The legion of Quito-based tour agencies and just about every hotel desk can arrange any number of tour options, such as trips to Cotopaxi National Park. The most popular day trips out of Quito are probably to La Mitad del Mundo, Cotopaxi National Park, and the market in Otavalo.
If you don't go with you hotel's tour desk or in-house agency, I recommend Metropolitan Touring (tel. 02/2988-200; www.metropolitan-touring.com), Safari Ecuador (tel. 02/2552-505; www.safari.com.ec), and Surtrek (tel. 866/978-7398 in the U.S. and Canada, or 02/2231-534 in Ecuador; www.surtrek.com).
Guided Tours & Adventures
In just about every case, you will find a Quito-based tour operator with day trips you can participate in for all of these different adventure sports and activities.
Cotopaxi National Park -- Almost every travel agency in Quito offers some sort of day trip to Cotopaxi National Park. Most are only moderately strenuous and feature a hike from the parking lot to the refugio. You definitely will not have time to hike up to the summit. If you want to hike, horseback ride, or mountain bike around Cotopaxi National Park, be sure to ask your organizer what exactly the tour includes. A whole host of options are available. Most tours include lunch at a typical hacienda or inside the park at Tambopaxi. Note: On almost all tours, you will have to pay an additional $10 (£6.65) national-park fee. Guided tours to Cotopaxi run $30 to $75 (£20-£50) per person, depending on group size, length of tour, and other factors.
Alternatively, you can organize a day trip to Cotopaxi on your own. You can hire a taxi in Quito for $60 to $90 (£40-£60) round-trip. Once you reach the parking lot (1 1/2 hr. from Quito), you can then hike up to the refugio or glacier at your own pace while the taxi waits for you. This is my preferred way of visiting Cotopaxi.
Otavalo Market -- Though Saturday is the main market day, most Quito-based operators offer daily excursions to nearby Otavalo, and there's plenty of good shopping in here any day of the week. There's also a lot to see and do around the town. Most tours last all day, with a stop at the artisans market as well as visits to any number of nearby attractions, including Cuicocha Lake, Peguche Waterfall, Mojanda Lakes, and Condor Park. Most tours include lunch at one of the area's historic haciendas.
Guided tours to Otavalo run $25 to $75 (£17-£50) per person. The price varies depending on group size, what's included, where you have lunch, length of tour, and other factors.
San Jorge Eco-Lodge & Biological Reserve
This mountain lodge just outside Quito gives you the best of several worlds. The original building here is an old hacienda once owned by former President Eloy Alfaro. The San Jorge Eco-Lodge and Biological Reserve (tel. 877/565-2596 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or 02/2493-123 in Ecuador; www.eco-lodgesanjorge.com) offers a range of room styles and an array of tours and activities. Bird-watching and horseback riding are the main draws, and both are excellent. In addition, they have a pretty outdoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, and steam room. These folks own four private nature reserves, which cover a number of distinct ecosystems, including high barren plains, high-altitude rainforest, montane cloud forest, and subtropical midelevation rainforest. More than 1,000 bird species have been recorded throughout the reserves.
Doubles at the lodge cost $65 to $95 (£43-£63). The owners also have a separate nature lodge in the cloud forests outside of Mindo and offer a range of combination tours.
Getting There -- The ecolodge is only around 20 minutes from Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport, making it a reasonable alternative to city hotels, especially for nature enthusiasts. The hotel offers transportation to the lodge for $10 to $15 (£6.65-£10) per person each way.
La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World)
It's one of the most common souvenir photos taken in Ecuador: A visitor with one foot in either hemisphere, straddling the Equator. Ciudad La Mitad del Mundo (tel. 02/2396-871) is a tourist complex set up on the site where, in 1736, French explorer and scientist Charles-Marie de la Condamine made his final calculations to determine the precise equatorial line. With modern GPS technology, we now know that de la Condamine erred by some 180m (600 ft.). For a more precise visit to the equatorial line, visit the Quitsato Mitad del Mundo Monument (tel. 09/9701-133; www.quitsato.org), which is on the road to Otavalo.
The centerpiece of the Ciudad La Mitad del Mundo is a large, trapezoidal monument topped with a large globe. At the top of the monument is a viewing area, reached by an elevator, with great views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. My favorite attraction here is the large, scale model of colonial-era Quito, called Museo del Quito en Miniatura (Quito in Miniature). This is a great way to get your bearings before touring around the colonial core. On the site, you'll also find a Museo de Etnografía (Ethnography Museum), with displays about Ecuador's various indigenous tribes and peoples, as well as a small Planetarium. All around are tourist shops and souvenir stands, snack bars, and restaurants. The whole place was built with a mock-colonial styling, sort of a miniature Epcot version of colonial Quito. Frequent shows of folkloric music and dance are performed. Quiteños flock here on Sundays.
Ciudad La Mitad del Mundo is open Monday to Thursday from 9am to 6pm, and from Friday to Sunday from 9am to 7pm. Admission is $2 (£1.35). Admission to the Ethnographic Museum is an additional $3 (£2), while a visit to the Planetarium is $1.50 (£1).
