Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is an exciting place to visit. At 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) above sea level, it is the world’s second highest capital and the only one on the equator. It’s got one of the best preserved old towns in all the Americas. After exploring the capital and all it has to offer for a few days, it’s time to explore the surrounding environs on day trips from Quito. Perhaps you’ll shop until you drop (or run out of money) at South America’s largest outdoor market. Or maybe you’ll spend a day absorbing the scenic grandeur of the Andes or photographing birds and butterflies in a cloud forest. The day is yours; make the most of it.
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You’ll pass through several villages and pretty scenery as you make the hour-long drive from Quito to Papallacta, high in the Andes Mountains. Papallacta, noted for its hot springs, is situated at an elevation of more than 3,290 meters (10,800 feet), but the drive there takes you even higher, to just over 3,960 meters (13,000 feet). There’s not too much to do in Papallacta, except soak in the natural hot springs, which are said to have healing powers. Lake Papallacta is located here; it used to supply drinking water to Quito, but an oil spill from a nearby pipeline contaminated the water. If you’re lucky, you might see wildlife such as opossums, weasels and spectacled bear.
Since Ecuador is named after the equator that runs through it, you’ll want to visit the site where it all begins. Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, 25 km (16 miles) from Quito, is home to a national landmark that is the exact location of the equator. The 30-meter (98-foot) high monument also honors the Franco Spanish Geodesic Mission that placed the equator here in 1736. The site also contains the Museo Etnográfico Mitad del Mundo, which is devoted to Ecuador’s native people. Ancient astronomers had placed the equator cross point at Catequilla, now an archaeological site, which is at 0° latitude and the correct location.
Eight hundred years ago, Quilotoa, a mountain high in the Ecuadoran Andes erupted, spewing volcanic ash as far away as the Pacific Ocean. When it was over, a two-mile wide caldera remained. It filled with water and today is known as Quilotoa Lake. If you’re an experienced hiker, you might want to walk the six miles around the caldera rim. Be forewarned, the hikes can be sandy, steep and challenging in places. A shorter hike involves going from the viewpoint down into the crater, where primitive camping is available. The lake is almost 3,960 meters (13,000 feet) in altitude, so you may want to pace yourself.
If you’re looking to spend a day communing with nature, Mindo Cloud Forest is the place to go, particularly if you’re into nature photography, especially birds. This nature reserve, where it’s possible to look down upon the clouds, is home to more than 450 species of birds, plus an astounding variety of butterflies, mammals, reptiles and orchids. As you navigate the forest path you’ll also come across several beautiful waterfalls. Mindo is famous for its chocolate making, so you might want to buy some to snack on while you’re hiking through the forest or photographing birds. Because protecting the environment is so important, visitors are asked not to use spray cans of insect repellant, but rather an atomizer to protect the ozone layer.
Visiting the Otavalo Market, two hours by bus from Quito, can be hazardous to your nerves. You’ll have to decide whether to snap up all the great native handicrafts or snap pictures for your memory book. Of course, it’s possible to do both. That’s what makes South America’s largest outdoor market so much fun. The colorful market is a good place to buy handmade textiles as well as items made locally from wood, silver and ceramics. The Plata de los Ponchos, as the market is known locally, is open daily, but Saturdays and Wednesdays, in that order, are the best days to go.
Cotopaxi is famous for being the second highest mountain, at 5,897 meters (19,347 feet), in the Andes. It’s also known as being an active volcano that is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire volcanic chain. The Cotopaxi volcano erupted more than 50 times since 1738. The most recent eruption began in August 2015 and lasted until the following January. The mountain is home to an equatorial glacier, a rarity in the world. Cotopaxi is visible from Quito on a clear day, but how much more fun to make a day trip there to see a mountain that was considered sacred by pre-Columbian peoples.