfast at the hotel, then toured the city of Cuenca that morning. We walked around the old part of the city, and went to the Modern Art Museum and learned about its history, which was really interesting. Next we toured the new main Cathedral, the old cathedral, visited a convent, and saw the flower market.
The highlight for me was going to the local market, seeing and learning about all the local foods, and visiting a healing woman!
My husband and I both went through the purification ritual, which was such an awesome thing to get to experience, and the healing woman’s insights on our energies felt spot on. To be able to participate in an ancient and traditional cultural/spiritual experience like that was just amazing.
Note: If you’re interested in having a session with a healing woman, at the time I’m writing this, they are only at the market on Wednesdays and Fridays. We were so lucky that we just happened to be there on a Friday!
The energy of Cuenca felt much different than the other cities we visited. It’s hard to describe, but it just had a very light and calm energy. It’s a really beautiful city with four rivers running through it and lots of walking paths and parks. I wish we’d gotten more photos here. I can see why so many expats choose to make Cuenca their home.
We had lunch at a nice restaurant in Cuenca, but unfortunately I can’t remember the name (sorry!), then toured the Homero Ortega hat shop and learned about the process of how Panama hats are made. It was interesting to learn the history and all that goes into the process of making the hats, but this is an excursion I could just as easily have skipped.
From there, we were delivered to the airport, said goodbye to our awesome guide and driver, and then hopped on the short 35-minute flight back to Quito. We chose to fly back because the drive would have been around 10 hours!
Since we were flying out the next morning, we stayed in the Wyndham at the airport, which is the only hotel on airport property at the time I’m writing this. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was for an airport hotel.
To keep things simple on our last night, since we were exhausted, we ate at the hotel restaurant. We had the buffet, and it was actually quite good!
Day 10: Travel day – Quito to home
We had a leisurely morning at the hotel. I spent some time in the dry sauna at their spa (one of my favorite ways to practice self care and pamper myself when traveling!). Then we had a delicious breakfast at the hotel breakfast buffet.
After that, we headed to the Quito airport for some duty-free shopping, then relaxed in the lounge before boarding our flight.
They have a Priority Pass lounge there (maybe more than one?). It was one of the ritziest lounges we’ve been in, but also one of the rudest. The woman working the front desk was downright hostile.
Our return flight was on Copa Airlines from Quito to Panama. We had a two-hour layover there and used the Copa lounge (not the best, but better than sitting at the terminal!). From there, it was a three-hour flight home to Orlando.
Here are a few more helpful tips for planning your trip to Ecuador . . .
- Bring sunscreen and wear it even in cloudy days
- If you’re gonna be traveling in-country, especially in rural areas, you’ll want to have your own toilet paper, as many toilets don’t have any or you have to pay for it. (We like this travel toilet paper and these travel wipes.)
- I also constantly found myself in need of a paper towel, since many bathrooms don’t have a way to dry your hands.
- We hired our private tour guides through Metropolitan Touring. We loved our guides and were very happy with our experience. This is a pretty costly thing to do, but if you can swing it, I highly recommend it. Our guides made it so much easier to navigate the country, especially since we basically traveled from the top to the bottom of the country. But more than that, they were SO knowledgeable and we learned so much from them. And we really enjoyed their company. Can’t say enough good things about them!
- I was surprised to learn that Ecuador’s national currency is the U.S. dollar!
- Altitude sickness is real, y’all! I’d never experienced it before, but it really threw me for a loop on this trip. Oddly, I was fine when we first arrived in Quito, which is the highest elevation we were at for our entire trip. It wasn’t until we started changing elevations that it hit me. If you’ve suffered with altitude sickness before, come prepared. To help prevent it, stay well hydrated. Caffeine can help as well, though it’s a diuretic and will make you dehydrated if you’re not careful with it. As I mentioned earlier in the post, the coca tea really helped me, so you might want to find some when you arrive and have it on hand.
- Be careful with your alcohol consumption. Our first night at Mashpi, we’d made new friends and had a couple of drinks with them during happy hour, then had a couple of glasses of wine at dinner. This is a lot more than I normally drink, and I think it hit me especially hard because of the altitude and it may have contributed to my altitude sickness. So just be extra careful when drinking.
- When you’re in more heavily populated areas like Old Town, our guide warned us to be alert and watch for pickpockets.
- We found the best deal on flights through Copa Airlines, which is headquartered in Panama. We’d never flown them before so weren’t sure what to expect, but we had a good experience with them.
I absolutely loved our time in Ecuador. It is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, and has so much to offer in terms of nature and wildlife, history, culture, spirituality, and more. Most people know it mainly for the Galapagos Islands, but there’s so much more to see and explore in Ecuador!
Feel free to comment below with any questions about our Ecuador travels, or please share your own experience!