Not sure which cities in Ecuador to include in your travel itinerary? With limited vacation time, and so many different Ecuadorian cities to ponder, it is never an easy choice to make. Ecuador’s cities are as diverse and interesting as the different regions of the country; you’ll find major cities all across Ecuador, from the Rainforest to the Pacific coast, and down the long, central Andean valley in the highlands. From a cultural and historic perspective each city has it’s own unique appeal, packed with contrasting tourist attractions, as well as colorful inhabitants to add limitless fun to your Ecuadorian urban adventures.
Read on to discover our top 10 picks for the best cities in Ecuador to visit.
Let's kick-off with a map of Ecuador's big cities.
As you can see, many of the large cities have developed down Ecuador’s central valley in the Andes, including the capital city of Quito. The major Panamerican Highway that runs from north to south down the country, makes travel between these cities easy.
The major exception to the above rule is the city of Guayaquil, today Ecuador’s largest and most important port and commercial center.
So, without further ado, let's introduce you to our top 10 choice of the major cities in Ecuador to include into your travel itinerary:
Quito: Best Ecuador city for history and culture.
Quito is capital city of Ecuador, so odds are pretty high that you will pass through on arrival or departure to Ecuador. Not only is it a vibrant city to spend a day or two, it also makes a convenient base for onward travel to Galapagos, the Amazon, the Beach, or the Andes by road or air.
Quito was the very first city in the world to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, and not without merit as it proudly boasts the best-preserved colonial architecture in all of Latin America. Stroll the bustling streets and plazas of Quito's historic old town, dip into churches and monasteries here since the founding of the city, or peruse some of the very best museums and galleries in all Ecuador.
Today Quito offers something for everyone, an intoxicating blend of modern city life, colonial history, and a thriving bohemian arts and cinema scene. A city of green parks, fine international cuisine, vibrant nightlife, colorful local markets, a thriving craft beer scene, modern malls, and quirky boutiques.
Quito also hosts two popular annual festivals, the Fiestas de Quito celebrating the foundation of the city, and the Festival of lights where churches in the old town are lit up with colorful images each night.
If you only visit one city in Ecuador, then surely Quito should be top choice!
Guayaquil: Best Ecuador city for sea food & night life.
Guayaquil is the country’s largest city and still serves as one of the most important ports in South America. The city developed along the banks of the River Guayas, and still has strong links to water, from the delicious seafood freshly caught each day, to the impressive Malecon 2000 boardwalk and public spaces that bring people out for fun times at all hours of the day.
The historic Las Peñas neighborhood is the oldest in the city, and a must-see, affording fine city views from the hilltop lighthouse, and a vibrant social life among the alleyway bars mixed between colorfully painted houses.
You’ll also find trending restaurants, boutique shops, and sidewalk cafe culture for people watching in Urdesa, and should not miss the renovated old houses and history of how cocoa & chocolate built the city’s wealth at Guayaquil's Parque Historico.
Cuenca: Best city for retired expats & safest city in Ecuador.
Cuenca is one of the gems from the Spanish colonial period and is another of Ecuador’s UNESCO recognized heritage cities. It was rebuilt according to a design by the king of Spain and is considered a prime example of urban planning from the time. Today Cuenca has a proud yet laid back and relaxed vibe, which has attracted ex-pats and retirees alike from the US and Europe to settle roots here. It is also recognised as one of the safest cities in Ecuador.
Ancient Incan ruins, great museums, and an up-and-coming crop of local and international restaurants draw people to the city, while the nearby El Cajas National Park is a sprawling reserve of trails, mountain lakes, and wildlife.
Other places to seek out during a stay here are the plazas and churches that have both Spanish and French influences or spend time exploring the cobbled streets and strolling along the picturesque river banks.
Baños: Best city in Ecuador for nature & adventure.
Baños is the outdoor adventure capital of Ecuador. Thanks to its gorgeous natural setting, amidst lush green mountains, nearby you’ll find rivers to raft, waterfalls for canyoning, valleys to explore by bicycle, and challenging routes to rock climb. For more of an adrenalin rush check out the famous Swing at the End of the World, or bridge jumping.
The second claim to fame of Baños city is the natural hot springs, caused by the thermal activity of nearby, smoldering Tungurahua Volcano, perfect for an evening soak after an active day. You’ll also find specialist spa resorts offering all variety of massage, facial or steam bath & mud treatments.
The city’s restaurant scene highlights an international vibe; small Spanish tapas restaurants are the real deal, and the Swiss fondue restaurants boast rich cheeses, aged meats, and inspired desserts that find you trying to figure out what to order next.
Tena: Best Ecuadorian city in the Amazon rainforest.
Tena is the gateway to Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, the most accessible jungle city in the country, a place to begin new adventures. While the city itself is perhaps not the most exciting, you will find many tour operators offering activities into the jungle, including rafting and kayaking, caving, and visits to nearby jungle lodges, communities or Amazon river cruises.
A trip to Misahualli is also recommended, to see the resident monkeys in the plaza, visit the beach or head into nearby Kichwa communities. To head deeper into the jungle for wildlife trips then a longer bus ride or flight to the oil towns of Coca or Lago Agrio are the way to go.
