Driving in Ecuador: Cities to Stay in Between and in Major Cities 

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Ecuador has proven to be the most drivable country we have traveled in over the last 10 months. The country is small and hot spots are within a day’s drive, which meant there were few nights we were forced to stay in the middle of nowhere.

The following is (in order of the route we took), the cities we stayed in, our impressions of that city, and an honest review of our accommodations. We also put together a map for you visual folks out there (eyo!) so you can see the route we took and the distances between each location.

1. Quito; 2. Machachi (Cotopaxi); 3. Banos; 4. Isinlivi; 5. Quilotoa; 6. Montañita; 7. Ayampe; 8. Alausi; 9. Cuenca; 10. Vilcabamba

1. Quito; 2. Machachi (Cotopaxi); 3. Banos; 4. Isinlivi; 5. Quilotoa; 6. Montañita; 7. Ayampe; 8. Alausi; 9. Cuenca; 10. Vilcabamba

1.  Quito

View of Quito from El Panecillo

View of Quito from El Panecillo

Overall Impression: 5/5 stars

Quito was a perfect introduction to Ecuador and we highly recommend visiting this city despite it’s size. Nestled in a bowl-shaped valley, the colorful cobblestone streets are paved with fruit vendors, indigenous women in felt hats, and friendly locals.

Drive Rating: 3/5 Tires, 4.5 Hours From the Border

Just 4.5 hours from the border, Quito was our first stop in Ecuador. We stayed in Ipiales, Colombia the night before our border crossing, which only tacked on 30 minutes to our commute. The Colombia/Ecuador border was, like all other Latin America border crossings we’ve done, tedious but relatively painless and line-free. Driving in Quito is like driving in most big Latin American cities, and you can expect to be stuck in traffic, weaving through small roads, and navigating lots of one way streets.

Vegan Rating: 4/5 Bananas

Vegan/vegetarianism is widely understood and accommodated for when ordering in local restaurants. There are also several fully vegan and vegetarian restaurants (we suggest using Happy Cow to find them.) Soy/almond milk is sold at Supermaxis and some cafes (Sweet & Coffee is a chain coffee shop that has almond milk) have almond or soy milk available.

Favorite Lunch Spot: Ari Comida Sana
Favorite Dinner Spot: Tandana

Accommodation: Community Hostel Quito, 5/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: Yes and No. We were able to park our motorcycle in Marco’s (the owner) mother’s shop downstairs, but it’s not guaranteed to be available so if you’re driving/riding it’s likely you’ll need to find parking elsewhere.
Cost: $30/night for a private and shared bath
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: Fucking rad. We stayed at Community Hostel in Quito twice: before we returned home for the summer and when we returned. Both times we were equally impressed with their commitment to community: $5 family dinners introduced us to friends we met up with countless times over the rest of our time in Ecuador. Each night there were free activities like quiz night, karaoke (Rachel’s favorite) salsa lessons, and more. A tour company is connected to the hostel on the main floor, so it’s easy to set up day trips with the hostel. Our room was enormous—if you get a private room try to request a corner room facing the street. You’ll be happy.

2. Machachi (Cotopaxi)

Volcan Cotopaxi, view from the Lagoon in the National Park

Volcan Cotopaxi, view from the Lagoon in the National Park

Overall Impression: 4/5 stars

Cotopaxi itself is a MUST, and to us worth the overnight in the random city with no vegetarian food. We stayed overnight in Machachi in order to have close access to Cotopaxi National Park. Most backpackers will stay in Latacunga or Quito and take a bus to Machachi on the day of their Cotopaxi excursion. Since we had our own vehicle, we chose to stay in Machachi. There is not much happening in this town, and it’s not a backpacker’s scene. But if you have your own vehicle, you can drive yourself the 30-45 minutes to the North entrance of Cotopaxi Park. 

Drive Rating: 4/5 Tires, 1 Hour from Quito

You can’t bring motorcycles into the park, but you can bring cars in. If you have a car, you can drive right into the park and explore on your own. If you’re on a motorcycle (or arrive on the bus), you can walk through the park and hitchhike really easily in the park. Machachi itself is small and quiet and easy to drive through.

