Our small group 'grand' tour of mainland Ecuador visits many of its classic highlights in a trip combining Andean highland scenery, impressive Spanish colonial architecture, dramatic volcanoes, spectacular wildlife and birds, plus insights into the rich cultures and crafts of Ecuador's indigenous peoples.
Independent Ecuador Odyssey
Day 1 We meet in Quito in the early evening at our preferred hotel in the Old City, where we stay for two nights. You will be met on arrival at the international airport and driven to the hotel.
Day 2 BL After breakfast we explore the Old City on foot. Today is Sunday and traffic is banned. Church bells ring out as we stroll around impressive plazas, convents and monasteries contained within a few streets. On sunny days the whitewashed buildings sparkle like sugar in the clear mountain air. A religious procession may pass while onlookers throw rose petals in its path. Street vendors ply colourful wares—watermelon slices, ice creams, sticky meringues, bunches of roses, party balloons and piñatas (brightly painted containers full of sweets). Shopkeepers display sacks of corn, quinoa, beans, cinnamon, annatto and cumin. Between services we visit ornate churches with rich oil paintings, gilded altars and aromas of candles and wood incense.
We drive to El Panecillo where the statue of the Virgin of Quito stands above the Old City. There are great views across the city to the surrounding volcanoes, given clear skies.
After lunch we visit the Equator, passing the monument to the 1736 French expedition’s line, to the true line 200m away. We visit the small Inti-Ñan museum (rickety but fun) which straddles the true line and presents an eclectic mix of folk exhibits and ‘scientific’ demonstrations.
Day 3-5 BLD This morning we fly to Coca in the Amazon to board a covered river boat for the approx 2 hour trip to either the Napo Wildlife Centre, Sacha or La Selva Lodge. To minimise disturbance to wildlife, and maximise our chances of seeing it, we switch to dugouts seating 4-6 people. We are paddled along a black-water creek, stopping to watch wildlife on our way to the lodge, our base for three nights.
Resident naturalist guides take us on safari each day, introducing us to the life of the rainforest. We visit two parrot clay licks, have good chances of seeing giant otters in the lake and streams, several of the eleven species of monkey found here, and much else besides. There is a small chance of finding more elusive animals such as jaguar, puma, tapir, giant anteater and giant armadillo. The bird life is remarkable with over 550 species recorded.
All rooms have private bathrooms, hot water, 24hr electricity, ceiling fans, insect screens and balconies facing the lake.
Day 6 BLD Today we fly back to Quito and drive north to Otavalo, where we stay for two nights in either Hacienda Cusín or Hacienda Pinsaqui. We may be able to visit a rose nursery en route.
Day 7 BLD The people of Otavalo and surrounding villages are masters of artisanal crafts. During the day we visit weaving workshops in the village of Peguche, and may stop to visit a family of pan-pipe players and workshops where the pipes are made—with enthusiastic demonstrations.
We visit the beautiful crater lake of Cotacachi volcano, and continue to Cotacachi itself, an entire town dedicated to leather goods. Dozens of small shops and smart boutiques offer everything from skilfully-made handbags, wallets and jackets to equestrian items for local farmers.
Day 8 BLD Today being Saturday three distinct markets take place in different parts of Otavalo.
You can join an optional pre-breakfast trip to watch farmers trade cows, pigs, sheep and hens at the livestock market. It’s an evocative scene, but is not for everyone (there are terrible squeals from young pigs having their teeth examined by sturdy ladies in billowing skirts, and worse).
We re-group for breakfast, then visit the other two markets.
At the Mercado de Ponchos you will find every kind of handicraft including wall hangings, naïve art, ceramics, costume jewellery, woven agave knot-less bags, Panama hats, hand-knitted sweaters, woollen scarves and gloves, rag dolls, masks, wood carvings, and musical instruments—and, of course, ponchos.
The domestic market sells fruit, flowers, vegetables, groceries and meat, and expands on Saturdays to sell the traditional Otavaleño clothes that are worn with great pride. Watch the interplay between traders and their clients: by custom they haggle in silence.
We lunch at a restaurant on the shore of Lake San Pablo at the foot of Imbabura volcano, then drive to Antisana for two nights at Termas Papallacta, a comfortable mountain lodge set around thermal springs.
