Nestled on the equator line, Ecuador, the smallest country in the rugged Andean highlands, is an enchanting blend of vibrant cultures, breathtaking landscapes, and rich biodiversity.
From the Pacific coast to the Amazon rainforest, from the high peaks of the Andes to the stunning Galapagos Islands, Ecuador’s diverse ecosystems host an astonishing array of life and a multitude of human cultures and history.
Ecuador’s natural, cultural, and historical wonders are a magnet for adventure seekers, nature enthusiasts, history buffs, and gourmands alike. Join us as we explore the top 30 things that make Ecuador a fascinating place that stands out on the world stage.
1. Galapagos Islands
Located about 1,000 kilometers off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The islands are renowned for their high number of endemic species that were instrumental to Charles Darwin’s formulation of his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The islands’ unique biodiversity ranges from marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and flightless cormorants to various species of finches, famously known as “Darwin’s finches.” Each island has a unique landscape, ranging from barren black, volcanic rocks to swaths of white sand beaches melting into gem-blue waters.
Standing at a height of 5,897 meters, Cotopaxi is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes and a significant part of the Andes’ mountain landscape in Ecuador. This majestic peak is known for its almost symmetrical cone and is often topped with a stunning cap of glacial ice.
It’s located in Cotopaxi National Park, an important conservation area providing habitat for numerous bird species and rare animals like Andean condors, spectacled bears, and pumas. Despite its potential danger, Cotopaxi attracts mountain climbers from around the globe, lured by its challenging ascents and breathtaking views.
3. Yasuni National Park
Yasuni National Park, situated within the Amazonian region of Ecuador, is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It’s home to an estimated nearly 400 species of mammals, over 500 species of birds, and more than 2,000 species of trees and plants.
This national park also serves as a habitat for indigenous communities, including some living in voluntary isolation. However, Yasuni is under threat due to oil reserves beneath its grounds, leading to ongoing conservation debates.
The inactive stratovolcano Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest peak, reaching a stunning altitude of approximately 6,263 meters. But Chimborazo is not only famous for its height. Due to the Earth’s oblate spheroid shape, its summit is the farthest point on the Earth’s surface from the Earth’s center.
As a result, standing atop Chimborazo, one is closer to space than standing on Everest! Its slopes also serve as home to the last population of wild South American camelids, the Vicuñas, which were reintroduced into the area in the 1980s.
5. Amazon Rainforest
Encompassing nearly half of Ecuador, the Amazon Rainforest, also known as El Oriente, is a hotbed of biodiversity. From pink river dolphins to jaguars, from howler monkeys to countless species of birds and insects, the Ecuadorian Amazon teems with wildlife.
Several indigenous communities, each with its own distinct culture and language, call this region home. This dense, verdant region offers opportunities for adventure and wildlife spotting, making it a must-visit for nature enthusiasts.
6. Quilotoa Lagoon
Nestled in the rugged Andean mountains, the Quilotoa Lagoon is a stunning body of turquoise water sitting within the caldera of an active volcano. This body of water came into existence due to a massive eruption about 800 years ago.
The lagoon is around 250 meters deep, and the minerals in the water give it a stunning emerald-green color, particularly when the sun shines directly overhead. The surrounding jagged peaks of the caldera, along with the ever-changing hues of the water, make the Quilotoa Lagoon a breathtaking sight.
Historic and Touristic Landmarks
7. Quito’s Historic Center
The Historic Center of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the best-preserved historic centers in Latin America. It’s filled with colonial-era architecture, including stunning churches like the gold-laden La Compañía de Jesús and the iconic Basilica del Voto Nacional.
The center’s narrow, winding streets and charming plazas provide a window into the city’s rich history. The area is full of museums, shops, and restaurants, making it a vibrant hub for both locals and tourists.
Known as the Athens of Ecuador, Cuenca is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that captivates visitors with its colonial charm. This city, full of cobblestone streets, ornate churches, and quaint plazas, is nestled in a highland valley of the southern Sierras.
One of the city’s highlights is its old-world Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, known as the “New Cathedral,” which boasts beautiful blue domes. The city is also famous for its Panama hat factories – a nod to one of Ecuador’s most famous exports.
9. Ingapirca Ruins
The Ingapirca Ruins provide a glimpse into the country’s rich Inca past. As the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador, Ingapirca served as a fortress and religious site. The ruins showcase complex stone masonry, with walls built in the distinctive Inca style of closely fitting stones without the use of mortar. The highlight of the site is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptical-shaped building constructed around a large rock.
