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 Exclusive Beach and Trails at Chirije Lodge

Unfortunately, Chirije Lodge is closed for business. The following article was originally written in May 2014. While it is no longer possible to stay the night at Chirije, day trips to the locations are still an option with a local guide or by hiking along the beach...

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...

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. Better For You Than Potatoes If you love potato hash for breakfast, you should really give this a...

Gateway to Ecuador: Guayaquil

Most tourists coming to the small Andean nation of Ecuador fly through Quito. Few realize that there is an ample, well-designed, international airport in the largest city, Guayaquil. In fact, depending on your exact vacation plans, a flight through the port city might...

Iguana Park, Guayaquil

guana Park really has a much more mundane name - Parque Seminario - but is best known by its most famous occupants, the iguanas. These scaly reptiles, the size of large Dachshunds, can be found on grassy patches, in the small pond, on park benches,...

The Best Locations to Photograph Guayaquil, Ecuador

ew international tourists visit the largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, despite it having a modern, international airport and being a hub to the Galapagos Islands. Located in the southern half of the country along the Río Guayas,...

Refreshing Natural Spa Experience at 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 natural spa and sulfur spring of the ancestral community of Agua Blanca! Even if you don't want to visit the small museum or hike the local...

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...

La Chocolatera, Salinas

If you're a geography nut, you need to know about La Chocolatera. It is the point of land that sticks furthest out into the Pacific Ocean from Ecuador (the second furthest point on the continent). It is a famous place, not just because it is a geographical oddity but...

Montañita

Montañita, the most well-known beach town on the coast of Ecuador, has a reputation for marijuana, strong drinks, and great waves. I'm not sure if any of those is really true. While we may have caught a whiff of weed on our two visits, it seemed no more or less than...

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.

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

The Iconic Star of Chimborazo Hummingbird

Ever since my first visit to the Chimborazo Lodge on the slopes of the highest mountain in Ecuador, I have wanted to see a male Star of Chimborazo hummingbird (Oreotrochilus chimborazo), a member of the Ecuadorian Hillstar family. This particular bird is an anomaly in...

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...

Ecuadorian Solstice Festivals Along the Equator

In Ecuador, Inti Raymi (or the Fiesta del Sol), was declared a festival of Intangible Cultural Heritage on June 29, 2016. Throughout the Ecuadorian Sierra, it is one of the most anticipated celebrations of the year. This is due to its importance in the Andean...

The Bizarre Umbrellabird

When we arrived at the Umbrellabird Lodge on the Jocotoco Foundation's Buenaventura Reserve, we were ready to do some birdwatching. Little did we know that our hunt for new birds (at least new to us) would lead to such a strange and bizarre creature, the Long-Wattled...

The Best Places to Photograph Antisana

Antisana, the fourth highest mountain in Ecuador, spends much of its time hidden behind huge layers of cloud. It's a shame as this is the most glorious of the Ecuadorian Nevados (snow-topped volcanoes). Its fickle nature makes it one of the more difficult volcanoes to...

Driving to Cerro Puntas

Across the valley from north Quito, looking out over the new airport, it is easy to see a set of jagged mountain tops in the distance. This is Cerro Puntas. When I originally wrote this article, I had lived in Quito for two years and each day that I looked at this...

The Mysterious Puruhanta – A High Altitude Lake in Imbabura

For seasoned Ecuadorian travelers, the northern province of Imbabura evokes beautiful images of green mountains, steep valleys, and steel blue lakes. In fact, this province is known as the lakes region. Lakes such as Lago San Pablo, Laguna Cuicocha and Lago...

Great Waterfall Hike in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

While staying in the rural community of Vilcabamba, my youngest son and I took the opportunity to enjoy hiking into the mountainous Podocarpus National Park. Our goal was to find the Cascada El Palta, a beautiful waterfall tucked into the folds of the undulating Andes...

Flowering Forests of Gold Arrive With the New Year

The first rains have fallen in the Zapotillo Canton of the Loja Province in Southern Ecuador. That means the brilliant yellow flowering trees called Guayacanes will soon be blooming in full force. If you want to visit, there are a few things you should know before...

The Rose Hacienda

For many years now, cut flowers, especially roses, have been one of Ecuador’s most important exports. Since living in Quito, I have enjoyed beautiful, fresh cut, and very affordable flowers in our home. So visiting a rose hacienda had been on my “Ecuador Bucket List”...

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...

The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve: A Photo Essay

The Cuyabeno: A Photo Essay  We plan to write many articles about the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in northeast Ecuador, to include a description of the different access points and places to stay, the basics of travel in the region, and the what times of year are best to...

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...

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...

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...

The Amazing Kichwa Lodge in Cuyabeno, Ecuador

The Kichwa Lodge is located in the heart of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador. Our lodge is ideally situated to experience the best of the Cuyabeno: wildlife like colorful birds of the Amazon Basin, several species of monkeys, elusive jaguars, strange and...

The Orchids of Cabañas San Isidro

rchids can be tough to see in the wild, even near wildlife lodges like the Cabañas San Isidro. Large orchids love to grow high in the tree canopy, beyond the reach of even a pair of good binoculars. And some of the orchids that grow at eye...

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...

Wire-crested Thorntail

You can just imagine how this tiny hummingbird got his name. His crest can look like tiny little wires sticking up from the crown of his head and his tail is long and pointy, if not as sharp as a thorn. His forehead is actually a very bright green but it only shines...

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...

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.

El Garrapatero, Isla Santa Cruz

Looking for a quiet beach on Isla Santa Cruz? Look no further than Playa El Garrapatero. You need only take a taxi from Puerto Ayora. Via land and paved road, the one-way trip is about 40 minutes. Just flag down a local taxi off the street. Via water, expect it to...

Wild Tortoise Reserve – Isla Santa Cruz

Can you imagine visiting the Galapagos and not seeing a Galapagos Tortoise in the wild? Unless you plan a day trip to go and see some, you could miss them completely. Tortoises are endangered and though some populations still live in the wild, they are not always...

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...

South Plaza, near Isla Santa Cruz

On my very first visit to Santa Cruz Island, I fell in love with a golden iguana. Unfortunately, it was an iguana in captivity, held at the Charles Darwin Research Station. It felt wrong to be visiting the Galapagos and seeing animals kept in pens rather than in their...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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