Ecuador: Backpacking Route and Itinerary (2024)

Quilotoa
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Ecuador is one of my favourite countries (I know, I say that about them all). With volcanoes, the Amazon rainforest, historic cities and the Galapagos Islands, this beautiful country is one of the most unique and diverse countries I’ve ever visited. 

I visited Ecuador as part of my first ever long term solo trip. If you’ve read my solo female travel guide to Ecuador, you’ll know I was a little nervous about visiting here. While I have a lot of love for Ecuador, backpacking around the country doesn’t come without its challenges. 

Granted, most backpacking trips to Ecuador are trouble-free, but the country does have some heightened safety issues. Despite this, Ecuador is still an amazing country and a great option for a backpacking trip around South America. 

In this post, I’ve shared the ultimate Ecuador itinerary for a backpacking trip. This includes the best places to visit in Ecuador such as Cuenca, Quito and the Galapagos Islands. 

Note: My phone got stolen in Ecuador and due to the lack of wifi, my photos hadn’t backed up. This means I don’t have many photos to share. 

Backpacking Ecuador pinterest

Is Ecuador safe?

Travelling in Ecuador doesn’t come without its challenges. Petty crimes against tourists are common, the buses can be dangerous and the country is politically unstable. 

Read next: Is Ecuador safe for solo travel?

Granted, no country is entirely trouble free, and Ecuador being a challenging country to travel in shouldn’t be a reason not to go. This country has so, so much to offer. 

When travelling in Ecuador, it’s important to stick to the tourist route, check your government’s website for the latest travel advice and never take any risks. 

I spent six weeks in Ecuador and most of the crimes I heard about were petty crimes including stolen phones and laptops. 

Cotopaxi is one of the best places to visit in Ecuador.
Hiking to Cotopaxi

How long to spend in Ecuador? 

In an ideal world, I’d recommend spending at least four weeks in Ecuador. This will give you time to visit the Galapagos Islands and other highlights including Baños, the Amazon Rainforest, Cuenca and Cotopaxi. 

If you’re not planning to visit the Galapagos Islands, you could see most of the highlights in two weeks. 

How to get around Ecuador 

Ecuador is a relatively small country, but getting around can be quite challenging. Buses in Ecuador aren’t the safest or most reliable. I met several other backpackers who had their belongings stolen on the buses.

One of the common scams is for someone who is dressed as a staff member to insist your bag goes on the floor. If not, they threaten to kick you off the bus. Once it’s on the floor, someone sat behind you will cut into the bag and take any valuables. I’ve heard of this happening to several people. 

With this in mind, I would personally try and avoid using the public buses in Ecuador. 

One of the best options for getting around Ecuador as a backpacker is to use Ecuador Hop. The company operate buses specifically for tourists, with strict rules to help keep you safe. They also operate in Peru and Bolivia. 

Ecuador Hop wasn’t running when I visited the country. Instead, I booked all my transfers through my hostel at the time. Most of the time, this was a bus specifically for tourists or a smaller shuttle bus. 

It can end up costing more than a regular bus, but your safety is not worth saving a bit of money (in my opinion!). 

Swing in the Clouds at Teleférico

A Backpacking Route through Ecuador

Stop one: Quito

How long to spend in Quito: 2-3 days
How to get to Quito: fly into the city

Unless travelling into the country via bus, your trip in Ecuador will likely start in Quito.

This is one of my favourite cities I have ever visited. I spent two whole weeks here. It’s a lively spot and a great place to base yourself while doing day trips elsewhere. 

Top things to do in Quito:

  • Join a free walking tour od the Old Town and learn about the city’s history. Make sure the tour includes a stop at Independent Square
  • Head into the Basílica del Voto Nacional, a beautiful church located in the city
  • Visit a local café and try a tradition Ecuadorian hot chocolate
  • Walk across the Equator at the ‘Mitad Del Mundo’
  • Ride the TelefériQo gondola for epic views of the city, and to experience the ‘swing in the clouds’
  • Visit a traditional market 

One of the best day trips from Quito is to Quilotoa. This giant blue crater lake is about a 3-hour drive from the city, so it’s a long day, but it’s well worth it! The lake is absolutely incredible and there is the option to kayak or walk around and admire the views. 

