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Discovering the Ecuadorian Andes - 9 Nights Itinerary

At least by South American standards, Ecuador is a small country, both in area and in population. However, we assure you, this country is by no means “small in its cultural and natural diversity”. It’s often the smallest countries that reveal the greatest variety within their boundaries. Among these, we are inviting you to experience the highlands. Whether on a paramo trekking or lodging at some haciendas in Ecuador, we are eager to share the modest yet emotive beauty of our countryside.

 

Many may begin with the question, what to do besides Galapagos? Fair enough, this destination is the reason most travelers visit the country on the first place. However, we are always delighted to see how unexpected travelers are surprised by the experience in the mainland, particularly the highlands. In this itinerary, we will narrow down the question to: what to do in the countryside of Ecuador; let’s have a quick look. This itinerary has been designed for those who want to combine mainland Ecuador's excellent trekking with its cultural highlights. You will be able, for example, to wander through the streets of historic Quito (the best preserved colonial city in the Americas) while also staying at one of the oldest buildings (over 400 years in fact) located in the oldest street in town. You can also visit the famous indigenous market in Otavalo, while staying at a luxury hacienda nearby managed by the local community. In fact, you can visit the community and participate in many of their projects, such as traditional embroidery atelier, kichwa classes, andean cooking classes, organic and sustainable farming, condor conservation projects, and even cheese-making! You will not only have fun with them as you learn, but create a connection. You will share with the locals, and appreciate their view of life.

 

As much of the itinerary takes the traveler to altitudes above 2,500 meters, and there is quite a bit of traveling and walking involved, the trip could be considered by some to be physically tiring – but you’ll also find it fascinating and rewarding. As a matter of fact, a central aspect of this journey involves trekking the most beautiful and awe-inspiring landmarks: Mojanda Lakes, Cotopaxi National Park, Quilotoa Crater, and Cajas National Park. There is a calming sensation when letting oneself unwind into oblivion in the middle of the paramo. There are fogs caressing the feathergrasses (locally known as Paja Andina; endemic to the South American highlands), the silence with occasional whispers of the winds, and the bright blue skies that without even noticing, it changes to a complete white within seconds. These moments are inspirational, energizing… Somehow, such simple and “void” events have impacted more to some travelers than the entire journey to the Galapagos.

 

After the excursions and cultural immersion, you will recharge in natural hot springs. As you pleasantly feel the pain and tense muscles being eased, you stretch back and enjoy the view to one of the sacred mountains. As you hear the water flowing, perhaps some Andean Finch chirping, you let the environment soothe you.

 

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Testimonials

“The trip was excellent from beginning to end. The Isabella II was a fine ship and the crew and guides were all of the highest quality. I would recommend them to others. For us, the ship was the perfect size – not too small and not too large”Walter Squire

Highlights
Quito (Old Town), Otavalo market, Cotopaxi National Park, Quilotoa crater lagoon, Devil´s Nose train Journey & Cuenca city.
Itinerary at a Glance
Day 1: Arrive in Quito
Day 2: Quito City Tour & Middle of the World Tour
Day 3: Otavalo Indigenous Market
Day 4: Mojanda Lakes – Papallacta Hot Springs
Day 5: Papallacta – Cotopaxi National Park
Day 6: Quilotoa Crater Lake
Day 7: Spectacular “Nariz del Diablo” Andean Rail Journey – Cuenca
Day 8: Cuenca City Tour
Day 9: Cuenca – Cajas National Park – Guayaquil
Day 10: Guayaquil – Transfer to the airport
South America Map
Detailed Itinerary
Day 1
Arrive in Quito

When you arrive in Ecuador’s capital of Quito — which lies at 2,800 meters above sea level at the foot of the Pichincha Volcano — you will be met at the airport and taken to your hotel.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Day 2
Quito City Tour & Middle of the World Tour

On this one-day tour, we will visit the historic district of the Ecuadorian capital, enjoying this urban jewel and its artistic and architectural treasures. One of the largest and best preserved colonial centers in South America, Quito’s “Old Town” area was declared the first “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO, in 1978.

The visit to the historic center begins with the Basilica del Voto Nacional, one of the largest churches in Ecuador and one of the most important works of Ecuadorian neo-gothic architecture. While the outside of the building stands out for its stone carvings that represent plants and animals of the country, the inside consists of 24 chapels. Beneath the structure are crypts in which lie the remains of several former presidents of the Republic, and on top of the 100-meter-tall church is a beautiful gazebo that also serves as a small cafe.

We will continue on to the always vibrant Plaza Grande (“Independence Square”), which is surrounded by the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Building and the Archbishop’s Palace. We will then visit the church of the “Compañia de Jesus” to find its impressive interior inlaid in gold.

