Looking for the best day trips from Quito, Ecuador? Welcome, you’ve made it to the right place!
Although I haven’t made it to Ecuador just yet, I’ve enlisted my friend Bren from Bren on the Road whose been to the country more times than I can count to share with us the best day trips from Quito. Enjoy this guest post!
Ecuador remains one of my favorite countries in South America. It’s tucked away in the corner, and many travelers tend to skip over it, not realising that this is one of the most versatile and biodiverse countries in the world. One place particularly slept on is the capital – Quito.
This is a city that has so much to offer on its own, but what makes a stay in the city even more rewarding is the numerous day trips from Quito that are possible in every direction. If you’re after water, mountains, history, small towns – it’s all here! Below I’ll let you in on my top five day trips from Quito, but first, a little primer to Quito itself.
Quito Pre-travel guide
How to get around
Quito has a decent public transport system, which consists mostly of “enclosed buses”. It’s kind of a cross between a tram and a bus, with it’s own private road through Quito streets. They stop in designated stations, which are like tram stations – you buy a ticket at the entrance and then simply hop on or off when the bus rolls around. The best thing about these is they’re super cheap! 25 cents a ride.
Taxis are also plentiful in Quito and very affordable. They all run on a meter and the ride will rarely cost more than $3. If you’re riding at night it’s common for them to refuse to use the meter, so make sure you negotiate first. Anything more than $5 for a ride would be a lot, unless you’re heading out of the city limits.
What to pack
Quito sits at almost 3,000 metres above sea level (yes, that’s high!) and is rather cold all year round. Expect the nights to get down to around 10°C, so it’s a good idea to pack warm clothes both for sleeping and roaming around during the day. Rain is also common in Quito, so prepare for wet days as well. It helps to pack a pair of comfortable walking or hiking shoes too. A lot of Quito exploring can be done on foot, not to mention the many day trips and hikes that the city offers.
Where to stay
You have two choices really – old Quito or new Quito. Old Quito is exactly what is sounds like – an old historic side of Quito with cobblestone roads, big plazas, churches, winding alleys and lots of local life in action.
If you’re looking for nightlife and western comforts, this probably isn’t the best place, but if you’re after a more rustic, Latin American experience, this will fit the bill nicely. There are many small hotels and guesthouses around here that are more than affordable.
The other side of town is a lot more modern and developed. Most people gravitate towards the Mariscal district, which is sort of a backpackers haven full of cheap restaurants and bars, but has a few nice hotels too. There are not too many tourists in Quito to begin with so the place isn’t overflowing with foreigners, but it is noticeably more touristy. Not far from here are the big shopping malls and western-feeling parts of town, if that’s what you’re after.
I spent half my time in Quito in the Discovery Hostel, which is a nice boutique place right on the edge of Mariscal Square. The rest of my time was spent in an Airbnb, which is also quite active in Quito.
When to go
The dry season is the best time to visit, which runs between June and September. This is also peak season. However, as mentioned Ecuador is hardly the most popular tourist destination in the world. Even during peak seasons Quito is unlikely to feel crowded; if anything the crowds are likely to be on the Amazon cruises and the Galapagos Islands. To be honest there is never a ‘bad’ time to visit Quito, just show up whenever it fits the schedule.
Best Day Trips From Quito
1. The Middle of the World
As you may have already guessed, this is where the equator runs through Ecuador (interestingly, “ecuador” actually translates to “equator” in Spanish).
The site is well set up to receive tourists, and once inside you’ll be treated to a mini tourist park, complete with museum, shops, a few restaurants, a monument, and of course, the equator itself.
Not long after you walk in you’ll come across some experiments set up for visitors to amuse themselves with – one is a mock toilet bowl to test whether water drains in the opposite direction when in the northern and southern hemispheres. Another allows you to try and balance an egg on a nail – as science says in the center of the world, the egg should stand perfectly upright. I’m not sure I did them right, but I left with the conclusion both were false!
The equator itself is marked with a thick yellow line, but there’s an interesting backstory here. The equator was marked by French explorers a few centuries ago – and as their satellite technology wasn’t quite as sharp as it is today, they misplaced the line by a few hundred metres (the real equator is about a five minute walk down the road). There is in fact a small museum at the correct coordinates, which many travellers end up checking out as well.
The easiest way to get out there is hire a taxi. Tourists head over there daily so all the drivers know exactly where you’re going. You should be able to haggle to around $30-$40 for a return trip, so it’s a good idea to fill up a car and split the cost. You can also bus if you prefer – catch one from the La Ofeila terminal – they run past Mitad del Mundo regularly. Should cost you less than a dollar, but make sure you leave early as the traffic can get bad during the day!
