Driving Ecuador in 1 Week
Ecuador is a vibrant country with great central roads and SO much to see, before ever making it to the coast! We had to stop in the vibrant and bustling capital of Quito before heading south to explore the mountains, volcanoes and lakes that dominate the lush central part of the country.
We have a few recommendations for each place along with our own experiences to help you decide how to divide your time in this amazing place.
The sign for the equator is just north of Quito so if you’re driving down from Colombia, be careful not to miss it. Yes, it's a little touristy and there are controversial views on its exact location… but knowing you’re somewhere close and having a sign to prove it is fun and worth a stop! It’s the kind of visit that helps put your travels into “perspective” when reminiscing about the adventure back at home :)
In the city of Quito itself, you’ll find nicely landscaped city squares, cultural music/art events, concerts, history, and architecture.
We had one full day to explore the city and while the squares are bustling, well-manicured and surrounded by great architecture, we knew we HAD to use at least some of our time exploring the La Basilica Church. It took over 100 years to build and for those unafraid of heights, it offers views from 117 meters high! Not only can you climb up to the various towers and lookouts INSIDE the church, but walk across the ceiling over a metal bridge to a steep, steel ladder and wander around OUTSIDE with the gargoyles.
For dinner, you MUST check out QUITU. These awesome young chefs have created a clean and modern space where they've turned typical Ecuadorian food into a gourmet dining experience. The streets were quiet when we arrived but the owners welcomed us with open arms and proceeded to treat us with exceptional service. We had handcrafted beer, amazing grilled vegetables, fresh bread with homemade spread and slow cooked pork (AMAZING). They paid attention to every detail and it was definitely THE highlight of our Quito trip.
Central Ecuador Adventures!
There are so many great things to see in Central Ecuador and none are too far away from each other (especially if you’re driving yourself). For us, it came down to one specific hotel that just happened to be right in the middle of all the action: Hotel Rumipamba :)
The tiny town of Salcedo doesn't have much to offer except that it’s a perfect spot from which to take day trips to Cotopaxi, the Saqisilli Market, Quilotoa Loop and the area of Baños.
If multi-day hiking trips are more your speed, then you’ll find plenty of options at the Cotopaxi and Quilotoa sites themselves (which allow for MUCH closer starting points).
Hotel Rumipamba de las Rosas: We totally stumbled across this little gem (having no real plan for lodging earlier that day). We knew we wanted to be central and we weren’t finding many options in the larger town of Latacunga. So we chanced it and drove down to Salcedo to scope it out. Almost immediately as we pulled into town, we stopped in to inquire about Rumipamba, located right of the highway.
First of all, we were visiting in mid-December so when we walked in it smelled like Christmas. There was a crackling fire in the cozy restaurant and we were greeted by the WARMEST host we’ve ever had. Because it was low season in Ecuador we scored an incredible price for one of their rooms, which look like little gingerbread houses with plush beds, lofts and fireplaces.
But walking around was even better. There is a small little chapel on the back of the property through giant cactus gardens, and then off to the right is a life-size chess board, a mini Ferris wheel, and a playground with a working zip-line and a giant see-saw!! We felt like kids at a theme park. If you’re ever in the Salcedo area, we highly recommend you check this place out.
Cotopaxi Volcano & the Saquisili Market
Driving to Cotopaxi was lovely, even with the clouds rolling in. The tall trees, misty and crisp air, on their newly constructed road, felt like you were heading to a well-preserved and cared-for national park. And that’s almost exactly what you get. We visited during low season (judging by the lack of visitors) so the weather was not on our side. Dense, precipitous clouds hugged the peak of the volcano but the park was still open and camping was still an option at the base if you’re so inclined. The volcano has plenty of hiking trails and with a guided tour you can summit. Just keep in mind it’s last eruption was as recent as 2015!
The nearby Saquisili market takes place on Thursdays and begins as early as 7am. Keep in mind this is definitely a LOCAL market (no tourists) so people are there to trade animals, food, clothes, etc. We showed up around 9am, a little too late to see all of the animals. But we were still able to buy a few things like colorful blankets and ponchos. Driving up, it's a little confusing… You’re not sure “where” the market actually is because it’s not concentrated in just one place; it’s all over the streets. We just drove around the city until we found a plaza full of stalls and then searched for parking. Meg was hoping for goats and sheep but all we really saw were a few dead chickens and one or two lambs being walked back to their owner’s cars. But if you’re looking for souvenirs and a really authentic lunch from one of the stalls, this is the place to get it!
*Note: “Panama Hats” are originally from Ecuador (despite their name). A good Panama hat will hold its shape even after being bent, twisted, or shoved in a suitcase. They’re pliable and comfortable so if this summer hat fits your style, be sure and pick one up while you’re in the country!
About 1.5 hours from Salcedo, one of the “must-sees” in Ecuador is Quilotoa Loop. Again, we were not visiting during the optimal season, which meant we arrived to really cold, foggy and strong wind that eventually turned into a misty rain. However, this also meant very few tourists and a cool eerie set of pictures. The clouds hovered over the vast body of water without covering it up completely, so we were still able to take some nice photos. If the weather is favorable for you, it’s very possible to walk down to the water and back up in one day. If you’d like a longer adventure, we hear the hike around the loop is really nice. The cloudy sky, light mist and cold wind gave us a strong desire for a cozy lunch in town with lots of hot tea.
We suggest staying away from the restaurant at the top of the hill overlooking the loop itself. For us, the typical plate they offered was mediocre at best and the décor was cold and uninviting. Our server was a sweet young guy but the place felt really impersonal compared to some of the smaller establishments located in the area.
Baños is really neat. It's a beautiful drive and you can tell its touristy because of all the giant zip lines and bungee jumping signs you’ll see along the highway. This is the kind of place we were glad to be visiting during low season. There were NO other cars when we arrived at the Swing at the Edge of the World, which was perfect, because I imagine the lines get REALLY long during high season. Long lines mean very little time to take pictures, and hardly any time to ENJOY the swing itself. We were lucky enough to have a warm day with perfectly sunny skies, NO other people around, plus a nice cool breeze… making a day on a swing overlooking the lush green mountains below the PERFECT way to end our trip of Central Ecuador.
*We arrived relatively early on a Friday in early December 2016, paid the small fee to enter, and left just as more tourists were arriving.
Our last stop in Baños was the Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) waterfall. You can hike almost all the way to the top of the giant fall through stairs built in the cliffs (you kind of have to climb under the rocks at some points) and you end up soaking wet, so be warned.
If you have hiked any of these awesome places, have updates on the current climate of the area, or other great options for central lodging we would love to know!
Our time in Ecuador was fantastic and we feel a nice, robust itinerary can be enjoyed in as little as 1 week. As always, if you have more time to spend, there is no shortage of places to see.
See you down the road,
Meg + Tyler