Welcoming thousands of tourists per day in its modest airport, Quito is Ecuador’s major launch point for tours of the country. Many visitors headed to the Galapagos Islands will spend at least a night in the city, but Quito’s Old and New Towns are great spots for dining and sightseeing which could keep visitors well occupied for at least two or more days.
What’s more, Quito is close to a number of popular and rewarding places of interest, all of which make an interesting excursion, either on a day trip or an overnight stay.
Mitad del Mundo
The easiest of side trips, Museo Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World Museum) is just 45 minutes from Quito, and draws local and international tourists by the busload, all for the experience of straddling the equator with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other foot in the southern.
Once the novelty of jumping from north to south has worn off, the museum is also home to a number of educational and amusing exhibits, such as a demonstration that water really does flush in the opposite direction when you cross the equator, as well as the interesting fact that you weigh noticeably less here than you do back in Quito.
Exhibits, shops, and cafes dot the entire site and crowds are lighter on weekdays rather than weekends.
Two hours north of the capital, Otavalo is the premier market town in Ecuador, and one of the most famous in South America. On normal days, the town hosts a regular fruit and vegetable market as well as a textile market. However, on Saturdays the main market comes to life with indigenous Otavaleños arriving from the surrounding villages to sell their wares.
Textile vendors overflow into produce stands as the famed animal market bustles with piglets, chickens, and calves for sale from the countryside. There is also excellent people watching on the weekends, when Otavaleña women stroll the streets in beautiful black skirts and embroidered blouses.
For outdoor enthusiasts and hikers, a visit to Cotapaxi Volcano is a convenient way to stretch your legs and get up close and personal with the Andes. This is the highest active volcano in the world, a colossal snow-capped cone rising to almost 6,000 meters (19,347 feet) above sea level.
Cotapaxi National Park offers a wide range of adventure activities, including multi-day treks, ice climbing and other challenges. But the less ambitious can still appreciate the volcano on a day trip from Quito, which includes a hike, an off-road 4X4 adventure, and a visit to one of the region’s many crystalline Andean lagoons. Don’t forget your camera!
Baños de Santa Agua
Baños de Santa Agua, or just Baños, is located three and a half hours south of Quito and enjoys national accolades as Ecuador’s best hot spring town.
Water enthusiasts strut through the streets on weekends and holidays on their way to the mineral pools. Waterfalls surround the town on all sides, and two great plazas offer shady reprieve on warm summer days. Here, travelers board large (sometimes decorative) buses that escort them through town and out to the virgin waterfalls. Many people visit Baños and stay for a lifetime. Be prepared to fall in love.