Your tour of historic Quito will end with a birds-eye view of the city from the panoramic “Virgin of Quito” monument atop El Panecillo Hill, which overlooks the capital. This will give you a chance to appreciate Quito from above, and – if the weather permits – to catch a view of the spectacular “Volcano Avenue,” two parallel mountain ranges containing eight of the country’s ten highest peaks.

From here, we will continue our journey 15 miles north of Quito to the Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”), the monument on the equator that was built to commemorate the French scientists who in the 1830s made history by determining the shape of the planet thanks to their studies at this location.

Next to the monument is “Middle of the World City,” a village built in a colonial style – with a main square, a church, a post office, a bullring, restaurants and several souvenir and crafts shops.

The highlight of this visit is the equatorial line running along latitude of 0° 0’ 0.” Here, you will be able to stand with one foot in each of the earth’s hemispheres – a great photo op!  

We will also visit the Intiñan Solar Museum, where you will have the opportunity to perform various unusual experiments like balancing an egg on a nail, losing weight in a second, or straddling the equatorial line that separates the two hemispheres.

After the visit, we will drive you back to your hotel.

NOTE:

  • Lunch will be at one of the excellent restaurants in either Quito’s historic district or near the “Mitad del Mundo” equatorial complex.
  • For logistical reasons, on Sundays we will visit the Mitad del Mundo complex in the morning and Quito’s historic district in the afternoon.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast - Lunch
Day 3
Otavalo Indigenous Market

In the morning, we begin this trip from Quito, heading north along the Pan-American Highway and making a brief stop in the town of Miralago for a superb view of Lake San Pablo. During this stop, you will also have a chance to taste delicious bizcochos, a type of cookie or bread baked in a clay oven and covered with local cheese or caramel sauce. 

From there we will head to the town of Otavalo, home to Ecuador's largest indigenous market and one of the best known in all of Latin America. The market sets up every day, allowing you to spend a few hours wandering through this bustling handicrafts center, in addition to its food stalls.

Later, it will be up to you if you'd like to go for a short hike around beautiful Lake Cuicocha or do a bit more Otavalo shopping and people watching.

We can also visit a family of weavers who not only have amazing wares but will actually demonstrate how they weave on their traditional back-strap looms and show you their techniques for making striking colors from local plants. Around the corner lives a family of musicians, where you’ll get a feel for Andean music and watch as perfectly tuned Andean flutes are crafted in minutes.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast - Lunch
Day 4
Mojanda Lakes – Papallacta Hot Springs

After breakfast, we will leave the hotel and travel to the Mojanda Lakes, located at an altitude of around 3,500 meters. Three crystal-clear lakes (Mojanda Grande, Negra, and Chiquita) are situated in the crater of the extinct Mojanda Volcano, giving us an opportunity for a short scenic hike around the lake. From there, we will drive to the village of Pifo via the town of Cayambe and later on to Papallacta. The latter, situated at 3,700 meters in the midst of an evergreen paramo landscape (Andean high grasslands), is renowned for its hot springs. At the Termas de Papallacta resort and spa, you can relax and enjoy its pools, naturally heated by the volcanic hot springs. Also, if the weather is clear, you will be able to see the giant Antisana Volcano (reaching a height of 5,758 meters) looming above.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner
Day 5
Papallacta – Cotopaxi National Park

In the morning, after breakfast, we will leave the hotel and head south along the famous “Avenue of the Volcanoes” until reaching Cotopaxi National Park. We will drive through the park from the north entrance until coming to Lake Limpiopungo, where you should have a spectacular view of the gigantic volcanic cone of the Cotopaxi Volcano, if the weather is clear. You will have time for a short walk around the lake, which is located at an elevation of 3,800 meters.

Lunch will be served at the Tambopaxi acclimatization center, which has a restaurant with a fantastic view of the slopes of Cotopaxi. In the afternoon we will continue to the local hacienda for two hours of horseback riding, rest and a good night’s sleep.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast - Lunch
Day 6
Quilotoa Crater Lake

Today we will take a two-hour car journey through the western Andes mountain range, one of the most impressive areas of Ecuador. Heading south, the tour will tak us to Zumbahua, a small colorful town consisting of just 40 families. Ten kilometers farther lies the blue and green Quilotoa Crater Lake, one of the most beautiful volcano lakes in the Ecuadorian Andes. From the crater you can see various snow-topped volcanoes in the distance. After a 1-1/2 to 2 hour hike down to the bank of the lake, you will enjoy a traditional lunch. Later we will continue driving southwards, reaching the Riobamba area in the afternoon, where you will check in at your hotel for the night.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast - Lunch
Day 7
Spectacular “Nariz del Diablo” Andean Rail Journey – Cuenca