10. The Middle of the World Monument
The Middle of the World Monument, or “Mitad del Mundo,” is a must-visit for any traveler to Ecuador. Located just a short trip from Quito, the monument marks the spot where the equator runs through the country. Visitors can stand in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres simultaneously and explore the accompanying museum’s exhibits on Ecuador’s indigenous cultures.
11. Santa Ana Hill, Guayaquil
Santa Ana Hill is a famous landmark and the birthplace of the city of Guayaquil. What used to be a lighthouse and rundown houses has transformed into a vibrant neighborhood.
As visitors ascend the 444 steps leading to the top, they are greeted with picturesque houses, tiny plazas, chapels, and a sweeping view of the city from the top. The hill’s top is graced with a chapel and a lighthouse, which is open to visitors and provides panoramic views of Guayaquil and the Guayas River.
12. Panama Hats
Despite their misleading name, Panama Hats originated in Ecuador, and the art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat was even added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. This iconic straw hat is handwoven from the plaited leaves of the toquilla palm.
The hats became known as “Panama Hats” because they were shipped to Panama before being distributed to other parts of the world and famously worn by workers during the construction of the Panama Canal.
13. Indigenous Cultures
Ecuador’s cultural richness is deeply rooted in its diverse indigenous communities. Each community has its own unique customs, traditions, and languages. The Quechua, Shuar, and Otavalos communities are among the largest.
They contribute significantly to the country’s cultural tapestry, from traditional clothing and languages to music, dance, and spiritual practices. Traditional markets, such as the famous Otavalo Market, showcase the vibrant textiles, handicrafts, and other artisanal products made by these communities.
14. Traditional Festivals
Ecuadorians love to celebrate, and the country’s calendar is peppered with a colorful array of traditional festivals. These range from religious events like Holy Week and Christmas to indigenous celebrations such as Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) and Pawkar Raymi (Blossoming Festival).
These celebrations feature traditional music, dance, food, and parades, reflecting the rich cultural heritage and the syncretism between indigenous and Catholic religious practices.
15. Traditional Music and Dance
Ecuador’s music and dance forms reflect its multicultural history, with influences from indigenous, Spanish, and African cultures. Genres like Pasillo, Sanjuanito, and Bomba are integral to Ecuadorian festivities. Pasillo, the national genre of Ecuador, is often referred to as the “feeling of the Andes” due to its melancholic and romantic tunes.
Sanjuanito is a genre of music and dance of the indigenous people of the Otavalo and Imbabura provinces, typically performed during the Inti Raymi festival.
16. Artisan Crafts
Ecuador is famous for its artisan crafts, reflecting centuries-old traditions passed down through generations. This includes textiles woven on backstrap looms, intricate beadwork, ceramics, wood carvings, and silver jewelry. Towns like Otavalo and Cuenca are particularly known for their handicraft markets, where artisans sell a wide range of handmade goods.
Popular Food and Drink
17. Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Guinea pig, or “cuy” as it’s known locally, is a traditional Andean dish considered a delicacy in Ecuador, especially in the Sierra region. While it might seem unusual to foreigners, cuy has been a staple in the Andean diet for thousands of years. The meat is typically roasted or fried and served whole, often with potatoes and corn on the side.
A popular dish along Ecuador’s coast, Ecuadorian ceviche differs from its Peruvian counterpart. The main ingredient is usually shrimp, though it can also be made with a mix of other seafood. The seafood is cooked, then marinated in a tangy sauce of citrus juices, tomatoes, and onions. It’s typically served with chifles (thin plantain chips) or patacones (fried green plantains), and popcorn.
Locro is a hearty, comforting soup that’s popular throughout the Andean region of Ecuador. It’s traditionally made with potatoes, cheese, and avocados, though recipes vary by region. Some versions might include corn, beans, or meat. It’s a staple dish in Ecuadorian cuisine and a must-try for any visitor.
20. Ecuadorian Coffee
While not as globally recognized as its South American neighbors, Ecuador produces high-quality coffee, much of which is grown on small farms in the highlands. The country’s diverse climate and geography make it suitable for growing a variety of coffee beans, including Arabica and Robusta. Coffee tours are becoming a popular attraction, allowing visitors to learn about the process from bean to cup.
