Ecuador is one of the most diverse countries on the planet. Incredible Andean mountains, active volcanoes, Amazonian wilderness and rich sea life. Explore the country’s best hiking and wildlife on a budget with this adventurous one month Ecuador itinerary.
Ecuador One Month Itinerary Overview
We spent a month in Ecuador in August 2018. This is the rough itinerary for our trip, with locations arranged in an optimal order. Of note, we are full time travelers and prefer to keep the pace a little relaxed. We travel exclusively during the daytime and don’t mind having some time built in to relax. This itinerary could be shortened by using overnight buses for transport or extended by adding days throughout. It is very likely that you will decide to slow your pace once you see exactly how beautiful this country is. Don’t believe us? Just check out this Ecuador photo gallery.
Oh and most importantly, we have numerous specific and detailed posts on the highlights from this itinerary, which are linked below as appropriate. In other words, when you see a link for a specific part of the country, we thought that place was worth special mention and additional detail.
- Day 1: Fly into Quito
- Day 2-3: Quito
- Day 4: Quito & day trip to Pululahua Crater
- Day 5: Travel to Lago Agrio
- Day 6-7: Cuyabeno jungle safari
- Day 8: Travel to Latacunga
- Day 9-11: Quilotoa Loop trek
- Day 12: Cotopaxi Volcano
- Day 13: Travel to Baños
- Day 14-15: Baños
- Day 16: Travel to Guayaquil
- Day 17: Guayaquil
- Day 18: Travel to Puerto López
- Day 19-21: Puerto López
- Day 21: Puerto López & day trip to Isla de la Plata
- Day 22: Return to Guayaquil
- Day 23: Guayaquil
- Day 24: Travel to Cuenca
- Day 25-28: Cuenca
- Day 28: Cuenca & day trip to Cajas National Park
- Day 29: Travel to Arenillas
- Day 30: Arenillas & day trip to Puyango
- Day 31: Leave Ecuador
This itinerary assumes your intent is to continue south into Peru. If you are only visiting Ecuador and flying home afterwards, it would make sense to move Cuenca after Baños so Guayaquil is last and you finish by a major airport. More on this below. Of course this could also be done in reverse with Quito being the last stop.
Getting Around Ecuador
Traveling through Ecuador is very easy. Unlike Colombia, in country flights are much more expensive than buses, making coach transport the primary method for long distance travel. The bus system here is one of the easiest we have experienced in our travels, with most cities having main allocated terminals (usually called Terminal Terrestre). These house a number of different companies, each having a designated stall located according to the area of the country they cover. Destinations and times are usually posted on or above the window, and departures are always frequent. All tickets purchased at the terminal come with an assigned reclining seat. Prices are a little more than $1 per hour, meaning that an 8 hour cross country bus may cost $10. In short, you can almost always get where you are going very cheaply without needing to plan ahead. Because it is so straightforward, we have not added specific “how to get to” instructions in many portions of the itinerary below unless necessary. But each of the places linked with a separate post have extra detailed access information.
One note though, bag theft on buses is a real problem. We met several travelers who had their bags rifled through while under their seat. Make sure to read these practical tips to keep your belongings safe on buses in Ecuador.
Major cities like Quito and Guayaquil have Uber, and taxis are plentiful and fairly cheap everywhere. That said, there is a risk of kidnapping from fake taxis, especially around Quito, where the driver will force the passenger to withdraw all the available money from an ATM or other types of robbery. Our go to is walking, but sometimes you just need to get somewhere fast or don’t feel safe on the road. We used Uber when available, although that is not always an option. When traveling by taxi, keep an eye out for “real” taxi requirements such as an operators license sticker on the window or door, an orange license plate and two security cameras inside.
Now for reality, there are tons of “taxis” which look nothing like this description. We even used some of them, which seemed simply to be locals trying to earn a little money. Before agreeing to a ride, we would choose someone who looked harmless, often leaning towards older men or those with a genuine look. We tried never to ride with anyone pushy or the 20-30 age group. Yes, we judged them based on their looks, age, etc. In short, we went with our gut and always followed these practical travel safety and security steps.
