Yaku means water in the Kichwa indian language, and the small country of Ecuador certainly has it's fair share. Rains and glacial meltwater combine in the high Andes, seeking the fastest route to lower ground, leaving spectacular waterfalls in their wake. While Ecuador waterfalls may not rival Niagara, Victoria or Iguazu, they are impressive in number and well worth taking the time to visit. Many Ecuador waterfalls also have special spiritual significance to local indigenous people, and play important roles in cleansing ceremonies. So get swimming trunks at the ready, and prepare to immerse yourself in pristine Ecuadorian nature.
Keep reading for everything you ever wanted to know about Ecuador waterfalls. Which are the most stunning waterfalls, where are they, and how to visit them?
Otavalo is a bustling market town just 2 hours from Quito, surrounded by hills, valleys, lakes, and volcanoes. The Otavalo population is largely made up of different Kichwa indigenous indian communities. Within short journeys from town are two waterfalls that provide a welcome break to the flurry of activity of the city's market stalls.
The small village of Peguche is just outside of Otavalo, and famous for one thing - the impressive Cascada de Peguche. The falls are an important sacred site for the kichwa indians - a place of purification. During important celebrations such as the Inti Raymi festival (summer solstice), people flock to Peguche for ritual bathing. After purifying their bodies in the cold waters of Peguche waterfall, they head to Otavalo for days of music, dancing and celebration dedicated to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the sun. Similar festivals are also held on the winter solstice and both equinoxes. Tourists are welcome to join in the fun, just remember to be respectful of local beliefs and traditions.
Peguche waterfall is very easy to visit. The trail-head begins at a welcome center where you pay a small fee to enter. The short trail zigs and zags over bridges and through the forest, passing pools and streams before the falls come into view. The roaring river of water plummets from above, majestically falling into a pool at their base. Another trail continues upward, ending at a scenic vista overlooking the surrounding countryside. For adventurous souls, there is a tight tunnel that leads under the rock cliff to the other side.
Why not include a visit to Peguche Waterfall on an Otavalo day tour from Quito, including souvenir shopping and visits to indigenous communities too.
Cascada Taxopamba is found on the way to Mojanda lake, ten minutes by taxi outside of town. These secluded falls are half an hour from the trailhead and are a great spot for a picnic. It's highly recommended to combine Taxopamba Falls with a visit to Mojanda Lake and Fuya Fuya Volcano, each a worthy site in their own right.
The trek starts next to Casa Mojanda country inn, and continues downward, overlooking the whole of Otavalo and the mountains and volcanoes of the other side of the valley. It can be a bit confusing to keep on track as the route isn’t marked; a rule of thumb is to keep to the left and stay between the boundaries of the farms that line the path. Don’t be surprised to see horses and cows at close range, curiously observing the people who wander down the trail. After crossing a few narrow parts of the path, at steep descent leads to the falls. Tall cliffs enclose the base of the falls, creating an amphitheater where nature takes precedence. The roaring falls drop into a shallow pool at their base, a fun place to dive in for a dip on warm, sunny days. There are no facilities along the path or at the falls, but that's part of the beauty of this site - they are a local’s secret, unregulated by the Ecuadorian park system. Take water and wear sturdy shoes as the trail winds and twists through rugged farmland.
The thriving town of Baños is the outdoor adventure center of Ecuador. Its streets are lined with coffee shops, international restaurants and rental outlets. Outside of town are rivers to raft, cliffs to climb, and the famous Ruta de las Casadas (the waterfall route). The Ruta de las Casadas is a ten-mile downhill bicycle ride that takes you to scenic vistas, across rivers by cable car, and above the canopy soaring in the sky on ziplines. The route consists of ten waterfalls, each worth the effort for their pristine views.
At the end of the Waterfall route is the explosive Devils Cauldron, a powerful waterfall that is reached after an enthusiastic hike through the forest. Prepare to be sprayed if you head down to the lower platforms, but that's all part of the fun. The falls are a great final stop on the journey, a stunning sight that gives you a new appreciation for the natural world of Ecuador. This is also a place to use your imagination - all of the water that explodes from Pailon del diablo waterfall is on a journey from the Andean mountains down into the Ecuador's rainforest. Every drop of water that lands into the Amazon basin will eventually end up in the mighty Amazon River, flowing through Brazil to emerge into the Atlantic Ocean.
The first major waterfall you'll find on the Ruta de las Cascadas is pretty Bridal Veil falls. The lookout provides a panoramic view across the valley to this Ecuador waterfall, which varies greatly in size depending on season (wet verses dry). There is an open cable car to take you for a closer look, or a canopy zipline for adrenalin junkies.
Last but not least we cannot talk about Baños waterfalls without mentioned the Cascada de la virgen. This is a high but gentle stream of water that falls from the mountains behind Banos town. Local Ecuadorians love this site, climbing up the small platform for a free shower and photo opportunity. Look for the shrine of the Virgen Mary at the base of the falls, for which this waterfall takes it's name.
Happy Gringo's 3 day Baños highlights tour is an easy way to visit the best tourist sites of this region, including the Ruta de las Cascadas.
San Rafael Falls was the largest and most impressive waterfall in Ecuador, plunging great volumes of thundering water from a height of 150 meters. But why are we using the past tense to describe it? Unfortunately in 2020 a large section of riverbed upstream collapsed, diverting the water on a new path underneath the hard rock, instead of over the cliff. So San Rafael waterfall sadly no longer exists, which is a great shame as it used to attract some 30,000 tourists to visit each year. We'll include a photo here of what Cascada San Rafael used to look like - it truly was a colossal beast of a waterfall.
