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.

Use the slider below to see articles about the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast.

The Adorable El Oro Parakeet of Western Ecuador

On our recent trip through Southern Ecuador, we met lots of new birds! One of the cutest was the El Oro Parakeet ((Pyrrhura orcesi)), a small member of the parrot family (Psittacidae). Recognized as a species in the 1980s, these birds are fairly new to the birding...

Ancient Culture at Agua Blanca

Agua Blanca is a community of about 300 indigenous Ecuadorians that lies in the heart of the Machililla National Park in the coastal province of Manabí. Although many of its members farm to make a living, the community relies on tourism to provide an income and to...

San Miguel de los Bancos

We have driven through the small town of San Miguel de los Bancos several times on our way to the coast. Never did we realize that just on the south side of town, hidden by the buildings along main street, is a huge river valley. It was only on our most recent visit...

Ecuador Earthquake Relief Can Include Tourism

After being awoken by massive shaking last night, today seems as a good a day as any to let the world know what is going on in "post" earthquake Ecuador. Last night's 6.7 earthquake was close enough to the epicenter of last month's 7.8 that it might be considered an...

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...

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...

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,...

The Best of Buenaventura

The Buenaventura Reserve provides easy access to explore the flora and fauna of Southern Ecuador. However, a visit to this widespread reserve requires a little planning as many of the great things to do lie a few kilometers from the main lodge. Once you arrive, there...

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...

A Bird’s Eye View in Salinas, Ecuador

While visiting the well known sites of La Chocolatera and La Lobería near Salinas, Ecuador, it's worth the time to take a small detour up the hill to the Mirador Puntilla Santa Elena which overlooks the entire area. There you can spend a few minutes...

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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Mitad del Mundo, Quito

How is it possible that I only just visited Mitad del Mundo? After all, I've lived in Quito for over two years and somehow managed to skip entering the grounds of this famous tourist destination. Part of the delay was for construction on the brand new UNASUR building....

Lloa – The Gateway to Guagua Pichincha

The small town of Lloa is only a few minutes away from south Quito but feels as if it is hundreds of miles away. The atmosphere could not be any less city like than you could imagine. Fresh air and few cars are the first clue. Quiet city streets that are a combination...

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...

What to Expect Along the Paseo del Quinde

When I was growing up, my father was very fond of taking the road less traveled. It would drive my mother crazy. I think I inherited the gene for back highways and dirt roads. That's how we've come to know the Paseo del Quinde, better known to locals as the Nono-Mindo...

Bordado de Zuleta

In the Andean community of Zuleta, generations of women have embroidered clothing by hand, stitching brightly colored flowers on the shoulders, necks, and sleeves of traditional blouses. In the mid-20th century, a former President of Ecuador, Galo Plaza Lasso, and his...

Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve

The very first birding lodge we ever visited in Ecuador recently made the news in Quito. The Ministry of Environment recognized Richard Parsons and his beloved Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Lodge as being the very first private project to protect endangered...

The Wild Horses of Cotopaxi

The Wild Horses of Cotopaxi are one of the best reasons to visit this national park just outside of Quito, Ecuador. The History of the Wild Horses of Cotopaxi Before the arrival of horses to South America, native tribes walked everywhere and used pack animals like...

The Floresta Farmer’s Market

On the short cobblestone street of Galavis, the Floresta Farmer's Market takes place every Friday morning. From my hotel window, I can see the vendors setting up bright and early in the morning. I've heard they are around until mid-afternoon but I would recommend...

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...

Explore Loja Natural

T he Loja Province deserves so much time and attention that I wish we could live locally for a year or two. I arrived in the province with the idea that I would see the capital city, Loja, add a few sights on the outskirts of town, and be content to come home....

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.

The Ancient Inhabitants of the Amazon: The Huaorani

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the community of Gareno, home to the Huaorani, a thousand-year-old culture that has survived for hundreds of years in the deep Amazon jungle of Ecuador. The Huaorani Of Ecuador The Huaorani people have survived despite the...

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...

Best Shots from the Tungurahua Province

The Tungurahua Province is famous for being home to an active volcano. Yet life goes on in a somewhat normal fashion, even when Tungurahua spews smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The most popular destination of Ecuadorians and international tourists in the...

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...

The 2020 World Count in Llanagantes National Park

On October 17, 2020, communities throughout Ecuador participated in Global Big Day, an annual event where birdwatchers worldwide identify and count the birds in their communities. A group of bird-loving friends in the Patate Canton of Ecuador hoped to change people's...

Best Orchids in Napo Province

Some of the best orchids in Ecuador can be found on a small hillside just off the Highway 45 about 20 kilometers past El Chaco on the route towards Lago Agrio. A lone sign on the right side of the highway is the only advertisement leading you to the Orquideario San...

Visiting the Quichua near Puerto Napo

Ecuadorians divide their country into three distinct regions - el Oriente (the East or the jungle), la Costa (the coast), and la Sierra (the mountains). Each area is not only geographically distinct but culturally as well. In our short time here, we've immersed...

Creepy Crawlies of the Night

he Oriente is full of creepy crawlies of all kinds... but so many are easier to see at night. This is a collection of photos we took while staying deep in the jungles of the Pastaza Province in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. They were taken using a...

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.

Galapagos Tortoises on San Cristobal

A tortoise hatchery sounds like a pretty scientific place where you might expect to see cages, enclosures, incubation rooms, and a sterile lab or two. The Galapaguera at San Cristobal will come as quite a surprise. What is a Galapago, a Galapaguito, and a Galapaguera?...

Los Gemelos, The Galapagos

On the island of Santa Cruz, dividing the dry forests of Palo Santo from the humid agricultural land on the windward side, are a pair of volcanic sinkholes called Los Gemelos, or the twins. They are often referred to as craters but their formation was caused by a...

Travel Day, Baltra to Isla Isabela

ur long travel day ended up being a long one indeed. We arrived in the early morning hours to the Quito Airport to give ourselves enough time to request our transit pass ($20), to have our bags checked for fruits and vegetables, and then to manage...

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...

An Organic Farm on the Galapagos

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine visiting an organic farm on the Galapagos Islands. Like most of us, I only pictured wild animals and even wilder places. I didn’t think of human populations at all. But the Galapagos is populated by more than 25,000 legal...

Volcán Chico, Isla Isabela

Many people don't realize that the Galapagos is a series of islands created by volcanic eruption and that the violent creation is still taking place today. This was never more true than for Isla Isabela, one of the youngest of the islands in the archipelago and the...

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...

The Garden of Mosaic Tile

Hidden down a shady path just before the Charles Darwin Center in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, The Galapagos, is a small garden dedicated to mosaic murals and sculptures covered in tile. [ready_google_map id='9'] The place is magical and full of stories waiting to...

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...

Los Tuneles, Isla Isabela

Los Tuneles is a geologic formation on the coast of Isla Isabela about an hour or so to the southwest of Puerto Villamil. It is a commonly offered day trip that provides excellent opportunities for snorkeling among the dark black lava formations that come in the shape...

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