For many people, Ecuador has it all – coastal landscapes, lush jungles, stunning waterfalls and breathtaking mountains. This South American country straddles the equator on the west coast, promising sun-filled days for most of the year. For many travelers, Ecuador is a legendary dream. A single trip brings you experiences in the Amazon jungle, Andean foothills, and Galapagos Islands.
At an elevation of 2,850 meters, the capital of Quito immerses travelers in its rich Spanish heritage. Here, Spanish colonial quarters remain intact, decorated with 16th- and 17th- century architecture that includes palaces, churches, and offices. While travelers from all over the country enjoy the beauty of towns and cities, one thing draws adventure lovers of all kinds to Ecuador – hiking the Andes.
The Andean foothills and peaks are dramatic and diverse. You can choose to traverse the world’s tallest volcano or scramble down into a vast crater. Hikes start off as gentle walks to help you acclimatize, then sets you off to probably the best hike of your life. From grassland panoramas to forests nestled in the clouds, here are some of the best hikes in Ecuador that will inspire you to strap on your boots and head for the mountains.
You can’t talk about hiking in Ecuador and not begin with the world’s highest active volcano – Volcan Cotopaxi. This natural marvel is also Ecuador’s most photographed landmark, and it’s easy to see why. Easily towering over the rest of the Andean peaks, Volcan Cotopaxi can be seen from miles away, characterized by its snow-capped peak in certain times of the month.
You might think that scaling the world’s highest active volcano is impossible, but this is actually one of the most popular excursions in Ecuador. Volcan Cotopaxi sits in the Cotopaxi National Park, which also grants visitors free entrance. It’s a few hours away from Quito, and you need to hire a guide to get to the summit at 5,000 meters.
Most hikes end at the lodge more than halfway to the summit. There will be regular warnings on volcanic activity and will determine if you will be allowed to head to the summit.
A day hike on Cotopaxi, but with the vastness of the landscape, it’s advisable to spend a day or two at the top. Secret Garden Cotopaxi is popular among travelers, while its sister hotel, Secret Garden Quito, can arrange for transportation and tours to and from the city. It’s also possible to pitch your own tent and go camping on the lodge grounds.
Cotopaxi can be climbed throughout the year, but the best climbing is December to January for winter scenery and July to August for clearer days.
While you’re at the Cotopaxi National Park, might as well do your acclimatization climb at Volcan Rumiñahui. Dwarfed by Cotopaxi, most people tend to ignore this smaller but no less breathtaking hiking destination. This volcano is long extinct with the highest point at 4,700 meters. While not as popular, Rumiñahui still sees a lot of foot traffic since there is no permanent snow and the route is no harder than a tough scramble. Not a lot of international travelers do the climb at Rumiñahui, however, which means they miss fantastic end views of El Corazón, Los Ilinizas, Sincholagua, and Cotopaxi.
The northern town of Otavalo is famous for weekend markets that attract locals and foreigners. While most tourists enjoy this shopping destination, one hour away is another hiking trip worth taking.
Lake Cuicocha is a crater lake that makes an excellent day hike that will take around 4 hours. There is a clearly marked 4-kilometer path around the crater for an easy stroll before heading back to town. There are some minor ascends and descends along the way, but the glistening lake, flowers, birds, and butterflies make a dreamy and relatively relaxing hike. It’s advisable to start the hike early in the morning as the sun gets extremely hot towards noon. However, the weather can quickly turn, too, so make sure to bring a light rain jacket in case a shower passes by during your hike.
If you’re looking for a bit more of an immersive experience, do a multi-day trek at the Quilotoa loop and get to see rural Ecuador. You can get to the loop from Latacunga, a town in Ecuador’s Cotopaxi province. From here, you can take a bus and walk any direction of the loop. Along the way, there are small guest houses that offer accommodations and meals so you can complete the entire 200 kilometers of the trek.
The paths are a bit more rugged and less manicured. It’s a quiet trek where you pass by more locals than tourists. While you can always find food and water, everything else you will need, you will have to carry around with you. This is the real Ecuador.
As you go through the loop, you will get to see patchwork farms covering the area’s mountainous landscape of peaks, canyons, and valleys. The highlight of the trek is the Laguna of the Quilotoa crater. The water is always a deep shade of blue, and a welcome view after hours of walking along the loop.
A trek to Rucu Pichincha is perfect for those who don’t have enough time to make longer excursions. The site is a mere taxi ride away from Quito, Rucu Pichincha is the first peak accessible from the TelefériQo and can be reached after about a three-hour climb. The climb up brings you through mostly grasslands and meadows of wildflowers, accompanied by birds and rabbits. Hiking Rucu Pichincha brings you to around 4,700 meters at its highest peak. This is also a good acclimatization trek for you to get
This is also a good acclimatization trek before you head to harder hikes like Cotopaxi. When the weather is clear, you can see views of the city below. On cloudier days, you can walk through clouds as you trek up and around the summit.
El Cajas National Park is just outside of Cuenca, Ecuador. There is actually a lot to see and do in the town (aside from staring at Panama hats), as well as plenty of other day trips around Cuenca too.
El Cajas itself is actually a little isolated and creates an eerie feel with its silence, rolling hills, running water, and occasional fog, but the hike peaceful, serene, and more refreshing than exhausting. The landscape at Cajas is a bit different from the rest of the scenery you will find in Ecuador – towering rock cliffs, grassy shrubs, and countless Lagunas and lakes throughout the entire area. As with all national parks in Ecuador, entrance is free and you can find your own way around the park. It’s advisable to hire a guide, however, to find the best paths and learn about the history of the area. Trails are not well-marked, so getting lost is a common issue among tourists.
Camping is allowed in the area, but the weather is known to change within seconds. There are several hostels in Cuenca that you can use as a jump-off point before taking a trip to the park.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!