Itineraries

One week

You could fly to any one of the regions described in th eWhere to go section, or to Galápagos, and make visiting that one area your entire trip to Ecuador. An alternative would be to stay close to Quito and sample the variety of experiences available within easy reach of the capital. Take a couple of days to acclimatize to the altitude while you get to know colonial Quito, play tourist at Mitad del Mundo or visit a museum; then ride the teleférico high above the city. You can head north to Otavalo, perhaps on a Friday to be there early for the Saturday morning market. From Otavalo be sure to visit Lago San Pablo or Cuicocha crater lake, and one of the nearby craft towns. After returning to Quito you could make day trips or overnight visits to Cotopaxi National Park, or to the town of Mindo surrounded by cloud forest and birdwatching opportunities, and finish off with a visit to the soothing Papallacta thermal baths.

Two to three weeks

Highlands and Oriente Jungle

Head south by road from Quito to Latacunga, then west to Quilotoa's emerald-green crater lake. Spend a night or two in the native villages along the Quilotoa circuit before continuing south to Ambato and Baños, where 'Mama' Tungurahua (the active volcano 8 km from town) might welcome you with a bang. With so many opportunities for trekking, biking and horse riding, not to mention thermal baths, sidewalk cafés and nightlife, visitors tend to stay in Baños longer than they planned. Tear yourself away to continue east along the spectacular Río Pastaza valley with its plethora of waterfalls, to Puyo at the edge of the Oriente jungle, then head north to Misahuallí or Tena. Although not primary, nearby rainforest is easy to visit from either town. Tena also offers good opportunities for whitewater rafting, as does the Quijos valley along the road back toward Quito. If you have not yet soaked yourself silly in the hot springs of Baños, there are more at Papallacta before closing the loop to the capital.

Highlands and Pacific coast

From Quito travel to Baños as above, then continue south to Riobamba. In addition to the famous Devil's Nose train ride, the city and its surroundings offer excellent climbing, trekking and mountain biking opportunities, as well as exposure to native highland culture. From Riobamba take a bus down to Guayaquil. You could spend a day in the big city and stroll its pride and joy, the Malecón 2000 riverside promenade, or just change buses in Guayaquil and continue north along the coast to Montañita. There is always plenty of action at this raunchy surfing beach, loved by some, loathed by others, or you can find more tranquil surroundings in nearby Olón or Ayampe. Continue north to Puerto López, where whale watching is a must from June to September, and a visit to Isla de la Plata and mainland portions of Parque Nacional Machalilla are worthwhile all year round. Further north, past the bustling port city of Manta, is the very friendly and pleasant resort town of Bahía de Caráquez and the beach at Canoa.
You could return to Quito from Bahía or continue beachcombing your way north until you have had your fill of sun, surf and
ceviche
.

El Austro

Cuenca is easy to reach by road or air, and is
the ideal base for exploring this geographically
and culturally distinct region of Ecuador. The city itself is attractive and worth spending a couple of days to explore. Not far away are Ingapirca, Ecuador's premier archaeological site, and
páramo
-clad Parque Nacional Cajas. Either one makes a good day trip or over-nighter. Take the bus south from Cuenca to Loja and on to Vilcabamba, and try to discover why some people there live well over 100 years. It could be the mountain water flowing down from neighbouring Parque Nacional Podocarpus so you might want to trek up on horse or foot to look for the source. The eastern lowland side of Podocarpus national park is jungle and accessed from the wonderfully forgotten little city of Zamora, only a short bus ride from Loja. On the opposite, western, side of the
cordillera
is another delightful backwater: the colonial gold-mining town of Zaruma. You can loop back to Cuenca from either Zaruma or Zamora, the latter route taking you along back roads through Gualaquiza in the seldom-visited southern Oriente.

A month or more

Downriver to the Amazon

Any of the above can be combined to make longer routes and circuits. You could also widen the scope of your travels by going from Quito to Lago Agrio via Baeza, stopping to visit the active Reventador volcano and Cascada San Rafael, Ecuador's highest waterfall, along the way. Lago Agrio provides access to Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno, with some of the best jungle wildlife in Ecuador. From Lago Agrio head south to Coca on the lower Río Napo, the jumping-off point for Parque Nacional Yasuní, various jungle lodges and communities. Tours to Cuyabeno, Yasuní and most jungle lodges are usually booked in Quito but with enough time and patience you could arrange something locally. The more adventurous can sail down the Napo to the frontier at Nuevo Rocafuerte, thence to Iquitos (Peru) and beyond.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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