Our Favorite Day Trips From Quito:
This tropical cloud forest paradise is just 2 hours north-west of Quito. Travel through a dry forest, past the equator, and all of a sudden you’ll find yourself on a gorgeous winding road with lush vegetation reminiscent of Jurassic Park…no dinosaurs…we think!
Highlighted activities here include zip lining, waterfall hikes, a chocolate tasting tour, butterfly house, orchid farm, and hummingbirds galore. Mindo is one of Ecuador’s top birding destinations but you’ll want an early start if you’re to do any serious bird watching. Don’t miss the open-air fresh juice bar in town with bamboo swings serving as bar stools and definitely take time to sit near a hummingbird feeder for awhile to marvel at the vibrant birds zipping to and fro.
- You’ll want to wear lightweight long pants; quick-dry is best. Sincerely, this is the ONLY way to guard against pesky, ankle-biting gnats.
- You will also want rain gear, sunscreen, bug spray, plenty of water, a bathing suit, and a warm upper layer as evenings can become surprisingly cool here…especially after a dip in one of the many refreshing waterfalls or the icy river.
- Be sure to bring all of the cash you’ll need for the day too. The ATM in “town” doesn’t work!!!
- If you’re prone to car sickness, the curvy road to/from Mindo calls for meds, ginger, pressure point bands, or whatever you use that works for you.
Home to South America’s largest traditional market every Saturday, this small mountain has even more to offer and holds a much smaller version of the artesenal market every other day of the week. Of course, the most spectacular time to visit is Saturday when the entire town is taken over by vendors, vibrant hand crafted goods, llamas, produce, household goods, and street food. Folks from the surrounding communities come into town to haggle and sell and tourists move in and out of the throngs trying to score the best deal on alpaca blankets and hand-woven scarves. There is more to this town than the market though…
The market: if you’re able to visit on a Saturday, make sure you’re in town early enough to catch the animal market between the hours of 6am-10am. Afterwards, have plenty of small bills on hand, try some exotic fruits, and haggle, haggle, haggle.
Condor Park: this bird rescue center is located about 15 minutes out of town along a lovely road. Try to catch the flight demonstration where bald eagles and other birds of prey are released to soar over the valley before returning to their perches.
Peguche Waterfall: a spiritually sacred space for the surrounding communities, this waterfall is the site of a well-known cleansing ceremony held during the summer solstice celebrations. There is a nice hike to the falls and a couple of swimming areas along the way. About 5 minutes outside of town.
Cuicocha Crater Lake: a gorgeous volcanic crater lake located about 20-30 minutes from Otavalo. You can take a motorized boat ride across the crater, hike around the rim, or drive to a scenic viewpoint about half way around. Follow up any of your activities here with a hot canelazo at the small cafe.
Hiking: the towering peak of Fuya Fuya beckons to some who have already acclimatized and for the rest of us, Mojanda Lakes offers some flatter terrain and several trail options… keep in mind, though, that this area is still at altitude so take it easy if you haven’t had time to adjust.
Community Visits: take time to explore the surrounding artisan communities and find yourself welcomed into the homes & workshops of many of the cratsmen & women who are creating the very goods you’ve just spent hours haggling for. This option is best explored with a local guide who knows the communities.
- Wear/bring layers. Remember that the weather can change dramatically and suddenly here in the Andes so you’ll want to be prepared for all four seasons. It might be sunny and in the lower 70s one minute and pouring rain with temperatures in the 40s the next. It’s true. Layers are your key to comfort.
- Don’t forget the usuals: sunscreen, water, camera
- Make sure to have plenty of small bills like $1s, $5s, and $10s. Vendors often are unable to break larger bills and you’ll have better luck haggling with smaller bills anyway.
- This can be done with a guide or by bus but, if traveling by public transportation, be sure you’re heading back to Quito by 5pm so you don’t miss the last bus returning to the city.
Home to the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi National Park is the second most-visited national park in Ecuador (following the Galapagos, of course). Here, you will find the windswept highland plains of the paramo where herds of wild horses gallop through boulder fields left over from previous eruptions and historic haciendas dot the landscape. The heart of the Avenue of Volcanoes is the glacier-capped Cotopaxi standing in the center of it all.
Hiking: the most popular day hike in the park is an attempt to reach the glacier’s edge. Starting from a parking lot at 14,764ft, it takes 1-2 hours to reach the refuge at 15,748ft. The hike is not technically challenging but, because of the altitude, is slow going physically. The loose volcanic material makes trudging up that hill even more difficult so take it slow and look forward to the hot chocolate up at the refuge. After a break inside, continue up the slopes through Mars-like, stark landscapes for another 30mins-1 hour and you will find yourself at the edge of Cotopaxi’s glacier.
For a more mellow experience (and one that could be classified more as a scenic exploration than a personal challenge), you might opt for a hike around Limpiopungo Lake for some bird watching and lovely views of Cotopaxi as she emerges from the clouds from time to time. In the northern section of the park, you will find a very small area of ruins. Hiking here is stunning (and along flatter terrain) as you move through stark landscapes, giant boulder fields, and past herds of wild horses. This area of the park is less frequently visited and the roads are not as well maintained but it is oh so worth the bumpy ride for such peaceful, remote landscapes.