The good news is that some 10km further upstream from San Rafael tourists can still visit Rio Malo waterfall. This cascada is along the same route past Cayambe Coca Reserve heading down to Ecuador's Amazon region. Although not nearly as high as San Rafael waterfall, the water thunders over the cliff at an intense rate, spraying visitors along the way. An access trail takes you up close for great photos, and it's also possible to swim in the river at the base of the falls - just check first that the currents are not too powerful.
To visit Las Latas, head deeper down into the Amazon basin to the small town of Mishualli. This jungle village is a great base for rainforest tours, visits into local Kichwa communities, and to spot monkeys in the central plaza. The real jewel of Mishualli though is Las Latas Waterfall. The trail head begins a little out of town, and winds for aprox 1 hour through the rain forest, enjoying the cries of birds and insects as you hike. Depending on recent rainfall there are sometimes swimming holes to bathe in, or small sections where you'll need to wade through shallows. At the end of the trail the waterfall does not disappoint, especially after heavy rains when her waters really roar.
Traveling to the small town of Mindo is a two-hour journey from Quito, taking you into the middle of Ecuador's cloud forest. This region is a recognised biodiversity hot spot, surrounded by lush woodlands, hundreds of species of birds, butterflies and orchids, as well as abundant rivers and waterfalls. The small six-block town offers solace from the busy streets of the country’s capital.
Within a short journey from the village is the Santuario de Cascadas (Waterfall Sanctuary), an active excursion that takes you to out-of-the-way waterfalls where you can swim and slide down rock formations into the water. The trek starts in the highlands above Mindo town - you'll need your own transport or a taxi to get up there. Take a $5 cable car (tarabita) ride over a rushing river to the other side of the valley. Here trails lead through dense forest alive with the calls of birds overhead, down to a network of waterfalls.
To the west, Cascada Nambillo is a peaceful waterfall where locals and visitors alike jump into the swimming hole pool at the base of the falls. The 5 other western waterfalls are smaller but offer more peace with fewer people. The path to the east heads to more spectacular Cascada Reina, although the 50 minute trail is longer and tougher going. Overall this is a great excursion to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings, making the effort to get there well worth the hike. Why not take a picnic and a good book along with you to make a day of it.
It's worth spending a night or two in Mindo to allow enough time to enjoy all of the nature and adventure activities here, especially if you include a visit to the waterfalls. Our 3 day Mindo Highlights tour certainly ticks all the right boxes, or head to Mindo on your own steam by public bus from Ofelia bus station.
North of Cuenca, in Chimborazo province, the area around Bucay town has 3 interesting waterfall sites that are a little further from the beaten path. El Progresso Waterfall is small but picturesque, with options for an overnight stay and meals closeby. Las Cascadas de Piedra Blanca (White Rock Falls) is a network of 40+ individual falls of differing sizes. More of an adventurous choice is Cascadas Gallo de la Peña, which is a wet and muddy hike, with the reward of enjoying the waterfall all to yourself most days.
Podocarpus National Park is located in the far south of Ecuador between Loja and Zamora Chinchipe provinces. This park is one of the most diverse in Ecuador, covering low-montane rainforest, pre-montane cloud forest, high Andean paramo and high Elfin forest habitats. It's also home to Cascada Poderosa (Powerful waterfall), an impressive 70 meter high cascade. Podocarpus is well worth taking time to explore if your travels take you into Ecuador's deep south.
Some 30km south of Cuenca lies the small town of Giron and the eponymous waterfalls. El Chorro Falls is the better known of the two, and arguably one of the prettiest in the entire country. An easy trail and wooden stairs lead to the 100meter high cascade tumbling gently down the green mountainside. The second waterfall is harder to reach, involving a cross country trek without a maintained path.
Close to Condor Machay visitors can also find as many as 18 waterfalls in the picturesque River Pito valley, the largest of which is Great Pita Falls. We suggest taking a local guide along with you to find the best waterfall vantage points and do the area justice. It can easily be combined into a full day together with Condor Machay, or as a stop off on route to the northern entrance of Cotopaxi National Park.
If you are looking for a pretty waterfall closer to the capital, then check out Condor Machay (The condors nest waterfall). Accessed through Sangolqui in Quito's valley area, Condor Machay is in Santa Rosa Reserve, part of Pasachoa Refuge. Only the brave or crazy bathe here as the water is icy cold, having melted from Cotopaxi Volcano's glacier. It's a longish (1-2 hours), moderate level trek to reach Condor Machay from the parking area, crossing bridges over fast flowing rivers, and through forest with orchids and other flowers. Ultimately these falls are very beautitul with crystal clear water cascading down to a stoney beach, making the trek well worthwhile.
Contact us for more information to plan your vacation to Ecuador, or help organising a personalised custom tour itinerary. Just let us know if you'd like to include a visit to one of these fabulous Ecuador waterfalls into your trip.
In conclusion, Ecuador is a land of water (yaku). Not only does water make the country so lush and green, but it also creates so many exquisite Ecuador waterfalls for visitors to enjoy. As you can see from this blog, it is the sheer quantity of waterfalls in Ecuador that is especially impressive. So wherever you find yourself in the country, there's a good chance your close to a waterfall that merits the time for a visit. In the imortal words of Bruce Lee - Be water my friend!