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.

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...

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...

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...

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...

Tagua Artists of Dos Mangas

Dos Mangas has a secret waiting to be told to a wider audience. Currently it is known only by Ecuadorians and even many of them don't know of the treasures trove just a few kilometers off the Ruta del Sol. Dos Mangas is a small, unassuming village bisected...

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...

Chirije – The Lodge

eaceful, gorgeous, natural. Just adjectives. But they describe Chirije perfectly. It's a small lodge tucked away on a beach just south of Bahía de Caraquez in Ecuador. It's remote enough that there is no road for the last few kilometers of...

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....

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...

Best Photos from the Santa Elena Province, Ecuador

I love Santa Elena. This province along the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast has it all: wildlife, archeology sites, a fairly large city, several towns, and even more small fishing villages, rocky coast, and miles upon miles of sandy beaches. Although we never plan on...
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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.

Use the slider below to read more about the Ecuadorian Andes.

Pichincha Province, Yanacocha Reserve

The Yanacocha Reserve is a real treasure of the Pichincha province and deserves to be recognized on its own. I have probably visited the Yanacocha Reserve more than any other place in and around Quito. Part of me just loved the drive - a graveled road in fair shape...

Driving Backroads to the Ilinizas

We know the weather in the Andes of Ecuador is unpredictable. Sometimes when we wake up with plans to go one direction, we end up going in another. And that's how we happened to end up on the backroads to the Ilinizas. An early morning departure for Cotopaxi National...

San Jorge de Quito Eco-Lodge

San Jorge Lodge came to us rather by surprise. We should have discovered it long ago. It's on the route to our favorite Quito birding destination, Yanacocha Reserve. In fact, their trail system intersects with that of the higher altitude reserve. Because it is close...

Kale in Quito?

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

A Quiteño Good Friday

Of all the events taking place in Quito during Holy Week, the procession of Jesús del Gran Poder is the most famous. It takes place on Good Friday, when thousands of participants gather at the Iglesia del San Francisco before starting on a parade route of more than...

Choco-Andino: A New Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador

On July 25th, 2018, UNESCO announced that Ecuador will receive its seventh biosphere designation, the Choco-Andino de Pichincha Biosphere. The new reserve hugs the northern Ecuadorian Andes near the capital city, Quito. High peaks give way to foothills that are taller...

How Well Do You Know Quito, Ecuador?

Quito is a perennial favorite in the World Travel Awards, winning South America's Top Leading Destination every year since 2013. Most people know that this Andean city is the capital of Ecuador and that its high altitude location makes it the second...

The Orchids at the Quito Botanical Garden

I look forward to orchid season in Quito! That means from December through April, I'll the best opportunity to see these strange and beautiful flowers in their native habitats.  In the meantime, I'll have to be content with the collection I found at the Jardín...

Museum Commemorates the Battle of Pichincha

La Cima de la Libertad is a place of pilgrimage for many Ecuadorians. This small plot of land overlooks the Historic Center, the Virgin of the Panecillo, and large swaths of South and Central Quito. However, the view is only one reason people come to visit this...

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...
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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...

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...

The Amazing Kichwa Lodge in Cuyabeno, Ecuador

The Kichwa Lodge is located in the heart of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador. Our lodge is ideally situated to experience the best of the Cuyabeno: wildlife like colorful birds of the Amazon Basin, several species of monkeys, elusive jaguars, strange and...

Las Cavernas y Cascadas Yanayacu

I knew I had made a mistake with my first step into water. My hiking boots immediately cried "We're not waterproof!" I knew that wet socks would be my hiking companions for the rest of the day and that I would be lucky to avoid blisters. Why didn't I wear my rubber...

Happy World Tourism Day!

The World Tourism Organization is celebrating World Tourism Day with a special theme, Tourism and Community Development. It's important that those of us who spend on tourism do so in a responsible manner. That isn't always as easy as it sounds. As all of us are out...

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...

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....

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...

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...
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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...

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,...

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...

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,...

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 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...

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...

Tortoise Hatchery – Isla Isabela

In the small town of Puerto Villamil on the Isla Isabela is a tortoise hatchery. Although this island is known for having the largest population of wild tortoises in the Galapagos and the widest variety of species, many are still listed as either endangered or...

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...
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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!