It’s also possible to stay overnight in the area which will give you longer to explore and walk around the full crater edge. It’s also part of the Quilotoa Loop, a multi-day trek through the area. 

It’s a sensible idea to give yourself a couple of days to acclimatise in Quito before visiting Quilotoa. The lake is at 3,900 metres which can lead to altitude sickness. Spending a few days in Quito beforehand will help your body to adjust. 

If you do decide to walk right down into the crater, just be prepared for a hard walk back up. The crater is steep and with the high altitude, it can be a challenge. 

Quilotoa is one of the best day trips from Quito

The best hostel in Quito: 

Quito has several great options for hostels. I spent my two weeks at the Secret Garden Hostel and really can’t recommend it enough. The hostel has a rooftop bar with great views of the city. It’s a social and lively spot, and I found it really easy to meet people. 

One thing to note is that the Secret Garden is based in the Old Town area. Petty crimes are common here, and it’s not recommended to walk around by yourself at night.

Viajero Quito is another popular and social hostel. 

Here is some more inspiration on things to do in Quito

Stop two: Cotopaxi

How long to spend in Cotopaxi: at least 1 full day
How to get to Quito: A shuttle bus from Quito or Ecuador Hop   

No trip to Ecuador is complete without seeing the famous Cotopaxi Volcano. The volcano sits in Cotopaxi National Park and is one of the world’s most symmetrical volcanos, rivalling that of Mount Fuji.

Cotopaxi
Cotopaxi

You can visit Cotopaxi as a day trip from Quito, but I’d recommend staying at least one night to give you time to explore the park. It’s filled with stunning hikes and is also a great place to relax. Honestly, the scenery here is absolutely incredible. 

One of the best things to do in Cotopaxi is attempt to tackle the summit. This challenging hike is said to a great hike for beginner climbers. You’ll need a guide and specialist equipment, but you don’t necessarily need prior climbing experience. Most Cotopaxi summit hikes start before sunrise. 

I wasn’t in the best shape at the time of my visit to Cotopaxi, so I opted to hike to the refuge which sits at 4,800 metres. While it’s a short hike, it’s incredibly challenging when you consider the altitude. 

Other activities in Cotopaxi include hiking one of the many trails, finding hidden waterfalls and horse riding. I’d recommend booking the activities through your accommodation as they offer various packages. 

It’s also possible to visit Cotopaxi as a day trip from Quito with Quilotoa Lake too. If you’re short on time, this is a great option to see both. However, both spots deserve more than just a couple of hours. 

Where to stay in Cotopaxi:

The Secret Garden Hostel in Cotopaxi is one of my favourite places I’ve ever stayed. The hostel boasts incredible views of Cotopaxi and the surrounding scenery, and it’s the perfect place to go off grid for a few days. 

There is the option for a private room or dorm rooms. If you choose a private room, you can stay in one of their “hobbit” style rooms. It’s a really fun experience. 

There are various tours you can book through the hostel, and all your meals are included. There’s also a daily shuttle between the Secret Garden Quito and Cotopaxi which takes the stress out of getting there. 

Cuscungo is another great option in the area. 

Hobbit Room at Secret Garden Cotopaxi
Hobbit Room at Secret Garden Cotopaxi

Stop three: The Galapagos Islands 

How long to spend in Galapagos: at least 1 week
How to get to the Galapagos: you will need to fly from Quito or Guayaquil

The Galapagos Islands are the reason most tourists visit Ecuador. These incredible islands are home to some of the most unique wildlife on earth. From swimming iguanas to giant tortoises, the Galapagos Islands are truly a special place to visit. Thanks to their truly unique and incredible wildlife, the islands became a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in the 1970s. 

On the down side, visiting the Galapagos Islands doesn’t come cheap and it’s often out of reach for many budget backpackers. Granted, there are ways to cut the costs and visit on a budget, but it’s still significantly more expensive than other places in Ecuador. 

