Ecuador is a beautiful South American country and is an ideal spot for a family vacation. Friendly local people, good infrastructure, and inexpensive prices mean you can enjoy an amazing family getaway on a budget. To tourists, Ecuador is perhaps most famous as the country of the Galapagos Islands. However, while here you’d be remiss if you didn’t also visit cities such as Quito, Banos, and explore the natural wonder of the Amazon. Online, you’ll find many guides that cover the Galapagos Islands, but in this 2020 guide, let’s explore an Ecuador vacation on the mainland and off-the-beaten-path.
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Ecuador Vacation: Day One, Arrive in Quito
Quito is the cultural, historical and political center of Ecuador. No Ecuador vacation could be complete without touring the old center’s squares and picturesque streets.
After checking in, walk towards the main square. Here, just off to the side you’ll find the beautifully situated Vista Hermosa restaurant.
Dine at Vista Hermosa
At Vista Hermosa, ask for rooftop seating. Here you will enjoy some of the best views of the city with your dinner. The views are beautiful rain or shine, so take a walk up the five flights of stairs for a view you won’t forget.
After dinner, make your way back to your hotel past the picture-perfect streets and wander around a bit. Because you are located in the center you are in a safe and tourist-friendly area.
For more South America travel ideas, check out: Brazil Carnival, the Ultimate Guide
Ecuador Vacation: Day Two, Explore Quito and Transfer to Banos
There is much to see around Quito’s cultural center. You can spend an entire day wandering the town’s small, colorful streets, or you can take a little time and visit some well-known attractions. The entire old city of Quito is a Unesco World Heritage site, and you might just get lost among the colorful ancient homes.
1. Explore the stunning Church of the Society of Jesus
Ecuador is known as the home of many beautiful churches and Quito is no exception. The Church of the Society of Jesus is situated in a plaza near the center. The humble exterior of the church does not prepare you for the splendid glory inside. Many architecture buffs consider the Church of the Society of Jesus to be the most beautiful and ornate in the entire country – which makes it a must-visit during your Ecuador vacation.
2. Tour the Presidential Palace
Next, make your way to Independence Square, a gorgeous tree-lined plaza that hosts the presidential palace. Here, starting at 9 am from Tuesday to Sunday you can get a free tour of the presidential residence. You do not need an appointment or tickets to tour the palace. Instead, line up outside at 9 am. Although tours take place through the day the first tour of the day is also the least crowded. With you, bring an ID for everyone in your party, including the kids (passports are better than drivers licenses.)
The highlight of the tour is the famous balcony where the Ecuadorian presidents make their speeches. The views over the square and the entire Old City Quito are incredible.
3. Explore Independence Square
After touring the presidential palace take a few minutes to explore Independence Square. The historic Plaza Grande was originally constructed in the 16th century and the city of Quito gradually grew around it. In addition to the Presidential Palace, the plaza is dominated by a monument to the independence heroes. It is also home to Carondelet Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Plaza Grande Hotel. On the square, you’ll find many shops and vendors, and plenty of places to enjoy a mid-morning snack.
4. Learn about local history at Museo de la Ciudad
Now that you’ve discovered a bit about Ecuador’s history, its time to continue your Ecuador vacation with an immersion in the culture. Museo de la Ciudad (the City Museum of Quito) occupies the old buildings of the San Juan de Dios Hospital. Like the city of Quito, the buildings are also a UNESCO heritage site and were restored in 1995 using original construction materials. Still, new elements were introduced to the structure which makes the museum a fascinating blend of the old and new.
Inside Museo De Ciudad, you’ll find four permanent and several rotating collections. Most of the collections focus on the people and culture of Quito and Ecuador. From traditional costumes and art to the ancient marriage traditions, you can learn much about your host country here. In addition to the cultural exhibits, medical history buffs will be fascinated by a collection of old medical items donated by a doctor.
5. Enjoy local cuisine for lunch
It’s just about time for lunch, and as you wander the picturesque streets of the old town you’ll come across many small restaurants. This is a great time to try out a local dish like Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken), Langostinos (shrimp in butter) or the traditional chicken soup (Galina pinta).
