As an intern, student, or volunteer in Ecuador you will have plenty of time to travel around this beautiful country. The options are endless and include visits to biodiversity hot spots in the Amazon, relaxing in volcanic hot springs, or hiking up some of world’s tallest volcanoes, Ecuador is guaranteed to have it all for you. I am living in Quito, the nation’s capitol, and have done quite a bit of weekend travel. Here is my list of great places to visit in order of distance from Quito via bus or plane.
1. Stay in Quito! There is so much to do around Quito that you will never get bored when staying for the weekend. On a clear day, ride the Teleférico and see an absolutely breathtaking view of Quito and the Andes. Visit the old town and get to know the history of Quito, visit the local markets, and much more! Just walking the streets around town is entertaining.
2. Mitad Del Mundo (1 hour, 30 minutes via bus)- Also known as the Middle of the World, this spot is just a short trip north of Quito. In my opinion, you can’t go to Ecuador without straddling the Equator. Perfect for a day trip! The larger monument was actually built in the wrong place so make sure to also visit the real equator that is marked with a series of interesting experiments about 100 meters away.
3. Otavalo Market (2 hours, 30 minutes via bus)- Experience one of the biggest handcraft markets in South America. This is a great place to get all of your souvenirs and gifts and to practice your bargaining skills with the locals. The trip is a good day trip, but Saturday is the best day to go because vendors come in from the surrounding regions.
4. Cotopaxi Volcano (1 hour, 15 minutes via bus)- Visit the Cotopaxi National Park and see the tallest active volcano in the world. If you are ready to climb the 5,897-meter volcano, have at it! Or you have the option to drive up to the parking lot at an elevation of 4,500 meters and jump on mountain bikes for a fun and speedy ride back down to 3,300 meters.
5. Mindo Cloud Forest (2 hours via bus)-Go visit beautiful cloud forests with hummingbirds, colorful bird species, hikes through waterfalls and much more. I would recommend staying over at least one night so you have time to explore, but it is also a do-able day trip.
6. Quilotoa Crater Lake (3 hours, 30 minutes via bus)-After a catastrophic eruption about 800 years ago, Quilotoa Crater Lake was formed. It is 820 feet deep and has a turquoise greenish color as a result of the dissolved minerals. Enjoy a nice hike down the volcano followed by a donkey ride back up. If you are looking for more physical activity you can also hike back up the mountain but it’s quite an experience to ride the donkey. There are places to stay but not much in the surrounding areas so doing it all in one day is more than enough.
7. Wild and Wonderful Baños (4 hours via bus)- I don’t know about you, but I am a huge fan of hot springs. This small mountain town has hot springs as well as a wide range of activities, including climbing nearby Tungurahua Volcano, canoeing, whitewater rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, bridge swings, and waterfall tours. When the volcano is actively erupting, it’s possible to see red lava at the top. Stay for the weekend, enjoy the nightlife and get to know many backpackers who will also be traveling through.
8. Puerto Lopez/Moñtanita/Isla de la Plata (9-10 hours via bus) -I would make this a weekend trip and take a night bus from Quito Thursday evening so you have 3 full days to explore the area before heading back Sunday evening. I recommend one night in Puerto Lopez and one night in Montañita. When in Puerto Lopez, take a trip to Isla de la Plata (a mini Galapagos) and have a chance to see dolphins and whales on the way. Visit Machalilla National and the wonderful beaches of Las Frailes then head to Montañita to get surf lessons or enjoy the hopping nightlife.
9. Cuenca (10 hours via bus or 40 minutes via plane)- If you have time and feel up to it, Ecuador’s 3rd largest city is well worth the trip! It has a charming city center filled with dozens of churches, and one monumental cathedral. Cuenca is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the preservation of its historic buildings. Wanting to try cuy (guinea pig)??? Cuenca is the best place in Ecuador to sample it! If time permits, it’s worth going to Cajas National Park located about 30km west of Cuenca. This park is absolutely gorgeous with a lagoon, rolling hills and valleys.
10. Galapagos (3 hours via plane)- You are never going to be closer to the Galapagos. If you are worried about money, here is a link to book cheap last minute cruises and tips of things to do in the Galapagos. http://gobackpacking.com/last-minute-cruise-galapagos-islands/ You can also find cheap flights certain times of the year.
There are many other places to visit while abroad but these are high on my list! Make the most of your time in Ecuador and remember when traveling on those long bus rides throughout the country, it’s not always about the destination, but the enjoyment of the journey! Buen Viaje!