The Natural Geographic Divisions of Ecuador

The Four Geographic Regions of Ecuador | ©Not Your Average American

Ecuador is split down the middle by the magnificent Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world. This natural division creates three geographic regions that Ecuadorians refer to all the time, La Costa, La Sierra, and El Oriente. Additionally, the Galapagos Archipelago makes the fourth region:

Ecuador’s four geographic regions obviously have different climates and physical features. More surprisingly, culture and traditions are unique as well. While there is no definite border to explain when the culture of one region gives way to that of the next, there are clues. The different food served in local restaurants or the particular clothing worn by the residents are strong indicators that you have crossed an unofficial border.

What is more, understanding the differences between regions will help you focus your travel plans.

The Pacific Coast (La Costa)

Tourism along the Pacific Coast was severely hampered by the earthquake centered around Manta, Pedernales, and Puerto Viejo in April 2016. Only recently have these communities seen a renewed interest from international tourists. Once again, tourists are returning to Pacific Coast to sunbathe on wide, sandy beaches, surf choppy waters, and eat the best seafood dishes around.

Weather

Weather along the coast is warm to hot and can be very humid. The rainy season starts around January and lasts through April, bringing slightly cooler weather. Unfortunately, the cooler weather is often accompanied by a fairly constant gray sky. A single day with a glorious blue sky changes everything and those can happen at any time of the year!

Food

Food along the Pacific Coast is famous throughout the nation. Locally caught seafood makes for excellent Ecuadorian-style ceviches, coconut-based seafood stews called encocados, and encebollado, a restorative fish soup often served as a hangover cure. In fact, coastal breakfast is a meal not to be missed! Look for delicious plates of tigrillo and bolon de verde, meals that highlight the favorite starch of the coast, the plantain.

Tourism

Most coastal tourism is found north of Guayaquil and south of the Colombian border along the Ruta del Sol. Recently, whale-watching is taking off. July through September hump-backed whales migrate from the

Currently, we are recommending caution while traveling to the Esmeraldas Province. Unfortunately, that includes some of the prettiest beaches in Ecuador near Atacames. However, there are other beach towns including Montañita, Olón, Puerto Lopez, Puerto Cayo, Bahia de Caraquez, and Pedernales. If you are looking for slightly larger towns consider Manta or Salinas.

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The Spiral Petroglyphs of Guizhaguiña, Ecuador

When we decided to visit the small mining town of Zaruma, the last thing on our mind were petroglyphs. But then our hotel offered us a tourism map of the region. The list of archeology sites in half a dozen locations intrigued us! So with the help of the local tourism...

Morning Market, La Libertad

o experience a true Ecuadorian breakfast on the coast, I have the place to go, the local fish market in La Libertad, about a 20 minute drive from Salinas. There you will find a very active fish market with some of the shiniest,...

Best Natural Spa Setting in Ecuador: Agua Blanca

If you find yourself lucky enough to be touring coastal Ecuador near the town of Puerto Lopez, please take the time to visit the indigenous community of Agua Blanca! Even if you don't want to visit the small museum or hike the local trails, a trip to the sulfur spring...

Flamingos in Salinas

love flamingos. So you can imagine my excitement upon seeing the distinctive birds standing knee high in the salt water ponds found on the south side of Salinas. They weren't very close to the road but their almost unnatural, bright pink color was...

Tigrillo, the Breakfast of Champions

My breakfast of choice when staying on the coast of Ecuador is tigrillo, a casserole style dish of mashed green plantains, egg, and cheese. It's absolutely delicious. If you love potatoes for breakfast, you should really give this a try. Ecuadorians eat it by the...

Bird Watching at Agua Blanca

The dry forests of coastal Ecuador are havens for birds. Unfortunately, they are few and far between because of extreme pressure from development. However, one vibrant dry forest has been protected within the boundaries of Machililla National Park, not far from Puerto...