6. Travel to Banos
The easiest way to get around Ecuador is by private car. Public transport options (while available) are unreliable and sometimes unsafe. In addition, unless you are really looking to save money, it is best to hire a taxi rather than rent your own car. A ride from Quito to Banos with a driver will run you about $80. In exchange, you don’t need to worry about getting lost; keep in mind that the roads in Ecuador are notoriously poorly marked). It is also safest not to travel after dark. On the night you arrive, ask your hotel to make taxi arrangements for Banos.
7. Stop at the Center of the World
The touristy but fun “Center of the World,” located (unsurprisingly) on the equator is a fun stop for pictures. To get here you’ll need to do a short detour from the road to Banos. When you arrange your taxi with the hotel, tell them you’d like to stop here. Unless you speak Spanish don’t count on communicating with your driver, most of whom do not speak English. The detour should cost you an additional $20.
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Ecuador Vacation: Day Three, Explore Banos
Banos (formal name: Baños de Agua Santa) is situated deep in the mountainous central region of Ecuador and close to the Amazon. Due to its convenient location and diverse environment, this medium-sized city has become one of the outdoor meccas of the region. The mountain town is known for a beautiful setting, extreme sports, cute restaurants, hot springs (that’s where it gets the name), charming coffee shops, and diverse hotels.
For the Banos portion of your Ecuadorian vacation, consider staying at Sangay Spa Hotel. The most luxurious hotel in town offers nice rooms, a private natural hot water spa, a pool with a view of the waterfalls and many other amenities. And because mainland Ecuador is so inexpensive, even this luxurious option will only run you about 100 USD a night.
1. Swing At the End of the World
It takes about two hours to drive from the “Center of the World to the “End of the World.” Sort of. The most famous attraction in Banos is, surprisingly, a swing set. You’ll find the swing (called Casa del Arbol) at 2,600 meters elevation, on an edge of a hill, deep inside the Andean mountain range. With nothing but a seatbelt, the brave (or the crazy) swing-out high above the canyon. Needless to say, this activity is not recommended for those uncomfortable with heights or for children. Still, even if you don’t plan on swinging come out here just to take pictures. The views alone are worth it.
Ecuador Vacation Travel Tip:
The swing is located in Casa de Arbol, about half an hour by car from Banos. When you come out here you’ll actually find two swings. You can see the first swing when you pull up to the area marked “Casa de Arbol.” But to find the second swing you’ll need to hike up. While both swings are fun, the second is much more impressive.
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2. Hike the Tungurahua Volcano
You might be surprised to learn that the city of Banos sits on an active volcano. The Tungurahua Volcano last exploded in 2014 and can explode again at any minute. However, when not spewing ash the area of the volcano remains safe to climb. The hike to the refugio (the resting point at the top) starts near the hospital in Banos. Although not well marked an experienced hiker should have no trouble finding their way. Alternatively, you can always hire a local familiar with the trail, your hotel will make the arrangements.
The hike up is about four hours and if you really don’t feel like climbing you can always take a car to the top. Alternatively, hire a cab to meet you at the resting point and to take you back to Banos. There is no food or water on the trail, so bring your own. But those willing to work a little will be greeted with brilliant views and a little cafe serving delicious local cuisine in the refugio.
Ecuador Vacation Tip:
Try to hike on a clear, cloudless day or your view of the volcano may be obscured.
3. (Optional) Check Out the Famous Hot Springs
You might already know that Banos in Spanish means “bath.” The name “Baños de Agua Santa” literally means the Baths of Holy Water, and the hot springs here are reputed to have healing properties. The natural hot springs (heated by the volcano) are a popular attraction with the locals. The facility itself, however, leaves much to be desired. After checking out the small but very crowded pool which didn’t feel very clean, we decided not to go in. Other western tourists I spoke with felt the same. Based on this experience, I think the actual hot springs in Banos is one attraction you can safely forego.
If you do decide to go, keep in mind that the facility closes at 4. If however, you are looking to enjoy a relaxing afternoon, the hotel I recommend, the Sangay Spa Hotel, offers a private spa and a pool with a brilliant view of the waterfalls.
