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.

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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.

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...

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 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...

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...

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 tourism...

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...

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 Best of Buenaventura

The Buenaventura Reserve provides easy access to explore the flora and fauna of Southern Ecuador. However, a visit to this widespread reserve requires a little planning as many of the great things to do lie a few kilometers from the main lodge. Once you arrive, there...

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...
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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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Ecuadorian Horchata

We had already tried several versions of horchata before I realized that this drink is unique to Southern Ecuador, especially in the Loja Province. I learned about it when visiting the small Saraguro market with my friend, Luz. It was mid-morning and we were after a...

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 Bizarre Umbrellabird

When we arrived at the Umbrellabird Lodge on the Jocotoco Foundation's Buenaventura Reserve, we were ready to do some birdwatching. Little did we know that our hunt for new birds (at least new to us) would lead to such a strange and bizarre creature, the Long-Wattled...

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...

Cañar Province, Ecuador

The Cañar Province of Ecuador is most famous for the Cañari-Incan Ruins of Ingapirca. They are the best preserved Incan ruins in Ecuador. These ruins originated with local people, the Cañari, and the Inca built on top of them during their short occupation in Southern...

The Iglesia San Francisco in Historic Quito

On December 6, 1535, one year after the founding of the colonial city then called San Francisco de Quito, three Franciscan Friars arrived to establish a foothold in the new city. Almost 500 years later, the modern day San Francisco Church and Monastery is home to an...

Cuenca’s Aboriginal Cultures Museum

As you may have noticed from our blog, we really like to explore the ancient cultures and traditions of South America. We’re also suckers for a good museum. In Cuenca, we hit the jackpot! Incredibly, there are days-worth of great opportunities to see ruins and explore...

What to Expect at Otavalo’s Feria de Animales

When the sun comes up on Saturday mornings, the Otavalo animal market is already well on its way. People come from all around the countryside to buy and sell animals, large and small. Everything is well organized, with sizable animals like cows separated from the more...

The Otavalo Market

I can heartily give a big thumbs up for the local market in Otavalo, Ecuador. Some folks will try to tell you that you can find bargains just as good in the Mariscal district in Quito but they're not telling you the entire truth. Bargains can be had in both places but...

The San Marcos District, Quito

On my last visit to Historic Quito, a single street sign beckoned me to explore a neighborhood I had never entered, San Marcos. And although my friends and I didn't make it to the San Marcos Plaza, we did find some treasures that I would like to share. We entered this...
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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.

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...

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...

Giant Catfish in the Amazon

The catfish is an example of mother nature’s generosity. Take, for example, the story of Robert Granja. On April 11 of this year, Robert, his brother Kevin and two other friends went fishing as they would normally do. However, instead of going fishing for fun, they...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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....

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...

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...
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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.

Las Tintoreras – Isla Isabela

as Tintoreras is one of the more popular and well-known tourist destinations on the Isla Isabella in the Galapagos Islands. And it is worthy of such attention. Its name means "The Chasms" or the "The Rifts" and comes from the multiple...

The People of San Cristóbal

The day we arrived in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island San Cristóbal in the Galapagos, it was pouring with rain. Of course, it had us immediately worried that our short trip would be hampered by bad weather. Fortunately that wasn't the case. San...

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...

A Bucket of Ceviche

Have you ever made a bucket of ceviche? Or chopped onions on a moving boat? Have you ever tasted limes that are the shape of lemons, but with a green and warty rind and flesh the color of a mandarin orange? Have you ever had fresh ceviche? I mean really fresh, where...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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,...
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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!