Ecuador is a beautiful country with varied landscapes ranging from dense Amazonian jungles to snowy peaks topping 20,000 feet. Its cities are museum pieces in themselves, reflecting the ingenuity of their indigenous founders and their Spanish conquerors, who fashioned little bits of Europe all over the Andean highlands. If you’re looking for a 5-6 day itinerary, you can’t go wrong by following this one:
Day 0 and 1: Quito
Quito’s airport is really far away from downtown. I bet it is actually not that far away as the crow flies, but with the steep mountain terrain of the Andes, it took us over an hour via cab to get to Old Quito, the historic center of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Quito and its environs sprawl across several valleys of the Andes, the historic center occupies one big bowl of a valley surrounded by 12-13,000 foot mountains. Quito itself is at 9,500 feet, making it the highest capital city in the world. I felt the difference in altitude; every time I walked up a set of steps, I was a little winded. It got better each day though as I got acclimated.
We arrived in the El Centro Histórico (Historic Center) of Quito around 9pm, but the streets were deserted. The only people walking around were national police force guards, dressed in long red overcoats, on foot patrol in the dark, centuries-old streets. Our 12-room hotel, the Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna, was right off the Plaza Fernandez, one of Quito’s main squares. When we got to the hotel, most of the lights were off and we weren’t even sure we were in the right place. Thankfully a light popped on, revealing a gorgeous interior courtyard decorated with flowers. The owner came out and let us in.
The next morning, we strolled around the Plaza de San Francisco and went into the Church and Monastery of St. Francis, or el San Francisco, a big church overlooking the plaza. It was constructed between 1534 and 1604 and is one of the city’s most recognizable features. A few blocks down is the Presidential Palace, which overlooks the impressive Plaza Grande. Plaza Grande was filled with people during the daylight hours.
We walked up to the Basilica del Voto Nactional, an enormous Neogothic church commanding a great view of not only the historic center but of the newer parts of the city. We went up to to the tower to get a better view, but the only way to get there was up this rickety ladder. I am not really that scared of heights but for a second I was a little nervous. The view we got from the tower definitely made it worth it though. The harder part was getting down.
After getting lunch at this awesome seafood place, we headed over to the Plaza Santo Domingo, another one of Quito’s big plazas. This one is right next to La Ronda, a pedestrian only street leading down the hillside. There were a lot of shops and restaurants in this area so we shopped around for souvenirs.
Day 2: Mindo Cloud Forest
We used a tour company to book a day trip to Mindo Cloud Forest, a nature preserve about 2 hours from Quito. The ride gave us a great view of the Andes and brought us deeper and deeper into the mountains, where we ascended gradually over a series of switchbacks before entering the preserve
At the parking lot there were a few bird feeders buzzing about with all sorts of hummingbirds that I had never seen before. As I snapped photos, the birds flew by my head at 20 mph back and forth to their honey tray hanging from the trees. Our guide led us through the forest, pointing out birds and other interesting things like caterpillars and plants I had never seen before. We finished up with a good lunch in a sort of tree house restaurant overlooking the preserve.
Day 3: Cotopaxi Volcano
I woke up feeling sick. I couldn’t really eat anything at breakfast except a roll and a coffee, but decided to soldier on and go on the day trip to 19,300 foot Cotopaxi volcano. Probably not the best idea. After a two hour ride or so, we arrived at the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. The weather was overcast and foggy so we were disappointed that we were not going to get our iconic view of the snow capped peak of the volcano but the scenery around the mountain was breathaking. Before driving up to the parking area at Cotopaxi, our guide took us to a nearby lake called Laguna de Limpiopungo where we saw some wild horses prancing about in the fog.
The next step in our day is one I’ll never forget. After driving up to a parking lot at 15,000, we had the choice of getting out on foot and walking up the steep mountainside to a cabin at 15,900 feet. Or we could just admire the view from the parking lot and call it a day. I was still feeling a bit ill, and had nothing in my stomach except some plantain chips. But I didn’t want to miss out on ascending to the cabin and knowing that I did it, so I went along with the guide on about a 45 minute round trip trek that nearly killed me.
The climb up this stretch of the volcano was so steep that it felt like we were walking up a wall. The ash below made it hard to get a sturdy footing; it was like walking on a beach. After about 5 minutes, I had to stop and catch my breath. I like to think I’m in good shape, but I could tell right away that this was going to be really difficult. My stops became more and more frequent as we got higher. I was beginning to feel like a wimp, especially since the guide, who was about five years older and a little overweight, was not phased at all. I had been through some hellish physical experiences as an athlete and a soldier, but this climb pushed me to my physical limit. Being sick, dehydrated, and altitude sick did not help.
