Ecuador’s majestic geography seems to straddle two worlds – earthly and divine. From its snow-capped towering volcanoes to its mystical underground Amazonian caves, intrepid explorers have found powerful inspiration among these rocky realms for centuries. These days, travelers can find the same inspiration with just a little bit of planning and a keen sense of adventure. Below, we’ve highlighted a few must-visit destinations for experiencing Ecuador’s heavenly vistas and subterranean secrets – learn more by visiting our collection of Ecuador itineraries, and get in touch with the Coddiwomple Journeys team today!
On the Avenue
With the Cordillera Central and Occidental Andes Mountain Ranges, as well as many jaw-dropping valleys and basins, Ecuador’s Sierra region is filled with endless discoveries for the outdoor adventurer. For a walk on the wild side, many travelers choose to explore the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a 200 kilometer stretch running from Quito in the north to Cuenca in the south, right in the middle of the Andes. Here, 14 of Ecuador’s magnificent volcanoes loom like giants overhead, some dormant, others active, all breathtaking. Each volcano has its own unique claim to fame – for instance, 17,160-foot tall Sangay and 16,480 foot-tall Tungurahua are thought to be among the 10 most active volcanoes in the world!
Quilotoa, at the westernmost edge of the “avenue” looks nothing like a volcano at all – in fact, it’s a water-filled caldera, formed by the catastrophic collapse of a volcano nearly 800 years ago. These days, it’s filled with distinctly emerald colored lake, the color a result of minerals from the volcanic ash and lakebed, and the vistas from the crater rim could not be more dramatic. On a clear day, hikers on the Quilotoa Loop can see two additional volcanoes in the distance – Illiniza Sur and Cotopaxi.
Not to be missed, legendary Cotopaxi Volcano is the most recognizable volcano on the block, with its cone-shaped snowcap rising 19,347 feet up through the clouds. With spectacular views, Cotopaxi is a popular challenge for mountain climbers, though definitely not for novices – its tip is actually covered in glaciers! You don’t need to ascend Cotopaxi to enjoy its breathtaking elegance, however; you can view it from the base while hiking, mountain biking, camping, and horseback riding in Cotopaxi National Park! The park is also an ideal spot for indigenous wildlife viewing – look for pumas, marsupial mice, llamas, Andean wolves, deer, and extraordinary bird species among the low-growing mosses and lichens.
For adventure a little more down-to-earth (but no less breathtaking), Ecuador also boasts some epic underground cave experiences in its lowlands region, the Oriente. The most famous of Ecuador’s caves is the Cuevo de los Tayos (the Cave of the Oilbirds) which opened to the public for the first time in 2013, but gained fame in the 1970s for an expedition that turned up ceramics, metal discs, sea shells, and other remains possibly belonging to an ancient indigenous tribe. Accessed through a 200-foot deep tunnel on the eastern slopes of the Andes near Sangay Volcano, its name comes from the nocturnal birds who call it home. Galleries within the Cuevo de los Tayos are vast enough to fit an entire cathedral, glowing with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over thousands of years.
But the Cuevo de los Tayos only scratches the surface (pun intended!) of Ecuador’s thrilling caving experiences! Eager for a side of history with your spelunking? Look no further than the Jumandi Caves in Tena (90 minutes outside of Quito), named for a 16th century resistance fighter who battled the Spanish Conquistadors. Farther south, you can explore the Lagarto Caves near Archidona in the Amazon Basin. The Lagarto Caves, while not as well-known, are managed entirely by the local community, and feature glimmering limestone pools among the stalactite-filled caverns.
And for those looking for a little volcanic action with their cave explorations, the lava tubes on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos are a must-visit addition to any Ecuadorian excursion. Formed from empty subterranean magma chambers, hiking these expansive underground tubes requires little more than a flashlight!