Fancy one or more day trips from Quito? One of the reasons Quito is an excellent starting point for your exploration of the Ecuadorian mainland is because it’s ideally situated. You can plan multiple day trips from Quito without reserving additional hotel rooms. In the following blog, we’ve included some of the more feasible day trips, as well as a couple of longer trips that are worth your time and money.
Explore the famous Cotopaxi Volcano
Cotopaxi Volcano is only a 2-hours drive from Quito and is definitely one of the top day trips from Quito. Tours can easily be organized with local travel agencies, or you can buy a Wanderbus pass that takes you to Cotopaxi, Quilotoa and as far south as you might like to go.
Most day trips to Cotopaxi begin early and take you to the Jose F. Rivas refugio (base camp), at 4,800 m (15,744 ft). As you hike up from the parking lot to the refuge, notice how quickly you run out of breath. Don’t push it, altitude sickness is a real risk in the Andes. (That said, make sure to bring water and sun protection in case that Andean equator sun starts beating down!)
Only a few years ago, Cotopaxi began rumbling more than usual and emitting smoke and ash. The country went into a state of emergency and the national park was closed for several months until authorities decided it was safe. As of October 2017, activities in the park resumed as normal. Visitors can now visit the park, explore the surrounding area and even summit the volcano.
For those among you that like to take it easy while you travel, your day trip itinerary should include a ride up to the parking lot, hike to the refuge (you can even skip this if you don’t want to deal with the pounding headache) to observe the volcanos quickly receding glacier. On the way down, stop by Lake Limpiopungo to birdwatch, and then grab a coffee from Tambopaxi Lodge which boasts wall-to-wall windows so that you can view the volcano while eating fresh trout and fries. (Note that Cotopaxi can sometimes be quite shy, not appearing for days at a time. Try to visit during dry, sunny days!)
If you’re a more active traveler, there are a number of other activities you can do on a day trip from Quito to Cotopaxi. For instance, if you’re an adrenaline junkie, you can go on a mountain biking ride around the volcano. Alternatively, you can go on an incredible 2, 4, 6 or (what!) 8 hour horseback ride from Tambopaxi Lodge. These rides are known to be incredible, and horse lovers will be delighted to see wild horses roaming the páramo. Finally, if you’re up for it, you can always summit Cotopaxi volcano to get a unique view of the Northern Ecuadorian Andes.
Depending on which activity you choose to pursue, a day trip to Cotopaxi will likely begin early, around 7am and get you back to your hotel room by 8pm or earlier.
Trekking to Quilotoa Lake
Looking for an incredible shot to take with your drone? The view from the lip of Quilotoa 3-km wide crater lake is, put simply, astounding. It is an emblematic view and one of Ecuador’s most popular day trip destinations from Quito.
From Quito, Quilotoa lake is a 4-hours drive away. It can definitely be managed in one day if you start early, but consider spending the night in the area to make the most of this beautiful region and spend less time in a car or bus.
The small town around the crater has a few hostels, restaurants and an artisanal market where you can buy souvenirs (though I’d recommend Otavalo or Quito artisanal market instead). At the crater itself, you can hike along the rim, which can easily take 4-5 hours, depending on your pace. Note that there are some parts of the rim that get a little sketchy, especially on a windy day.
You can also hike down to the lake itself and even rent a kayak, if you so desire. Many people ask whether they can swim in the lake and the answer is yes!, although it’s pretty darn cold. Finally, rumor has it that the mud in the water has healing properties due to all its minerals. Mud bath, anyone?
If you’re too winded to climb back up the crater’s steep wall, you can rent a donkey to do the work, although the last time I did that I felt really bad for the donkey as it huffed and puffed with each step. I was possibly more in shape than that donkey.
If you’re considering extending your day trip from Quito to a two-day trip (good choice!), here are a few ideas:
- Camp in the crater! At night, from within the crater, you’ll feel like you’re in another world. The stars look incredible and…it’s freezing. Make sure you have adequate equipment.
- Stay overnight in the town of Chugchilan at the Black Sheep Inn, about 45 minutes from Quilotoa crater. The Black Sheep Inn is an awesome ecolodge with very reasonable prices, you won’t regret staying a night there. In fact, you might even want to extend your stay and hike the Quilotoa Loop, which can be accessed from Chugchilan.
- Hike the Quilotoa Loop. The Loop is a scenic, multi-day trek through various towns in the region, including Chugchilan, Isinlivi, and Sigchos. You can do part of the loop in 2 days, but to complete the full loop it takes around 4 days, and sometimes more if you want to take it slow. Though it’s described as a loop, most people go from point A to B and then move on to their next destination, like Baños. Interested? Find out more about the Quilotoa loop here.