Isla Santay, Guayaquil

Wildlife in the big city of Guayaquil? Why, it's just a walk across the bridge to the national recreation area of Isla Santay. Or a bike ride, if you would prefer. Bike rentals available at the most popular park entrance on El Oro where it crosses Avenida Domingo...

Firefighter’s Museum, Guayaquil

In late August, I had a free day in Guayaquil. A friend of mine, who came down to Guayaquil with me to help an American Football team start up, mentioned that a great museum to go to would be the Firefighter’s Museum. I had never been to a firefighter’s museum, so it...

Museum of the Lovers of Sumpa

The Museum of Los Amantes de Sumpa was built to protect an ancient burial site. More than 200 skeletons have been discovered here, and one unique grave makes it famous. A pair of bodies, one woman and one man, legs and arms intertwined as if they were...

Bosque Cerro Blanco

On our last trip to Guayaquil, we made it a goal to see howler monkeys. And one of the best places to see them is the privately run wildlife reserve of Bosque Cerro Blanco. The foundation that protects the land where the howler monkeys live is an NGO based in...

The Andes (La Sierra)

The Ecuadorian Andes is known for delicious home-style cooking, stunning countryside, and vibrant festivals. The native people of the Sierra often speak Quichua and Spanish, dress in dark wool clothing with bright additions like shawls, ponchos, or embroidered blouses. Often, you can tell the ethnicity of a person simply by their style of hat.

Weather

The climate in the Ecuadorian Andes is that of most high mountains, highly unpredictable. It is not unusual to wake up to a clear sky, watch the fog roll in, and have that turn to rain later in the day. Ecuadorians living in the Andes love to say that they experience four seasons every day of the year! We always recommend dressing in layers so that you are prepared for both coldest and warmest of days.

In general, the dry season lasts from about August through October, rainy season December through April, and the other months are a combination of the two with rains tending to come in the late afternoons, if at all. Be warned, it rains in the dry season and it can be dry in the rainy season. While snow is rare in cities, it is possible to hike to glaciers and summit snowy mountaintops year round.

Food

Food in the Ecuadorian Sierra is delicious! The best places to eat are often the local markets where traditional plates are found every single day. Vendors sell delicious plates of hornado (roast pork), fried fish, and huge bowls of chicken soup made with farm-raised birds. Potatoes, corn, fava beans, melloco, and fresh cheese are everywhere. If you want to eat on the cheap, just ask for the meal of the day. It will come with a bowl of soup, a protein (usually chicken), rice, a small portion of cooked vegetables or a salad, and a drink. All for a couple of bucks at most.

Tourism

The Sierra runs from the far northern border of Colombia all the way to the southern border with Peru. The most popular tourist destinations tend to be near the cities. In the far north is the White City of Ibarra and Quito, which has the best preserved colonial center in South America. In the central Sierra, Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador and Riobamba is the cultural heart of the Sierra. Further south find Cuenca, the City of Rivers beloved by American Expats, and Loja, the gateway to southern Ecuador.

But the Andes is about more than cities. It’s about mountains, lakes, cloud forests, and high paramo. The famous Ruta de Volcanes passes by some of the most iconic peaks in the nation, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Tungurahua, Sangay and Altar. National parks run the gamut of the small El Angel Reserve on the border with Colombia to the Podocarpus National Park that borders Peru in the south. In between, pick a volcano and there is a national park associated with it.

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The Virgin of Quito

Shortly before moving into our new home in Quito, we made our first visit to the Virgin of Quito. We could see her statue from our hotel window. The angel-like, silver edifice stands atop a dome-shaped hill called El Panecillo.  History of the Panecillo Before the...

Celebrating Easter in Quito, Ecuador

In Quito, Ecuador, the week preceding Easter Sunday is full of events that warrant explanation. In fact, if you are coming to Quito to experience Easter, it's important to know that Easter Sunday is the least celebrated day of this event-packed week. Read on for a...

Cantuña – The Man Who Tricked The Devil

In the historic center of Quito, you'll notice many stores and restaurants named for Cantuña, a man famous in Quiteño history. But his history is complex, with stories and legends changing depending on the person telling the tale. According to our local guide,...