Vegan Rating: 0/5 Bananas

This is the kind of town where people think all that vegetarians or vegans eat is salad. It’s also the kind of town where “salad” means shredded iceburg and tomatoes. We ended up buying bread and peanut butter (pasta de mani) and drinking some beer for dinner.   

Accommodation: Hotel Casa del Montanero, 3/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: Yes.
Cost: $30/night for a private and shared bath and breakfast included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: There were no other guests when we were here, so it was a little too quiet. There was a restaurant/common area with what looked like a bar, but no one was ever working there. Breakfast was decent and they accommodated for us as vegans (toast, jam, fruit, granola, coffee.) The rooms had space heaters and some shelves but were rather small.

3.     Banos

El Pailon Del Diablo Waterfall in Banos

El Pailon Del Diablo Waterfall in Banos

Overall Impression: 4/5 stars

Banos is a lovely valley town surrounded by green hills and waterfalls. It was misty and rainy most of the time we were there, but that didn’t stop us from hiking, checking out the giant swing, and experimenting with unique spa practices (picture sitting in a personal sauna with your head sticking out). If you like activities like river rafting, rock climbing, and zip lining, Banos is an excellent place to go. It’s also a jumping off point for many Amazon tours, which you can book almost anywhere in town.

Drive Rating: 5/5 Tires, 2 Hours from Machachi

The streets are well paved and not busy at all. Banos is easy to get to and the drop into the valley is gorgeous. There’s only one lane to get to town, so if you get stuck behind a slow truck you’re sort of screwed as the road is windy and there are few opportunities to pass. But if you’re bold, it’s doable.

Vegan Rating: 4/5 Bananas

The hostel we stayed at had vegan options for breakfast and dinner, and we ate most of our meals there. There are several restaurants in Banos that have vegetarian and vegan options, as well as a couple exclusively vegan restaurants.
Favorite Lunch Spot: Buquét Fast Food & Gourmet
Favorite Dinner Spot:
Casa Hood

Accommodation: Community Hostel Banos, 5/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: Yes.
Cost: $28/night for a private and bathroom included. Free coffee & tea all day, breakfast not included but available for purchase.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: Similar to the Community Hostel in Quito: Fucking Rad. We met many more travelers at this Community Hostel than any other hostel in Ecuador. Community dinners were delicious, breakfast is exquisite, and the staff are unbelievable. This hostel doesn’t boast as many activities as the one in Quito, but I believe it was because of lack of volunteers at the time (no free yoga, some nights didn’t have activities). Still, the vibe was undeniably social yet respectful of quiet time at night and in the morning.

4.     Isinlivi

Llullu Llama Lodge in Isinlivi, Ecuador

Llullu Llama Lodge in Isinlivi, Ecuador

Overall Impression: 4/5 stars

Isinlivi is not a destination town. It’s very dead and seems to only exist for trekkers who are stopping along the Quilotoa Loop Trek, a several day hike to Quilotoa Lake. Other than the Lodge we stayed at, there is really nothing in town. We only came here because the Lodge was so highly recommended to us, and while it was a beautiful accommodation, I don’t know that you need to go out of your way to come here unless it’s on your way.

Drive Rating: 2/5 Tires, 4 hours 50 minutes from Banos

We drove here from Banos, so we came north and then cut northeast over Quilotoa Lake to get here. The first half of the ride was on a major highway, which boasted views of Volcan Cotopaxi, but otherwise was not an interesting highway. The second half of the road was quite complicated. Initially, we were on a one lane paved highway with beautiful sights. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere (and without service and only a hopefully accurate map), the road we were meant to take was under construction. We had to take the word of the only guy in the mountains and backtrack to an unpaved mountain road, which wound and zigzagged up and down the mountains for another two hours. If you plan to take this road, you should have a vehicle that can handle loose rocks and sand on the edge of a mountain.

Vegan Rating: 3/5 Bananas

We stayed in a lodge that offered vegan breakfast and dinner options, which were delicious. Other than the lodge, there are no restaurants in the small and sleepy town of Isinlivi. At lunch we struggled to get the kitchen to cook us something vegan, but we didn’t starve.

