The capital city of Ecuador is Quito – a beautiful place built high up with in the mountains. For those with a head for heights take the telefonica cable car up from the base of the Pinchincha volcano for fabulous views of the city. At 2,800m above sea level the altitude in the city itself does take a little getting used to! Quito is split in to two quite distinct parts – old and new. Quito old town is very beautiful and quite European in feel – lots if big plazas, beautiful churches, narrow cobbled streets surrounded by pastel coloured buildings. The new town has more of the amenities, tourist shops, banks, tour operators, luxury hotels, restaurants and bars but its appearance has nothing on the old town. Most people opt to stay in the new town as it is safer after dark and closer to backpacker nightlife.
Just 30k outside of Quito is Mitad del Mundo – the centre of the earth (you can catch up bus from the north bus station situated in between the old and new quarter of the city) – Ecuador’s location on the equator line is the origin of its name. Mitad del Mundo is a monument erected on what was thought to be the site where 0 degrees longitude meets 0 degrees latitude. Unfortunately for the monument builders it turned out years later that the actual point where this occurs is in fact c. 200m away from the monument – but it’s definitely still a fun place to visit and to take the obligatory photos at the ‘centre of the earth’. There is quite an interesting museum inside the monument about all the indigenous communities with in Ecuador – there are many more than you might think!
The wonderful Papallacta hot springs are situated just 67k east of Quito, on the route taken in 1542 by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco del Orellana as he crossed the Andes mountain range in order to discover the Amazon River. At 3,300 metres above sea level the views from the heart of the Andes mountains are incredible – be prepared for a slightly andrenalin filled bus journey though and those with a fear of heights shouldn’t take the window seat! The hydrothermal value of the Papallacta springs is due to their location between two volcanoes Cayambe & Antisana – the springs termperature at source varies from 30 degrees to 70 degrees and at the pools from 36-40 desgrees. A highlight of any trip to Ecuador is sitting in a natural hot pool, carved out of the rock, surrounded by the mist that clings to the tops of the Andes – it will really take your breath away. The Ecuadorian medical association certifies that the waters have medicinal benefits and with a beautiful spa complex and a multitude of massages and treatments to choose from at bargain prices you are guaranteed to come out feeling like a new person. You will need to stay over night as the complex is a long way from any thing else – there are budget options at the foot of the road up to the spa (a c. 2 mile road up) the spa itself has 32 rooms with heating, open fires, private bathrooms and their own private hot spring pools. Find some backpacker friends in Quito and head up as a group to save on costs.
From Quito you can fly out to the Galapagos which assuming you have the cash should not be missed!! The Galapagos are a stunning archipelago over 1000km off the Ecuadorian coast. They live up and exceed all expectations – which being usually based on beautifully shot wildlife programmes are very high! The only downside is that a 1 week trip will prob set you back any thing from £1k – £1.5k – but if you can find the funds its worth every penny. The wildlife here is so abundant & so at home with the human beings that exist along side that by the end of your weeks stay you become almost blaze about sitting eating your dinner with a sea lion at your feet! Excitement over the experiences to come builds from the moment you step off the plane & walk across the runway to the ‘aiport’ (wooden shack covered in tarpaulin) stepping over sleeping iguanas, enjoying the heat of the tarmack, as you go. The wildlife is amazing and you will get closer than you ever imagined – from blue footed boobies to giant tortoises, pelicans, penguins, flamingos, iguanas, sharks, dolphins and whales – it will blow your mind! The different eco systems on each island are fascinating and if you can get yourself on a land tour which enables you to stay on some of the bigger islands rather than simply doing it with the masses on a ‘cruise’ type trip it is well worth it. Do not miss the many highlights on the island of Isabella such as walking across a lava field and through lava tunnels (make sure you check for any volcano warnings though – this one’s still very active!). Top tip – make sure you get the passport stamp – it has to be one of if not the best in the world …. we won’t ruin the surprise!
From the terminal terrestre in the old town of Quito you can get a bus to the little mountain town of Latacunga – here you can organise trips to the Cotopaxi volcano and Quilatoa lake (we booked with Tovar expeditions and were very well looked after – firstname.lastname@example.org). Cotopaxi volcano is stunning & picture perfect – ask a child to draw you a volcano and their efforts would look like Cotopaxi! It is possible to climb the volcano – for the less adventurous you can take the path (a vertical one at 4,800m altitude) to base camp and from there reach the start of the glaciers. Alternatively if you’re up for a challenge – you can opt to stay at base camp over night and scale the summit at 4am with crampons – a great challenge & experience! Lake Quilatoa is beautiful – a sunken crater lake filled with very inviting but utterly toxic turquoise waters & surrounded by grazing alpaccas. The journey from Latacunga to the lake is one of the best in south america, with beautiful scenery and offering rare insights into the indegenous communities passed along the way.
The next destination is Riobamba where you can board the spectacular train – the Diablo Nariz (devils nose) the views from this train journey are stunning but it’s departure times are erratic and the town itself offers very little so check this before arrival. One worth while expedition from Riobamba is the mountain bike trip up Chimborazzo – Ecuadors highest volcano at 6,300m to the summit. The walk to the top isn’t as steep as Cotopaxi so despite the higher altitude it is an easier walk up. The views as you mountain bike down Chimborazzo are stunning but be ready for a bumpy ride!
The little spa town of Banos is very well worth a visit – don’t expect much from the baths themselves but the town is full of character and for those who enjoy horse riding there are some beautiful rides in the surrounding area.
Cuenca is the 3rd biggest city in Ecuador after Quito & Guayaquil – it has a very european feel to it with spacious green plazas & beautiful churches. A further bus ride south is the riverside town of Loja – a convenient place to stop on your way to gorgeous Vilcabamba but offering little to see.
Close to the border with Peru is the backpacker haven of Villcabamba – a fantastic place to relax for a few days (or weeks!) before you take on Peru. There are some great places to stay such as the Rumi Wilko eco lodge on the banks of the river. Swimming in the river, walking the mountain paths, horse riding and bargain massages all make this place an Ecuador highlight.