Horseback Riding: at the nearby historic haciendas, you can enjoy a half-day horseback ride that takes you to stunning heights with views of Volcanoes Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui and opportunities to gallop across wide open spaces. Follow a morning ride with a hearty, traditional lunch and an hour or so beside a crackling fire and you have a solid day. The best part about the ride? Strapping on some furry llama chaps and slipping into a traditional wool poncho before riding off with a local chagra (cowboy). Amazing.
Altitude in this area begins at 10,000ft so it can be COLD. You will want gloves, a winter hat, scarf, and long underwear to beat the wind and definitely should bring along a wool or synthetic upper layer along with a rain coat or windbreaker shell.
You MUST be accompanied by a guide through the national park. If you’re not arranging one ahead of time, it is usually possible to hire one at the gate for $40+. I only recommend this second option if budget is your main concern simply because you may have to wait quite a while for a guide with a truck to come along, many local guides are not bi-lingual, and it’s never a guarantee that the guide you end up with will be nationally registered or well educated in the ecology of the park.
There are restrooms near the entrance and at the refuge but no more in the interior of the park so make sure you go when you have the opportunity and bring toilet paper, a plastic bag (pack out your trash), and hand sanitizer in case you have to “go” where restrooms are unavailable.
Pack a picnic lunch or plan to eat a late lunch at one of the haciendas. You will definitely want snacks at a minimum to keep you fueled up for hiking and, of course, plenty of water.
If you’re visiting one of the haciendas, know that the 40 minutes leading up to or away from the rural lodges is bumpy. Prepare yourself accordingly if you experience motion sickness easily.
Sunscreen and its reapplication are critical. You’re close to the sun here. Lather up.
A stunning aquamarine crater lake is the centerpiece to the increasingly popular Quilotoa Loop, a day hiker’s paradise with a spectacular canyon, friendly rural communities, and traditional markets along it’s breathtaking route. Reaching the crater from Quito takes about 3.5 hours and, though visiting this area in one day makes for a looooong day, it’s still one of the wildly different worlds you can access from the capital city and a wonderful glimpse at even more diversity here in the Andes. If you can manage an overnight here, you won’t be disappointed.
Hiking: As a day trip, the most popular route is to take the path from the crater’s edge down to the shoreline. Sliding through loose volcanic material on the way down can be a bit tiring on the knees but you’ll barely notice as you watch the colors of the lake change as clouds drift above you. To return to the rim, you can hike (about an hour) or ride horseback for about $8. Make sure to arrange this ride BEFORE you head down into the crater.
If you’re able to stay for multiple days here, you might consider hiking the rim of the crater, taking the route from the crater through the Toachi canyon to the nearby town of Chugchilan, or exploring the cloud forest.
Horseback Riding: the most popular route is the one from the crater lake, through the Toachi canyon, and up to the town of Chugchilan. You can also ride up to the cloud forest, stopping along the way to visit a local cheese factory.
Local Markets: Saquisili holds its market on Thursdays and rivals the allure of Otavalo’s market while not yet having the “touristy” feel. On Saturdays, Zumbahua is the place to be for market exploration. In both cases, try to get there early enough to experience the animal market; usually wrapping up by 9am. Both markets can be visited on your way to the crater lake though Zumbahua is more directly en-route.
Just as in Cotopaxi National Park, you will be at altitudes of 10,000ft+ here so make sure to have warm layers including a scarf, winter hat, and gloves. You will also want a windbreaker or rain coat as well as a wool or synthetic upper layer. Comfortable hiking shoes are a must and some with ankle protection are even better to help you keep stability while hiking through loose volcanic soil.
Make sure to bring your sunscreen and reapply. As always, drink plenty of water.
Be sure to visit an ATM before heading this way as some of the smaller towns will not have functioning machines. If you’re stopping by one of the traditional markets, have smaller bills on hand like $1s, $5s, and $10s. Larger bills are much more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to break.
If staying overnight, I highly recommend basing yourself in the town of Chugchilan and enjoying excursions from its central location.
Pululahua + Mitad del Mundo:
A lesser-known day trip from Quito, this final destination is one of only two inhabited volcanic craters in the world. Traveling through the crater, you may encounter colorful mineral mounds, cloud forests, orchids, hummingbirds, trickling streams, waterfalls, and stunning viewpoints. This day trip is best paired with a stop by Mitad del Mundo, the equator monument, and the nearby Intiñan Museum.
Horseback riding is my favorite activity here though you can also explore the crater by hiking or biking. On a 3.5-4 hour horseback ride, you will easily pass through all of the above mentioned environments and past local homes with wide fields. You should absolutely plan to ride in the morning hours before the afternoon mists roll in. Afterwards, enjoy lunch in the crater before heading back towards Quito for a stop at the equator.
Mitad del Mundo and the Intiñan Museum are on your way back to the city. Stop here for the obligatory photo standing in both hemispheres at once and make sure to take the 45 minute tour where you can attempt to stand an egg upright on a nail, learn about some of Ecuador’s indigenous communities, and have other wacky equatorial phenomenon explained.
Layers are again key. Prepare for a day that might be as warm as 70 degrees or dip down into the 50s. Have rain gear handy and plenty of water. Remember, the saying is that you can experience all four seasons here in the Andes in just one day! Wear closed-toe shoes and long pants for the horseback ride and lather up with sunscreen. You will have a helmet for riding but bring a ball cap if you want extra sun protection.
There is an ATM just across the street from the Mitad del Mundo entrance but none in the crater itself.
The last half hour of your 1.5hours of transport time will be spent on a bumpy road descending into the crater.