Perched at 2850 m. above sea level, any tour through the Ecuadorian Andes starts in Quito, the nation’s capital. Spend a day walking through its well-preserved colonial zone, the largest in the Americas and the first UNESCO world heritage site.
Grab a plate of llapingachos (Ecuadorian potato pancakes) in the central market and watch the flow of people buying a colorful array of fruits, flowers, vegetables, and potatoes. Fun fact: the potato has been a dietary staple in this part of the Andes for over 8000 years.
Take the gondola up nearby Volcán Pichincha for breathtaking views of the city and surrounding volcanoes; more intrepid travelers can follow the trails all the way to its 4784 m. peak. This is one of the easiest ways to immerse yourself in the unique Paramó (Andean highlands) ecosystem.
Cotopaxi National Park
Towering above this high Andean nature preserve is Volcán Cotopaxi, the park’s namesake and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It’s not difficult to appreciate the beauty and the power of this white giant — its symmetrical slopes and 5897m peak can be seen all the way from Quito.
Plenty of haciendas within the park’s borders offer tour services to the refuge at the base of Cotopaxi’s glacier (look for tours with mountain bike rentals for a bumpy and adrenaline-fueled ride down). The government has prohibited any summit attempts since June 2015, but other volcanoes within the park offer excellent trekking experiences for those trying to climb some Ecuadorian summits. Nearby Rumanahui (4721 m.), Pasochoa (4200 m.), and Corazón (4790 m.) are all trail-accessible.
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South of Cotopaxi National Park lies the tallest volcano in Ecuador and the closest point to the sun on the planet — Volcán Chimborazo. Trek around the arid highland climate at its base and watch flocks of passing vicuña, a wild cousin of the llama. Spend a night sipping coca tea and trading stories over candlelight in Ecuador’s highest alpine refuge (5000 m.).
The nearby town of Riobamba was a candidate for the capital of Ecuador — the first constitution was written here in 1830. These days, it’s better known as the capital of torero (bullfighting) culture in Ecuador. It’s charming and well-maintained old zone is smaller but more lively than its cousin in Quito, and most of the best bars and restaurants are near the old train station.
The Riobamba train station also serves the small town of Alousí, the jump-off point for one of the most stunning rail rides in South America. Take the dedicated tourist train to Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) and marvel at the engineering feats and natural beauty on this serpentine journey through Ecuador’s high alpine valleys.
800 years ago, a supermassive eruption collapsed this ancient volcano into a 250 m. deep crater lake. Today, tourists hike down to its waters for a unique kayak ride on the beautiful but frigid waters. More adventurous (and physically fit) trekkers might try to circle the entire upper ring of the crater on the dusty, well-marked trail.
The famous Quilotoa Loop is a multi-day trekking experience — by donkey or on foot — through several small indigenous villages whose markets offer unique paintings, ponchos, and more to passing travelers.
The Equator and Cloud Forests
Any tourist traveling north of Quito should stand on the Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the world. The attraction itself is right off the highway and well marked, but watch out! The famous tower marking the 0’0” latitude line is actually off by 250 meters. Head up the road to the Inti Nan museum to actually stand on the true line in the middle of the planet.
Farther north on the Panamerican highway, you’ll notice the landscape change from dry and yellow to lush and green. These are the tranquil cloud forests of Ecuador, home to hundreds of thousands of unique species of plants and animals. Orchids, butterflies, and hummingbirds all flourish here.
The small village of Mindo is a perfect home base for those looking for adventure, relaxation, or both. For the adventurous traveler, take a tubing trip down rivers that rush to the Amazon, or bungee jump and zip line through vine-covered tree canopies. For those looking to unplug, take a stroll through the misty trail systems to waterfall after hidden waterfall. Swimming and cannonballs are encouraged. Afterward, stroll through the quiet streets of this charming town, chatting with friendly locals and enjoying the artisanal chocolate, coffee, and beer along the way.
Farther north of Quito lies the indigenous town of Otavalo, home to the largest outdoor market in Latin America. Every Saturday, nearly half of the streets are overtaken by thousands of longhaired salespeople and their stands. Otavalo’s famous textiles and wool products can be found in markets all over the country, but sharpen your negotiating skills and take advantage of the lower prices here. For lunch, the delicious Shenandoah Pie Shop in the Plaza de Ponchos is not to be missed.
The best way to beat the thousands of Quiteños that come to Otavalo every Saturday is to stay overnight on Friday, and there are a variety of accommodation options for every budget. Be sure to wake up early (6 am) on Saturday morning and head towards the Panamerican highway to watch the local animal market take place. The controlled chaos of farmers and ranchers bartering in their traditional highland clothing is a scene out of another time.
There is plenty to do around Otavalo. Buses depart every 10 minutes to the nearby town of Cotacachi, the leather making capital of Ecuador. Stroll down the main street and you’ll find dozens of shops selling everything from leather bags to boots to biker jackets to riding chaps. You can also easily hail a taxi to visit the high alpine lake of Cuicocha and its many islands, or the nearby Parque Condor, a rescue center for injured Andean birds of prey (including the elusive and endangered Andean Condor).