Ibarra: Best major city in the north of Ecuador.
Ibarra was once an important outpost when the Inca established cities in Ecuador. Located north of Otavalo, the town is set against a backdrop of the northern Andean mountains and known as the White City for its white-washed colonial houses. Ibarra City has an eclectic mix of restaurants and art galleries where university students hang out, while the plazas and churches of the main town are fun stops while exploring.
For something a little different, check out the Liberty Train (Tren de la Libertad). It operates out of Ibarra station from Thursday to Sunday each week, dropping down to Salinas Town in the warm valley below, for a fascinating introduction to the Afro-Ecuadorian culture, including the famous “La Bomba” dance.
Nearby, Laguna Yahuarcocha is a peaceful place to stretch your legs, or the village of Caranqui – rumored to be the birthplace of Incan ruler Atahualpa – is home to the Inka Huasi Museum. A little further afield, Otavalo Town should not be missed, especially the colorful Saturday indigenous market and sacred Peguche waterfalls.
Manta: Best coastal beach city in Ecuador.
One of the main port and beach cities in Ecuador, Manta city is located at the center of Ecuador's Ruta del Sol. A hotspot for those seeking fun in the sun, an urban beat, and less of a full-on party scene than other places on the coast. Several daily flights from Quito make Manta a popular starting base for exploring the beautiful beaches of Manabi province.
Manta city itself offers a well-rounded collection of seafood restaurants, a hip nightlife, a modern mall, and several commercial beaches that attract Ecuadorian holiday-makers to the city during the high season. Fifteen minutes out of town is Playa Marianita, the ultimate place to kite surf in Ecuador.
Further, up and down the coast you’ll find beaches galore to explore, to the north San Clemente boasts more hours of sunshine than any other Ecuadorian beach, Bahia de Caraquez is popular with retired ex-pats, and Canoa provides a more chilled backpacker scene. To the south lies Montecristi, the birthplace of the Panama hat, and Puerto Lopez for summer whale watching and access to Machalilla National Park.
Loja: Best Ecuador city to get off the beaten tourist path.
In Ecuador’s deep south, close to the border with Peru, the city of Loja (pronounced Loha) welcomes visitors with its sleepy charm and friendly locals. Loja is a cultural city, and famous across the country for its vibrant music scene, with live music often played in small bars and salsa clubs.
While the city itself is pleasant for spending a day or so wandering around, exploring the colonial streets, and fairytale city gates, it is also a portal to visit other gems of Ecuador’s south. Start with the small town of Vilcabamba, set among rolling hills and clear streams, famous for the longevity of the locals & the prospering ex-pat community of folks from all corners of the world. Loja also offers easy access into Podocarpus National Park, a hotspot for bird-watchers, nature lovers and trekkers alike, drawn here by the high proportion of endemic species in the forest.
Ambato: Ecuadorian city of nicknames & traditions.
The Ecuadorian city of Ambato is a place of nicknames and traditions. Ambato is known locally as the ‘City of Flowers and Fruit’ or ‘The Garden of Ecuador’, due to the many farms and orchards that make use of the richly fertile volcanic soils of this region. In February, at the same time as Carnaval, the city celebrates the Festival of Fruits and Flowers with spectacular parades and displays of typical produce from the surrounding farms.
The city’s other nickname is Cradle of the 3 Juans, after three famous men, all named Juan, who were born in Ambato. Juan Montalvo and Juan Leon Mera were noteworthy authors, while Juan Benigno Vela was an important figure in Ecuador’s fight for independence. The city has various museums and monuments dedicated to these men.
Other than that Ambato is a handy city to visit due to its central location in Ecuador, a place to take a breather before continuing your journey.
Riobamba: Ecuador's city of indians and trains.
Last but not least in our list of cities in Ecuador we have Riobamba, which ironically was the very first official Spanish settlement in the country. Approximately one-third of Riobamba inhabitants are of indigenous origin, dressing proudly each day in their traditional costumes. So it’s a great opportunity to meet locals, maybe learn a few words of native Kichwa, with no place better than at Riobamba’s bustling Saturday Market.
Riobamba is also a popular base for exploring breathtaking Andean peaks, starting with Chimborazo Volcano which towers over Riobamba from just about any angle. Chimborazo’s claim to fame, incredibly, is being the tallest mountain in the world – if you don’t believe us then check out our special Chimborazo blog. If you are looking for a fun and quirky way to visit Chimborazo then consider taking the Ice Train (Tren de Hielo) to Urbina, to learn the age-old tradition of the famous Ice Men.
Another recommended trip is the 3day trek to El Altar collapsed crater, a UNESCO natural heritage site. Without a doubt, this is a tough hike, but a thoroughly rewarding adventure where few tourists dare to go.
Happy Gringo specializes in custom-made tour itineraries throughout Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, including many of these fine cities. For more information about our tours, or for help designing your itinerary, contact our travel team to start planning your journey.
So, that’s the end of our choice of the top 10 cities in Ecuador. We've covered Ecuadorian cities right all across the country, in the Andes, Rainforest and the Coast. Each city in turn is worthy of a portion of your valuable travel time. We hope you enjoyed reading, and please do send us your opinions and feedback when you get back home. Did we miss any important Ecuadorian cities out?