Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, has long been hailed as a great jumping off point for adventure travelers. The city is surrounded by eleven volcanoes and dozens of flowing rivers, making it an ideal locale for those looking to hike, bike, climb, kayak and more. As if that weren’t enough, four regions are crammed into this tiny, megadiverse country – the Amazon jungle, the Andean highlands, the coastal region and the Galapagos Islands – offering boundless opportunities for adventure travelers.
Once you land in Quito, food, accommodations, transportation and even adventure activities are relatively cheap; this is one place where the dollar really does go a long way. And since the country uses U.S. currency, many people reading this won’t even have to worry about doing any of those pesky conversions.
Of course, it’s not all sun and roses in Ecuador. This beautiful country also comes with some safety concerns, among them the threat of natural disasters such as volcano eruptions and earthquakes, as well as crime aimed at easy-to-target travelers. Before you go, read through the U.S. Department of State’s travel warnings, and once you land keep aware of your surroundings at all times.
The mountains are one of the main draws for adventure travelers to Quito, and there are options to suit both newbies and experienced climbers. Because they are capped with glaciers, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe and Tungurahua are often the most desirable mountain destinations. Before setting off, remember to allow time to acclimatize to the altitude, which can be done pain free by drinking plenty of water and allowing some time to adjust to the nearly two-mile-high capital. Several tour operators, all based in Quito, can arrange tours lasting from a few hours to several days. Book before you go, or wait until you land to shop around for last minute deals in Quito’s Mariscal neighborhood, the tourist center of the city that is packed with bars, coffee shops, Internet cafes, restaurants and dance clubs.
- High Summits: Pinto E5-29 and Juan León Mera, Quito; (+593-2) 290-5503.
- Gulliver: Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. From $195.
- Positiv Turismo: Jorge Juan N33 -38 y Atahualpa, Quito; (+593-2) 252-7305. From $195.
Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking
The Ecuadorian landscape is packed with the highest densities of rivers per square mile in the world. Quito itself is located just a little over an hour from the Amazon basin, meaning rivers that flow from the Andes run strong and fast from these highlands down to the rainforest. This creates ideal conditions for rafting, so much so that just a few years ago the World Rafting Championship was held on the Quijos River, just northeast of Quito. Possible operators include:
- Imagine Ecuador: 16 de Diciembre St., Baños; (+593-2) 274-3472.
- Ríos Ecuador: (593 6) 288 6727 Tarqui 230 And Díaz de Pineda, Tena; (+593-2) 260-5828. From $65.
- Southern Explorations: Based in the United States; 877-784-5400. From $195.
Quito wraps around the Eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano that has two easily hikable peaks. The smaller peak, Ruku, makes for a great day hike if you get an early start (before the fog rolls in); begin by taking in the city on Quito’s skytram, the TelefériQo ($4), from which there are markers for the three-hour round trip excursion.
Other than the Ruku hike, there are hundreds of trails that take adventurers through Ecuador’s various landscapes. Unique to Ecuador is the Páramo ecosystem, a rocky, mossy region that exists in limbo between the tree line and snow line at about 15,000 feet, or nearly three miles high. One great place to experience this terrain is by hiking in Papallacta, where you can take a six-hour hike that ends at a collection of hot springs, where you can soak your bones and stay overnight in a comfy resort. Tours can be self-guided, or organized with these operators:
- Tierra de Fuego: Amazonas N23-23 y Veintimilla, Quito; (+593 2) 250-1418. From $45.
- Gulliver: Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. From $75.
- Andes Adventures: Baquedano E5-27, Quito; (+593 2) 255-7176.
Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, is located about 17 miles south of Quito. On clear days, Cotopaxi can be spotted rising strong and mighty in the distance from many points in the city. And it’s quite the sight to see: the volcano’s perfectly symmetrical cone features one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. Guide companies offer regular guided climbs of the mountain, as well as downhill mountain biking tours from a 4,600-meter altitude. Private tours can be arranged from the capital, or adventure seekers can make the trip on their own via bus.
Where to Stay: At the first refuge, a modest building on the skirts of the volcano at an elevation of 15,744 feet, $10 gets foreigners a night’s stay. However, if you’re willing to spend a little more, The Secret Garden Hostel is also a great jumping-off point. Starting at $25 per night, accommodations are a bit pricey by Ecuadorian budget travel standards, but extra-comfortable beds, a hot tub under the stars and three-square vegetarian meals a day make it well worth the price. The hostel can arrange private summit treks by foot or bike, as well as horseback rides up another nearby volcano, Rumiñahui, which blew its top long ago.
Baños de Agua Santa
Known simply as “Baños” by Ecuadorians and visitors, this tiny town sits at the base of Tungurahua (literally meaning “Throat of Fire”), an active volcano that last erupted in March. Besides the chance to glimpse a real active volcano, visitors can explore more than 60 waterfalls or go rafting, kayaking, canyoning, hiking, bridge jumping and more. Expect many national and international visitors – especially on weekends – as buses frequently shuttle people to and from Quito on a three-hour trek for $3.50.
Where to Stay: After spending all day outdoors, treat yourself at the Samari Spa Resort, a former Jesuit monastery that has all the comfort and amenities any traveler desires. Take a soak in the indoor heated pool, or massage those sore muscles at the spa. Whether you are a family looking for a two-level cabin or a couple in need of a romantic retreat, there’s a room type for everyone. Rooms start at $187, and if that’s too pricey there’s plenty of budget accommodation in this town, too.
Not far from Quito – about 60 miles or a $2 bus fare to be exact – is this jungle town in the Andean foothills known to attract adventure-seeking travelers. Take an aerial tram across the cloud forest for a hike to several different waterfalls. There’s also the opportunity to take a canopy tour across the jungle on 13 zip lines of varying heights, some of which are up to 3,500 meters high.
Where to Stay: Anyone with a budding interest in birdwatching will love Mindo Dragonfly Inn, a wooden retreat in Mindo with balconies that overlook the Canchupi River. Feeders draw many species of hummingbirds to these balconies, and birdwatching tours can be arranged from the inn. In addition to comfortable rooms, there’s also an on-site bar and restaurant. Starting at $27.
Taxis ($25), express airport buses ($8) and public buses ($2) all service the airport frequently, but allow for at least an hour to reach the city. Since Quito is smushed between two mountain ranges, the city is long and narrow, with the main tourist attractions located more or less in the center. There are three, easy-to-navigate, mass transit lines, or trolleys ($0.25/ride), that run in a north-south direction: Trolebus (green line), Ecovia (red line) and Metrobus (blue line). Regional buses can be picked up from two stations at either end of these trolleys. The transportation system is fairly intuitive: use the northern station for destinations north of the city, such as Cotopaxi, and vice versa for destinations south of the city, including Baños and Mindo.
Some bus companies also have terminals near the tourist center, La Mariscal, but similar to Chinatown buses in the United States, these are often more dangerous. No matter which company you go with, be sure to always keep your belongings within eyesight, as theft is common on buses.
- South American Explorers Club: This nonprofit organization has a clubhouse in Quito.
- “Trekking in Ecuador“: Available in several languages, this book outlines many of the hikes in Ecuador.
[Photo credit: blogger Libby Zay]