- Ascend above the clouds in the hardened landscape of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
- Follow the path of the Inca to the Ingapirca archaeological ruins of the Camino del Inca
- Descend to Baños to explore waterfalls and soak in warm baths
- Move from village to village around a volcano crater lake along the Quilotoa Loop
- Extend beyond the tourist trail for offbeat treks outside Vilcabamba
This comprehensive itinerary is custom built for hikers. There are a few overnight treks in there, but you can easily scale back by setting up basecamp at a central town, then heading out to the countryside on day trips. Much of this trip takes place above 10,000 feet. Move slow, take rests, drink lots of water, and listen to your body as you acclimatize to the altitude. Because you travel from high altitude to tropical forests you will need to bring both warm clothes and jungle gear.
If you speak OK Spanish, you can rent a car and drive. Alternatively, you’ll mostly be on the bus. On travel days, expect to spend about five hours on the bus. In most places, hiring a local guide is a good idea. They know the lay of the land, can speak the language and can help keep you on the route so you don’t wander onto private property or get lost.
The 15-day trip brings you down Ecuador’s famed Avenue of the Volcanoes. First stop is a trip up to the towering heights of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. From there, you continue the highland adventures with a gorgeous long trek near the Quilotoa volcanic crater lake. A side trip down to Baños allows you to warm up and visit some tropical waterfalls before heading back to higher ground for sightseeing in Cuenca and a day trip in Parque Nacional Cajas. The hands-down highlight trek follows ancient paving stones along the Camino del Inca. Further south, from the cool-aired village of Vilcabamba, you can opt for a number of day trips or extend out into the countryside in Parque Nacional Podocarpus.
|Day 1||Old Town, Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua||Quito|
|Day 2||Hike to Laguna Limpiopunga||Parque Nacional Cotopaxi|
|Day 3-5||Hike to Laguna Quilotoa||Andean villages|
|Day 6-7||Hot Springs, Devil's Caudron||Baños|
|Day 8||Walking tour in historic Cuenca||Cuenca|
|Day 9||Cuenca rest day||Cuenca|
|Day 10||Canyoneering in Parque Nacional Cajas||Cuenca|
|Day 11-13||Trekking on Camino del Inca||Camping|
|Day 14-15||Hiking in Parque Nacional Podocarbus||Vilcabamba|
Day 1: Quito (arrival)
This is a day for rest, a little sightseeing, and, most importantly, a good chance to get accustomed to the lung-busting altitude of 9350 feet. Don’t be surprised if you are really tired while walking around Quito, but do try to get out for a few walks and to take in some sun (a sure cure for jet lag). The highlight is a simple cruise through the old town area, where cobblestone streets, historic squares and gilded churches bring the colonial age to light. If you still have some energy, travel 26km north of town to check out the volcanic crater at Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua (Pululahua Geo-Botanic Reserve).
Day 2: Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
The natural wonders of Ecuador reveal themselves as you head south from Quito. If the day is clear, you can see the symmetrical cone of the Cotopaxi summit (5897m) looming large over Parque Nacional Cotopaxi (Cotopaxi National Park), an area largely comprised of high-alpine grasslands, with a few forests sitting on lower elevations.
Either by private taxi or rent a car, you’ll make your way on dusty roads up to the rooftop shelf of the park’s interior, passing llama, wild horses and maybe even a few fox and deer along the way. If your lungs are feeling good, challenge yourself with a five-hour hike to the top of Volcán Runiñahui. Alternately, opt instead for the 2.6-km trail that circles the Laguna Limpiopungo for good bird-watching, stopping for a leisurely lunch at the Tambopaxi lodge in the park’s center. Come nighttime, you have the choice to adventure down to Latacunga south of here, or stay near the park in historic haciendas and basic lodges.
Day 3-5 – Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop is an offbeat adventure that takes you to a gorgeous volcanic crater (Laguna Quilotoa), through artisan villages, traditional markets, patchwork fields and small Andean villages. Most people start their trip from Latacunga, working their way clockwise around the route. While parts can be driven, it's best to hike the loop.
After checking out the naïve-style paintings found in the art galleries of Tigua, you continue along the route to the village of Quilotoa. From here, you can hike down to the crater lake at the bottom (it will take you about an hour-and-a-half), or you can walk along the crater rim trail – a serious hike that will take six to eight hours. If you want to through-hike, you could continue from the crater trail all the way to Chugchilán.