Driving to the Refugio of Guagua Pichincha

Guagua Pichincha is the tallest of two peaks that make up the volcano called Pichincha. The name Guagua means child in Quichua and this youngest of two craters last erupted in 1999. Today, the volcano is still active and occasionally sends up puffs of steam and a...

Hummingbirds and More at Tambo Condor

On the advice of friends, we decided to stop at Tambo Condor last week. We were on our way to Laguna Mica, the large reservoir in the heart of the Antisana Reserve. I had often wondered about this restaurant with lodging as it lies less than a kilometer away from the...

Portraits from Calderón

The people of Calderón were very welcoming to a gringa with her camera. In fact, several people asked to have their photos taken. I wanted to share them and their stories with you. Wreath Vendor This young man saw me walking down the street with my camera in hand and...

Carnaval in Guamote

Last year, I went to one of the most exciting parades in Ecuador, Carnaval in Guamote. It takes place the Monday before Fat Tuesday. Hundreds of people come from the surrounding mountain communities to either take part in the parade or to watch it. It's a celebration...

Limpiopungo – Wetlands at Cotopaxi National Park

There is one hike always worth taking at Cotopaxi National Park, the trail around Limpiopungo. No matter what the weather, you're guaranteed to see small finches and wrens hopping up and down the trail. Larger waterfowl and shore birds congregate in the many small...

el seco, Finest Food Truck in Quito

If you love food trucks and you love Ecuadorian food, I have the perfect answer for your next meal - el seco. Of course, you'll have to be in Quito because currently this food truck can only be found on the streets in the capitol city of Ecuador. Each day brings a new...

Rumicucho, Ancient Ruins on the Equator

housands of tourists come to Quito and make a stop at the world-famous Mitad del Mundo. But very few even know that a more ancient monument was built along the Equator and that they can stand atop this ceremonial site. Its name is Rumicucho. In the...

The Amazon (El Oriente)

The Amazon is famous for its wildlife, its myriad of waterways, and for adventure travel. Much of the Amazon is difficult to reach and those areas with roads and navigable rivers are often the same places where mining and oil extraction are taking place. The division between the Andes and the Amazon is difficult to pinpoint but we tend to include most East Slope destinations in the Amazon region.

Weather

The Amazonian climate is tropical: humid, hot, and often rainy. Though there is a dry season, it is variable in different parts of the Amazon! For example, Cuyabeno often has a period of no rain in January while further south they might be experiencing the heaviest rains of the season. It’s best to come prepared for heavy rain and then be pleasantly surprised by clear skies. 

Food

Delicious foods of the Amazon include grilled fish wrapped in maito leaves, yuca served mashed, boiled, or fried, and chicha made from the palm fruit, chontaduro. The Amazon is also famous for the chontacuro, a grub that lives in the same palm as the fruit. To get these grubs, the harvester must chop down the tree. If asked to try them, feel free to pass them up as the current rate of harvest is not sustainable, especially if native Ecuadorians want to maintain a supply for themselves.

Tourism

While the Amazon Basin runs from the northern border with Colombia to the southern border with Peru, the most visited destinations are accessed via Quito in the north. Places like the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and the Yasuni National Park require a trip by boat or airplane. However, other destinations are located along the Amazon Troncal, the E-45 that connects the small communities of the Oriente, like Tena, Baeza, Cosanga, Puyo, Maca, and Zamora. These local towns provide access to rivers for rafting or kayaking, small orchid reserves, and hiking trails to waterfalls and wildlife. The E-45 also provides access to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve and Sangay National Park.

Community tourism is a common offering in the region as different tribal nations, like the Siona, Shuar and Huaorani, have developed programs to welcome tourists to their territories. Traditional native costumes differ for each nation but often include feathered headdresses, animal hide, and plant fibers. 

