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.

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...

Ecuador Earthquake Relief Can Include Tourism

After being awoken by massive shaking last night, today seems as a good a day as any to let the world know what is going on in "post" earthquake Ecuador. Last night's 6.7 earthquake was close enough to the epicenter of last month's 7.8 that it might be considered an...

A Bird’s Eye View in Salinas, Ecuador

While visiting the well known sites of La Chocolatera and La Lobería near Salinas, Ecuador, it's worth the time to take a small detour up the hill to the Mirador Puntilla Santa Elena which overlooks the entire area. There you can spend a few minutes...

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....

A Beautiful Beach in Manabi, Ecuador

Unfortunately, Chirije Lodge is closed for business. 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 article for future visitors. The following article was...

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...

La Lobería, Salinas

La Lobería is a small but interesting tourist destination on the coast of Ecuador. It is actually located on a military base but access for tourists is quite easy. The point of coming here is to see sea lions, or Lobos Marinos (literally sea wolves). I have to admit,...

Montañita

Montañita, the most well-known beach town on the coast of Ecuador, has a reputation for marijuana, strong drinks, and great waves. I'm not sure if any of those is really true. While we may have caught a whiff of weed on our two visits, it seemed no more or less than...

The Malecon 2000, Guayaquil

Built in the year for which it is named, the Malecon 2000 is a modern urban park that attracts hundreds of Guayaquileños each day. The word malecón means boardwalk or pier in English. Many coastal or river cities in Ecuador have a malecón. But when Guayaquil decided...

Parque Histórico, Guayaquil

t wouldn't be wrong to expect a history park in Guayaquil to be all about the history of the region. Parque Histórico is home to many old properties typical of the port city the turn of the 19th century. But Parque Histórico has...
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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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Jesús del Gran Poder, Quito

In Quito, Ecuador, Jesús del Gran Poder refers to a wooden sculpture from the 17th century that has become a symbol of faith to thousands of Quiteños, many of whom have accompanied the figure year after year during the grand procession that takes place on Good Friday...

The Iconic Salcedo Ice Cream Bar

Almost every Ecuadorian driving from Latacunga south towards Riobamba stops for a famous Salcedo ice cream bar. The main route through town was once home to dozens of ice cream stores all claiming to sell the original Helado de Salcedo. Today few people take...

The First Cry of Freedom: A Story of Ecuadorian Independence

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

A Stunning Long-Tailed Hummingbird Near Quito

The Violet-tailed Sylph is a spectacular hummingbird with a blue and violet tail that could compete with the brightest of neon lights. At least, the male of the species sports this brilliant, split tail. The female is slightly more sedate but a beautiful bird in her...

Gateway to Ecuador: Quito

Welcome to the two part series, Gateway to Ecuador. With two major airports that accept international flights, there are ample opportunities to use each gateway city as a base for exploration of the Ecuadorian mainland. Fly into Quito Despite the 7.8 earthquake of a...

What You Need To Know About Mindo, Ecuador

Travelers and tourists venture to Mindo for birds and butterflies, zip-lining, chocolate tours, and hiking in the dense Andean cloud forest. While we've only stayed a couple of nights in Mindo, we definitely see its appeal, especially for families with children or...

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...

Touring Safely in Quito

We've lived in Quito for almost a year now. And I think it's time to share a piece I started to write immediately after arriving last summer but was afraid to publish because I didn't want to scare friends who might want to come and visit. It's about touring safely in...

Locro de Papas, Quiteño Comfort Food

I can't think of a dish that is more emblematic of Quito than Locro de Papas or Potato Soup In Ecuador, a locro is a thick soup, almost a stew, and it's base is potato, specifically the papa chola, a large, starchy, reddish skinned potato with a pale yellow to white...

The Andean New Year Celebration of Cochasquí

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

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...

Great Photos of Puerto Napo in the Amazon Basin

hen most travelers start researching trips to the Rio Napo in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador, they find a list of very expensive lodges accessible only by plane or by boat. But the Oriente of Ecuador is full of small, local communities wedged in...

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 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...

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...

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....

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...

The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve: A Photo Essay

The Cuyabeno: A Photo Essay  We plan to write many articles about the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in northeast Ecuador, to include a description of the different access points and places to stay, the basics of travel in the region, and the what times of year are best to...

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...
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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.

Galapagos Tortoises on San Cristobal

A tortoise hatchery sounds like a pretty scientific place where you might expect to see cages, enclosures, incubation rooms, and a sterile lab or two. The Galapaguera at San Cristobal will come as quite a surprise. What is a Galapago, a Galapaguito, and a Galapaguera?...

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...

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...

An Organic Farm on the Galapagos

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine visiting an organic farm on the Galapagos Islands. Like most of us, I only pictured wild animals and even wilder places. I didn’t think of human populations at all. But the Galapagos is populated by more than 25,000 legal...

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...

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...

Hiking to Tortuga Bay in the Galapagos Islands

One of the most popular day trips on the island of Santa Cruz is Tortuga Bay. It's an affordable option for the budget traveler. Better yet, it's a gorgeous destination only a short hike or boat trip from most hotels in Puerto Ayora. How To Get To Tortuga Bay You can...

Galapagos Sierra Negra Volcano Erupts (Updated July 8, 2018)

After seeing increased activity for the past couple of months, the second-largest volcanic crater in the world has erupted on June 26, 2018. When the volcano first showed signs increased activity, the Ecuadorian Geographic Institute advised visitors to the Galapagos...

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...

Volcan Sierra Negra, Isla Isabela

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