The Best of the Ecuadorian Highlands - 7-Day Tour

Traverse the very best of the Ecuadorian highlands on this 7-day itinerary. Starting and finishing in the capital, Quito, you will encounter bustling markets, awe-inspiring volcanoes, centuries-old colonial towns and Inca ruins. There's great hiking along the way in terrain ranging from glaciers and high-level plateau through to forests and waterfalls.

Highlights

  • Shop for traditional clothing in the indigenous handicrafts market at Otavalo 
  • Hike to glaciers on a symmetrical volcano in spectacular Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
  • Overnight in a luxuriously furnished traditional highland hacienda 
  • Go bungee-jumping or rappelling at Baños, Ecuador's adventure capital
  • Cling to your armrest on the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) railway  
  • Explore the stellar museums and churches of the Unesco-listed city of Cuenca 
  • Spot Andean tapir, pumas and spectacled bears in Parque Nacional Cajas 

Brief Itinerary 

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Quito Old Town, Tapestry workshops Otavalo
Day 2 Otavalo market Parque Nacional Cotopaxi 
Day 3 Wildlife spotting in Cotopaxi  Baños
Day 4 hiking, rafting, hot baths Riobamba
Day 5 Nariz del Diablo train ride Cuenca
Day 6-7 Cuenca Old Town, museums, Inca ruins Cuenca

Overview

The mountainous and volcanic central belt of the country is the stronghold of Ecuadorian indigenous culture, with colorful handicrafts markets and festivals. In a week you can hike to Inca ruins, go white water rafting, relax in thermal baths and explore the cobbled streets of colonial Cuenca.

Quito, main arrival point for international flights, is the jumping off point for the Highlands. The region is roughly divided into two zones: north of Quito (Otavalo) and South of Quito (all other main destinations). Ecuador’s bus system is good and times between destinations covered here range between one to six hours.

All across Ecuador, as with other Latin American countries, things start at dawn or before. You'll need to get up early for to catch markets at their busiest and for activities such as the Nariz del Diablo train ride. 

Detailed Itinerary 

Day 1: Quito and north to Otavalo 

Plaza de Santo Domingo in old town Quito
Plaza de Santo Domingo in Old Town Quito

Begin your 7-day tour with a morning exploration of Quito’s Unesco-listed Old Town, a cobblestone grid of Spanish-style buildings and broad plazas. Quito sits at 9,350 ft above sea level so take it slow to avoid altitude sickness. Make sure to visit the trio of colonial plazas - Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Santa Domingo. Plaza San Francisco is crowned by one of Quito's most impressive churches, Iglesia de San Francisco.

After lunch, travel 2.5 hours north to Otavalo, home to a busy indigenous handicrafts market. On the way you can also stop off to straddle the equator at the Mitad del Mundo (the centre of the world).

At Otavalo, browse the stalls and discover everything from finely woven ponchos and shawls made with alpaca wool to tapestries, jewelry and live chickens. Saturday is the busiest market day. If you want to take photographs of stalls or stall holders, it is polite to ask permission. Some people might ask for money for the privilege.

Make a short trip to the nearby village of Peguche to see where many of the tapestries sold in the market are produced, and to walk to the waterfall of Cascada de Peguche. Accommodation options here include a few atmospheric hotels and guesthouses.  

Day 2: Otavalo market and Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Otavalo Market
Colorful textile stall with hats in the popular Otavalo market.

Rise early to see Otavalo market at its most vibrant, possibly taking breakfast within the market or at one of the cafes nearby. For a breakfast, try the time-tested fried eggs with sticky rice, or roasted cuy (guinea pig), both available at stalls in the market. 

From Otavalo, head south via Quito into one of Ecuador’s most dramatic sights, Parque Nacional Cotopaxi (Cotopaxi National Park). Travel time is around five to six hours.

Beautiful colonial-era haciendas (traditional estate farms) nearby offer excellent accommodation and meals. Haciendas were the way in which much of rural Ecuadorian life functioned in the colonial era. Many, such as Hacienda Hato Verde, are still working farms. They are great places to soak up highland life in plenty of comfort, with delicious food such as roasted cuy (guinea pig) or trucha (trout) served in atmospheric, century-old dining rooms.

