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 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...

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...

Birdwatching & Beachcombing

Ecuadorians have not built handy dandy rest stops or view points along the majority of their new highways. This can be frustrating as you drive along the gorgeous coast and simply want to stop to take a picture or spend a few minutes walking along the sandy beach....

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...

The Spiral Petroglyphs of Guizhaguiña, Ecuador

When we decided to visit the small mining town of Zaruma, the last thing on our mind were petroglyphs. But then our hotel offered us a tourism map of the region. The list of archeology sites in half a dozen locations intrigued us! So with the help of the local...

How Many Steps to the Lighthouse in Guayaquil?

How many steps to the lighthouse in the Guayaquil do you think it takes to arrive to the top? After several visits to the largest city in Ecuador, I decided to find out. The trail is easy to find... just look for the stair marked #1 in the neighborhood of Las...

Best Photos from the Santa Elena Province, Ecuador

I love Santa Elena. This province along the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast has it all: wildlife, archeology sites, a fairly large city, several towns, and even more small fishing villages, rocky coast, and miles upon miles of sandy beaches. Although we never plan on...

Which City is Right for You: Quito or Guayaquil?

While it is possible to love both of Quito and Guayaquil, each of these Ecuadorian cities has a unique vibe. Huge differences in climate and geographic location have led to distinctly different cultures and traditions. That means you might naturally be attracted to...

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...

Firefighter’s Museum, Guayaquil

In late August, I had a free day in Guayaquil. A friend of mine, who came down to Guayaquil with me to help an American Football team start up, mentioned that a great museum to go to would be the Firefighter’s Museum. I had never been to a firefighter’s museum, so...

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.

Hiking Pichincha Via The Teleferico

This weekend our new found 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...

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...

Día de los Difuntos in Calderón

On November 2nd of each year, communities all around Ecuador celebrate el Día de los Difuntos or Day of the Deceased. Families gather in cemeteries, spend time cleaning gravesites, leave new bouquets of flowers or wreaths of shiny plastic, and share food together....

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...

The Flowering Guayacanes: A Photo Essay

Flowering Guayacanes: A Photo Essay Each year following the first downpour of the rainy season, thousands of hardwood trees paint the dry forests of Southern Ecuador a brilliant, golden yellow. This very short bloom lasts no more than about five days as flowers...

Catzos – Sierra Snack Food

I almost couldn't believe it when I saw catzos con tostado for sale at the local Killa Raymi food festival in Peguche, Ecuador. I was drawn to the table like a moth to a flame. A new food, a new window into Andean culture, and a new experience. What more could I ask...

The Awesome El Angel Ecological Reserve

During our time in Ecuador, we’ve gone out of our way a couple of times to see a very special kind of tree called the Polylepis. A member of the rose family, the Polylepis were once common in the Andes over 8800 feet. However, over the centuries most have...

Imbabura Province – Otavalo

The Imbabura Province is best known by tourists for the market town of Otavalo. Visit on a Saturday to visit two completely different style markets. One is the Feria de Animales where farmers come to buy and sell animals. Locals can buy everything from a well-trained...

Carnaval in Guamote

Last year, I went to one of the most exciting parades in Ecuador, Carnaval in Guamote. It takes place the Monday before Fat Tuesday. Hundreds of people come from the surrounding mountain communities to either take part in the parade or to watch it. It's a celebration...

The Cacería del Zorro Parade

If you are a planner, now is the time to start thinking about the big horse race in Ibarra, the Cacería del Zorro, and the morning parade. Both will take place on Saturday, October 8, 2016. [powr-holiday-countdown id=d4b28ac0_1472334811] It is an all day event,...

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.

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...

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...

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...

Cabañas San Isidro, an East Slope Lodge

Cabañas San Isidro is a nature lodge tucked into the East Slope cloud forest of the Andes in Ecuador. It sits at 2,050m (6,800 ft.) above sea level in a zone that is mostly blanketed by damp, lush forest. The reserve is home to hundreds of bird species, many of...

Laguna Paikawe: Wildlife Near Tena

The Laguna Paikawe is a tiny paradise. A simple canoe, a 1000-meter loop around a unpopulated island, and tons of wildlife. And my experience took place in the middle of a hot afternoon. I can only imagine how many birds could be seen in the...

Happy World Tourism Day!

The World Tourism Organization is celebrating World Tourism Day with a special theme, Tourism and Community Development. It's important that those of us who spend on tourism do so in a responsible manner. That isn't always as easy as it sounds. As all of us are out...

Traditional Pottery of the Quichua

The process of building pottery by hand looks simple. But when you create your works of art in the time honored manner of the Quichua, simple is deceptive. Hours of work go into the making a single bowl. The Quichua still use these bowls for ceremonies and for...

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...

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...

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....

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.

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...

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, the youngest of the islands in the archipelago and the one with...

The Sea Lion Resting Lounge

In the port town of Puerto Ayora, there is a small hotel, the Red Mangrove, that has given a corner of their outdoor seating to the sea lions. Maybe given is a strong word. The sea lions have taken over and the hotel has decided not to fight new ownership. After all,...

Best Shots from Santa Cruz Island, the Galapagos

  Almost everyone who plans a trip to the Galapagos visits Santa Cruz Island first. The majority of flights from the mainland come to the small but active airport on the Baltra, a former US military base during WWII. From there, they make their way to Puerto...

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...

Puerto Chino, San Cristobal

When we visited Puerto Chino, we weren’t sure what to expect. I imagined a small port and evidence of a long-gone fishing village, probably founded by the Chinese. I couldn't have been more wrong. Hike Puerto Chino Heaven knows why I didn’t read up on Puerto...

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...

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 Trail to Tortuga Bay

One of the most popular day trips on the island of Santa Cruz is Tortuga Bay. You can arrive in two different ways - by boat or by foot. You can also leave by the same method. Or chose one for one direction and the other to return. The trail begins at the end of...

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...

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!