Is visiting the Galapagos worth it? In my opinion, absolutely! I had dreamed of going for as long as I can remember. The Galapagos is so untouched by humans, and it feels like going back in time to before humans took over the earth. However, if you’re not bothered by unique wildlife encounters, then it’s probably not worth the cost. 

There are two ways to visit the Galapagos Islands: 

  1. Join a multi-day boat trip 
  2. Base yourself in one of the towns and do day trips 

The best way to explore the Galapagos is by joining a multi-day cruise. These small boats take you between the islands and go much further afield than the day tours. You’ll sleep on the boat and spend your days snorkelling in the ocean and exploring various islands. 

I opted to do a two-week tour with the brilliant G Adventures. At the time, my tour was $5000. This included 14 nights of accommodation, all my meals and activities, and flights to the Galapagos.

You can find last-minute cruise deals in Quito or even in the Galapagos. But there’s no denying that they’re very expensive. 

If you opt to stay on land and do day trips, I’d recommend staying in both Isabela and San Cristobal Island. There’s a boat between the two islands so it’s easy to split your time between the two. 

If you do have the option to do the cruise, I highly recommend it. The Galapagos can be visited all year round and there’s no best time as such. I visited in September and it was the perfect temperature with incredible wildlife. 

Read next: All you need to know about visiting the Galapagos in September

I’m working on a whole guide to visiting the Galapagos Islands, but in the meantime, here are ten reasons why you should consider visiting the Galapagos Islands by cruise. 

Stop four: The Amazon Rainforest

How long to spend in the Amazon Rainforest: at least 3 nights
How to get to the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador: book transport through your accommodation

Before I visited Latin America, I had no idea you could visit the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador. I assumed you would have to go down to Brazil or Peru. Turns out, 2% of the Amazon sits in Ecuador, and it’s an incredibly biodiverse area. 

Sunset in the Amazon rainforest

The best way to visit the Amazon in Ecaudor is to book a tour to the Cuyabeno Reserve – a remote but incredible part of the Amazon Jungle. You can normally book a two, three, four or five night package from Quito or Banos. This includes meals, transport, accommodation and activities.

Most hostels will sell the tours, and you can also book directly with the lodges. I booked with Nicky Amazon Lodge and stayed for four nights. I can’t speak highly enough of this experience.

Some of the activities available in the Ecuadorian Amazon include:

  • Jungle walks 
  • Night walks 
  • Boat rides 
  • Kayaking
  • Swimming 
  • Looking for pink dolphins 
  • Visiting a local community 
  • Cooking classes

Most of the activities are included in the tour packages, but it’s worth checking this with your chosen lodge. Other lodges to look at are Tucan Lodge, Jamu Lodge and Tapir Lodge. All offer similar packages and are based in the same area. 

We got to see anacondas, pink dolphins, piranhas, and the world’s smallest monkey! 

Getting to the Ecuadorian Amazon can be a bit of a challenge. My journey involved an overnight bus ride followed by a three-hour boat down the river. It’s possible to fly to Lago Agrio to miss out the overnight bus, but I don’t think it really saves that much time. 

It’s a sensible idea to book transport through your accommodation. The public buses go through some very remote areas which have high crime rates, and are included in “do not travel” advisories.

It’s also a good idea to avoid the worst of the rainy season (May & June). The jungle is often inaccessible, with severe flooding and landslips common. 

I genuinely loved every single second of my time in the Amazon. Swimming in the lagoon at sunset is one of my all-time favourite travel memories.

Stop five: Baños

How long to spend in Baños: at least 2 full days depending on the activities you want to do
How to get to Baños: You can use Ecuador Hop or book a shuttle through your accommodation in Quito. It’s also possible to go straight to Baños from the Amazon Jungle. 

The small town of Baños is known as the adventure capital of Ecuador. Surrounded by incredible scenery and a thriving cloud forest, Baños is one of the best places in Ecuador to indulge your adventurous side. 

