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:

The following map shows the Pacific Coast in yellow, the Andes in blue, and the Amazon in red. The Galapagos Islands are not shown on this map. Click the minus on the map sign to bring them into view.

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.

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...

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...

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...

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...

Chirije – The Lodge

eaceful, gorgeous, natural. Just adjectives. But they describe Chirije perfectly. It's a small lodge tucked away on a beach just south of Bahía de Caraquez in Ecuador. It's remote enough that there is no road for the last few kilometers of...

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,...

Chirije – The Coast

Although I love living in the mountains and seeing glimpses of the snow covered volcanoes that surround Quito, I miss the ocean. There is something very special about the sound of waves crashing against a rocky coast or the surf gently lapping a sandy beach. My...

Best Photos from Manta, Ecuador

Our trips to Manta, Ecuador are full of great memories. When I pulled together the nine shots needed for publication in Ecuador Por Mis Ojos, I had a hard time deciding which ones to share. I could focus on the ever-so-welcoming people of Manta, especially those...

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...

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...

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.

“¡Que tontería de gallito!”

Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales begin, there was a rich and arrogant man who lived in the colonial city of Quito. This gentleman lived like a prince and thought himself better than the people of the city, better than his peers, and even better...

Imbabura Province, Ibarra

The Imbabura Province around Ibarra, the White City, is an area I hope to explore more deeply. We have visited for the famous Cacería del Zorro, a horse race named for the English practice of hunting foxes with a unique twist all its own. We have watched the grand...

Panticucho: A Mini Paradise Near Baños, Ecuador

Behind the city of Baños, Ecuador lies a mountain just waiting to be explored. While tourists hike up on a multitude of trails or hire local taxis to run up the cobblestone road that soon turns to dirt, the vast majority head to well-known destinations like the Casa...

An Extraordinary Archeology Museum in Quito

La Casa del Alabado is a privately owned museum in an old Spanish-colonial residence located very near the 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. The building...

Cajas National Park, Ecuador

I love national parks. Everywhere. It takes a very special place to be honored with the designation and I have yet to be disappointed when visiting one. Cajas National Park, just west of Cuenca, Ecuador, is high on my list of return to destinations. Our last trip was...

Hiking to the Glacier at Cotopaxi National Park

If you find yourself at Cotopaxi National Park on a sunny day, you may just want to take the opportunity to hike up to the glacier above the Refugio, especially if you've already taken the time to hike that far! The views are spectacular, both up towards the icy...

The First Cry of Freedom: A Story of Ecuadorian Independence

On August 10, 1809, a group of Criollo citizens of the Audencia Real de Quito, announced the local rebellion to overthrow Spanish-colonial rule. In Ecuador, the day is known as El Primer Grito de La Independencia or the First Cry for Independence. Led by Juan Pío...

Fiber Artists in Cuenca, Ecuador

We just love walking the streets of Cuenca. Mainly because we are always finding something new around the corner. That's how we found the wonderful exhibit of handwork and embroidery hosted by the Centro de Bordados Cuenca. About the Centro de Bordados Cuenca Founded...

The Andean New Year Celebration of Cochasquí

  While we have attended many cultural gatherings throughout Ecuador, the celebration of Mushak Nina, or the Andean New Year, at the archeology site of Cochasquí has to be one of my absolute favorites. Locals welcomed us as if we were dear friends and greeted my...

Chimborazo Province, Ecuador

Chimborazo Province During our three years in Ecuador, we have been able to visit the Chimborazo Province twice. Once was a quick overnight trip on our way to Guayaquil. Quick trips shouldn't hold you back... in fact, many of these photos came from a last minute...

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 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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

Pajareros in Cosanga, Ecuador

A new flock of pajareros has recently been discovered in Cosanga, a small town in the Napo Province of Ecuador. The females of the species tend to wear bright pink while the males prefer deeper tones of red or orange. All wear blue jeans and sport muddy, black boots....

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.

The Dream Galapagos Land Based Tour

W e are about to head out on the adventure of a lifetime, a 12 day Galapagos land based tour! After a lot of research, we decided that the best option for our family was to make our lodgings on land each night rather than on a cruise ship. Our money could be stretched...

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...

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...

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...

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...

Best Photos from Isla Isabela, Galapagos Islands

Isabela is a beautiful name for a beautiful island. In fact, the Spanish name is so much nicer than its British counterpart, Albemarle, that hardly anyone refers to the island by its colonial designation. Visiting the island of Isabela is a little more complicated...

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...

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...

Volcan Sierra Negra, Isla Isabela

Most visitors to the Galapagos don't even think of hiking up to a crater rim of an active volcano. After all, the Galapagos is supposed to be about animals and there are few of those to see in the stark landscape of hardened lava flow. But ever since I heard that the...

Lava Tunnels – Isla Santa Cruz

Are you up for a little land-based adventure while visiting the Galapagos? On the most populated island, Santa Cruz, there are several opportunities to explore underground tunnels formed by ancient lava that once flowed across these islands. When the outside layers of...

Ready to plan your Ecuador trip?

You have a few choices:

Either way, plan on hiring a few local guides along the way! Use our guide registry to find the best fit for your perfect trip!