Famous and Influential People
21. Oswaldo Guayasamín
One of Latin America’s most prominent painters, Oswaldo Guayasamín, left a significant mark on the art world with his work reflecting social and political injustices experienced by indigenous and impoverished communities. His powerful, expressionist style has earned him international acclaim. His home and studio in Quito have been converted into a museum, La Capilla del Hombre, displaying many of his masterpieces.
22. Jefferson Pérez
A national hero, Jefferson Pérez, is Ecuador’s most celebrated athlete. He is a racewalker who brought home Ecuador’s first Olympic medal, a gold one at that, during the 1996 Atlanta Games. His achievement sparked a surge in popularity for the sport in Ecuador, inspiring a new generation of athletes.
23. Abdalá Bucaram Ortiz
Known as “El Loco” (The Madman), Abdalá Bucaram Ortiz’s presidency in the late 1990s was short-lived but certainly memorable. His populist leadership style and controversial policies, along with allegations of corruption, led to his ousting. Despite his tumultuous time in office, he’s remembered for his impact on Ecuadorian politics.
24. Evolutionary Theory
While not an invention, the Galapagos Islands’ unique ecosystem was crucial in Charles Darwin formulating his groundbreaking Theory of Evolution. His observations of the islands’ wildlife, especially the variations among finch species across the archipelago, played a significant role in developing his revolutionary scientific theory, affecting how we understand the natural world today.
25. Discovery of New Species
Given Ecuador’s rich biodiversity, particularly within the Amazon Rainforest and the Galapagos Islands, scientists often discover new species here. These discoveries contribute to our understanding of life on Earth, emphasizing the importance of preserving such rich habitats for future exploration and scientific advancement.
26. Banana Production
Ecuador is the world’s top banana exporter, contributing over 25% of global banana exports. This small country’s fertile plains and tropical climate make it an ideal environment for banana cultivation. Next time you enjoy a banana, there’s a good chance it came from Ecuador!
27. Oil Production
Oil is another crucial pillar of Ecuador’s economy. It’s one of the largest oil producers in South America, and oil exports represent a significant percentage of the country’s export earnings. The petroleum industry plays a vital role in driving the country’s economic growth, despite the challenges associated with environmental concerns.
Sports and Recreation
The most popular sport in Ecuador, soccer, or “fútbol,” as it’s known locally, holds a special place in Ecuadorians’ hearts. The country’s national team has had notable successes, including qualifying for the FIFA World Cup multiple times. Local matches, whether they’re professional leagues or neighborhood pickup games, are passionate events filled with enthusiastic fans.
Education and Innovation
29. Biodiversity Research
Given its extraordinary biodiversity, Ecuador is a crucial location for research in ecology, conservation biology, and other life sciences. Researchers from around the world come to study its unique ecosystems, from the Andes to the Amazon and Galapagos. This research contributes to global knowledge about biodiversity, climate change, and conservation strategies.
30. Inti Raymi
Celebrated in late June, Inti Raymi, or the Festival of the Sun, is a traditional Andean festival that marks the winter solstice. It involves colorful costumes, traditional music, and energetic dances, all to thank the Sun God for the year’s harvests.
Similar to other Latin American countries, Ecuador celebrates Carnival with gusto. The celebrations feature parades, music, and dancing. In some parts of the country, it’s common for people to have friendly water balloon fights or spray foam at each other.
32. Mama Negra
This unique celebration in Latacunga is a blend of indigenous, Spanish, and African traditions. The festival, held in November, features parades, music, and dance. The highlight is the Mama Negra, a man dressed as a woman, riding a horse, and carrying a black doll.
33. Day of the Dead
On November 2, Ecuadorians celebrate the Day of the Dead. Families visit cemeteries to honor their loved ones, decorating graves with flowers and enjoying a festive meal that often includes “guaguas de pan,” special bread shaped like children, and “colada morada,” a purple corn-based drink.
From its majestic peaks to its vibrant culture, Ecuador is a land of diversity and beauty. The country’s rich history, unique natural landscapes, and cultural treasures make it a fascinating place to explore. Despite its small size, Ecuador leaves a significant impression on all who visit, making it a standout destination on the global stage.
This list only scratches the surface of what Ecuador is known and famous for, and the real charm of this incredible country is found in its warm people and the countless, lesser-known wonders waiting to be discovered.