Escape to another world on very 'do-able' day walks that take you into the heart of the Andes and an intriguing mixture of scenery and habitats and ways of life. Walk the rim of crater lake, stretch your legs in a mountain pass where condors fly, explore subtropical forest or take a country walk between remote farming villages.
Day Walks in the Andes
Day 1 You will be met on arrival at Quito airport and transferred to a 3* hotel.
Day 2 BL Morning tour of the Old City, including lunch, and a visit to the Equator in the afternoon.
Papallacta Hot Springs
Day 3 BD The morning is free for sightseeing in Quito, or perhaps a ride on the cable car up Pichincha volcano. In the afternoon you are collected for a short visit to the bohemian suburb of Guápulo, which has a very pretty church, then driven to Papallacta (1½hr) where you stay 2 nights at a 3* hotel and spa on the Andean páramos at 3,300m (10,800ft). Outside each room is a thermal pool—perfect for a dip beneath a starry sky.
Antisana Ecological Reserve
Day 4 BLD Today you can choose a leg-stretching day walk over the páramos in the Antisana Ecological Reserve, where it is possible to see Andean Condor. Or take the easier short trail behind the hotel (a good place for hummingbirds) before indulging in the optional treatments available at the hotel’s spa. These include five open air thermoludic pools kept at different temperatures some with pressured water or hydrojets, plus massages, treatments and body wraps.
Days 5-6 BLD Today you are driven down to Cabañas San Isidro lodge in a picturesque valley at 2,000m (6,800ft), your base for the next 2 nights. The lodge is set in large tracts of subtropical forest with clearly marked, self-guided trails from 1 to 6 km. Some lead through a forest of large hardwood trees draped with lush mosses that support great numbers of different orchid and bromeliad species. Others pass through vast bamboo stands and river edge forests. Each habitat supports its own complement of flora and fauna: one trail leads to an Andean Cock of the Rock lek. Rarities such as Spectacled Bear, Mountain Tapir, Oncilla and Puma are reported from time to time.
Day 7 BLD Towards late morning you will be collected and driven to Otavalo, to stay at Hacienda Las Palmeras—your base for the next 3 nights. This 150 year old hacienda is set among towering palm trees and features garden cottages with log fires. The ‘perpetual spring’ climate ensures a continual flowering of hibiscus, bougainvillea, other flowering plants and fruit trees, attracting hummingbirds, vermilion fly-catchers and a profusion of other native birds to the grounds.
Day 8 BLD A short downhill stroll in the early morning to Otavalo’s animal market. Return for breakfast. You will then be driven into town for the main market, now in full swing selling crafts, fruit and vegetables, and traditional clothing for local Quichuas.
Day 9 BLD Cuicocha (‘Guinea Pig Lake’) is a deep blue-green crater lake in the caldera of a dormant volcano. Make an early start for the best views on an exhilarating 5hr circuit around the crater’s rim. As well as great views of the lake’s two islands there are panoramas of nearby Cotacachi and Imbabura volcanoes. The circular walk is 12km (7½ miles) at an altitude of 3,070-3,400m (10,000-11,300ft). There are steps on steeper parts of the trail and handrails on the more precarious sections.
Look out for hummingbirds amid the lupins, puyo with bright green flowers, wild orchids and even condors. Avoid the tempting, but poisonous, blueberries.
For this trip it may be possible for your guide to hire a llama from a local farmer to carry your lunch!
Day 10 BLD This morning you will be driven south to Hacienda La Ciénega for 2 nights. This route takes you on the first section of the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Rest of the day free to relax at the hacienda or in its gardens, or go horse riding (optional).
Day 11 BLD A full day exploring Cotopaxi National Park. Visit Limpiopungo Lagoon at 3,800m and enjoy the high páramos vegetation with miniature asters and crocus-like flowers nestling amid lichens and mosses. If you are responding well to the thinness of the air there is the option of walking up to touch the ice of the volcano’s glacier. You could ride back down on a mountain bike (let us know in advance if you will want to do this and check your travel insurance cover).
Lake Quilotoa to Chugchilán
Day 12 BLD With an early start you are driven to Lake Quilotoa, a second crater lake which is the starting point of today’s walk. The trail down the outside of the volcano leads through a remote rural area of subsistence farming, canyons, and rivers to reach the Quichua-speaking village of Chugchilán. Goats, sheep and llamas graze, and crops include potatoes, corn, broad beans, lupins, squash, and quinoa. Local crafts include primitivist paintings on leather, and wooden masks.
The trail is 12km (7½ miles), starting at 3,900m and ending at 3,200m (12,800 – 10,500ft ). The final section makes an abrupt 800ft descent into the Río Sigüi Canyon and back up the other side before arriving in Chugchilán village. This can be avoided by curtailing the walk in Guayama, about 6 miles from the start.
Stay overnight in Chugchilán at a simple guest house with private bathroom.
Saquisilí Market and Riobamba
Day 13 BLD A visit to Saquisilí Market this morning. One of the largest in the highlands, it fills seven plazas, each specialising in different merchandise. You will then be driven south via Salasaca (where you can stop to see back strap loom weavers at work) to Riobamba where you stay for 2 nights at a 3* tourist lodge.
Riobamba is close to Chimborazo, an extinct volcano which rises 6,310m (20,703ft) above sea level. It is the highest mountain in the world if measured from the centre of the earth. (The bulge in the planet at the equator gives Chimborazo an advantage over Everest.)
Los Hieleros (The Icemen)
Day 14 BLD An early start to join Baltasar, the last of ‘Los Hieleros’, who each week still maintains his family’s tradition of walking up to the glacier on Chimborazo to cut blocks of ice to sell in Riobamba. This is a wonderful hike offering great views of this impressive mountain and across a wide expanse of the central highlands. Baltasar earns very little from the ice he collects, so your walking with him helps to keep alive this extraordinary way of life.
At first you drive up through fields of maize, potatoes, carrots and lima beans. At the end of the track the walk takes you on hillsides covered with mixed clumps of cushion plants and tussock grasses—enough to supply a thousand years of garden make-over programmes. This area is home to vicuñas, llamas and alpacas.
Around 3,380m Baltasar uses scythes to cut some of the longer grasses which he deftly twists together to make 6ft lengths of rope. Armfuls of grass to insulate the ice are then cut and tied to his mules using the rope. The trail continues to ascend. Vegetation gives way to volcanic scree before you eventually arrive at the snow line. It takes around 4hrs to reach the glacier, at around 4,500m. You should find that your time in the highlands has acclimatised you sufficiently to cope with this altitude if you walk fairly slowly.
At the face of the glacier, Baltasar uses axes and spades to hack out large blocks of ice, as he has done from this spot for the last 50 years. He wraps the ice in the grass and ties it to his mules with his handmade ropes. His descent starts around midday and lasts 2 hours. You rejoin your vehicle while he continues to his home in the village, where he stores the ice in underground pits to preserve it for Saturday’s market in Riobamba.
Day 15 B Make a short visit to Riobamba’s San Alfonso market this morning, where you can try Baltasar's ice mixed with fruit in snow cones called ‘raspados’. Then you are driven back to Quito (4hr) for your chosen overnight flight home.