As many natural wonders as Ecuador has to offer, it is also full of fascinating urban centers just waiting to be explored. Although the capital of Ecuador is charming Quito, the largest city in the country in terms of population and geography is actually Guayaquil. Then there is smaller colonial Cuenca, but what it lacks in crowds it makes up for in rustic charm. Each of the country’s top 3 major cities has its own unique identity and are all well worth a stop on your Ecuador vacation.
Quito, the capital as well as main administrative and transportation hub in the country, is a place where most visitors to Ecuador will find themselves whether arriving by air or land. Although the region has long been prominent, even serving as one of the starting points of the Inca road system, it wasn’t until 1541 that the Spanish conquistadors finally founded Quito as a city.
Its heritage can still be seen in the historical city center, largely praised as one of the most authentic and best preserved downtowns in South America and thus earning it the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Basilica del Voto Nacional is a top attraction due to its religious significance, spectacular architecture, and gorgeous panoramic views of Quito from the top of the two steeples.
Otherwise, spend some time in the spacious Plaza de La Independencia (also known as Plaza Grande) which is surrounded by administrative buildings, museums, shops, monasteries, and other tourist amenities. Museum enthusiast will be delighted by the excellent Museo del Banco Central which showcases priceless pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary art and artifacts, and provides a comprehensive review of Ecuadorian history.
The country’s second city (though first by many markers), is the port city of Guayaquil. It proudly rests on the banks of the Guayas River that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Guayaquil has a long and tumultuous history involving Spanish colonialists, French and English pirates, the Peruvian army, and a devastating fire in 1896. Today, however, the city is a booming place for both trade commerce and tourism.
Strolling in and out of the attractive homes, restaurants, and shops along the elevated stairway of Cerro Santa Ana is a great way to pass an afternoon. Visitors who reach the top are treated to a sweeping view of all Guayaquil. Back at sea level, be sure to visit the Parque Histórico, a new beautiful urban park that includes a zoo, nature reserve, playgrounds, monuments, and plenty of green space to relax in. Finally, there is the family-friendly, 1.5-mile long Malecon 2000 esplanade along the Guayas River which provides all of the modern entertainment, dining, and shopping options you may be seeking on your trip to Ecuador.
Cuenca is a distant third to Quito and Guayaquil’s size and population. However this magical city resting in the Ecuadorian highlands is also the most attractive. The charming historic downtown of this city has earned recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rich architecture and historical buildings such as the Old Cathedral (Iglesia de El Sagrario) and New Cathedral (Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción). The markets of Cuenca are fantastic places to stock up on artisan handicrafts, people watch, and get an authentic taste of the local cuisine. For a great view, head to Mirador Turi, a lookout point south of the city that will give you an unforgettable vista of the city and its natural surroundings. And if you have extra time, visit some of Cuenca’s nearby villages for true insight into the native lifestyle. Only a few miles away from the city, El Cajas national park is the ideal spot to see spectacular rivers, streams, and lagoons contrasted by the distant rocky peaks.