We were about 75% of the way to the cabin when I finally listened to my stomach and stood still. My reflexes took over; I realized I was no longer in command of my body. Soon after, I transformed into a little active volcano myself, spewing yellow matter a few feet away into the black ash. My guide politely covered my mess up with some ash and passed a water bottle over. I spent the next few minutes putting myself together and laughing about how disgusting that just was. I felt so much better afterwards and completed the climb to 15,900 feet. The rest of the day I felt so much better.
Cotopaxi is an active volcano that one day could blow, destroying the surrounding countryside and even threatening the capital. I hope that day is far far off.
After my volcano torture experience, we visited a the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, which lies in the flatlands near the Cotopaxi volcano. A former monestary, the hacienda is built upon the ruins of an Incan structure called a tambo.
The hacienda is now a hotel owned by the daughter of a former president of Ecuador. We got a tour of the house (~$5) and the rooms, which incorporate both Incan and Spanish elements. Afterwards we fed carrots to the llamas in the courtyard.
Our guide dropped us off at the airport for our hour-long flight to Cuenca, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. We checked into the Hotel Casa San Rafael and went out for dinner. Afterwards, I got into bed and had the best sleep of my life.
Day 4: Cuenca
I woke up feeling really refreshed and not ill at all. We left the hotel after breakfast and spent the day sightseeing around this beautiful city. Cuenca is only a fraction of the size of Quito, making sightseeing more of a relaxing activity than it was in Quito. Most of the main sights were within a 10 minute walk of our hotel and we had the entire day to explore.
The Park Abdon Calderon, Cuenca’s main square, was our point of reference during our stay. I could have spent hours just sitting on a park bench here reading a book. Cuenca had more of a small town feel than Quito and I felt entirely at ease watching the city’s residents go about their daily activities on this Thursday morning.
Off this plaza was the blue-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which stood prominently over the rest of the centro historico. Next door was the really cool Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion, which had a flower market going on the day we were there–I think the market is there every day, but I might be wrong. We next walked down to the Tomebamba River, which rushes down from high mountain peaks through Cuenca. We followed the river all the way to the a site of Incan ruins (Ruinas de Pumapungo) and toured a museum there.
Day 5: Quito
We woke up and had to catch our morning flight to Quito, a plan that we both regretted, since it would have been a lot easier to just stay in Cuenca and fly back to the USA from there. But we made the most of our afternoon in Quito by taking a gondola/ski lift up a mountain overlooking the city. TeleferiQo is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, taking passengers up the side of Pichincha Volcano for an awesome look over Quito.
On the flight out of Quito the next day, I happened to look out the window as we were passing a volcano (I think Chimborazo) and I snapped this shot:
Five days was too short to really get a good overview of this beautiful country, but I thought we got a great introduction through our active itinerary. There is so much more to see in the country, including the jungle and the Pacific Ocean beaches. Americans looking to see a foreign country without killing their wallets or getting jet lag should consider this gorgeous country. They even use the US dollar!
Food and Wine
Coffee and Cafes:
- Cuenca, Panesa Cafe, sweet little cafe right off the main square of Cuenca. I stepped in here to get out of the rain and ended up spending over an hour savoring the cheesecake and coffee.
- Quito, Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna: The location was good, right off the Plaza San Francisco, allowing us to get anywhere in the Old Town in less than 10 minutes. The area around the hotel emptied of people at nightfall, so it was a little unsettling walking around alone. (Where does everyone go at night? The streets are teeming with people during the day!) The inner courtyard of the hotel is beautiful, decorated with flowers and cool old decorations and paintings. However, our rooms were a bit bare and dingy looking. The toilet in the room barely worked. I had to plunge it twice in two days (the hotel guy was willing to do it, but I felt bad, so I did it). The room didn’t have a phone or a garbage can (the bathroom did though). At night, every little noise out in the hallway could be heard; the doors and walls are so thin. The breakfast was fine but not up to the standard for other South American hotels I’ve been to at this price range. I guess for $75 a night, I shouldn’t be complaining, but I just found it amazing that this hotel was ranked so high on TripAdvisor.
- Quito, Hotel Vieja Cuba: Beautiful hotel located in a newer section of Quito, Marisca. We stayed here our last night in Quito and really had a good experience. The hotel looks like a house; it has a lot of different rooms set up in various nooks and crannies on two floors. There were flowers everywhere and the hotel had a rustic cabin feel to it. We had to get up at 3am the last night and the front desk guy made sure our wake up call and taxi pick up were in order. He also went out of his way to make us a small breakfast before our departure. There is a lot of nightlife and restaurants nearby the hotel, so if you’re looking to have a good fun night after dark, I’d recommend a stay here.
- Cuenca: Casa San Rafael: Everything about this place was perfect. It occupies an old building along one of Cuenca’s main streets and it’s close to the main square and other tourist sites. The lobby and courtyard area are stunning, filled with flowers and rustic touches that make you feel like you’re in a mountain lodge high up in the Andes. The rooms were big and had really comfortable beds. The breakfast in the morning was made to order by the front desk guy. The coffee was also really good. All for about $100 a night.