Travel Cost in Ecuador
Ecuador is a very affordable country for budget travelers. Our month in the country cost just $73 per day as a couple, all in. That is less than $37 per person, and includes all kinds of optional activities like an Amazonian jungle safari, whale watching and hikes in some of the most beautiful parks in the country. In fact, for only $261, we both traveled between and within all dozen of the amazing locations in this month long itinerary. Oh and as always, this includes exclusively private accommodations with bath. A few more dollars could be saved by those more inclined towards hostels, although two dorm beds often equal a private room in Ecuador.
Detailed One Month Ecuador Hiking and Wildlife Itinerary:
Bike Dreams and Ice Cream in Quito: 3 Days
Quito is the most logical starting point for a trip through Ecuador. There is a good international airport and the city easily connects to most parts of the country by bus. While the city itself has charm, we found ourselves searching pretty deep to find ways to enjoy our time in this necessary stop.
The Old Town, also know as the Centro Historico, is the main area for sightseeing. While the well preserved colonial district does have charm, it also feels a little more risky than most other places we have visited which seriously detracts from its appeal. We spent a day looking at the old buildings, but found ourselves atypically hesitant to bring out our camera while walking around. And after dark, it gets downright uncomfortable. We watched a drunk man try (unsuccessfully) in slow motion to pull a lady’s purse off her arm.
After our ill fated attempt at old town tourism, we decided to think outside the box. We had a couple days in town before heading to Lago Agrio to start a jungle trip, and needed to make the best of it. Fortunately, we were in town over a Sunday, which is when the weekly Ciclovia or Ciclopaseo is arranged. This is when the city blocks off a 30km-ish section of roadway which becomes a dedicated cycleway. The route passes through Old Town, New Town, parks and plenty of other scenic areas spanning from north to south of the city. There are numerous bike repair shops and even a few tents set up along the path which rent bikes for around $2.50-$3 per hour. We found one on the south side of El Ejido Park en route.
The blockade lasts from 8:00am to 2:00pm every Sunday when tons of residents come out to bike or run. There are even hydration stands passing out free water. Make sure to stop through the giant La Carolina Park in New Town, which is adjacent to the bike route. This is where a very nice Botanical Garden is located, along with tons of sport fields and even a BMX track.
For our last day in Quito? Well, we left. We found a superb and unknown crater just north of town for a day hiking trip, which was one of our favorite things in this area. More on that next.
Oh before we forget, the most popular food in Quito is soft serve ice cream. It is absolutely everywhere, and always costs $.50. It is normally mora flavor (similar to blackberry), although vanilla, chocolate and passion fruit are also around. It’s amazing and we seriously still talk about it daily. Plus, DO NOT miss a trip to the best supermarket in Ecuador, Supermaxi. They stock a large selection of specialty Ecuadorian chocolate and coffee and have the best prices in the country. Either sign up for a tourist discount card or just ask someone in line to borrow theirs and get Pacari dark chocolate bars for $1.79.
Exploring the Equator at Pululahua Crater: 1 Day
There are many side trips that can be taken from Quito. Most people find themselves in the well trodden town of Minca or the tourist trap Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world). We wanted something more convenient and less crowded than Minca and certainly didn’t feel the need to waste money at an equator monument (did that in 2005, didn’t need it then, definitely didn’t want it again). We ended up finding the rarely visited Pululahua Park, just an hour north of town.
This is an ancient volcanic crater, now filled in and containing an array of small farms. The rim is still intact and surrounds the depression with dense green slopes. This is a wonderful hiking destination for a day trip, especially with its proximity to Quito. We spent a full day exploring the park, which has a number of short to long trails and many high vantage lookout points.
It is also possible to stay overnight at one of the small hotels in the crater. While we certainly got a lot out of our day trip, we would also have enjoyed hiking two days in a row, especially noting that the initial climb down is a real pain in the butt. If you are planning to visit, you’re gonna want to check out these detailed instructions on hiking Pululahua and how to access the park.
Jungle Nights and Wildlife in Cuyabeno: 3 Days
So this, along with Isla de la Plata further down the itinerary, is where the wildlife comes in to play (or out to play, whatever). While there are a plethora of wonderful adventures to be had in Ecuador, no other place can match the richness of Amazonia. Considered one of the most ecologically diverse areas on the planet, this far northeastern corner of the country is a stark contrast to the arid western coastline and rugged central Andean range. Cuyabeno, the Amazonian area of the country, has a few eco-lodges which make the jungle accessible for visitors.