Accommodation: Llullu Llama Lodge, 5/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: Yes.
Cost: $24 for a private room with bathroom. Free coffee and tea all day, breakfast and dinner included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: For $24 a night, we were getting a shitload of bonus features: Free access to a jacuzzi, sauna, and steam room; free breakfast and dinner, full bar, free coffee & tea all day, books and games available, free morning and afternoon yoga, option for paid massages, and a stunning view of the valley. The lodge is a stopping point for travelers who are making the Quilotoa Loop Trek, so we felt a little bit like outsiders as most people arrive late at night and leave right after breakfast. The lodge is quiet and empty during the day, so we don’t recommend staying longer than one night. If you’re doing the Quilotoa Loop, you must stop here.

5.     Quilotoa

Quilotoa Lake

Quilotoa Lake

Overall Impression: 4/5 stars

Quilotoa is a small town on the crest of Lake Quilotoa, which is an unbelievable lake at the base of a giant crater (where a volcano once was). If you stay in Quilotoa, you’re literally five minutes from the edge of the cliff that encompasses the lake. There are mostly hotels, restaurants, and touristy shops in Quilotoa. Not much else. You can walk the rim of the lake in about five hours, and you can also walk down into the basin and rent kayaks along the lake. It’s stunning and we recommend either doing the trek to arrive here or simply driving to Quilotoa for the day/night.

Drive Rating: 3/5 Tires, 30 minutes from Isinlivi

We drove here from Isinlivi, and the roads improved significantly on the southwest side of the lake. The first part of the drive was unpaved, but it quickly became paved again. The temperature dropped significantly as we arrived at Quilotoa, which impacted us on the motorcycle but not so much if you’re in a toasty heated car.

Vegan Rating: 2/5 Bananas

Our hotel was able to accommodate us for dinner and breakfast, we just needed to let them know in advance. There are some restaurants in Quilotoa that offer Almuerzos, and if you ask for a vegetarian/vegan option they’ll struggle with you like anywhere else to figure out what to make, but eventually you can get rice, plantain, french fries, salad, and if you’re lucky some beans.

Accommodation: Martita’s House Hostal, 3/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: Yes (uncovered/unsecured)
Cost: $44 for a private room with bathroom. Breakfast and dinner included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumps Up.
Environment: We were the only guests, save the two french girls we met at Llullu Llama and told we were staying there the following night. The rooms were fine and there was a common area with a fireplace which was nice for the evenings. They sell snacks and beer/wine which was a plus.

6.     Montañita

The Donkey Residents at Kamala Hostel in Montañita

The Donkey Residents at Kamala Hostel in Montañita

Overall Impression: 4/5 stars

Montañita is…where you go to party. That’s the deal. The beach has white sand. The surf is easy for beginners. And the clubs stay open 24 hours a day. At least we think they do—we never went. This is the beach town you go to if you are hoping to do some drugs, party until after the sun comes up the next day, and never be judged for it. Just be mindful of what time of year you go, because it’s only sunny about 25% of the year, and we only had one true day of sun.

Drive Rating: 3/5 Tires, 7.5 hours from Quilotoa

The ride here was long. The road was a major highway almost the entire way, so the views weren’t spectacular. We drove through Guyaquil and had to deal with some city traffic there. The temperature fluctuated greatly as well, from hot and humid to cold and windy, and back to warm again. Once we got to the coast we were on a single lane road that passed through small towns with a LOT of speed bumps, which are Josh’s favorite-hate.

Vegan Rating: 4/5 Bananas

Our hostel had a full bar and restaurant and many vegan options. In town there are several vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes, so we had no problem finding good food.

Accommodation: Kamala Surf Hostel, 4/5 Ohms

Parking: Yes
Cost: $24 for a private room with bathroom. Breakfast not included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumps Up.
Environment: Kamala is a really fun place to chill, socialize, and party. The restaurant/bar area has a sand floor, pool table, darts, beer pong table, and many areas to sit and relax. They have a volleyball court and pool as well. It’s far enough outside of the main town (20 minute walk on the beach or $1.50 cab ride) that you won’t be bothered at night by the clubs. There were tons of travelers our age there and we had an easy time making friends and socializing. The rooms are ok—we had a private cabana and bathroom which was spacious, but the bed wasn’t the best and we only had a sheet to sleep with. We asked for a blanket at the front desk which helped. We heard the dorms were nothing to write home about, either, but if you consider your bed just the place you sleep then everything else was perfect.

