Any visitor to this high Andean capital city will find its streets and alleyways lined with both entertaining spots for the nighttime reveler as well as ancient stones for the Spanish-colonial aficionado. Yet, just outside of the city’s mountainous walls is a robust list of possible adventures – making Quito a nice base from which to explore. Just to the northwest of the mountains, in Mindo, are a dazzling bunch of hummingbirds who navigate through a lush cloud forest brimming with orchids and bromeliads in search of their much coveted nectar. A few hours to the north, will bring you to the famous Otavalan market, where you can purchase traditional weavings, artwork, and woolen wear from beautifully clad natives. You could also catch a glimpse of the fiery lava spewing forth from Volcan Tungurahua and ride a mountain bike into the jungle from the scenic town of Baños. Or for the more able-bodied and daring among you, meet with a guide in Quito to plan out getting geared up to summit Cotopaxi at the skyscraping height of 5,897 meters. While most of these trips require one or more days spent outside of Quito, they do provide stunning scenery and heart-throbbing adventure not to be had back in the big city.
View of the Main Church in Banos
A trip to Mindo from Quito- is literally – a breath of fresh air. This small town set in the lush cloud forest reveals some of the most gorgeous landscape in Ecuador, filled with a diverse group of flora and fauna. Known quite well for its abundance of birds from Toucans to Masked Crimson Tanagers, this paradise brings in flocks of birders in search of the objects of their desire. But don’t feel excluded if the exotic fowl doesn’t perk your feathers with excitement; it is also a thrilling place for anyone who is a fan of scenic beauty with amazing opportunities for hiking through orchid-laden forests or rafting down the rapids of raging rivers. Getting here will only take you a few hours by bus from Quito, but spending the night is necessary if you want to allow the calming air to fully sink into your skin. Buses leaving from and returning to Quito may not exceed two per day, so plan your return when you leave.
Otavalo Woman With her Goods
Otavalo is perhaps the single most popular indigenous market place in all of Ecuador. And though the market is mainly geared toward tourists, the traditionally dressed locals produce quality crafts well worth your time and money. Once you see them, the women with golden beads draped around their necks and navy colored wool skirts that hanging loosely over a bright white underskirt and the men in similar colors with their inky black hair grown long and tied back in a ponytail, you will not forget this friendly and well-dressed culture. To get a good price for their goods though, you’ll have to bargain over the goods. Don’t feel too bad about it either. As in many haggle situations, their original price is often double what they will sell it for. This town also has several cozy accommodations and great restaurants to enjoy during your non-market hours. Numerous busses head here from the bus station in Quito, so arranging transportation is as easy as showing up and getting on.
Soaking in the thermal baths is what has made Baños a popular destination. And the town boasts three different places to do so, but what really seems attractive about the town to many westerners is the active volcano at the city’s side. Many people have reported being able to see its glowing lava flowing forth under the darkness of night. And during the day you can rent a mountain bike and drop into the jungle. Many places rent them, and you can ride the 60 kilometres to Puyos if you have the ambition. This natural descent into the Amazon basin is absolutely breathtaking and offers a gorgeous waterfall, Pailón del Diablo, to take a breather at along the way. Keep in mind though, a part of this gravel road is shared by dust-hurling trucks and will require a good pair of shades. But if you’re not the peddling sort, you could also opt to go horseback riding or river rafting in town.
Volcan Cotopaxi in the Distance
To many mountaineers, summiting Volcan Cotopaxi is a true highlight in Ecuador. While this is an extremely taxing endeavor requiring skill, it is not completely necessary to have a lot of experience with snow- and ice-climbing gear; this fairly straight-forward journey allows for a bit of learning. What will be required is good acclimatization at 4,000 meters as well as plain old strength and stamina. I was able to complete this climb without former pick ax and cramp-on experience, but I will say that reaching the top is hard unless you really want it. There are several guides in Mariscal (gringolandia) in Quito that can be hired to organize the climb if you are up for the challenge. If not, it is also possible to hire a bus to the base camp Refugio José Rivas, where climbers and hikers alike are able to lodge for the night for a small price. If you want to see the views of Cotopaxi but don’t feel comfortable climbing it, this is a great alternative.
These are just a few of the possible draws outside of Quito. It is safe to say that anyone interested in nature, from cloud forests to the volcanoes, the Andean terrain surrounding Quito is ideal for outdoor activities. So if you can’t take one more night of seeing fellow tourists at the Papaya Net internet café in Mariscal, then pack up your gear and get out of town for the weekend. There is simply too much to be missed!