Caymans, parrots, monkeys, jaguars, piranhas. All of the crowd favorites live in this dense wilderness. Even many of the crowd’s least favorites like the anaconda and tarantula call this place home. Our three day trip in Cuyabeno was amongst the best things to do in Ecuador.
As expected due to its remoteness, getting to Cuyabeno is a mild form of torture, but one well worth enduring. Visits to the jungle of Cuyabeno typically depart from the nearby town of Lago Agrio, which is simply a necessary stop on a long road to nowhere. Since you are certainly going to work in some time in Amazonia, you’ll want to know what to expect (to find in your cabin). It’s always better to be prepared. This is the most expensive activity on this itinerary, but well worth the added price tag. Our three day all inclusive trip cost $250 per person.
Epic Trekking on the Quilotoa Loop: 3 Days
Every South American trip needs at least one multi-day trek, and Quilotoa Lake offers the prettiest and most economical option in Ecuador. This is a famous trek with South American backpackers for many reasons, with scenery, challenge and value amongst the top.
If done in the typical direction, the volcanic crater of Quilotoa Lake is the grand finale. The classic trekking route takes three days, but can be modified to fit any time requirement.
This is also one of the most comfortable and convenient treks. Cheap and abundant hotels are available en route, meaning that a hot shower and fresh meal is just a hike away.
Our all in cost as a couple for the three day trip was a mere $100. To help plan your trip and access the lake, we put together the complete Trekking Guide to the Quilotoa Loop.
Hiking, Biking and Glacial Icing on Cotopaxi Volcano: 1 Day
Ever wanted to hike up a giant active volcano? What about visiting a glacier above 5,000 meters elevation? Most people never get this opportunity due to access difficulty and preparation requirements for these extreme locations, but Cotopaxi is different. The perfectly shaped volcanic cone has a dirt road reaching high up the slope, which allows anybody the chance to try a thin air hike.
The mountain is everything you expect, with frigid temperatures, stinging ice crystals and glacial winds greeting your arrival. A short but painfully steep hike will reach the refugio, where hot drinks and snacks await. From here, another push along the red gravel slopes will access the glacier crowning the mountain.
On a good day, the views from above are sweeping, although often obscured by clouds forming around the cone. On our trip, we were treated with an unbelievable glimpse of the mountain after the long and dusty descent. There are several options for reaching the hike, all of which are possible on a day trip from Quito or nearby Latacunga. And you’re in luck, we have everything you need to know explained in How to Day Hike Cotopaxi.
Flying High With Valley Views in Baños: 3 Days
Ok, honesty time. Baños is one of the most famous backpacker destinations in Ecuador, with endless options for adventure activities and excursions (our typical our bread and butter), but we didn’t love it here. And the reason is simple: this is one of the most famous backpacker destinations in Ecuador. We found the atmosphere to be touristy, the accommodations to be subpar and food overpriced. It has also become quite a party area, with buses driving through town at all hours blaring music as partiers loudly make their drunkenness known. This is not our style and Ecuador has so many options for natural wonder that a stop here is not necessary. BUT, we also know that most people will still make the trip, and if you do, we have a few suggestions that don’t require an annoying tour group. In our opinion, you could skip this area and not miss much, but you will have fun if you come.
Needing no introduction, Casa del Arbol is the top activity in Baños after being featured in famous publications such as National Geographic. The hilltop swings take thrill seekers way over the valley below and make a great half day activity for anyone. Even if you aren’t up for the ride, the pictures alone are worth a trip up the mountain. Every day, a bus destined for the Casa departs from town at 11:00am. The bus picks up passengers along the route and delivers them to the entrance above after the 45 minute trip. It then waits until 1:00pm and takes anyone interested back to town. The hour+ is plenty of time for multiple rides on the swings and the several other lesser activities on offer. The bus price is $1 in each direction and there is a $1 entry fee.
