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.

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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...

Olon

Olon is a small town on the Ruta del Sol. Like Montañita, just to the north, Olon is known for surf and has the requisite schools and instructors available for lessons or just surf boards available to rent. And that's where the comparisons end. Olon is quieter. Its...

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...

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,...

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...

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...

Hiking at Chirije Lodge

Unfortunately, Chirije Lodge is closed for business. Hiking Chirije is still possible. Therefore, we're leaving this article for future visitors. The following article was originally written in May 8, 2014. Hiking the Chirije Trails ​Hiking at Chirije comes in a...

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...

The Best Locations to Photograph Guayaquil, Ecuador

ew international tourists visit the largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, despite it having a modern, international airport and being a hub to the Galapagos Islands. Located in the southern half of the country along the Río Guayas,...

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...
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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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The Convent Museum of San Diego in Historic Quito

The deceptively simple church and grounds of the San Diego Convent in South Quito is full of surprises. We visited during the long weekend holiday of Día de los Difuntos, November 2. As a part of the Quito Eterno project, this museum provided an in depth tour to...

The Mysterious Puruhanta – A High Altitude Lake in Imbabura

For seasoned Ecuadorian travelers, the northern province of Imbabura evokes beautiful images of green mountains, steep valleys, and steel blue lakes. In fact, this province is known as the lakes region. Lakes such as Lago San Pablo, Laguna Cuicocha and Lago...

Great Waterfall Hike in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

While staying in the rural community of Vilcabamba, my youngest son and I took the opportunity to enjoy hiking into the mountainous Podocarpus National Park. Our goal was to find the Cascada El Palta, a beautiful waterfall tucked into the folds of the undulating Andes...

el seco, Finest Food Truck in Quito

If you love food trucks and you love Ecuadorian food, I have the perfect answer for your next meal - el seco. Of course, you'll have to be in Quito because currently this food truck can only be found on the streets in the capitol city of Ecuador. Each day brings a new...

The Quirky Jocotoco Antpitta

When the General Manager of Jocotours, Adela Espinosa, told me that I would fall in love with the Jocotoco Antipitta, I wasn't so sure. I love photographing birds. But fall in love with one? Okay, maybe a hummingbird with a neon blue tail, but not a ground-loving,...

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...

An Andean Festival for Every Season

The four Andean sun festivals, called raymis, are ancient celebrations honoring the annual passage of the sun through the sky. The Spanish-Incan historian Inca Garcilaso de la Vega first recorded these events in his book Comentarios Reales de los Inca in 1609. Current...

Most Difficult Train Track in the World

The Nariz del Diablo train ride provides an excellent opportunity to view some of the amazingly beautiful and mountainous landscape of Ecuador. It's also a great chance for kids to learn a little history while playing conductor. All in all, it is a great trip for...

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,...

The Chimborazo Lodge

feel a joy each time I drive up the rutted dirt road to the gated entrance of Marco Cruz's Chimborazo Lodge. I could blame the euphoria on the high altitude. After all, the lodge is located at 4000 meters, about 13,123 feet, above sea level. But...
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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.

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

Sustainable Tourism Includes Community Development

The World Tourism Organization is celebrating World Tourism Day with a special theme, Sustainable Tourism and Community Development. It's important that those of us who spend our hard-earned money on tourism do so in a responsible manner. That isn't always as easy as...

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...
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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 Grietas – Isla Santa Cruz

Las Grietas on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos is literally a canyon-like crevice in the volcanic rock. Sea water enters the canyon via a pathway that is chock full of mangrove trees. And fresh water enters from the opposite direction. The roots of the...

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,...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

South Plaza, near Isla Santa Cruz

On my very first visit to Santa Cruz Island, I fell in love with a golden iguana. Unfortunately, it was an iguana in captivity, held at the Charles Darwin Research Station. It felt wrong to be visiting the Galapagos and seeing animals kept in pens rather than in their...

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 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...
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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!

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