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.

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...

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...

Morning Market, La Libertad

o experience a true Ecuadorian breakfast on the coast, I have the place to go, the local fish market in La Libertad, about a 20 minute drive from Salinas. There you will find a very active fish market with some of the shiniest,...

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...

Chirije Lodge, Closed For Business

Unfortunately, Chirije Lodge is closed for business. The following article was originally written in May 8, 2014. While it is not possible to stay the night at Chirije, day trips to the locations are still an option with a local guide. Therefore, we're leaving this...

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...

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...

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. If you love potatoes for breakfast, you should really give this a try. Ecuadorians eat it by the...

Bosque Cerro Blanco

On our last trip to Guayaquil, we made it a goal to see howler monkeys. And one of the best places to see them is the privately run wildlife reserve of Bosque Cerro Blanco. The foundation that protects the land where the howler monkeys live is an NGO based in...

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 it...

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 Best Places to Photograph Cotopaxi

The Cotopaxi  Volcano, the second highest mountain in Ecuador, lies a mere 35 kilometers outside of the capital city, Quito. A grand 5,897 meters (19,347 feet) high, this active volcano is popular with sports enthusiasts of all kinds. While Cotopaxi National Park...

The Faces of Inti Raymi

or people living along the equator, Inti Raymi is the day that shadows disappear even while standing in the full sun; in North America, we call it the Summer Solstice and celebrate it as the longest day of the year. But for South Americans...

What You Need To Know About Nono, Ecuador

In the past, a trip out to Nono could take a couple of hours along a dusty road of broken cobblestone. Today, it is smooth sailing on a two-lane paved road that meanders through neighborhoods tucked into the high Pichincha slope of northwest Quito. Where is Nono,...

Museo del Pumapungo, Cuenca

A short walk from the neighborhood of Las Herrerías is an outdoor archeology museum with the preserved ruins of an ancient culture, the Cañari. The entire complex is called Pumapungo, a Quichua word which translates to puma (a mountain lion of the...

The New Cathedral, Cuenca

ne of the most famous sites in Cuenca, a city known for its historic center and colonial buildings, is not very old at all. While construction of the New Cathedral began in the 1880s, completion took almost 100 years. The church was consecrated in...

Birdwatching and Relaxation at a Mindo Ecolodge

Long time reader Emoeke Ullmann and I are friends on Facebook. When I saw her beautiful posts about a little-known Mindo ecolodge, I asked if she would be willing to write a few words. After all, we have only visited Mindo one time as we tend to gravitate towards the...

Rumipamba: An Outdoor Archeology Park in Quito

For those looking to learn about the ancient cultures of Ecuador, Rumipamba Archeology Park makes an excellent starting point. Archeologists have uncovered ruins dating from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE, a time period encompassing civilizations like the Quitu-Cara. Meaning of...

Loja Province, Saraguro

On my first visit to the Loja Province, Saraguro, I stayed at a small, family-run hostel just down the road from a friend's childhood home. It was an adventure that introduced me to a new Andean culture, Saraguro. I spent a week hiking local trails and heading into...

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 Cotopaxi glacier, especially if you've already taken the time to hike to the Refugio! The views are spectacular, both towards the icy mountain...

Kale & Cauliflower in Quito?

Kale in Quito? It isn't exactly a well-known vegetable in South America, much less Ecuador. But for those craving these trendy greens, I have some good news. There is a small organic farm, Finca Orgánica Chaupi Molino, that not only grows kale but sells it in Quito on...

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.

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...

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 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...

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 which...

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...

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...

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....

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 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...

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.

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 Chino...

El Junco, San Cristobal

There is a single freshwater lake in the Galapagos, El Junco, and it can be seen on the island of San Cristobal. The lake was formed tens of thousands of years ago after the last ice age. Locals named it El Junco after a flowering plant that grows in the area,...

A Volcanic Landscape – Bartolome Island

A local Ecuadorian friend and fan of my photography once told me that if I could only visit one place in the Galapagos, it should be Bartolome Island. Unfortunately, my first visit to the islands was filled with learning the ropes and last minute travel deals and one...

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...

Los Gemelos, The Galapagos

On the island of Santa Cruz, dividing the dry forests of Palo Santo from the humid agricultural land on the windward side, are a pair of volcanic sinkholes called Los Gemelos, or the twins. They are often referred to as craters but their formation was caused by a...

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...

The Garden of Mosaic Tile

Hidden down a shady path just before the Charles Darwin Center in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, The Galapagos, is a small garden dedicated to mosaic murals and sculptures covered in tile. [ready_google_map id='9'] The place is magical and full of stories waiting to...

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...

Sea Lions Take Over Hotel in the Galapagos

In the small town of Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, there is a hotel where seal lions rule the roost. The Red Mangrove (now called the Hotel Galapagos Habitat), gave a corner of their outdoor seating to the sea lions. Maybe gave is a strong word. Rather, the sea lions...

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...

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