With Baños sitting in the valley between a crap ton of mountains, many nearby hiking options are available. These can range from longer guided trips to simple day hikes from town. We chose to climb up to the volcano viewpoint on the north side of the valley (volcano hidden behind clouds in the picture above). This is a 13 kilometer loop hike which starts from town before climbing steeply and seemingly forever. Depending on direction, the trail either starts or ends at the San Francisco bridge. We chose to take the loop clockwise, meaning that we began on the slippery dirt trail just up the road from San Martin Zoo before descending on the road back to the aforementioned bridge. The hike is free.
Lastly, we did the well known self guided bike ride along the waterfall route. The trip starts from Baños and heads east along the only road towards Puyo, passing seven waterfall along the way (the one pictured above doesn’t count). Bikes are available for rent around town from $5-10 for the day, depending on quality. The rentals come with a low end map and poor instructions for getting back to town afterwards. After trying and declining several bikes with shoddy brakes, we secured two for $6 each. Definitely inspect the bike before departure.
As the road follows the river, the trip is mostly downhill and not terribly difficult, although there are a few short climbs. The finale of this ride is the Diablo waterfall, which has a huge water flow and is certainly impressive. There are two entrances, owned and operated separately. Entry is $2 to either, although it only gets you into one side. The east entrance (from the perspective below) is a high vantage over the falls, while the west side (seen across the water below) has the more well known lower walk behind the water. After visiting the falls, there are several trucks waiting ready to transport riders back town with their bikes for $2.50. The total round trip time is around four hours.
Getting to Baños is easy from most anywhere in Ecuador. Direct buses are available frequently from Guayaquil, Quito, Latacunga and Cuenca. As always, they will depart from the main bus station and anyone inside can point to the correct booths.
Time to Kill in Guayaquil: 2 Days
Guayaquil is boring. Ok, now we got that out on the table. There is really only one reason why anyone goes to this giant city, and that is because it is the most direct way to reach the Galápagos. So, if you are going to these islands, this is where you would add that portion of your trip. If you are traveling on a budget and instead visiting Puerto López and Isla de la Plata (following this itinerary), you would still almost have to come through here. Now you could technically skip it by taking a long possibly overnight bus from somewhere, but we shun these and instead stayed a couple days here sandwiched around our coastal visit.
If you do find yourself in Guayaquil, we have managed to shake up a few things to do with your time. First, you can take a trip to Santay, a river island located across from the Malecon shore development. There are a few raised trails that wrap the undeveloped island, creating a decent place to walk or bike. There are even some neat birds plus a few crocodiles to see (albeit the caged variety). While we walked around the island, the drawbridge was raised and left that way for hours. We along with a hundred or so locals, including babies and elderly in wheelchairs, got trapped in the middle of the river with no escape. After the second hour of broken promises to get the drawbridge lowered, a group of older men angrily shouted an impending rebellion if we weren’t set free. Fortunately, we were eventually rescued but unfortunately, never got to see an old man mob take over the bridge. It wouldn’t be an Ecuadorian adventure if things were too easy.
If this doesn’t sound like your speed, you could climb the four hundred fifty-ish steps to the Santa Ana lighthouse lookout. The hill isn’t huge so the view won’t rival anything you’ve seen in the Andes, but it does offer a perch over the colorful houses and river below.
Lastly, you could make the poor decision to attempt a visit to the nearby Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco for some hiking. We should have taken the hint when no local we asked had ever heard of it, but we didn’t and tried to go anyways. We can’t offer a report of the park, because it was closed on weekdays without a prior appointment and required a guide, of which we had none (our Uber driver wouldn’t play along). Apparently there are guides at the guard house for limited hours on weekends (they are not free). The guard house, really more like a port-a-john under a metal roof, is located at the entrance on Google next to highway between the impassible razor wire topped walls. We couldn’t see into the park, but it must be mind blowing to warrant all that security.
More Than Just Beach Time in Puerto López: 2 Days
Puerto López is less a destination in itself and more of a kicking off point for nearby locations. This (relatively) relaxed beach side town is the main exit point for several popular national parks where incredible sea life can be spotted. It has the added bonus of being central to beautiful beaches and serving extremely fresh local seafood.
