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.

Easy-To-See Hummingbirds in Southern Ecuador!

It's not often that we find a birdwatching destination more popular with Ecuadorians than with international visitors. But that's exactly what we found just outside of Piñas, Ecuador. On Google Maps, this special place goes by the simple name Jardín de los...

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...

The Sulfur Spring at 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 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 is well...

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...

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...

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,...

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...

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,...

Bird Watching at Agua Blanca

The dry forests of coastal Ecuador are havens for birds. Unfortunately, they are few and far between because of extreme pressure from development. However, one vibrant dry forest has been protected within the boundaries of Machililla National Park, not far from Puerto...

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.

A New UNESCO Global Geopark: Imbabura, Ecuador

On April 17, 2019, UNESCO announced 11 sites and extensions to the Global Geopark family. In our book, the most important is the addition of Imbabura, Ecuador! The Imbabura Province in the northern Ecuadorian Andes is home to stunning high mountain lakes, jagged...

Museo del Carmen Alto

The Museo del Carmen Alto is a new addition to the attractions in Quito, opening just last year. It is most famous for being a convent for the Carmelite nuns. Today, the space is dedicated to the life and work of Mariana de Jesus, a young woman born in Quito on...

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 Trails at Bellavista

Imagine walking outside of your house, climbing a hill of maybe a hundred meters and seeing a completely different kind of habitat. If you live in a city near a park, this might actually happen but for most of us our home territory is pretty homogenous. But that is...

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...

The Birdwatchers House, Mindo, Ecuador

Birding guide and business owner, Vinicio Perez has more than 35 years of experience leading birding tours in Ecuador. When he decided to settle down to a single location, he chose a small property that skirts the twin valleys of Tandayapa and Mindo. Each and every...

Basilica of the National Vow – Basílica del Voto Nacional

Although this Basilica looks as if it has spent centuries in downtown Quito, it is relatively new. Approval for construction came in 1884 and it wasn't until 1985, more than a hundred years later, that the Basilica blessed by Pope John Paul II yet the building is...

Bordado de Zuleta

In the Andean community of Zuleta, generations of women have embroidered clothing by hand, stitching brightly colored flowers on the shoulders, necks, and sleeves of traditional blouses. In the mid-20th century, a former President of Ecuador, Galo Plaza Lasso, and his...

Violet-tailed Sylph

Before arriving to the San Jorge Tandayapa Lodge for a long weekend last month, I asked if there was a chance to see the Violet-tailed Sylph. I had only seen him once before at the Bellavista Lodge further up the hill. My pictures from that day were blurry from my...

Hiking the Quilotoa Crater Rim

couple of hours from Quito is a huge turquoise lake snuggled into the remains of an ancient volcano. The mountain and the lake are both called Quilotoa and are a popular tourist destination for Ecuadorians and foreigners alike. Most people show up...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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....

Wildsumaco Lodge

About a 5 hour drive to the east of Quito, driving towards the jungles of Ecuador, is a secluded wildlife reserve and lodge. Wildsumaco is tucked into the layers of foothills that lead up to the Andes. From the reserve, it is possible, on very clear days, to get a...

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...

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...

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.

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...

If the Oldest Ceibo Tree in Ecuador Could Tell Tales

An unexpected oddity grows on the Isla San Cristobal in the Galapagos, an ancient ceibo tree. It flourishes in the small community of El Progresso, a short distance outside Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where the cruise ships dock and most visitors to the islands stay....

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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,...

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...

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