Antisana and Papallacta
Day 9 BLD Today is a free day to relax and enjoy the mountain setting and the hot springs. There are short trails for those who just want to stretch their legs, and longer ones for more dedicated walkers. Birdwatchers will particularly enjoy the abundance of hummingbirds. The hotel’s many thermal pools, steaming and bubbling in the open air, are free for hotel guests and there are optional steam rooms, massages, mud wraps and other spa treatments at reasonable extra charges.
Day 10 BLD We drive south along part of Humboldt’s ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’ to Cotopaxi National Park. On a clear day the views of volcanoes are spectacular.
Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world, and one of the most beautiful. Its perfectly symmetrical cone is topped by a gleaming snow cap. We drive up to 4,500m, with wonderful views when the weather is clear. If you are responding well to the altitude you might walk (slowly) the short distance to the mountain refuge at 4,800m, and maybe a little further to touch the lowest tongues of the glacier’s blue-white ice. Many prefer to stay behind enjoying stunning views.
We visit the beautiful Limpiopungo Lagoon where herds of wild horses and llamas come to drink. There are vestiges of Incan stone walls and the ruins of the Incan fortress of Pucara. We descend by road to spend a night at the delightful Hacienda La Ciénega.
The Avenue of the Volcanoes
Day 11 B There will be time this morning to appreciate the hacienda’s gardens, 19th century furnishings and chapel, before we continue south along the Avenue of the Volcanoes to Riobamba. Pausing in the village of Salasaca we visit a simple workshop where mama chumbi (belts) and wawa chumbi (hair braids) are woven in intricate patterns on back-strap looms using wools stained with dye from the agave cactus. Each belt can take 15 days to make.
We make a short tour of Riobamba and its market where local Purhuá women wear white bowler hats and red ponchos. We stay for one night in a good quality hotel in a converted hacienda just out of town.
Devil’s Nose Train and Ingapirca
Day 12 BLD An early start this morning for an exciting ride on this single track (42 inch gauge) autoferro. Dress warmly in layers for the chilly morning air. As well as spectacular views of five volcanoes—mighty Chimborazo, Carihuayrazo, Altar, Tungurahua and Sangay (weather permitting, of course)—the train ride gives a fresh perspective on Andean life. You look into back yards as the ‘train’ (more a coach on rails) rumbles through villages, and passes through fields of corn, potatoes, carrots and lima beans, across grassland and alongside lakes to the small town of Alausí, by which time the morning will have become noticeably warmer. From here, train and engineering buffs get their excitement, as the line crosses deep gorges spanned by narrow iron bridges and zigzags in sharp switchbacks down the ‘Devil’s Nose’. The journey is then reversed. Alighting at Alausí we drive two hours south to Ingapirca.
Ingapirca is an important classic Inca site on the Royal Highway from Cusco to Quito. We visit the ruins and stay nearby at a small hotel in pretty gardens.
Day 13 BL If you are up early today, there is the option of a dawn walk above Ingapirca. After breakfast we drive to the craft villages of Chordeleg, Gualaceo and Sigsig, where a strong tradition of skilled handicrafts can be traced back to pre-Incan cultures. We arrive in the historic city of Cuenca with its flower-filled plazas, cobbled streets and ornate colonial buildings with ancient wooden doors and ironwork balconies.
The period of prosperity brought by the export of quinine and ‘Panama’ hats is reflected in the French and neoclassical style influences in the architecture. Several mansions of that period are now characterful well-appointed hotels, such as the one we will stay in for the next two nights.
Day 14 BL We tour the city of Cuenca today, including the principal sights such as the new and the old cathedrals, but also taking the time to explore some of the characterful lesser buildings.
There will be an opportunity for some shopping, including a visit to one of the best Panama hat stores.
Cajas National Park
Day 15 BL This morning we visit Cajas National Park, with its beautiful mountain landscapes of dramatic rock outcrops, glacial lakes, moorland and forest. We take a nature walk, perhaps around a small tarn, and explore unusual elfin forests of paperbark trees.
After a picnic lunch in the national park we drive to Guayaquil, on the Pacific coast, where we stay one night at a 4* city centre hotel near the ‘iguana square’ by the Cathedral.
Day 16 BL Ecuador’s largest city and main port is undergoing quite a transformation. We take a morning walk along the revived Malecon—a smartly decked promenade fronting the river, then explore the stepped streets of Santa Ana Hill. In the mid afternoon we drive to the airport for flights home, or onwards to the Galapagos Islands for optional extensions.