2. Cotopaxi National Park
Climbing Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, was the perfect day trip from Quito for the thrill seeking traveller. A gruelling eight hour climb, super high altitude, off the beaten track. It was a gnarly one.
Unfortunately, Cotopaxi recently started burping again, and summitting is rarely allowed these days, if ever.
However, Cotopaxi always did offer a lot for the non-climbers, and has always been one of the most popular day trips from Quito. You can explore the various lagoons and rivers, go mountain biking, search for some wildlife to photograph (Andean foxes are sometimes roaming around) and there’s a small wildlife museum you can check out too.
What most day trippers come here for though is the hike up to the climber’s refuge – a resting spot for climbers heading to the summit. It’s about a one hour hike and the views up here are pretty spectacular. It’s a short but tough climb, so make sure you’re in decent shape.
While it’s possible to visit Cotopaxi indie style, most people visit with a guide or in a group tour, which is highly recommended. It’s also not a bad idea to stay the night in the area (there are several lodges around) so you can enjoy the park at its best – the early morning and late evening offer the best photo opportunities!
Famous for the thick cloud forest the town is settled in, Mindo is known for its biodiversity, endless greenery and affinity to all things of Mother Nature. This is the tropical Andes – one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
Most people come to Mindo for the waterfalls. The most popular is the Cascada La Reina, which translates to “The Queen Waterfall”, but there are several waterfalls nestled in the Mindo jungle and most travellers make it a mission to hike to all of them. This will take a whole day in itself, so if that’s the plan, you should probably plan to spend the night (or arrive really, really early).
Another thing Mindo is known for is its adventure tourism. Mountain biking, canyoning, tubing, horse riding – it can all be done here under the famous fog of the Mindo jungle.
If you do spend the night, and many travellers do, prepare for a little dose of natural lullaby. All types of jungle rustle and wildlife can be heard throughout the night, particularly the birds (Mindo was originally a birdwatcher haven, before the backpacker crowd rolled in). While the town is fast developing and becoming more popular each year, it’s still a glorious place to fall back into nature.
As for getting to Mindo, it’s easy. Direct buses run from Quito daily for $3 from La Ofeila bus station.
4. Papallacta Hot Springs
Papallacta is a small potato farming town high in the mountains, sitting at 3,300 metres above sea level. However it’s not their potatoes, but their natural hot springs, that has put this town on the tourist map.
A whole economy has developed around Papallacta’s thermal pools, heated by the regions volcanic activity, with many lodges and guesthouses now advertising their own private termas, or hot springs.
However, most people come here for the famous Termas de Papallacta, a collection of privately run hot pools for visitors to use. There is a modest entrance fee to get in, depending on which set of pools you want to visit. You can also stay at the adjacent hotel, where entrance to the pools will be included with your room.
Some people organise a tour or shuttle to get to Papallacta, but it’s very possible to travel by bus from the Quito terminal. Get the bus for either Tena or Baeza from Cumbaya in Quito. The ride shouldn’t cost you more than a couple of dollars and will take around two hours to get to Papallacta. You’ll get dropped off on the highway and you’ll need to make a hike up the hill to the centre of town.
There are also buses that’ll take you up for a few dollars. Head there during the weekdays to avoid the crowds. Also know that other than eat fish and bathe in the springs, there’s not a whole lot to do, so while it’s a great day trip there’s not much reason to stay the night. Head there early so you can get back before nightfall.
Otavalo is a mountain town about two hours from Quito, where many travellers pass through to see the world-famous Otavalo market. This is one of the continent’s most iconic markets, where Otavaleños, commonly known as the most enterprising and prosperous indigenous group of Latin America, sell textiles, handicrafts, artwork and an endless array of woven and embroidered goods in their signature rainbow of colours.
However, there is more to see here than just the market. The Peguche waterfall is just a 3km outside of town, and 3km in the opposite direction is the famous San Pablo lake, the most visited lake in Ecuador. There is also the small town of Cotacachi, known for its leather goods, just 15km to the north, as well as many other lakes, mountains and indigenous villages surrounding the town. Also don’t forget that Otavalo is right in the middle of the Imbabura mountains, a stunning site in itself.
With so much to see, many travellers opt to spend a few nights here rather than try to squeeze it all into a day, but if you’re only there to check out the market, one day is more than enough.
Getting there is easy – simply catch the Otavalo bus from the Terminal Carcelen in Quito.
Thanks again to Bren for sharing his knowledge on the best day trips from Quito! I’m itching to get to South America sooner than later, especially after reading his post!
Are you heading to Ecuador soon?! What day trips from Quito are on your list to explore?!