7.     Ayampe

Overall Impression: 2/5 stars

Ayampe sucked. Sorry Ayampe. Ayampe felt like a wannabe hippie community without legs to stand on. There were a couple cafes and hotels, but no real center to speak of. The weather was terrible, and apparently it stays terrible 8 out of 12 months of the year. By terrible, I mean cloudy, dark, foggy, misty, and not in a cute PNW way. That’s right. More depressing and cloudy than Seattle in December. It’s possible that during the 4 sunny months of the year Ayampe is paradise. Just make sure you come during those months, and no other time.

Drive Rating: 4/5 Tires, 30 minutes from Montañita

The drive to Ayampe from Montañita was only 30 minutes. The road wove through the jungle-y mountains and was quite beautiful.

Vegan Rating: 4/5 Bananas

The hotel we stayed in had a fully vegan restaurant, so we always had options. The food was delicious and healthy, and portions were good. That being said, the menu was expensive and the only place for miles with vegan food, so we were sort of stuck.

Accommodation: Hostal La Tortuga, 3/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: Yes
Cost: $40 for a private room with bathroom. Breakfast not included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: If it was hot and sunny, the environment may have been more appropriate. But for a place with clouds, fog, and rain 8/12 months of the year, I feel these guys should build some type of enclosed area for people to hang out in. Every common area was an open-air concept, meaning no walls or protection from the wind, rain, and cold that was Ayampe. There weren’t many travelers here and it was not a social atmosphere. We felt like it was halfway between a romantic getaway and an upscale backpacker’s spot, but without the amenities of an upscale or romantic accommodation. The weather may have severely impacted our view of this place, but we weren’t sure why we were paying $40 a night to stay here.

8.     Alausi

The train from Alausi to the Devil’s Nose—the main attraction of this small town.

The train from Alausi to the Devil’s Nose—the main attraction of this small town.

Overall Impression: 4/5 stars

Alausi is an adorable, colorful, and quiet town in the Andean Highlands. People come here for two things only: The Devil’s Nose, and the Transandine Railway. The Devil’s Nose is a mountain ridge that can be reached by hike or viewed from the train, and we did both. The train leaves from Alausi each morning at 8am and 11am and does a two hour loop in the valley. Though it has become quite a touristy experience, it is still worth boarding the train. The town itself has a major grocery store, tiendas, restaurants, gift shops, and street vendors. It is most alive in the mornings when tourists come to ride the trains, and quiets down around 2-3 o’clock.

Drive Rating: 3/5 Tires, 6 hours from Ayampe

The ride to Alausi COULD have been epic, but we were caught in the craziest fog either of us have ever seen. The ride started on a major highway off the coast, followed by small roads through flat jungle that reminded us of Bali. Finally, we spent two hours high up in the mountains on single-lane windy roads, unable to see more than five feet in front of us. We were freezing cold and wet the entire time, and there were moments we wondered what we would do if we couldnt’ make it through before dark. Luckily we did, and when we came down out of the fog we were met with the most spectacular mountain and valley views as we ascended into Alausi.

Vegan Rating: 3/5 Bananas

There are no vegan or vegetarian restaurants in Alausi, but several restaraunts are used to accommodating vegan and vegatarian customers. We didn’t have trouble getting a vegetarian meal, but it also wasn’t anything unique (think vegetarian pasta or rice and potatoes).

Accommodation: Community Hostel Alausi, 4/5 Ohms

Use our code 28853dfc at checkout for $25 off your booking if using the link above.

Parking: No, but it’s super safe to park on the streets.
Cost: $35 for a private room with bathroom. Breakfast available but not included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: Run by Marco’s dad, this Community Hostel has a different vibe than the others. The city of Alausi doesn’t attract enough backpackers to classify it as a backpacker’s town, and as such the Community Hostel here doesn’t have enough traction to do family dinners or activities nightly. Even so, we were impressed with the cleanliness, size, and comfort of the hostel. It feels more like a hotel, as there isn’t much social atmosphere. Marco’s dad is a hoot, if you stay here make sure to take some time to talk to him in broken Spanglish.