4. Enjoy local cuisine in Casa Hood
There are many great restaurants in Banos, but one of our favorites was Casa Hood, a very busy eatery that served great salads and local dishes. Be sure to try them out for dinner or lunch, they offer lots of healthy and delicious options.
Ecuador Vacation: Day Four, Explore Banos Countryside
Banos is a city set up for tourism and when you visit you will see how much has been done to accommodate the traveler. As you move around town you will notice converted trucks that are now carrying tourists. The open-air vehicles ride through the city and you can hop one to visit a nearby attraction: the waterfalls, the volcano overlook, a zip-lining adventure or even the Banos swing. For many travelers, however, a double-decker bus might be a better bet.
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Banos, Ecuador is a small city that has become one of Ecuadorian vacation’s outdoor meccas. This mountain town is known for beautiful environment, extreme sports and has recently become a center for cute restaurants, coffee shops and hotels. As such, Banos is a great stop for a family trip. On our first day we decided to opt for a hike in the morning. There are many hiking trails and many of them start in central town. Your hotel owner should be able to give you a map with the trails – and the hours it takes to reach each summit. We picked the Pointe Francisco trail and although we did not make it up to the Volcano the views we got were still breathtaking and worth the trip. Afterwards we made our way back down and went into town for some lunch. There are plenty of great places to eat in Banos, take a look at trip advisor (which is super helpful on Ecuador vacation for some suggestions.) We stopped by the highly rated Casa Hood and had chef’s salad to die for. Afterwards, we made it back to our hotel for a bit of relaxation before the Banos, world famous hot springs after which the town is named.
1. Hop on the Double Decker Bus
The two-story bus leaves downtown Banos around 9 am. During the four hours journey, you’ll travel over mountains and visit all the major area attractions (except the swing and the top of the volcano). Our bus took us to the seven waterfalls, from the smallest to the largest (Rio Verde). In addition to the waterfalls, for a small additional fee, we got to zipline over a ravine. Try to board the bus quickly so you can sit at the top in the open air – a lot of fun in the tunnels.
2. Discover local chocolate
The Amazon is the birthplace of chocolate and what better place to enjoy chocolate than in the Amazon? All around Banos you’ll find chocolate shops. Like coffee shops, chocolate shops are a place to hang out, try new drinks or foods and buy edible souvenirs. Young or old, every chocolate lover will find paradise in Banos.
Ecuador Vacation: Day Five, Banos to Tena
If Banos is the tourist capital of Equador, Tena is its much smaller, Amazonian sister. The Amazon-adjacent Tena is, due to its geographic location, the ideal spot to explore the rainforest. Which is exactly will be doing for the next few days of this Ecuador vacation.
Although you can find a few small hotels in Tena, you’ll get a much better selection of resorts just outside the city. With fresh air, situated on the water and jungle in the backyard, I absolutely loved staying in the beautiful glamping facility of Selina Amazon Tena. The lodge is relatively posh with private cabanas that have no electricity but do have hot running water. The resort includes an on-premise restaurant, a bar, and a pool.
A glamping facility such as Selina Amazon Tena is ideal for a family Ecuador vacation. Here you’ll find the novelty of staying in the Amazon and the convenience that you often need when traveling with a family. To get to Tena, ask your Banos hotel to make taxi arrangements. By car, the ride will take you a little over an hour.
Dinner on Day Five
As you are staying outside of the main city and in the middle of the jungle you won’t have many choices for dinner tonight. Selina Amazon and other glamping facilities in the area all offer on-premise restaurants. The food is great but the charge is a pricy (for Ecuador) $30 or more per person. Alternatively, ask the hotel to call a taxi to take you into town.
Sleeping in the hut, no windows, only mosquito netting to separate us and the critters, was one of my favorite experiences on this Ecuador vacation. The sound of the jungle, as intense as any white noise machine turned up to maximum, rocked us to sleep with its loud lullaby.
Ecuador Vacation Travel Tip:
If you are looking for an incredible Amazon experience you might also consider doing a multi-day tour from Tena deep into the jungle. I recommend booking multi-day tours in advance on Trip Advisor.
Ecuador Vacation: Day Six, Tena
Start your day off with a visit to the local tribe, the Tiyuyako people. The seventy-five related families who live here today are all descendants of the original native Amazonian tribes. All the members of this tribe speak a native Tiyuyaku language but are also fluent in Spanish. The children attend Ecuadorian schools but also learn about native traditions at home.