Day 3 Parque Nacional Cotopaxi and Baños

Group of tourists having on a visit to the National Park Cotopaxi
Group of tourists having fun on a visit to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Start today with a half-day tour of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. Itineraries include a hike up to the glacier at 5000m, with great views along the way. The park is crowned by Volcán Cotopaxi. At 5900m, this is among the world’s highest active volcanoes and one of the most photogenic. The snow-capped peak contrasts with the glaciers and mountain lakes at the foot of the volcano. Wildlife that can be seen on the slopes includes Andean foxes, the Andean speckled bear and the Andean condor, the world's biggest raptor.

Get a mid-afternoon bus or travel by car via Ambato to Baños (total travel time two hours) in time for an evening soak in the fairly basic but hot and soothing Termas de la Virgen thermal baths, popular with locals. Dinner options include a range of restaurants serving arepas and Ecuadorian meals.

Day 4: Baños and Riobamba 

Aerial view of Banos
Aerial view of Baños, adventure capital of Ecuador

Balmy Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador, and the delightful climate and gorgeous scenery compel you to try some of the many activities. Possible activities in Baños include a walk to a waterfall, white-water rafting, rappelling and bungee-jumping. All activities can be undertaken on a half-day basis. There are several waterfalls around town, with the best being the breathtaking cascades of Pailon del Diablo. Bungee jumping enthusiasts can hurl themselves off the town's San Francisco bridge towards the river 100m below. 

There will be time for another visit to the town’s thermal baths before traveling to Riobamba via Ambato (total travel time 2-3 hours). 

Day 5: Nariz del Diablo and Cuenca

Nariz del Diablo
View of Ecuador's famed Nariz del Diablo train line

The Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) train ride near Riobamba is one of the continent’s best-known train trips, known for its vertiginous series of switchbacks up a sheer rock bluff, an engineering feat that took years to build. The train journey also stops at the quaint Andean town of Alausí, poised just above the switchbacks. You can begin your train ride from Riobamba, or you can take a bus to Alausí (total travel time 2 hours) to pick up the train for the out-and-back ride to the Nariz del Diablo.

Alausí straggles up the mountainside near where the train line plunges over the bluff of the Nariz del Diablo. It's good for soaking up traditional highland life. The town has several simple restaurants serving typical Ecuadorian highland food such as cuy (guinea pig) for lunch. 

The tour then continues from Riobamba to the colonial-era city of Cuenca (a 2-3 hour drive), a Unesco-listed gem perfectly positioned for a number of day trips into the tradition-steeped countryside close by. Cuenca boasts the best nightlife outside Quito in Ecuador, with excellent bar and restaurant options. There are a range of hotels, guesthouses and hostels to choose from. For the evening, try artisan beer sampling at a local brewpub, or catch a performance at the city theatre, Teatro Sucre. The dining scene is cosmopolitan, with Ecuadorian, Thai or Italian among the options.

Days 6-7: Cuenca

New Cathedral Cuenca
New Cathedral, one of Cuenca's biggest attractions

Cuenca is a culturally dynamic city, with numerous churches, museums and events to experience. Explore at your leisure over two days, with the below activities doable in any order you choose. When you need a break, stop by the Old Town, which has several good cafes, although a vibrant eating and drinking scene also exists around Parque de la Madre in the El Estadio (stadium) area.

Cuenca is home to some of South America’s best museums, including the impressive Museo del Banco Central ‘Pumapungo’ which transports visitors on a journey through all of Ecuador’s indigenous cultures. Cuenca’s many churches are also worth exploring, including the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (also known as the new cathedral of Cuenca) on the central Parque Calderón.

Outside town, and easily slotted into a half-day or full-day trip with help from a tour operator, are the country’s foremost Inca ruins, Ingapirca, and the lake-dotted mountain-scape of Parque Nacional El Cajas (El Cajas National Park). The latter encompasses two topographical zones - cloud forest and mountain plateau (páramo). The park is teeming with wildlife, including Andean tapir, pumas and spectacled bears. Around 150 species of bird make a home here, including the Andean condor, the world's largest flying bird. 

Overnight in Cuenca before transferring back to Quito the following day.