While Quito, Ecuador, offers many opportunities for Inca history, diverse architecture and trendy restaurants, my favorite part about visiting this busy city was its side trips. In less than three hours you can be hiking through waterfall-filled forests, climbing one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, browsing an important cultural market and even standing in the actual middle of the world. If you have more time, you can do majestic lagoon hikes, immerse yourself in adventure sports or visit one of the most ecologically diverse destinations in the world. When taking a trip to Quito, I would recommend incorporating the following trips into your itinerary:
Mindo is the exact opposite of Quito. While Ecuador’s capital is fast-paced, Mindo is a relaxing nature destination where you can immerse yourself in the outdoors and forget about the world. You can catch a bus from Quito’s Terminal Terrestre Norte, La Ofelia, which takes about 80 minutes. Tickets are $2.50 each way, although you can’t buy your return ticket until you get to the destination. Purchase it immediately upon arrival, as buses tend to get crowded.
If you want to immerse yourself in the area’s famous cloud forest, visit the Waterfall Sanctuary and Tarabita. For $5 including the tarabita (cable car), you’ll be granted a bird’s-eye view from above the trees and access to a picturesque hike through seven different waterfalls. For a bit more adventure, you can also zip-line your way through the cloud forest, with the highest cable being over 1,300 feet. At Mariposas de Mindo, you can interact with 1,200 butterflies while feeding them banana. What’s interesting about this place is you’ll see myriad different pupae, which have camouflaging properties depending on where the butterfly would live. Some look like leaves, sticks, stones and even shiny pieces of metal that I first thought were earrings. While all these activities are worthwhile, the most popular reason people visit Mindo is the superb bird watching. There are many places you can go for this; however, I highly recommend El Descanso. It costs $2, and no matter what time you visit you’ll be able to see a variety of bird species like hummingbirds, toucans, parrots and Golden-Headed Quetzals.Cotopaxi Volcano
Located about an hour and a half outside Quito, Cotopaxi Volcano is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. The volcano is 19,347 feet in altitude, and is a perfect, snow-capped cone that makes for great climbing. It is also sacred, as the volcano was once worshipped by Ecuador’s ancient civilizations, who believed Cotopaxi had the power to bring rain and a successful harvest. Cotopaxi Volcano is located in Cotopaxi Volcano National Park, the second largest national park and the second most visited after the Galapagos Islands. Here you’ll find numerous lagoons, lookout points, other volcanoes, Inca sites and even a museum. Many companies offer one-day tours, like CotopaxiTours.com, which mixes hiking and 4×4 driving to get to the top, and Gray Line Ecuador, which allows you to explore the Cotopaxi Volcano National Park. You can get to the volcano from Quito without a tour, although you will need to combine bus transport with taxis that could become pricey.
Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World)
Ecuador gets its name for its proximity to the equator, so it’s not surprising this is also where you’ll find the center of the Earth. Located about an hour and a half outside Quito, the Mitad del Mundo was discovered by French scientists in the early 1900s. When visiting the site, which is also a park, you’ll see statues of these hardworking men, as well as a monument and line marking the 0′-0′-0′ latitude (shown right). Be aware, however, that since the invention of GPS, it has been discovered the real middle of the world exists about 800 feet away from this line.
The Coriolis Effect, the apparent deflection of winds, oceans, airplanes and anything else that moves freely across the Earth’s surface, occurs due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis. An example many people use for a visual is a sink draining; in the northern hemisphere the water will turn counter-clockwise, while in the southern hemisphere it will turn clockwise. On the equator, the effects of this law are almost completely vertical. Many visitors like to test this out by doing various tricks. The most popular ones are balancing an egg on a nail and draining water in a moveable sink. It’s pretty amazing, but you can witness the water drain straight down on the equator, counter-clockwise on the northern side of the equator and clockwise on the southern side.
Along with the monument, there are shops, restaurants, gardens and a museum. When I went, I took a group tour with Gray Line Ecuador; however, a public bus is your cheapest option.
Possibly the most famous market in Ecuador, locals come from miles and miles away to sell their handicrafts. Located less than two hours north of Quito, you can take a bus for about $2 from Terminal Carcelen, or opt for a group tour to have a more educational experience. The market is busiest on Saturdays, although it is open everyday. You’ll browse numerous vibrantly colored stalls, perusing scarves, hats, clothing, jewelry, instruments, blankets, masks, socks, handbags and more. Remember to bring your best bartering skills, as the first price the sellers give you is almost always above what they’re willing to sell for.
On the way to the market, there are various stops you can make along the Pan-American Highway. The first is the village of Calderon, a small parish of Quito. In the past, women would honor their dead husbands by being buried alive with them. Luckily, the ritual has changed, and today they commemorate their dead annually on November 2, The Day of the Dead. On this holiday, indigenous people visit the cemetery to have colada morada, a red drink, which represents blood, and wawa de pan, a girl-shaped bread, with their deceased loved ones. You can see wawa de pan being made at special shops and see how the people make a living turning it into a handicraft. The bread is coated in glue, giving it a clay-like texture, and creating masapan. Locals use the mixt
ure to create all types of figures to sell, and it is a local specialty of the area.