9.     Cuenca

Streets of Cuenca

Streets of Cuenca

Overall Impression: 5/5 stars

We stayed in Cuenca for two weeks, and we weren’t mad about it. Cuenca is big enough to have everything you need, but small enough to feel like you aren’t being swallowed. The narrow streets have a European feel. Beautiful churches pop up around every corner. The mountains surrounding the city and the river that runs through it keep the city fresh and alive. This is the most religious town in Ecuador, and Sundays the entire city shuts down, and you can have the streets to yourself. Food and accommodation is cheap, and nightlife exists along Calle Largo’s cobblestone-paved street. We spent hours in coffee shops, walked everywhere, and tried every vegan/vegetarian restaurant we could find.

Drive Rating: 3/5 Tires, 3 hours from Alausi

The drive to Cuenca was gorgeous, but once we got into the city we were reminded of Quito’s many one-way one-lane streets. It’s faster to walk wherever you want to go than to drive, and don’t even think about trying to use a cab to cross the river if you need to, as there are dozens of footbridges that will get the job done much quicker.

Vegan Rating: 5/5 Bananas

There are dozens of fully vegan and vegetarian restaurants (we suggest using Happy Cow to find them) in Cuenca. Many of them offer cheap menu del dia style almuerzos, while others have menus with intricate and unique vegan dishes. Soy/almond milk is sold at the Coral Supermarket and some cafes (Goza was our go-to corner coffee shop that has almond milk) have almond or soy milk available.

Favorite Lunch Spot: Govinda’s Vegetariano (we suggest ordering off the menu instead of doing their menu del dia)
Favorite Dinner Spot: Namaste Indian Restaurant

Accommodation: Pumamaqui Airbnb, 5/5 Ohms


Parking:
Yes for moto, no for a car
Cost: $37 for a loft studio apartment.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: This Airbnb is perfect for a couple or individual staying in Cuenca for an extended time. The accommodations are clean, well decorated, and very spacious. The location could not be beat—right across the street from two amazing restaurants (EAT and Thai Connection) and one block from Calle Largo, the cute cobblestone road that runs along the river’s edge.

10.  Vilcabamba

vilcabamba1.jpg

Overall Impression: 5/5 stars

We planned to stay two nights and stayed a week. Vilcabamba is small town in a valley of breathtaking mountains. With a desert-like feel, this area is warm and open. Not too hot, not too dry. The town itself has a small square with a few grocery shops and restaurants. There are many hikes nearby where you can get an incredible view of the never-ending Andes. It’s a gorgeous place to get stuck for a while.

Drive Rating: 5/5 Tires, 4 hours from Cuenca

The drive from Cuenca to Vilcabamba was one of the most beautiful rides we’ve done in Ecuador. We started high in the mountains where the views overshadowed the cold. We dropped down into warmer weather, and the mountains grew more orange as the sun came through the sky. The roads were clear and well paved, and it was spectacularly sprinkled with flat and pointed mountaintops the whole way.

Vegan Rating: 5/5 Bananas

Vilcabamba is a place where many Westerners come to retire, and it seems to attract vegan retirees. There are a few vegetarian/vegan restaurants, and several restaurants that have vegan and vegetarian dishes on their menus. You can find acai bowls, veggie tacos, or vegan Venezuelan food in town. Hosteria Izchayluma, where we stayed, also offers a dozen vegan/vegetarian dishes on their menu.

Accommodation: Hosteria Izhcayluma, 5/5 Ohms

Parking: Yes
Cost: $26 for a private room with shared bathroom. Full restaurant, no meals included.
Location/Safety: 2 Thumbs Up.
Environment: This hostel is the reason we stayed so long. With free yoga every morning, a spa, pool, bar, restaurant, and dozens of accommodation types from dorm rooms to apartments, this felt more like a retreat than a hostel. Izhcayluma is perched on a hilltop overlooking Vilcabamba and the surrounding mountains. The hospitality is felt throughout the compound: yoga teachers not only guided us through beautiful classes daily, but they joined us for meals and made us feel like part of the Izhcayluma family. Guests range from backpackers on year-long trips to families from far away to Ecuadorian couples. The mood here is romantic yet playful, peaceful yet full of energy, and accepting of all kinds of travelers. We fell in love with the sunsets, the food, and the community feeling this place provides. And the prices cannot be beat.