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 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...

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...

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...

Tagua Artists of Dos Mangas

Dos Mangas has a secret waiting to be told to a wider audience. Currently it is known only by Ecuadorians and even many of them don't know of the treasures trove just a few kilometers off the Ruta del Sol. Dos Mangas is a small, unassuming village bisected...

Parque Histórico, Guayaquil

t wouldn't be wrong to expect a history park in Guayaquil to be all about the history of the region. Parque Histórico is home to many old properties typical of the port city the turn of the 19th century. But Parque Histórico has...

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...

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...

Valdivia

Along the Ruta del Sol is a small town with a wealth of archeology finds, Valdivia. For those that frequent archeology museums in Ecuador, the name will sound familiar. Museums in Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil are full of treasures from the Valdivian culture. The most...

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,...

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...

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’s Grotto near Nono, Ecuador

While driving a backroad connecting the small town of Nono with the nature reserves in the Tandayapa Valley and Mindo, we found a surprising sight. Jutting out into the road on a sharp bend was a set of concrete stairs leading up a rock face. A pull-out across the way...

Rumicucho: The Caranqui-Incan Fortress That Lies On The Equator

Thousands 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 language of the...

Hiking Pichincha Via The Teleferico

This weekend our newfound friends, a local Ecuadorian family, offered to take us on the Teleferico to hike to the top of Pichincha. That’s the volcano that erupted back in 1999. It benignly looks over the city of Quito and is most often covered by clouds in the late...

A Gold Exhibit Worth Seeing at the Casa de la Cultura

The Casa de la Cultura re-opened on Saturday, May 19, 2018. The new exhibits should include these works. However, the museum has reorganized the collections since the writing of this article. If you have visited the newly revamped museum and care to write an article...

Casa del Alabado: An Exquisite Archeology Museum in Historic Quito

La Casa del Alabado is a privately owned museum in an old Spanish-colonial residence located very near Quito's historic San Francisco Plaza. And when I say old, I don't mean a hundred years or so. I mean truly antique. The house was built in 1671. Therefore, the...

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...

The Awesome El Angel Reserve

When we heard the El Angel Reserve had an old-growth grove of Polylepis trees, it only made sense to visit as it was a short detour on our way from Tulcan to Quito. We’ve often gone out of our way to see this unusual member of the rose family. Once common in the...

The Chimborazo Lodge

feel a joy each time I drive up the rutted dirt road to the gated entrance of Marco Cruz's Chimborazo Lodge. I could blame the euphoria on the high altitude. After all, the lodge is located at 4000 meters, about 13,123 feet, above sea level. But...

Baños de Agua Santa – A Place of Pilgrimage

Before Europeans ever arrived in Ecuador, native peoples visited the area around modern day Baños to bathe in the mountain springs. They believed that the local volcano and pagan goddess, Mama Tungurahua, provided both hot and cold springs found near the base of a...

Most Difficult Train Track in the World

The Nariz del Diablo train ride provides an excellent opportunity to view some of the amazingly beautiful and mountainous landscape of Ecuador. It's also a great chance for kids to learn a little history while playing conductor. All in all, it is a great trip for...

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...

The Wild Cuyabeno in Pictures – An Immersive Photo Essay

The Cuyabeno: A Photo Essay Let me introduce the Cuyabeno in pictures. In four short days, we were able to merely scratch the surface of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, an incredibly diverse habitat with nine different ecosystems. To read the captions, hover your mouse...

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...

Copalinga Lodge and Reserve: A Jewel of Southern Ecuador

The Copalinga Lodge and Reserve has been on my bucket list since we first lived in Quito. It's a little-known destination beloved by avid birdwatchers and scientists interested in studying the flora and fauna of the mid-altitude tropical forests of southern Ecuador....

Dark Caverns, Rushing Cascades, and more at Las Cascadas Yanayacu

Hiking Las Cascadas Yanayacu became a transformational experience that I hadn't planned for. Those are the best kind I knew I had made a mistake with my first step into the river. My hiking boots immediately cried "We're not waterproof!" Wet socks would be my hiking...

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...

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

Arriving 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...

Visiting Apaika and Our Huaorani Hosts

While visiting the Huaorani Lodge in Pastaza, we were invited to spend an afternoon in Apaika, a small village where the Huaorani still practice a traditional way of life. Upon our arrival, we immediately noticed two children playing in the river by a makeshift dock,...

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 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.

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...

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...

Las Grietas – Isla Santa Cruz

Las Grietas on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos is literally a canyon-like crevice in the volcanic rock. Sea water enters the canyon via a pathway that is chock full of mangrove trees. And fresh water enters from the opposite direction. The roots of the...

Galapagos Sierra Negra Volcano Erupts (Updated July 8, 2018)

After seeing increased activity for the past couple of months, the second-largest volcanic crater in the world has erupted on June 26, 2018. When the volcano first showed signs increased activity, the Ecuadorian Geographic Institute advised visitors to the Galapagos...

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...

The People of San Cristóbal

The day we arrived in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island San Cristóbal in the Galapagos, it was pouring with rain. Of course, it had us immediately worried that our short trip would be hampered by bad weather. Fortunately that wasn't the case. San...

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...

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...

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...

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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