1. Meet the Tiyuyako People
To get to the village (ask your hotel to arrange the tour) we took a boat. The members of the tribe live in raised huts and rarely venture out unless its for school or to trade. Our guide said he’d never been in a hospital or seen a western doctor, and he found them scary. A lot of modern medicine originated in the Amazon, and our guide showed up some medicinal plants that are harvested to create modern drugs.
Afterward, we had a chance to watch a handicraft demonstration, walk through the jungle, do some pretend hunting and meet the local children. Participating in a tour like this is a valuable opportunity for the entire family to learn about the native culture and also to help to support the indigenous community.
2. Visit the Amazoonico refugee
Ecuador is a developing country. As such it has been making a much bigger push, in recent years to preserve its nature and clean up pollution. This means that the treatment of animals (both wild and domestic) has improved significantly over the past 20 years. However, you will still find some places where animals are treated poorly – for instance even sometimes an exotic pet lives in a hotel to attract tourists.
One place created to combat this problem is the popular Amazoonico refugee. Here, hundreds of wild animals are cared for by volunteers and staff, and this donation-based organization is thriving. The refugee rehabilitates animals with the goal of releasing them into the wild, but the animals that can not be released become permanent residents.
For your second activity of the day head over to the refuge, located deep in a jungle. For my children, a visit to this wonderful rescue center was one of the highlights of our Ecuador vacation. You’ll need rainboots to visit here, but you should be able to borrow them from your hotel.
Amazon Travel Tip:
If you wish to extend your day, nearby river rafting is a great option. You will receive a solo rubber raft for a lazy river experience that is more exciting than anything you will find in a hotel.
Love animals and the jungle? Check out my article on how to visit wild Orangutans in Borneo.
Ecuador Vacation: Day Seven, Tena to Quito
If you have one more day in Tena, you will find many great ways to continue to explore the Amazon. From deep jungle nature walks to white water rafting and mountain biking or even attending a sacred ceremony, the options are endless.
However, if you only have seven days for your Ecuador vacation, its time to head back to Quito. The ride from Tena to Quito is about three hours and you can, once again, hire a taxi to take you. The cost is about $100.
Head back to Quito
When traveling large distances in Ecuador do not count on getting to places on time. Always leave yourself extra wiggle room, especially when you have a flight that day. We learned this lesson the hard way.
The road from Tena to Quito passes over some of the highest mountains in the country, which means an occasional snowfall, especially during the summer (rainy) months. On our way back we discovered the mountain road back to Quito was closed due to a recent snowstorm. The narrow and dangerous mountain path shuts down completely in inclement weather. We almost had to turn back (this would have added 6 hours to our journey) when we got lucky. As we were trying to figure out what to do, snow trucks showed up and we were able to follow them all the way down to the safe zone.
As I am writing this I am sitting in the front seat of a truck passing over winding roads. Green canyons spread out before us, alternating with mountains and waterfalls. Ecuador is a beautiful land and I feel incredibly privileged I got to experience a small part of it – and share it with my children, and with you. I hope you too will have an adventure of your own in a small, green and lovely country of Ecuador.
What to pack for your Ecuador vacation:
Although parts of Ecuador are tropical, the weather changes quickly, especially on a mountain. Therefore it is important to prepare for inclement weather, and keep in mind that supplies can be hard to find in Banos and Tena.
- A light rain jacket is a necessity in the jungle
- This little doodad helps remove itchy bites
- Full-length light hiking pants to help keep the bugs away
- A safari-style hat for the bugs and the sun
- Hiking boots or sneakers for the jungle walks
- A light backpack to carry your supplies
- A motion sickness patch for boat rides
- A great camera for your pictures
- A zoom lens to help you take those amazing animal shots
- Bug spray (no explanation needed)
- Sunblock – a must under the jungle sun
- Hiking socks to keep your dry
- A water bottle
- For even more of my travel tested supplies check out my Amazon store
Want more family travel ideas? Check out: 11 Off The Beaten Path activities in Ft. Lauderdale for the Whole Family.