Use the slider below to read more about the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Pastaza Province

A lot of the territory in the Pastaza Province is hard to see. After all, when there are no roads and the only way to travel is by airplane or by boat, access is limited. Our knowledge of Pastaza is limited to a single trip where we drove to the small community of...

Cabañas San Isidro

In my attempt to see as many hummingbirds in Ecuador as I possibly can, I stayed at another East Slope lodge a little higher up the mountainside than Wildsumaco called Cabañas San Isidro. The lodge is well-known by birders and is a popular place to stay for its quiet...

Arriving at the Huaorani Lodge

A rriving at the jungle lodge in the territory of the Huaorani is an experience in itself. It's necessary to travel with three modes of transportation, land based car or bus from Quito to Shell, air travel in a small prop airplane from Shell to a small community in...

Las Cavernas y Cascadas Yanayacu

I knew I had made a mistake with my first step into water. My hiking boots immediately cried "We're not waterproof!" I knew that wet socks would be my hiking companions for the rest of the day and that I would be lucky to avoid blisters. Why didn't I wear my rubber...

Sustainable Tourism Includes Community Development

The World Tourism Organization is celebrating World Tourism Day with a special theme, Sustainable Tourism and Community Development. It's important that those of us who spend our hard-earned money on tourism do so in a responsible manner. That isn't always as easy as...

Long-tailed Sylph

.ong-tailed hummingbirds are exciting to see, especially when they are bright and colorful. The Long-tailed Sylph is no exception. In fact, his tail is so bright it looks like a neon blue light. This bird is almost impossible to catch in flight. He...

Great Photos of Puerto Napo in the Amazon Basin

hen most travelers start researching trips to the Rio Napo in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador, they find a list of very expensive lodges accessible only by plane or by boat. But the Oriente of Ecuador is full of small, local communities wedged in...

San Francisco de Borja: A Hidden Paradise

A hidden paradise just two and a half hours outside Quito experiences the pandemic in a different way. For a moment, we can relax while walking peaceful trails, observe birds wherever our gaze wanders, learn the local traditions like milking the cows, and even enjoy...

Apaika and Our Huaorani Hosts

While visiting the Huaorani Lodge in Pastaza, we were invited to spend an afternoon in Apaika, a small village of Huaorani still living in the traditional manner. Two children played in the river by a makeshift dock, a sandy hillside where canoes could pull in while...

Wildsumaco Lodge

About a 5 hour drive to the east of Quito, driving towards the jungles of Ecuador, is a secluded wildlife reserve and lodge. Wildsumaco is tucked into the layers of foothills that lead up to the Andes. From the reserve, it is possible, on very clear days, to get a...

The Galapagos (Islas Galapagos)

Even Ecuadorians don’t always list the Galapagos as a region. After all, it stands alone several hundred kilometers east of the continent in the Pacific Ocean. But we like to mention it as a region for a couple of reasons. First, some people don’t know that the Galapagos is a part of Ecuador! Second, while some parts of the Galapagos Islands remind us of the mainland (like the towns and cities), it is nothing like coastal Ecuador. 

Weather

The Galapagos is always warm. Sometimes it is downright hot and sweltering. The drier months, June through November, are some of the coolest, thanks to the Humboldt current. However, the skies are mainly overcast despite the lack of rain. Seas tend to be choppier, making island-hopping and boat trips a little exciting for those prone to sea-sickness. But all that sea action brought in by the colder current means that there are more sea creatures to spot!

In the rainy season, December through May, drizzle can last all day. The rainy season also provides some of the most dramatic skies of the year as sunlight plays with the fast-moving clouds. The calmer waters of the rainy season make for better nurseries. This is a great time to observe baby seals, sea turtles, and penguins.

Food

All food and culture on the Galapagos Islands arrived from the mainland in the last hundred years or so. That means some of the classic dishes might surprise you, like Seco de Chivo, a goat-meat stew. In fact, many of the foods on the Galapagos have their origins in the Pacific Coast culture of the mainland: ceviches, encocados, and grilled seafood. Moreover, because tourists love to eat what they know, there are plenty of places to buy hamburgers, pasta, and pizza. Therefore, the food on the Galapagos is best classed as international.

