Travel & Learn Spanish in Ecuador
Ecuador may be one of South America’s smallest countries, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in contrasts. Famous for its biodiversity, Ecuador boasts chilly mountains, balmy hillsides, warm beaches and dense tropical rainforests - and every environment plays host to an entirely different lifestyle.
Want to see volcanic beaches strung with iguanas and slow, lumbering tortoises on some of the most famous islands in the world? Check out the Galapagos for its natural unparalleled natural beauty.
Elsewhere, animal lovers will adore the mischievous monkeys of Misahuallí and the whales, which throng the waters in Puerto López during mating season.
If you’re looking for stunning cathedrals and colonial architecture, indulge your historical side in the Old Towns of Quito and Cuenca, filled with narrow cobbled streets; and those of you searching for some fresh air in an outdoor environment can hike your way around Cotopaxi National Park, Baños, and Vilcabamba.
Want to study Spanish in Ecuador? Settle down in spring-like Cuenca, and if catching good surf is your thing, go no further than the swell-filled beach towns of Montañita and Salinas, where daily sunshine and nightly bonfires are the norm.
Shopping aficionados will love the sprawling and eclectic Otavalo market, filled to the brim with colorful handicrafts; just don’t forget to put a Panama hat from Cuenca on your shopping list.
Whether you’re looking for nature or city life, animals or wonderfully friendly people, Ecuador has something for everyone.
What to See & Do in Ecuador
Visit the Middle of the World in Quito
With an altitude of over 9,350 feet, Quito is one of the highest capital cities in the world - but that’s not its only claim to fame. Ecuador's capital is also the location of zero latitude, which means you can stand with one foot on each side of the equator. The interactive museum at ‘La Mitad del Mundo’ features lots of experiments that play with the effects of being on the equatorial line: try your hand at balancing an egg on a nail (apparently it’s easier at zero latitude) and watch water drain counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere but clockwise in the southern hemisphere.
Ride Down the Train Tracks to Devil’s Nose
A century ago, the Devil's Nose train used to run from Guayaquil to Quito, but now it’s more of a token journey. Guests can ride 7 miles of the track in a small yet luxurious train carriage, descending over 500 feet of elevation between the towns of Alausi and Sibambe via a series of switchbacks and through some seriously stunning scenery. Top tip: sit on the right-hand side of the train for the best views.
Alausi is a few hours’ bus ride from Riobamba.
Learn Spanish in Cuenca
Cuenca's historical center is UNESCO listed, and it's no surprise: the colonial city is an architectural wonder, with narrow streets, ornate buildings and two cathedrals in the central plaza.
Visitors to Cuenca love the small town vibe, the numerous parks, and the perpetual spring-like temperature. In recent years the city has seen a gastronomic explosion with many different types of international cuisine now available.
The city is rapidly growing in popularity as a destination for expats and Cuenca is often compared to Medellin, Colombia in this respect. The growing expat market makes Cuenca a popular destination to study Spanish in Ecuador.
Shop Till you Drop in Otavalo Market
Otavalo's weekly market is a serious shopping affair. The labyrinthine street stalls sell everything a souvenir-hunting traveller could wish for, from shawls, blankets and hats to paintings, textiles and jewelry. Prices vary depending on how much you're willing to bargain with the shrewd Ecuadorian women manning the stalls, but that just makes Otavalo the perfect place to practice your Spanish.
Otavalo is a few hours’ bus ride from Quito.
Try Guinea Pig on a Stick
One of the more daring food choices in Ecuador is ‘cuy’, or roasted guinea pig. It’s actually regarded as something of a delicacy by Ecuadorians but it’s not the most filling of dishes - the animal is quite bony and there’s not much meat on offer. Vegetarians and animal lovers: avert your eyes when you see signs for ‘cuy’ in the food markets.
Make a Fashion Statement with a Panama Hat
Contrary to popular belief, panama hats actually originate from Ecuador - and it’s still possible to visit some of the workshops where these gorgeous creations are made. Visit ‘Homero Ortega P. & Hijos’ in Cuenca to learn about the history, traditions and processes involved in making a panama hat in the museum, before wandering around the showroom to look at the vast array of hats that are on sale. Be warned: once you’ve seen a hat being made, it's a lot harder to avoid buying one.