Home to epic zip lines, relaxing thermal baths and hot springs, endless waterfalls and exciting white river water rafting, Baños has something for everyone. This lively town is a real backpacker hotspot and is well worth visiting, even if you’re not planning on doing any of the outdoor activities. 

One of the top things to do in Baños is visiting the Casa Del Arbol Swing, also known as the Swing at the End of the World. It’s one of the most Instagrammable spots in the area (if you’re into that!). 

Other things to do in Baños include: 

  • Visit the hot springs
  • Search for waterfalls 
  • River rafting
  • Ziplining 
  • Canyoning 

I only got to spend one day in Baños for various reasons, and I really wish I could have stayed a bit longer. Try and stay at least two nights if you have the time. 

Where to stay in Baños:

I stayed in La Casa del Molino Blanco while in the town. It’s a cute little spot with affordable private rooms. 

Great Hostels is another popular option in the town, although a bit of a party spot. 

Stop six: Cuenca

How long to spend in Cuenca: at least two days
How to get to Cuenca: Ecuador Hop has a directly link from Baños. There is also the option to get a coach from Ecuador. 

Cuenca is a beautiful and underrated city in the South of Ecuador. The city is often overlooked by visitors, but it’s well worth a visit (especially if you’re heading in the direction of Peru). 

The city is full of history and if you’re into architecture and learning about Ecuador’s colonial past, a stop in Cuenca is a must. There are also lots of hikes nearby.

The top things to do in Cuenca:

  • Book a guided tour to learn more about the city
  • Visit the nearby Cajas National Park
  • Walk through Abdon Calderon Park
  • Visit the Cathedral
  • Stroll through the Central Market
  • Take a day trip to Ingapirca, the largest Inca Ruins in Ecuador

I only got to spend two nights here, but here’s a great guide to Cuenca

The best hostels in Cuenca: 

There’s no shortage of great hostels in Cuenca. One of the most popular is the Mallki Hostel. The dorm beds come with curtains (which seems to be a rarity in South America). 

Guillerminas is another popular option, it’s a lot more modern than many hostels you’ll come across in Ecuador.

Note: I lost all my photos from Banos onwards, apologies!

Stop six: Montañita

How long to spend in Montañita: 2/3 nights, or longer if you want to party
How to get to Montañita: Ecuador Hop used to travel here, but it looks like this may have stopped. Your best bet is to book through Bus Bud or your local accommodation. 

The last stop on this Ecuador itinerary for backpackers is the coastal town of Montañita. Ecuador isn’t really known for its beaches (Galapagos aside), but Montañita has recently put itself on the map. 

I didn’t make it to Montañita as there were a few issues going on in the area at the time. From what I’ve heard, it’s a real party spot and has a reputation for its 24/7 drinking and party culture. 

Beyond its wild parties, don’t miss a trip to Machalilla National Park. It’s home to some incredible wildlife including humpback whales, turtles and even the famous blue-footed boobies. 

One of the best ways to experience the park is to take a day trip to Isla de La Plata. Most of the tours offer the chance to snorkel with the wildlife. If you’re not planning to visit the Galapagos Islands, this is a good way to experience some of Ecuador’s unique marine life. 

It’s also a great destination to try your hand at surfing. 

Where to stay in Montañita: 

My Little House is a good option for those looking to go surfing, they offer courses and lessons. For something more chilled and relaxed, try Hostal Casa del Sol

Final thoughts: Is Ecuador good for backpackers?

Ecuador is a great backpacking destination, and shouldn’t be skipped on any South America backpacking itinerary. This diverse country is one of my absolute favourites and I hope to return one day. 

Backpacking in Ecuador doesn’t come withouts its challenges. It can be dangerous in certain areas and the country is politically unstable, with riots and protests common. It’s important to check the latest advice from your government before making the decision to enter the country. 

Aside from my phone being stolen which can literally happen anywhere in the world, I only have positive things to say about my experience in Ecuador. The locals were incredibly friendly and helpful, and I met some of the most wonderful people during my time there. 

It’s arguably not the best place for a first-time backpacker, but if you’ve traveled through other Latin American countries, you should be absolutely fine in Ecuador. 

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