Go shopping in Otavalo Market
Another easy day trip from Quito is a visit to Otavalo’s Saturday Market. Otavalo is a 2-hours drive from Quito and the market kicks off around 8 am every Saturday. Once in Otavalo, start at Simon Bolivar Park, make sure you have a decent amount of cash on you (there are ATMs nearby) and walk along Calle Sucre towards Plaza de Los Ponchos. You’ll pass through hundreds of stalls and shops with artisanal crafts, imported goods and much, much more.
Note: Petty theft is quite common on the Sunday market. Keep a close eye on your possessions, especially your cell phone and wallet.
What to buy in Otavalo market? Some of the market highlights include the felt and straw hats, which only cost around $15 to $20. Other traditional articles of clothing, such as the ponchos and sweaters also make for a nice gift. Though many vendors may tell you that the poncho or sweater is 100% alpaca wool, the truth is it’s likely mixed with cotton. Real alpaca costs a lot more in Ecuador, as opposed to Bolivia and Perú where it tends to be cheaper.
Striped pants and overalls are popular purchases and only cost around $10-12 per article of clothing. The more you buy from a vendor, the more you can negotiate! Don’t take it too seriously though, many vendors are adamant about their prices.
Finally, make sure you buy some tagua jewelry. Tagua is an Ecuadorian nut often referred to as “vegetable ivory”. It is naturally white but can be dyed and is used to create necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. If you’re more into silver jewelry, you’ll also find a few stalls selling beautifully forged pieces.
Though many of the souvenirs sold in Otavalo can be purchased in Quito’s mercado artesanal (Juan Leon Mera and Jorge Washington), the experience of arriving in Otavalo, seeing the San Pablo lake and Imbabura mountain towering over it, is worth the trip. Once in the city, the energy and excitement in the marketplace make the experience more fun, not to mention the strong indigenous presence in this part of the country.
What to eat in Otavalo? If you’re like me, shopping makes you hungry. A few very local food options include a fig and cheese sandwich, bought from a street vendor at Plaza de Los Ponchos along Calle Sucre. Farther down the road you’ll find Los Choclitos, where you can eat a ridiculously cheap and delicious bowl of corn, avocado, and sauces for only $2. The fresh orange and maracuyá juice ($1) here is to die for too!
For a place to escape the chaos and noise of the market, sneak into Oraibi, a hostel and restaurant nestled within a quiet courtyard just meters from the madness.
If you can’t make it on a Saturday, you can still head over to the Plaza de los Ponchos and find numerous stands selling souvenirs, but the Saturday market is where the fun is at so try to fit that into your itinerary!
Leaving Quito at 7 am, you’ll arrive in Otavalo at 9 – 9: 30 am. Stop for breakfast, shop, then have a quick lunch before heading back and you should be back at your hostel by 5 pm!
Wander around Galápagos Islands
Though definitely not a day trip from Quito, a visit to Ecuador isn’t complete without a trip to the Galápagos Islands. That is, if you have the time and budget! The reality is many travelers to Ecuador come with the sole purpose of visiting the Islands and don’t leave much time to explore the mainland, though combined packages are becoming increasingly popular.
When planning your trip to the Galápagos Islands, decide whether you prefer to travel cheap, hopping between islands and going on day trips, or if you prefer to pay in advance for an all-inclusive, packaged experience. There are pros and cons to both and it really depends on your budget.
In short, if money is limited and you’re up for the challenge of navigating, stumbling through conversations in Spanish and constant decision-making, go for DIY budget travel. Here’s a guide with a bunch of helpful tips for backpackers headed to the Galapagos Islands. However, if you just can’t be bothered to deal with that, and you have the cash, splurge on an all-inclusive package and just worry about keeping hydrated after all the mimosas.
Wanderbus offers a couple of extra tours with our partners on the Galápagos Islands. These tours aren’t nearly as expensive as the cruise and yacht packages and still gets you to the best sights in an all-inclusive package.
Get to know Ecuadorian culture in Ingapirca
Another must-see destination, though also not a day trip from Quito, is a visit to the Ingapirca ruins about an hour and a half from Cuenca.
The Ingapirca ruins were built by the Incan Huayna Capac for military purposes, though they were also used for spiritual purposes as a place of worship. They’re called “the Wall of the Inca” and portray excellent Andean stonework comparable to that found in Peru. Architecturally, the ruins are very impressive, and even more so against its surroundings: the high altitude Andean páramo. A visit to these ruins really gives you a glimpse into what life might’ve been.
Wanderbus offers an Ingapirca day tour that begins at 8am and gets you back to Cuenca by 4pm. Along the way you’ll get to taste a local dish called “cascaritas” (not for the vegetarians among you!) and visit the Church of the Virgin of Dew (Virgen del Rocío).
The destinations listed above are some of the top best day trips you can experience on your journey through Ecuador, though there are many more around the country. If you’re not sure where to start off, head for Quito since many day trips can be organized from there. Also, don’t forget to check out our website to find out about extra tours we offer.