Ingapirca, Ecuador’s Archeological Answer to Machu Picchu
The Inca ruins at Ingapirca are some of the largest in Ecuador, and because they're not too well known they aren't overrun with tourists like Peru's Machu Picchu. The famous Temple of the Sun is the best preserved of all the ruins, but the small reconstruction of an Inca house is equally fascinating, as is the v-shaped rock once used for sacrificial purposes. Wander around the shallow grass-covered stone foundations, tracing out the walls and floors of a civilization long gone, and wonder what life was like for the inhabitants of this place centuries ago.
Ingapirca is an easy day trip from Cuenca.
Relax into Beach Life in Montañita
Montañita started its touristic life as a tiny beachside town, but its popularity has soared thanks to surfer-friendly waves, cheap beds and a Thailand-aspiring main strip of cocktail bars in thatched roof shacks. Now Montañita is a popular spot with the young crowd from all over the continent, meaning that at weekends and on national holidays like Semana Santa (Easter) this place fills up fast and all-night beach parties are the norm - so book yourself a bed ahead of arriving.
Meet the Monkeys of Misahuallí
Monkey lovers, listen up: you have to visit the tiny port town of Misahuallí. While commonly visited for arranging trips into the nearby jungle, most tourists end up in the central plaza where a troop of monkeys reign supreme, swinging through the trees and chattering like crazy. Don’t be fooled by their adorable exteriors, though - these creatures have very sticky fingers and will snatch anything from a water bottle to a camera to an open bag of chips, so keep a tight hold on your possessions.
Go Whale Watching on the Ecuadorian Coast
Every year between June and September, thousands of humpback whales migrate to the tropical waters of the Ecuadorian coast from Antarctica for their mating season. At least ten tour companies in Puerto López send out boats on whale watching tours - but you’re just as likely to spot dolphins, orca, turtles and manta rays from the deck, too.
Avid bird watchers should look out for a tour company that takes guests alongside Isla de la Plata, famous for its avian wildlife including blue-footed boobies, pelicans frigate birds and albatrosses. Puerto López is an hour’s bus ride from Montañita.
Gaze in Wonder at the Galapagos Islands
Undoubtedly one of the most popular destinations in South America, the Galapagos Islands is a marine wildlife lover's fantasy. Though many visitors access the Galapagos on an all-inclusive cruise, the thriftier option is to simply fly to Baltra Island, find accommodation on Santa Cruz Island, then take day trips around the archipelago. Take your pick from giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, iguanas and blue-footed boobies, throw in a few sessions of snorkeling or scuba diving, and relax in an Ecuadorian paradise.
Climb a Volcano in Cotopaxi National Park
Hikers and climbers will love Cotopaxi National Park, and the snow capped Cotopaxi volcano, which sits in its center and is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at over 19,000 feet, is well worth a walk too. Be warned that climbing to the volcano’s summit is pretty intense and requires a guide, as does reaching the edge of the slightly lower glacier. For those less bothered about over-exerting their lungs, the National Park can just as easily be explored on foot, by bike or on horseback too.
Take a Bath in Baños
The town of Baños in the north of Ecuador is where the country’s adrenaline-fuelled activities take place, with rappelling, ziplining, hiking, rafting, biking and climbing all on offer. However, those who want to see Baños at a slightly more chilled pace can spend their time soaking in one of the many natural hot pools and staring up at the surrounding waterfalls.
Relax in Sleepy Vilcabamba
The little town of Vilcabamba, set up high in the mountains, is legendary for being home to a number of healthy, elderly residents over the age of a hundred. Whether true or not, time does seem to move much more slowly here: a combination of spring climate, sleepy atmosphere and beautiful surrounding scenery tempts both backpackers and Western retirees to either head out horseback riding and hiking around the Parque Nacional Podocarpus, or to chill out with meditation, yoga and massages.
