Most vacation travelers to Quito never venture far beyond the city's colonial center, museums and markets. For those seeking to diversify their itineraries, excursions outside the capital can add richness, texture, and adventure to their journeys.
One of the closest attractions to Quito is the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) equator monument, located 15 miles or 30 minutes due north. The massive, globe-topped pylon anchoring the plaza honors the achievements of the French Geodesic Mission that deduced the location of the equator here in 1739. Although this site caters unabashedly to the tour bus crowd, even our most serious clients can't resist the temptation to photograph themselves with one foot in each hemisphere. The monument complex also includes a small ethnographic museum, a planetarium, and a miniature model of Quito. The neighboring site known as Inti Ñan lays competing claim to the globe's center.
North of the equator and the town of San Antonio de Pichincha, the E25 highway curves westward into densely forested mountains. Within two hours of Quito, the road reaches the Mindo Cloud Forest. This mist shrouded woodland is one of the most biodiverse zones in the Northern Andes. More than 400 bird species have been observed here, including Golden-headed Quetzals, 19 species of hummingbird, and five varieties of toucan.
Much of the Mindo Valley is protected as an "absolute reserve" open only to wildlife and researchers. However, a collection of well managed private reserves allows visitors to experience the forest by foot, horseback, mountain bike or zip-line. Trails to the area's many waterfalls are flanked by brilliantly colored orchids and bromeliads. The lodges in this area offer expertly guided nature hikes, many focused on early birding.
The regions southeast of Quito are also well regarded for their natural beauty. Papallacta is a village 40 miles (90 minutes) southeast of Quito on highway E20. Perched at 10,825 feet above sea level, the town is best known for its nearby hot springs and views of the ice-capped Antisana Volcano. Horseback, mountain bike, and trekking tours of this area can be arranged as day trips from the capital.
Past Papallacta, the highway descends from the chilly Eastern Cordillera into the humid Amazon Basin. Travelers en route to Lago Agrio and the Cuyabeno Reserve can visit San Rafael Falls, one of the continent's most majestic waterfalls (180 miles from Quito). The viewpoint for the thundering, 450-foot cascade is reached by a one-mile trail through tropical rainforest. This is also the location of Reventador, an active volcano that regularly emits rumbles, ash and glowing cinders.
Farther to the southeast, the port town of Coca serves as gateway to Yasuní National Park and the Napo River jungle lodges. Although the scenic overland route from Quito takes eight hours, flights from the capital reach Coca in only 30 minutes. From the port, most lodges are another two hours downriver by motor launch. Those who make the journey are rewarded with the opportunity to observe exotic wildlife and explore one of the most diverse rainforests on Earth.
Mosaico Travel Services arranges personalized travel in Ecuador and throughout South America. We organize luxury accommodation, private transportation, and tours with expert guides. Speak with a Mosaico travel planner today at 801.582.2100. We’ll take care of the details.
"The learned is happy, nature to explore, the fool is happy, that he knows no more."