Experience the wonder of volcanic landscapes and centuries-old architecture during this 11-day itinerary in Ecuador's highlands. Visit crater lakes, hot springs, and waterfalls in the páramo climate of the Ecuadorian Andes. Along the way, stop in metropolises like Quito and Cuenca to visit exceptionally well-preserved colonial buildings and the most extensive pre-Columbian ruins in the country.


  • Explore Quito's UNESCO-recognized historic center
  • Ride horses in the shadow of the Cotopaxi volcano
  • Tour the largest Inca ruins in the country
  • Relax and unwind in natural hot springs in Papallacta

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Quito Quito
Day 2 Tour Quito's Historic Center & Ciudad Mitad del Mundo Quito
Day 3 Shop at the Otavalo Market & Hike Cuicocha Lake Quito
Day 4 Transfer to Cotopaxi, Ride Horses in Cotopaxi National Park Cotopaxi
Day 5 Transfer to Baños via Quilotoa Baños
Day 6 Visit the Pailón del Diablo Waterfall, Return to Quito Quito
Day 7 Transfer to Cuenca, Tour the City Cuenca
Day 8 Tour the Ingapirca Ruins, Fly to Quito Quito
Day 9 Explore the Mindo Cloud Forest Quito
Day 10 Transfer to Papallacta, Relax at the Termas de Papallacta Papallacta
Day 11 Transfer to Quito, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Quito

Aerial view of Quito and Cotopaxi Volcano in the daytime
The volcanic peak of Cotopaxi towers over Quito and Panecillo Hill

¡Bienvenidos! Welcome to Ecuador! Your flight will touch down in Quito, Ecuador's capital city. After settling into your hotel, you'll have the rest of today to explore the city independently, from the incredibly well-preserved colonial center to the lively bars and nightclubs around Plaza Foch. Take a walk through Parque Metropolitano Guangüiltagua, the largest urban park on the continent, or ride the TelefériQo to the top of Cruz Loma for dramatic skyline views.

This evening, consider joining a tour of the historic center under the streetlights. Start in Independence Square to visit the Palacio de Carondelet, the Archbishop's Palace, Municipal Palace, and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Then, check out churches like the Italian Renaissance-style La Iglesia de El Sagrario, the Baroque La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, and the sprawling Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco. Lastly, climb to the top of Panecillo Hill, a 656-foot (200 m) overlook of the city. 

Day 2: Tour Quito's Historic Center & Ciudad Mitad del Mundo

Engraving on the Middle of the World City monument showing that it's at latitude 0
The Ciudad Mitad del Mundo has a monument to the equator

Today, join a walking tour of the famous colonial center of Quito, named one of the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1978. Admire the intricate stone carvings of La Compañía and wander the cloisters of El San Francisco. Wrap up the historical center leg of your tour with a walk down La Ronda, once a pre-Columbian walking trail, now a romantic destination full of cafés, live music, and eclectic shops.

Later on, head north to visit the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo ("Middle of the World City"), a park dominated by the 98-foot (30 m) tall Monument to the Equator created in honor of the Spanish-French Geodesic Mission to find the circumference of the Earth at the equator. Stand on the yellow line marking the equator, posing with one foot in each hemisphere (though the true equator is a few hundred feet away), or visit the planetarium, a small-scale model of Quito, and museums.

To get a taste of the true Quiteño experience, take a cooking class with a local chef. Learn how to make three traditional Ecuadorian dishes and about the staples of Ecuadorian cuisine, like empanadas de viento and seco de pollo, as well as star local ingredients, like green plantains, cuy (guinea pig), and yuca. Your work won't go unrewarded—the dishes you make will come together as a wonderful lunch.

Day 3: Shop at the Otavalo Market & Hike Cuicocha Lake

Cuicocha Lagoon with two steep forested islands in the middle
Cuicocha Lake is home to two islands formed by lava domes

Today, take a ride about two hours north of Quito to visit Otavalo and nearby Cuicocha Lake. While in Otavalo, visit the Plaza de los Ponchos for a chance to shop around its world-famous market. While it's at its busiest on Saturdays, you can find vendors, primarily Otavalos, the Indigenous people of the region, throughout the week. The Otavalo people are best known for their colorful, hand-woven textiles, and many market stalls offer tablecloths, blankets, scarves, and more.

After some shopping, head into nature and visit Cuichocha Lake, a crater lake formed by an eruption of the Cotacachi volcano thousands of years ago. Walk along a path on the lake's steep shores or take a boat ride past the two islands formed by lava domes. 

While in Otavalo, consider visiting Kawsaymi, a homey restaurant owned and operated by a Kichwa Otavalo family, for a lesson on Andean cooking. Pick from several traditional and seasonal offerings and learn how to prepare them alongside a knowledgeable local chef. Harvest ingredients from the on-site garden, practice using a tulpa (fireplace), grind your own corn flour, and experience the flavors of Andean cooking in a hands-on, welcoming environment. This evening, head back to Quito for the night.

Day 4: Transfer to Cotopaxi, Ride Horses in Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi Volcano at sunset surrounded by paramo landscape
Admire views of Cotopaxi on horseback today
Early this morning, head south from Quito for an adventure in Cotopaxi National Park. Saddle up at a traditional hacienda (ranch) and explore the Andean landscape on horseback, admiring the symmetrical, snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi. As your horse picks through terrain formed by ancient eruptions and high-altitude forests, keep an eye out for hawks, condors, weasels, and other wild animals. After a day of adventure in one of Ecuador's most iconic natural areas, relax and unwind back at the hacienda.
Plan your trip to Ecuador
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 5: Transfer to Baños via Quilotoa

Quilotoa Lake with trails around it
Walk around or down to the shores of Quiltoa today

Head west from Cotopaxi National Park to visit another volcanic wonder: Quilotoa. This 2-mile (3 km) wide crater lake is filled with 820 feet (250 m) of mineral-rich green water. Hike along the lake's outer rim, enjoying the views from three lava domes, or follow a path to the lake itself. Hiking in the area, especially uphill, can be challenging, so consider renting a mule for some help along the way.