Try Co-operative Living in Salinas de Guaranda
Located near a large salt mine in the Ecuadorian mountains, Salinas de Guaranda’s co-operative community began in the 1970s when an Italian priest helped the impoverished locals set up a cheese-making co-operative. Popularity for the concept grew quickly, and now Salinas de Guaranda has twenty four different industries with over ninety projects on the go including factories that make chocolate and footballs; workshops preparing dried mushrooms and cured meat; dyeing and spinning local wool; and even exporting their own brand of cheese, ‘El Salinerito’, throughout Ecuador and to Europe.
Salinas de Guaranda is a little tricky to reach. Visitors arrive into the bigger town of Guaranda, either from Guayaquil (4 hours away) or Riobamba (2 hours away), then take a truck to Salinas de Guaranda.
The Ecuador Trail
Rapido travel2 weeks or less
Even if you’re pushed for time, you can still get the most from a trip through Ecuador with a well-planned itinerary. This route involves a round-trip flight from Guayaquil to the Galapagos.
Quito (trip to Otavalo) - Galapagos (via Guayaquil) - Cuenca (trip to Ingapirca) - Baños - Amazon - back to Quito
Tranquilo travelUp to a month or more
Spending more than a few weeks in Ecuador is a great way to explore the country in more depth. This itinerary sees you travelling through the country southwards, towards the border with Peru.
Quito (trip to Otavalo) - Cotopaxi National Park - Baños - Montañita - Salinas de Guaranda - Galapagos (via Guayaquil) - Cuenca (trip to Ingapirca & Spanish classes in Cuenca) - Vilcabamba - back to Quito
Adventurous opportunities abound in Ecuador. From canyoning and kayaking to exploring deep ravines and soaring mountains, here’s an itinerary guaranteed to get your pulse racing.
Cotopaxi National Park (for hiking and mountain climbing) - Baños (for adventure activities) - Devil’s Nose train - Galapagos Islands (for snorkeling and scuba diving) - Vilcabamba (for hiking in Parque Nacional Podocarpus)
For Nature Lovers
Ecuador is famed for its wildlife, and many travelers theme their trip around seeing as much of the natural world as possible.
Cotopaxi National Park (for hiking) Misahuallí (for monkeys; into the Amazon via Tena) - Galapagos Islands - Puerto López (whale watching) - Vilcabamba (for Parque Nacional Podocarpus)
Ecuador Travel Tips
Learn Spanish in Ecuador
In Ecuador’s capital of Quito, learning Spanish is an obvious choice, and there are plenty of schools to choose from.
Academia Latinoamericana de Español is located in a colonial building in the north of the city and features a library, cafeteria, indoor sports court and business center while the Instituto Superior de Español has an immersion program that come highly recommended.
Si Centro Spanish School offers small group classes and will help arrange homestays that provide three meals a day if you’re looking to study Spanish in Cuenca. The school also offers plenty of group excursions around the city’s local sights as well as cultural evenings to help you socialize with other students.
If you’re interested in studying by the beach, Montañita Spanish School combines language learning with surfing, yoga, kitesurfing and scuba diving classes. Plus, the school’s beachside location means you’ll be speaking Spanish in the most relaxed environment.
Surfing, Spanish and yoga all combine at Otra Ola in the beautiful town of Ayampe where classes are held on the outdoor patio with the sounds of the sea around you. Alternatively, Ailola Galapagos classrooms are two blocks from the beach or in a forest hideaway, offers a unique Traveling Classroom which combines travel and language learning for a Galapagos Islands adventure like no other.
And for individually tailored classes, check out Mayras Spanish School located in Baños where each student’s specific study needs are met and local volunteering opportunities are available.
The INTAG Spanish school in the cloud forest of Pucará began as a non-profit community development project to help empower young locals through education and training and is ideal if you’re just starting to learn Spanish.
And for a small fishing village vibe, Puerto López Spanish School on the Ecuadorian coast is the ideal option. Classes can be combined with kayaking, horseriding, fishing, biking, and a host of other activities. What better way to fill your free time?
guest author bio - Flora Baker
Flora Baker has been in love with Latin America since she spent eighteen months attempting to become fluent in Spanish while journeying around the continent.