Off the coast of Puerto López is the meeting point of two major ocean currents which fill the waters with rich nutrients and support dense populations of sea life. Humpback whales, killer whales, dolphins and many other species are found off shore. In fact, the most incredible excursion from Puerto López, Isla de la Plata (discussed below), is located a short boat ride away.
If you have made the trip to the coast to visit la Isla, make sure to also relax at the local favorite Frailes Beach. The beach is just a $1 per person shared taxi ride north and and additional $1 per person private tuk-tuk ride down a long dusty road. There is also an unexpectedly lush area of jungle just thirty minutes away which is more notable in contrast with the exaggeratedly arid landscape near the coast.
But putting general options aside, our personal opinion is that the coast of Ecuador is perfect for wildlife and seafood lovers. There are many other options in South America for nicer beaches and this should not be the sole purpose of the trip.
If the Jungle Were an Ocean at Isla de la Plata: 1 Day
Affectionately known as the Poor Man’s Galápagos, Isla de la Plata is one of only two island reserve areas in the country. The cheeky but accurate name refers to the similarity of wildlife found around the island to the much more popular and expensive Galápagos Islands.
With the Galápagos now being the most touristed destination in the country, prices have squeezed out many a budget traveler. But this island can offer a similar (albeit scaled down) experience with a mere $40 day trip from Puerto López.
At certain times of the year when whale migrations are in full swing, the trip to the Isla is extra special. Thousands of humpback whales fill the ocean creating one of the most memorable spectacles found in nature. During our trip, we witnessed dozens of whales breaching the surface and repeatedly crashing back to the water near our boat. Several other species such as the pygmy killer whale followed close by as well.
The island itself hosts many famous bird species such as the frigate and blue footed boobie. If you think this brief explanation seems like a cop out, you are right. We have a full account of our incredible whale watching trip to Isla de la Plata, complete with access and booking instructions.
Colonial Cute and Food to Boot in Cuenca: 3 Days
Cuenca is that cute colonial old town which travelers love so much. Full of charming buildings and tranquil streets, this is a glimpse of what Quito could be without the crime. Moreover, the diverse and delicious food scene makes it a nice place to take a break from the otherwise drab Ecuadorian comidas found everywhere away from the coast.
Yes, Cuenca is likely on every Ecuador itinerary you will find, and yes, we did call this a Hiking and Wildlife Itinerary although Cuenca does not have hiking. Or wildlife. BUT, it is the entry point for Cajas (explained below), which you will not find on most itineraries and is one of the most unique places in the country. It is also a convenient and relaxing stop on the way south towards Peru.
While in Cuenca, we blessedly stocked up on more Ecuadorian chocolate and coffee from the Supermaxi and ate all the foods we had been missing in our daily white rice with a side of something flavorless meals. Wandering the streets, camera in hand after dark, it is no wonder why this town ranks among the top 10 cities worldwide for expat retirement. Our adorable mom and pop hotel, complete with private bathroom, very hot shower and (relatively) blazing fast internet in old town cost just $18 a night.
But we didn’t come all the way to Cuenca to look at buildings and eat. We were using this as a base for hiking in the expansive nearby Cajas National Park. Day trips to the park, nights eating all types of international fare.
We came to Cuenca from Riobamba after a night stopover following our Quilotoa trek. We rode with the company Patria, which has daytime departures at 9:30am, 11:00am and 1:00pm. Buses also go direct to Cuenca from nearly every city in Ecuador, including the previous Latacunga with 8:00am, 11:00am and 12:30pm direct daytime departures.
High Altitude Hiking in Cajas National Park: 1 Day
Cajas is one of those special places which you don’t hear about on most Ecuador itineraries. While several of the hiking locations above are well visited, such as Quilotoa and Cotopaxi, this is a wilderness reserve seemingly made just for wilderness lovers. It is part of the expansive Páramo landscape which spans from Venezuela into Peru, containing otherworldly plants found solely in this high altitude grassland.
We spent two day trips from Cuenca hiking in Cajas, and it was among our most memorable parts of the country for a number of reasons. The Martian landscape sits mostly between 3,500 and 4,500 meters, so flora is small and unlike those found anywhere else on our travels (although hiking in the amazing Parque El Cocuy in Colombia, also in the Páramo, has many similarities). The altitude makes this place COLD and the meeting of air currents from Amazonia and the ocean make it really wet. This is a water factory which supplies the vast majority of drinking water in Cuenca.