On your second and third days on the loop, you can hike out into the cloud forest outside Chugchilán and continue over to Insiliví for more trekking. It’s best to time this trip around local market days – Zumbahua (Saturday), Guantualo (Monday), Saquisilí (the highlight of the three is held on Thursdays). These markets provide a unique insight into the people and culture of Highlands Ecuador. Most have good selections of artisan goods, but it's the fruit stalls, food stalls, and other local goods that make these loud, chaotic marketplaces something to remember.
Accommodation on the loop is basic. Some of the towns have nicer country-style lodges, while much of it is back-to-basics style accommodation in little Andean villages.
Day 6-7 – Baños
Right when you were starting to get acclimated, it’s time to descend into the tropics with a side trip down to the emerald tropical village of Baños. The first night, take a dip in one of the town’s signature hot springs. The geothermal springs in town are pretty run down, so consider heading 2km outside of town to the El Salado Springs, which sit in a quiet canyon and are extremely serene and relaxing. With an extra day or two, consider mounting a three-day jungle trek from here, where you can slog through rainforest thick with bugs, birds and other wild fauna, and really get deep into one of Planet Earth's remaining virgin habitats.
If you just have the two days, rent a mountain bike for the day and head down the Ruta de las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls) to the Amazon outpost of Puyo. Along the way, you can stop for excellent hikes to jaw-dropping waterfalls at the Devil’s Cauldron and other unique stops along the way. The second day, take it easy with a long day hike around town to Bellavista, a lookout point above the city.
Day 8 – Cuenca
It will take some time to get down to Cuenca by bus. If you have your own wheels, consider adding on a side trip to the nature reserve around the 6310-meter Volcán Chimborazo (a good option to break up the journey). There are a few great hikes here where you can spot vicuña and other native species. Cuenca is a colonial masterpiece, with cobblestone streets, well-preserved historic sites, friendly markets and a fun dining and nightlife scene. Settle down in a historic hotel in the town center, taking a few leisurely strolls.
Day 9 - Cuenca
Just past mid-way through the trip, use Day 9 as a rest day, quietly exploring Cuenca and sampling its excellent restaurants.
Day 10 – Parque Nacional Cajas
Located just 30 kilometer north of Cuenca, Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park) largely protects the unique páramo (Andean grasslands) and a number of small lakes. To up your adrenaline offer, consider a canyoneering trip in the park (arranged through guides in Cuenca), or simply head up to Laguna Llaviucu for good birdwatching. Longer treks in the park require a guide. You can camp here, but most people opt to return to the creature comforts of Cuenca.
Day 11-13 – Camino del Inca
Located on the royal road that connected Cuzco with Quito, the Camino del Inca is a remarkable three-day, 40-kilometer trek worthy of your bucket list. Start the hike in Achupallas, climbing past rivers and lakes to an ancient Inca town, where you can camp out. The next day you will pass an old Inca bridge, before continuing on to the crumbling archaeological site of Paredones. Finish it off in Ecuador’s best preserved archaeological site at Ingapirca, a site originally developed by the Cañari people, and later taken over by the Inca. The route is only for experienced hikers and we recommend bringing a guide. The hike can also be done in reverse (downhill).
On the last day, if you still have daylight, make the long bus ride or drive (five to six hours) down to the low-altitude village of Vilcabamba. Accommodation on the trek is limited to camping.
Day 14-15 – Parque Nacional Podocarpus
While most travelers end up skipping the far south because of the long drive time, it's well worth the extra effort, rewarding you with offbeat adventures and lot of wild open space just waiting to be explored. Start your morning with a massage in the new-age village of Vilcabamba. The best thing about Vilcabamba is just walking through town, stopping and chatting with the friendly locals, and connecting with a groovy international travelers scene. Outside of town, a maze of trails provides endless adventures on horseback, foot and mountain bike.
At just 1500 meters, the fresh warm air will feel great, as you head up from town on the Cascada del Palto Trail in Parque Nacional Podocarbus (Podocarbus National Park). The eight hour round-trip takes you to a beautiful waterfall. The next day grab a private taxi or drive up (about two hours) to the park’s center, taking a 5km hike through cloud forest and páramo on the Miradores Loop Trail. There are hotels, lodges and youth-forward guesthouses in Vilcabamba.
Day 16 – Quito
It’s a long-haul back to Quito from Vilcabamba by road (12-15 hours) so consider hopping back to Cuenca and taking a flight. Alternately, try to take a night bus. If you have time to extend a little, consider extending the return to Quito with a side trip through Parque Nacional Sangay (Sangay National Park), which drops from high-altitudes all the way down to the Amazon Basin.