Until recent years Ecuador has always lived in the shadow of other South American destinations like Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Chile. Of course, the Galapagos Islands have always been a big draw, but mainland Ecuador always seemed to be forgotten when it came to the best places to visit in South America. Over the last decade Ecuador has really started to come into its own as not only a popular tourist destination, but also as a retirement destination, thanks in large part to the year round spring-like climate in such highland cities as Quito and Cuenca.

Yes, Ecuador is a fantastic retirement option, but before you contemplate retiring here you should definitely take the time to travel around and familiarize yourself with all this amazing South American country has to offer. Ecuador offers great culture, food and adventure and offers an unparalleled opportunity to get up close to its amazing array of wildlife. So, what are the best places to visit in Ecuador? What cities offer you the most bang for your tourism dollar? Here are our picks for the best Ecuadorian cities and destinations:

The Galapagos Islands

Rather than the traditional method of saving the best for last we figured we’d just get it out of the way early. Though obviously not part of mainland Ecuador the Galapagos Islands are far and away the crown jewel of Ecuador and a place anyone with the means to do so should absolutely take the time and spend the money to visit.

The 19 islands of the Galapagos are like no other place on the planet. Wildlife such as the giant Galapagos tortoise, the flightless cormorant, blue-footed boobies, lava lizards and the famed waved albatross are unique to the Galapagos – either only dwelling there, are in the case of the waved albatross, only breeding there. It is an amazing experience to be able to get a close-up look at these magnificent creatures, the same creatures that Charles Darwin witnessed back in the early 1800s when he came up with his theory of evolution.

A visit to the Galapagos isn’t a cheap proposition, but you don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars on a luxury cruise touring throughout the islands. Flights from Quito to either the Isla Baltra or San Cristobal airports aren’t too dear, and while you won’t have the ability to see as much of the Galapagos as you would on a cruise you can still get a good sampling of the islands by booking day trips from either of those two locations.

Banos

Those who enjoy outdoor pursuits such as hiking, mountain-biking, ziplining and canyoning will almost certainly fall in love with Banos. 100 miles south of Quito , nestled in a deep valley at the foot of the Tungurahua Volcano, Banos derives its name from the hot springs issuing from the volcano. After a hard day of exploration and adventure sports a soothing dip at Piscina El Salado or La Piscina De La Virgen will certainly ease those aching muscles.

A fantastic jumping off point for Amazon jungle tours, Banos is also well known for its waterfalls, the most famous the Pailon de Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) waterfall that cascades down 100 meters. Brave souls can hike up the slick staircase beside the falls for an experience not soon to be forgotten.

Quito

The capital city of Ecuador, Quito sits 9,350 feet above sea level, making it the highest official capital city in the world. At that height one would expect chilly temperatures, but Quito boasts an almost perfect springlike climate year round, making Quito one of the most sought after retirement destinations. The old city center of Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can soak in its many historical sites while strolling through its ancient cobblestone streets. Must-see attractions in Quito include Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, a breathtaking church with exquisite ornamentation, and La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), an Art Museum dedicated to the peoples of Latin America.

Cuenca

Another massively popular retirement destination, Cuenca, like Quito is a highland city with year round mild temperatures and an amazing culture heritage. The center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the density of historical buildings in the area. The largest Inca ruins in Ecuador are a quick day trip from Cuenca at the Canar Plantation. With a population of 400,000 the city is large, but doesn’t suffer from the noise and the pollution that Quito – a city of almost 2.7 million – does. Those looking for a little slower pace will probably find Cuenca more to their liking.

Riobamba

Famed for the Devil’s Nose Train (pictured above) Riobamba is the capital of the Chimborazo province and is one of the largest cities in central Ecuador’s Sierra region. Like both Quito and Cuenca, Riobamba enjoys steady year-round temperatures between 14-23 degrees celcius. Though the city itself features lots to see and do such as the Catedral de Riobamba and Iglesia de Balbanera – the first Catholic church in Ecuador – Riobamba is best known as a jumping off point for sightseeing. The spectacular train ride to Nariz del Diablo is a must-do. The cost is roughly $20 USD with trains departing Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. In past years brave souls were even allowed to sit on the roof of the train, but that practice has been discontinued for obvious safety reasons.

Cotopaxi Volcano

Just 50 km out of Quito, this 19,347 foot active volcano is a favorite for hikers, climbers and mountain-bikers. It is Ecaudor’s second highest peak, and is in the running as the world’s highest active volcano. The snow-capped peak is a rare sight in this part of the world, featuring one of the few glaciers to be found along the equator. On clear days the snow-capped summit of this behemoth is clearly visible from Quito, daring visitors to make the journey to its summit. For those willing to take that dare multi-day tours are available via a number of tour operators in Quito. They will shuttle you up the mountain to the 14,700 foot mark. From there you climb an additional 1,000 feet with a guide to a base camp where you can make your assault on the summit.

Quilotoa Loop

If you are looking for a true back country experience then the 4 day Quilotoa Loop trail that takes you through ancient Andean villages as you circumnavigate the Quilotoa crater lake. The trail provides hikers with a perfect meshing of natural beauty and culture. As you can see from the photo above you’ll be treated to an awe-inspiring view for the duration of your trek, and your stays at the Andean villages along the way will provide keen insight into the lives and traditions of the indigenous people of the region.

Ecuadorian Amazon

Though the Galapagos Islands remain the main draw for visitors coming to Ecuador to experience raw nature the Ecuadorian Amazon is gaining more and more popularity with each passing year. The region features astonishing biodiversity, including over 300 species of mammals, 350 species of reptiles, roughly 1,600 species of birds, 800+ species of fish, and countless thousands of different plants.

The Yasuni National Park is a treasure-trove of natural beauty and ancient culture. It is the home of the Taromenane and Tagaeri people, two small tribes that live in deliberate isolation from the rest of the world, untouched by the influences of modern civilization.

There are a handful of eco-lodges in the region and making the jungle trek in to stay at one of these remote havens is a unique experience to be treasured for a lifetime. If you want a real adventure in a wild jungle setting then definitely consider adding a few days in the Ecuadorian Amazon to your itinerary.