Separate from the main attraction, but just a few hundred yards away, is the Museo Solar Intiñan (Intiñan Solar Museum; tel. 02/2395-122; www.museointinan.com.ec). This interesting attraction has a series of exhibits and ongoing experiments relating to the geography, astrology, and natural sciences of the region. Try your hand at balancing an egg on its end, and watch how water flows down a drain on either side of the Equator. You can also test your accuracy with a blow gun. The museum is open daily from 9:30am to 5pm. Admission is $3 (£2).
For a unique hotel experience, you can stay in the basic, yet comfortable, Pululahua Hostal (tel. 09/9466-636; www.pululahuahostal.com), which is built inside the circular crater of the extinct Volcán Pululahua, just a few kilometers beyond the Midad del Mundo monument.
Getting There -- Located some 23km (14 miles) north of Quito, near San Antonio de Pichincha, Ciudad La Mitad del Mundo is connected to Quito by a well-paved road. Just about every tour agency and hotel desk in Quito offers a half-day tour here. Prices range from $9 to $30 (£6-£20), depending on how exclusive the tour is, how many attractions it takes in, and whether or not lunch or admission fees are included in the price.
A taxi ride here from Quito should run about $12 to $15 (£8-£10) each way. Regular buses, marked MITAD DEL MUNDO, leave from the Cotocallao stop of the Metrobus trolley line. The trolley costs 25¢ (17p), and the bus costs an extra 40¢ (27p). Be sure to stay on the bus until you reach the actual monument, its final stop.
Mindo & Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve
Hiking through the cloud forests of Mindo and Bellavista is one of the most exciting and rewarding side trips you can take from Quito. Within 2 hours, you will escape the city and find yourself in a magical ecosystem where near-constant mist, as opposed to heavy rains, nourishes a dense mix of trees, lichen, and epiphytes. Cloud forests are some of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Over 400 bird species have been recorded in the area, including the golden-headed quetzal; tanager finch; and, my favorite, Chocó toucan. In addition, you will have the opportunity to hike to remote waterfalls, ride inner tubes on pristine rivers, take a zip-line canopy tour, and marvel at the rich array of orchids, butterflies, bromeliads, and flowers.
While the easy access makes this a potential (and popular) day-tour destination, I recommend spending at least a night or two. There are several lovely lodges in this region with excellent naturalist guides and a host of tour and activity options. In addition to bird- and wildlife-viewing, tour options include horseback riding, mountain biking, and visits to local butterfly farms.
Much of the cloud forest around Mindo is protected in the Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo (Mindo-Nambillo Protected Forest), administered by Amigos de la Naturaleza (tel. 02/2765-463). While most of the reserve is closed to the public, there are ample private reserves and publicly accessible trails through Mindo's cloud forests. The Mindo-Nambillo reserve was the source of controversy a few years ago, when the government ran an oil pipeline right through it, despite the objections of tourism and environmental groups. Today, the forest is recuperating and covering up much of the damage caused by the pipeline.
Mindo is the more developed of these two cloud-forest destinations, with a host of hotels and lodges. The top hotel here is gorgeous El Monte (tel. 09/3084-675 or 02/3900-402; www.ecuadorcloudforest.com). Accommodations are private wood-and-thatch cabins set near the banks of the clear-flowing Río Mindo. This place is located a couple of kilometers south of Mindo, and the final leg of your journey to the lodge is via a hand-cranked cable car over the river. Accommodations are $86 (£57) per person, for a 2-day/1-night stay, including three meals, guided hikes and activities, and taxes. Other good choices are the lovely new Casa Divina (tel. 02/3900-457; www.mindocasadivina.com), which has its own zip-line canopy tour, and Tandayapa Bird Lodge (tel. 02/2447-520; www.tandayapa.com), which was built by and for bird-watchers and is run by the folks behind Tropical Birding (www.tropicalbirding.com).
The 720-hectare (1,779-acre) Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve (tel. 02/2116-232 or 09/9490-891; www.bellavistacloudforest.com) is privately owned and has a variety of accommodations options, from private cabins to dorm rooms in the top of a large geodesic dome. It's not fancy, but the views over the forest canopy are dramatic, the food is excellent, and the nature guides will open up your eyes to a whole different world. Rates run $47 to $71 (£31-£47) per person, including three meals, but a whole host of package options are available, including meals, tours, and transportation.
Getting There -- You can usually arrange transportation with your hotel or lodge. Alternatively, a taxi from Quito should run around $40 to $60 (£27-£40). Mindo is serviced by a couple of daily buses from Quito. Cooperativa Flor de Valle (tel. 02/2527-495) has buses leaving Quito's northern bus terminal, Terminal de Norte La Ofelia, at 8:20am and 4pm, and returning at 6:30am and 2pm. On weekends and holidays there are additional buses and a slightly varied schedule. The ride takes around 2 1/2 hours, and the fare is $3 (£2).