After exploring the lake, it's time to travel south to Baños de Agua Santa, a city on the edge of the Amazonian basin known for its hot springs and nearby waterfalls.

Day 6: Visit the Pailón del Diablo Waterfall, Return to Quito

Bird's-eye-view of the Devil's Cauldron waterfall
A rainbow over the mighty El Pailón del Diablo waterfall

This morning, ride along the scenic Ruta de Cascadas ("Waterfall Route") toward the village of Río Verde. When you arrive in town, take a short hike to one of the better-known waterfalls in the area, El Pailón del Diablo ("Devil's Cauldron"). The water cascades 265 feet (81 m) down through the cloud forest. Then, head back toward Baños to take a dip in its thermal pools, check out its many Catholic churches, or visit the Casa del Arbol to soar on a swing placed at the edge of a mountain. 

For a more adventurous day, consider going canyoning at Casahurco outside of Baños. Professional guides will show you the ropes, so to speak, of this multi-faceted activity. You'll get to jump from waterfalls, rappel down the sides of the canyon, slide down natural chutes, and swim in freshwater pools. At the end of the day, transfer back to Quito.

Day 7: Transfer to Cuenca, Tour the City

Cuenca's Cathedral La Inmaculada Concepcion amid Cuenca's other buildings on a sunny and cloudy afternoon
The "New Cathedral" is famous for its blue and white domes

Early this morning, catch a private transfer to the airport for your flight south to Cuenca, where another transfer will take you to your accommodations. Once you've settled in, join a tour to better know the city, especially its UNESCO-recognized historic center.

The tour starts in the San Sebastián neighborhood, where you'll visit the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno ("Modern Art Museum") and its colorful gardens. Then head to Cuenca's famous cathedrals: the Iglesia El Sagrario, also known as the "Old Cathedral," and the Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción, aka the "New Cathedral." While the old cathedral has been converted into a museum, the new one, with its famous blue and white domes, is still a working church.

Later, visit Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla, otherwise known as the Panama Hat Museum. Yes, those famous hats are made here in Ecuador from toquilla straw. Next up, head to El Barranco, the part of the historic center that borders the Tomebamba River, to walk along verdant riverbanks. Finally, end the tour at the Mirador de Turi, an observation deck where you can enjoy stunning city views and, more often than not, catch a beautiful sunset.

Day 8: Tour the Ingapirca Ruins, Fly to Quito

The Temple of the Sun in Ingapirca ruins
Witness Inca history at the ruins of Ingapirca

This morning, a guide will bring you to Ingapirca, the largest Inca complex in Ecuador, for a day of exploring. Sitting at 10,498 feet (3,200 m) in elevation, the site was important to the Cañari people who lived there before the arrival of the Inca. Here, you'll find archaeological evidence of both cultures, as they coexisted peacefully for many years. Among the ruins, your guide will show you the Temple of the Sun, ancient terraces, and Cañari tomb, bringing these impressive ruins to life.

Back in Cuenca, you can always wander the orderly, cobblestone streets of the historic district. However, if you want to explore farther afield today, consider traveling outside the city and taking a guided visit of Azuay Province. Each town and village around Cuenca has its own special feature; Chordeleg has its silversmiths, Gualaceo, its gorgeous orchids and traditional weaving, and Sígsid, its hand-woven Panama hats. Tonight, a private transfer will bring you back to the airport to catch a flight back to Quito.

Day 9: Explore the Mindo Cloud Forest

Colorful Plate-billed Mountain-toucan perched on a branch in Mindo Cloud Forest
Mindo is famous for its diverse bird population

Today, head into the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve to explore the cloud forest in the subtropical Mindo Valley. Its position on the western side of the Andes at the intersection of the Chocoan lowlands and tropical Andes ecoregions makes Mindo a mild-weathered and incredibly biodiverse region.

While you're here, give one of the region's most popular activities, bird-watching, a try. You'll surely spot many different species in this diverse area! If that's not your speed, you can visit a butterfly farm, go tubing on one of the forest's rivers, or taste chocolate. After all, Ecuador's ministry of tourism has dubbed Mindo the Ruta del Cacao ("Cocoa Route") for a reason.

Day 10: Transfer to Papallacta, Relax at the Termas de Papallacta

Antisana volcano in the eastern mountain range of the Ecuadorian Andes seen from the Cayambe Coca reserve
Enjoy views of Papallacta's landscape today

What better way to wrap up a long trip than a relaxing visit to a hot spring to unwind? Today, head to Papallacta, home of the Termas de Papallacta, a spa comprising eight natural geothermal pools. Take a dip in the warm water and let any stress from your travels melt away as you admire the views of polylepis trees and the Artisana volcano in the distance.

Day 11: Transfer to Quito, Depart

Aerial view of Quito at sunset with a smoky Cotopaxi Volcano in the background
Aerial view of Quito and Cotopaxi Volcano at sunset

On your last day in Ecuador, grab breakfast and enjoy your morning in Papallacta before your private driver transfers you to the Quito airport for your departing flight. See you again in soon!

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Map of Highlights of the Ecuadorian Highlands - 11 Days
Map of Highlights of the Ecuadorian Highlands - 11 Days