There are a number of trails, spanning from short hike length to long multi-day treks, which can be explored on your own without requirement of a guide. We have very detailed information about accessing, hiking and packing in this Guide to Cajas National Park. In brief, it can be reached in less than an hour from Cuenca on public bus. The park is free and the bus trip costs just $2 each way. We did two separate day trips here, and decided that staying in Cuenca was preferable to staying by the reserve due to the wide range of dining options.
If you are flying home and not continuing south from Ecuador, this would be the end of your trip. In this case, it would make more sense to rearrange the order and put Cuenca before Guayaquil so you end near a major airport. If you are planning to cross the border into Peru, keep reading.
History and Science at Puyango Petrified Forest: 1 Day
Puyango is by far the most obscure and difficult to reach location on this itinerary. But seeing as how getting to obscure places generally make for great stories, we were up for the challenge. We had read someone’s hysterical account of reaching this park, and we knew we had to try. To be perfectly honest, getting to and from this park is almost as interesting as the park itself.
Bosque Petrificado de Puyango is located an hour south of Arenillas by bus. As the name implies, it is a large area of ancient forest which was rapidly covered, leading to petrification. The park has one and a half hours worth of trails which wind through the masses of giant stone trunks laying everywhere. For anyone enjoying ancient geology, this is a very interesting place to visit.
How to Get to Puyango Petrified Forest
Getting to Puyango by bus is easiest from Arenillas. In fact, we came to this hole in the wall town for the sole purpose of accessing the petrified forest. We spent an entire evening and most of the following morning asking everyone in town how to reach the park, and got a different response from each of them. Turns out, they were all wrong. To our knowledge, other than by private vehicle or expensive taxi, there is only one way to get here.
Cooperativo Loja runs a bus each morning at 9:00am heading towards Alamor. The cost is $2 and takes one and a half hours. Take this bus and get off at the road to Puyango, which is right before the bridge with police checkpoint. Just tell the attendant you are going to Bosque Puyango. From here, you have two options. You can walk 5k up the road to reach the park, or you can hope to catch a ride with someone heading that direction. Within minutes, we were offered a ride to the park by a farmer, although this generosity cost $3.
No matter how you arrive, you must go to the park office first and purchase the $1 ticket. Unfortunately, the actual forest is another kilometer up the road. There is no defined way to go this final portion, although the office arranged us a ride in the back of a pickup for the remainder.
On our return, there was no pickup heading back to the office so we got stuck walking the long dusty road. Not wanting to trek the entire six kilometers back to the police checkpoint where the buses pass, we opted to wave down the first passing car and hope for a ride. Fortunately, they happily let us share their pickup bed full of household furniture to the bus stop.
Now back at the bus stop, we had the pleasure of learning that a bus wouldn’t be passing until 2:00pm (or 3:00pm depending on who we asked), another 1.5-2.5 hours. Two older women, daughter and mother, one 60-ish and one 80-ish, were sharing our bus stop. They were signaling for rides to every passing car, which is totally normal in this area. We offered them half an orange and they repaid us by getting us into the first car they stopped for a ride back to Arenillas. If saving time was the goal, we succeeded, at the certain expense of comfort. The two of us, both women and four suitcases shared the back seat of a pickup truck which was going restaurant to restaurant selling shrimp all the way back to town.
We were fortunate that the daughter was content making her 80+ year old mother sit on her lap so we needed to share our seats only with two suitcases a piece. We later found out that this ride also had a $3 per person price tag, making our total cost to visit the park for two people $15. We could also have taken a guided tour from the popular seaside town of Machala for $45 per person, but where is the fun in that.
We spent only one night in Arenillas and crossed the Aguas Verdes border into Peru after our park visit. If you have this border on your itinerary, you are going to want to read our account before you arrive…
We hope that you found this one month Ecuador hiking and wildlife itinerary helpful! Since you are already planning a trip to Ecuador, make sure to consider all of the amazing things that Colombia has to offer with this one month itinerary!
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