It's a little more complicated to travel to Bellavista on your own: You have to take the bus from Quito to the small town of Nanegalito, where you can arrange for a truck-taxi to Bellavista. From Nanegalito, it's about a 45-minute ride to Bellavista. The ride should cost about $15 (£10) for the whole vehicle, which can hold up to six passengers. Any bus from Quito to Mindo, Puerto Quito, or San Miguel de los Bancos can drop you off in Nanegalito.
Situated at an altitude of 3,300m (10,827 ft.), and containing some wonderful lush green scenery, the small village of Papallacta boasts the country's most plush and picturesque hot springs -- a must while in Ecuador, especially if you've been doing any strenuous hiking or bumpy horseback riding. Papallacta is less than 2 hours from Quito by car or bus, but far from the capital's hustle and bustle; it's along the road to Lago Agrio, and is an excellent, relaxing day trip from the city, or the perfect stop-off spot to or from El Oriente.
The mineral-rich baths are believed to possess healing powers; locals swear by them, claiming that they alleviate a number of medical conditions ranging from kidney ailments to arthritis. While there are a couple of inexpensive and basic hot-springs options in and around the village, I highly recommend the considerably larger and far better maintained Termas de Papallacta (tel. 06/2320-620 at the hot springs, or 02/2568-989 for reservations in Quito; www.termaspapallacta.com), a couple of kilometers outside the center. They have exceptional pool and spa facilities, a hotel, and a restaurant. Take in the breathtaking views of the hilly landscape and, on a cloudless day, the majestic snowcapped Volcán Antisana (5,753m/18,875 ft.).
This complex houses various thermal pools ranging from frost-bitingly freezing to utterly scorching, all well maintained and with water changed on a daily basis. You can opt to enter either the balneario (daily 6am-11pm; admission $7/£4.65; lockers 50¢/35p) or the spa area (daily 9am-6pm; admission $18/£12), which is generally less crowded and also has a sauna, a steam room, and hydro-massage pools. In addition, the spa area offers a range of treatments, including massages, facials, clay body wraps, and aromatherapy at an extra charge. Tip: If at all possible, visit midweek, because this place fills up most weekends.
Termas de Papallacta is also an excellent lodging option. The rustic rooms and cabins are spacious and comfy, with minimalist decor; large, cozy beds; and modern, well-equipped, en-suite bathrooms. A double, including entrance to the balneario, costs $120 to $140 (£80-£93) per night. But the real advantage of spending the night here is that rooms are surrounded by scores of hot pools for the exclusive, around-the-clock use of hotel guests.
If you're looking for something less pricey, check out Hostería La Pampa de Papallacta (tel. 06/2320-624), which has clean and stylish rooms with private bathrooms at $30 to $50 (£20-£33) for a double. An even cheaper alternative, just a stone's throw from the main hot-springs complex, is Hostal Antisana (tel. 06/2320-626), which provides basic accommodations, perfect for backpackers on a budget, at around $9 (£6) per person.
Papallacta's surrounding areas are great for horseback riding, hikes, and nature walks. Inquire at your hotel's reception desk, or at the Termas de Papallacta's own Exploratorio research center, located next to the hot springs; they provide information on local flora and fauna, maps, and naturalist guides, and even organize excursions to the Cayambé-Coca Reserve or rafting tours on Río Quijos.
At an altitude of over 3,000m (9,842 ft.), Papallacta can get pretty cold after dusk; be sure to pack warm clothing if you're staying overnight.
Your best bet for food is the excellent restaurant at the Termas de Papallacta, whose specialty is local, freshly caught trout. A snack bar sells sandwiches and light bites right at the hot springs. Outside the complex you can head down the dirt track to any of the relatively inexpensive almuerzo eateries, all of which offer typical Ecuadorean fare including fish; trout is on the menu everywhere. The restaurant at Hostería La Pampa de Papallacta serves rather tasty dishes.
Getting There -- The easiest ways to get here are to join an organized tour or to arrange transportation and an overnight stay with the Termas de Papallacta itself. Alternatively, any bus heading to Baeza, Tena, or Lago Agrio (via Baeza) will drop you off in the village of Papallacta (or better yet, at the entrance road to the hot springs, a little before the village). From the well-marked turnoff here, it's a little over 1.5km (1 mile) to the hot springs. If you're coming by bus, you'll probably have to walk this last bit, unless you're lucky enough to flag down a ride. Buses leave from Quito's main terminal for Lago Agrio roughly every half-hour from 6am to 11:30pm. Two main bus lines, Transportes Baños (tel. 02/2570-884) and Putumayo (tel. 02/2583-316), make the run, and both will drop you off at the entrance to Termas de Papallacta. The ride takes around 2 hours, and the fare is $2.50 (£1.65).
If you're driving, take the highway (E20) east out of Quito toward Baeza. To get to E20 from downtown Quito, head north on Avenida Eloy Alfaro to Avenida de los Granados, and then turn right. This road becomes Hwy. E20. Follow any signs to Papallacta, Tumbaco Baeza, or El Oriente. Papallacta is about 65km (40 miles) southeast of Quito. The ride takes about 1 1/2 hours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.