Ecuador is a country that’s ideal for families looking for a cultural vacation filled with nature, adventure, new foods and new customs. Roughly the size of Colorado, Ecuador offers a combination of the jungle, the Galápagos islands and colonial history — all in one trip. My family’s recent three-week itinerary contained all of these elements plus a few days of volunteering.
In the 20 years since I lived in Quito as a college student and volunteer, the country has changed considerably, and this is good news for travelers. Infrastructure has improved, as have hygiene practices and services for tourists. For kids, Ecuador is not completely foreign, yet it’s not in their comfort zone either. It’s a destination that makes them think and question long after the vacation has ended.
Best Itinerary for Three Weeks in Ecuador with Kids
Quito: 4 Days Volunteering + 2 Days Sightseeing
The colonial city of Quito is experiencing a resurgence of tourism. Visitors are drawn to its location at the foothills of the Andes Mountains and its historical center, with Spanish-style colonial buildings that date back to the 16th century. Quito is the best choice to get a feel for Ecuadorian culture if time is short; however, it’s important to note that, at 9,500 feet, its altitude can be a limiting factor.
Volunteering at the Working Boys Center
Our visit began with a homecoming at the Working Boys Center, where I spent a year volunteering after college. The center provides all-ages education for the poorest families in Quito, plus meals, medical care and other services. The organized program for volunteer groups is an immersive experience into the life of the poor, and eye-opening for children that have grown up with plenty.
Sightseeing in Quito
There are two distinct areas in Quito for tourists: the new town and the historical center. While there are attractions across the city, the historical center has the highest concentration of sights. Plan to spend a day here walking the cobblestone streets and visiting colonial mansions, churches and artisan shops. Private guides are reasonably priced and highly recommended for families and non-Spanish speakers.
On the second day, a visit to Mitad del Mundo, through which the equatorial line passes, is a must-see. More interesting with kids is the Intiñan museum next door, where balancing an egg on a nail is a highlight for budding scientists. With a full day, there is time for a food market tour or a ride on the gondola up Pichincha mountain on the way back to Quito.
Baños: 3 Days
Baños is Ecuador’s unofficial adventure capital, home to the smoking Tungurahua volcano and close to Puyo, the gateway to the jungle. The area is surrounded by opportunities for rafting, ziplining and biking. At three hours south of Quito, two nights is the minimum stay.
The highlight with elementary-age kids is a day trip into the jungle. This is a “jungle lite” trip and perfect for families. Our tour with Geotours included a local market stop, a dugout canoe ride, a monkey sanctuary, a jungle trek with termite and lemon ant tastings, and a walk behind a waterfall.
On the second day, visit the waterfalls along the waterfall route just outside town. In the afternoon, stroll the town of Baños, keeping an eye out for shopkeepers pulling hot melcocha “taffy” on doorway pegs. The town of Baños is not a colonial city; I’d highly recommend staying just outside town at Samari Spa Resort, an old Jesuit monastery with upscale, colonial-style accommodations, peacocks strolling the grounds and a beautiful indoor pool and spa area.
TIP: For active families who have limited time, the growing city of Mindo is two hours from Quito and has a cloud forest and adventure activities.
The Highlands and Otavalo: 3 Days
The Highlands near Quito are the artisan heart of the country, a panorama of mountain lakes and patchwork hillside crops. A two-night hacienda stay provides time to see artisans at work and get out to the countryside.
Take one day to visit Otavalo, South America’s largest outdoor artisan market, and artisan workshops in neighboring towns like Peguche, Cotacachi and San Antonio de Ibarra. With advance reservations, you can stop for a tour at a rose plantation.
On the next day, explore the countryside, where it’s not uncommon to see farmers herding cattle and sheep on the roads. Enjoy hikes and boat rides at Cuicocha crater lake, horseback riding on mountain paths and fishing at Laguna Mojanda.
Interested in a hotel with history? Hacienda Cusin is a good base for area explorations. It’s family-friendly and has llamas, a playground and basketball court, horseback riding and a secret room that kids can’t wait to discover.
The Galápagos Islands: 7-night Cruise
For many families, the Galápagos Islands are the reason for a visit to Ecuador. Cruises range from four to seven nights and each ship follows a strict national park schedule designed to help preserve the environment.
With school-age children, a trip to the Galápagos is part outdoor classroom and part active adventure. Each day is filled with guided excursions to different islands where wildlife is on full display. With no natural predators, the animals don’t shy away and provide up-close viewing not even possible in a zoo.
On our seven-night cruise on Ocean Adventures’ Eclipse, snorkeling and water play were the highlights for the kids. The fish and mammals are abundant, and swimming with penguins, sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, eels and other tropical fish becomes a normal part of the daily routine. Another highlight is the fresh seafood and Ecuadorian dishes that provide a glimpse into the country’s culture and cuisine.
If combining a trip to the Galápagos Islands with mainland Ecuador, consider ending with the cruise, as the days are long. It’s challenging to get the kids back into sightseeing mode after they have almost been tripping over the animals in the Galápagos.
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Editor’s Note: Kristi received media rates to review activities and accommodations in Ecuador. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Kristi Marcelle.