After breakfast, you will be taken to the Riobamba train station to begin a breathtaking rail journey through the mountains to Chanchán. The railway line was completed in 1902 and is the steepest railroad in the world ...a true technical masterpiece! The train travels through beautiful countryside, with the highlight being the stretch known as the “Nariz del Diablo” (the Devil’s Nose). You will disembark at the station in Chanchán, and from there we will travel to the charming city of Cuenca. On the way, we will stop at the famous archaeological site of “Ingapirca” (Kichwa for “stonewalls of the Inca”), the most important and best preserved Inca ruins in Ecuador. Here, you can wander around this fascinating site and visit the small museum. Afterwards, we will drive for another two hours until reaching Cuenca and your hotel.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast - Lunch
Day 8
Cuenca City Tour

After breakfast, we will begin a tour that explores the colonial center of Cuenca. The third largest city in Ecuador (after Guayaquil and Quito), Cuenca is considered by many as the artistic and cultural center of the country.  This visit to Cuenca’s historic district will give you a chance to see its remarkable colonial and republican architecture, as well as its sacred art museums and markets, particularly the flower market. Cuenca is a good place to purchase another famous Ecuadorian souvenir: the “Panama” hat (which actually originated here in Ecuador). These hats are sold at fair prices in several government-approved franchise shops in town.  Cuenca is also a good place to buy ceramics, embroidery, leather goods and baskets. 

In the afternoon, we will visit Chordeleg (from chorro de oro, meaning “waterfall of gold”), where you’ll learn about the production of fine filigree jewelry as well as handmade ceramic pottery.

While in Gualaceo, you’ll have the opportunity to wander through local fruit and vegetable markets brimming with fresh produce, as well as learn about (and taste!) delicious fruit grown only in Ecuador.

Another highlight of this trip is a visit to Ecuagenera, the most important orchid growing laboratory in Ecuador. Take the time to marvel at hundreds of exotic species — from the exquisitely tiny to the outrageously colorful — as you tour the facility and learn about the propagation and preservation of these enthralling plants.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast
Day 9
Cuenca – Cajas National Park – Guayaquil

This morning we will drive from Cuenca to Guayaquil, en route stopping to visit Cajas National Park. Here, you will find a network of around 200 lakes left over from the Ice Age. Today these form part of an extensive recreation area at a height of 3,150 to 4,450 meters above sea level. Connecting these lakes is a series of small rivers that eventually flow into either the Pacific or the Atlantic oceans.

Arrival in Guayaquil and check-in at your selected hotel.  

After a late breakfast, you will be given a city tour of Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, and the nation’s financial and economic center. The tour includes a visit to the Cathedral, the famous Iguana Park (where land iguanas live in the trees), the city’s fairly recently developed Malecon 2000 riverside boardwalk, the Municipal Palace, and the oldest section of the city – known as Las Peñas. In the late afternoon we will return to your Guayaquil hotel.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast
Day 10
Guayaquil – Transfer to the airport

After breakfast (included at the hotel), you will be transferred to the airport for your international flight home.

Accommodations: Selected hotel

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Breakfast
2018 - Price per person
2 PersonsSingle Supplement
Hotel CategoryDouble
First-Class Superior or LuxuryUS$ 3,982US$ 841
First ClassUS$ 3,018US$ 775
Hotels
CITYFirst ClassFirst-Class Superior or Luxury
QuitoPatio AndaluzCasa Gangotena
OtavaloHacienda PinsaquiLa Mirage
PapallactaTermas de Papallacta Resort (With Jacuzzi)Termas de Papallacta Resort (With Jacuzzi)
Parque Nacional CotopaxiHacienda La CiénegaHacienda San Agustín de Callo
CuencaSanta Lucia Boutique HotelMansión Alcázar Boutique Hotel
GuayaquilSheratonOro Verde
RiobambaHacienda Abraspungo (Standard)Hacienda Abraspungo (Junior Suite)
Included in the price:
  • Accommodations in selected room
  • Transfers in private transportation (to/from airport // to/from hotel/train)
  • Services of a professional guide
  • Excursions, as indicated the itinerary
  • Meals, as indicated in the itinerary
  • Admissions to indicated museums and national parks
  • Train tickets, in standard class
Not included in the price:
  • International flights
  • Travel/medical insurance
  • Personal expenses
  • Items not indicated in the itinerary
  • Alcoholic and bottled beverages
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