Tourism

Our first recommendation: if you don’t like outdoor adventure, don’t go to the Galapagos. This is not the place for a spa-like or luxury vacation despite the companies that market it so. This point ties into our second recommendation.

Nowadays, many tourists avoid the Galapagos as tourism has a negative impact on the endangered species living on the archipelago. Even when people agree to vacation in the Galapagos, they debate which type of trip is the most sustainable: land-based or cruise-based.

We fall into the land-based travel camp

Why We Recommend Land-based Tours

With several short trips under our belt, most at the invitation of the Ecuadorian government through my husband’s prior job, we learned that not all of the Galapagos is wild. There are already towns and farms on three of the major islands. The environmental impact has already happened. Worse, it has existed for generations. We need to prevent growth in the major towns and protect the fragile environments that remain.

If you must visit, our vote is to visit the places already impacted by humans and to leave the pristine locations alone. If you decide to book a cruise or island-hop, please do your best to choose companies that practice sustainability. You will not find guides in our registry as the National Park requires that all guides work via tour companies. Tour companies all take turns visiting the most iconic destinations. It leaves the tourist with few real choices despite the appearance of competition.

Great Photos of San Cristobal, The Galapagos

While it is practically impossible to choose a favorite island among the Galapagos Islands, San Cristóbal easily makes my shortlist. This island has a little bit of everything a tourist needs, like quality lodging and good restaurants, while retaining a...

A Volcanic Landscape – Bartolome Island

A local Ecuadorian friend and fan of my photography once told me that if I could only visit one place in the Galapagos, it should be Bartolome Island. Unfortunately, my first visit to the islands was filled with learning the ropes and last minute travel deals and one...

Las Tintoreras – Isla Isabela

as Tintoreras is one of the more popular and well-known tourist destinations on the Isla Isabella in the Galapagos Islands. And it is worthy of such attention. Its name means "The Chasms" or the "The Rifts" and comes from the multiple...

Interpretation Center, San Cristobal

The Interpretation Center on the island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos is much more than rooms full of maps and photos. In fact, although the exhibits are worth seeing, we recommend spending much more time walking the trails. Getting to the Interpretation Center...

Punta Estrada, Isla Santa Cruz

There are so many things to do when visiting Isla Santa Cruz that the options often become overwhelming. It makes it easier when you can limit choices to the kinds of activities you enjoy. We love outdoor adventure so this half day trip that combined a kayak to Punta...

Cuatro Hermanos, Isla Isabela

For our family, this tour should have been called the Cuatro Ernestos rather than the Cuatro Hermanos. Between our family and the crew, four of our number had Ernesto as a name: Our captain, Vladamir Ernesto His brother and first mate, Joel Ernesto My husband, Ernest...

A Bucket of Ceviche

Have you ever made a bucket of ceviche? Or chopped onions on a moving boat? Have you ever tasted limes that are the shape of lemons, but with a green and warty rind and flesh the color of a mandarin orange? Have you ever had fresh ceviche? I mean really fresh, where...

Hiking to Tortuga Bay in the Galapagos Islands

One of the most popular day trips on the island of Santa Cruz is Tortuga Bay. It's an affordable option for the budget traveler. Better yet, it's a gorgeous destination only a short hike or boat trip from most hotels in Puerto Ayora. How To Get To Tortuga Bay You can...

Tortoise Hatchery – Isla Isabela

In the small town of Puerto Villamil on the Isla Isabela is a tortoise hatchery. Although this island is known for having the largest population of wild tortoises in the Galapagos and the widest variety of species, many are still listed as either endangered or...

Puerto Chino, San Cristobal

When we visited Puerto Chino, we weren’t sure what to expect. I imagined a small port and evidence of a long-gone fishing village, probably founded by the Chinese. I couldn't have been more wrong. Hike Puerto Chino Heaven knows why I didn’t read up on Puerto Chino...

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