The other stop is at a big green building that appears to be an informal rest stop labeled “Mira Lage Parador Turistico.” In this small village complex, you can visit Odaly’s and see authentic Panama hats being made. Make sure to also spend some time in the green building sampling a typical snack, fresh cow cheese and dulce de leche on a crispy biscuit. In the backyard where the bathroom is, you’ll be given excellent views of Sambo Lake, Imbabura Volcano and the surrounding mountains.
A Long Weekend
Located about three and a half hours south of Quito, Baños is the perfect adventure destination for the budget traveler. Here you’ll be able to bungee jump, zip-line, hike, cycle a waterfall route, white water raft, canyon, climb volcanoes and take trips into the Amazon Jungle, all usually for under $50. For example, my companion and I took a trip into the Amazon Jungle for two full days, with it costing $35 per day including all meals, water and accommodation. Moreover, you can rent a bike for a full day for $5, go white water rafting or canyoning for $30 and bungee jumping for $15. Along with cheap adventure, the town is also home to two relaxing hot springs. At night, you can choose between local eateries serving three course meals of local food for $1 or more touristy fare like the popular Casa Hood. It’s also a great place to try traditional guinea pig, or cuy, for a decent price on the street, as it is usually expensive to order in restaurants.
Located about an hour and half south of Quito, Latacunga offers worthwhile experiences for any traveler. First, they have an excellent outdoor market and eateries where you can sample delicious local food. Moreover, they have an interesting cultural museum, Casa de la Cultura, where you’ll see festival masks, pottery, weavings, artifacts and more. Beautiful churches and picturesque parks give the city a charming ambiance.
The main reason people visit Latacunga is to do the Quilotoa Loop. The journey is done via a mixture of taking buses and hiking. It’s educational and enjoyable, as you pass through indigenous villages like Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilan and a crater lake, Laguna Quilotoa. The great thing about this loop isn’t just the scenery, but also the fact you’ll have many opporuntities to interact with indigenous locals. Because transportation is infrequent and unreliable, you may end up hiking for long stretches of the loop. To start the journey, take a bus from Latacunga to Zumbahua, where you’ll walk to Quilotoa to see the impressive and serene crater lake. Afterwards, you will begin heading down the crater rim and hike five hours to Chungchilan, where you’ll find a plethora of accommodation options for the night. The next morning, you’ll begin making your way for five hours to Isinlivi while seeing rivers, eculyptus groves, wooden bridges and white cliffs along the way. Once you reach Isinlivi, you can choose between staying at Hostal Llullu Llama or a locally run hospedaje. The next day’s trek will take you about three and half hours as you make your way to Sigchos, where you can catch a bus back to Latacunga around 2:30 p.m. The entire hike will take you through beautiful nature, wildlife, rural landscapes and local farms, giving you a close look at the many faces of Ecuadorian culture. For detailed track notes, click here.
A Week Or More
The Galapagos Islands
A visit to the Galapagos Islands is something everyone should do once in their lifetime. The destination is truly unique, with myriad endemic species, unique lava caves, crater lakes, warm crystal waters and wildlife everywhere you turn.
While many people assume you need to be rich to be able to visit the Galapagos Islands, this simply isn’t true. When I backpacked through South America for three months, I ended my trip on these islands, sticking to a strict budget while still enjoying the pleasures of the national park. The expensive part is getting to the island, which includes the $100 national park fee and the $500 round trip flight from Quito. However, once you pay this it is possible to explore the Galapagos Islands on a budget. First of all, budget hotels exist offering single rooms for as low as $15 a night.
Additionally, there are various free activities to do on the islands, like hiking, visiting animal preserves and relaxing and enjoying wildlife on the beach. Even the tours are reasonably priced. For example, I went on a snorkeling and diving tour of Isla Lobos, León Dormido/Kicker Rock and Puerto Grande. The group got the chance to swim with sharks and sea lions as well as take in beautiful scenery and wildlife while learning about the ecology of the area. For snorkelers the tour was $50, while divers paid $120, both including lunch. Moreover, a tour of the highlands of San Cristobal, including El Ceibo, a 300-year-old treehouse and bar, El Junco, a crater lake in a volcano, La Lobaria, a white beach littered with sea lions, Puerto Chino, a soft-sand beach with crystal clear water and the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises was $35 including lunch. If you’re looking to do a cruise and are a bit flexible with the dates, fly into Baltra Airport and head over to Puerto Ayora to see what last minute deals they can give you. Usually, you can get more than half off the advertised price by booking this way.