7 Days in Ecuador’s Highlands

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Advisor - Slaveiko Savov
Curated By

Slaveiko Savov

  • Active Travel

  • Adventure Travel

  • Wellness Travel

  • Ecuador

  • Sightseeing

  • Romantic

  • Outdoors

A fountain in a compound surrounded by buildings.
Curator’s statement

At a glance, this South American gem seems like an easy and quick trip where you can go and see all the highlights. Ecuador packs so much diversity and beauty that in seven days, one can only scratch the surface. The mainland has three distinct regions: The Oriente (Amazon region), the Sierra (Andean highlands running through the center of the country), the coast and then there are the Galapagos Islands. Every region has its own high season and best time to visit, so planning is crucial. This itinerary concentrates on the highlands, exploring the natural beauty of the Andes, charming colonial towns Quito and Cuenca and a recharging stop at the spa town of Baños de Agua Santa.

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Day 1: Quito

A collage of five pictures of food and drink.

Getting around: The town of Quito is spread out in a narrow valley surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery (book a window seat for amazing aerial view). However, most points of interest are in the historic town and the nearby areas, so it is quite easy to explore. You can use public transit, which is very inexpensive and somewhat convenient but can get crowded or opt for Uber/Taxi which is very affordable as well. I would not recommend renting a car while you’re staying in town as you’d have to deal with parking, especially in the historic center and safety is a moderate concern.

Stay: You can opt to stay in beautifully remodeled colonial buildings such as: Casa Gangotena or Carlota Sustainable Design Hotel, in the heart of the historic center and immerse yourself in its charm, hustle and bustle. Another option is to base yourself in the hipper, but still nearby neighborhoods of Floresta or Mariscal for nightlife and better dining options. Either way, as mentioned above, moving around town is easy and fast in most cases.

A great way to start your day is with coffee and breakfast at FrankØr Coffee. Easily one of the best coffees in town as well as freshly prepared breakfast and amazing pastries. When you’re all fueled up, head into the old town. Check out the views from the towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional. Climb all three towers, take a break for hot chocolate or tea (spiked) in the west tower and don’t miss all the beautiful architectural details, especially the gargoyles representing animals and birds from around the country. Continue your stroll through the historic center’s notable sites: Plaza Grande - a lush green plaza surrounded by the impressive structures of the Government and Presidential Palace, Cultural Center, Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Arzobispal. Check out the opulence and splendor of the Church of the Society of Jesus. For dinner, head out to Nuema, the best restaurant in Ecuador, featuring the best pastry chef in the world (2023), according to The World’s 50 Best. They offer an innovative tasting menu that presents traditional flavors and ingredients from all over Ecuador in an exciting, mouthwatering way. Don’t miss out on the craft cocktails while there. Reservations are recommended.

Day 2: Volcano & historic center

A grey statue of a woman.

Plan on taking the TelerifiQo cable car up the mountain for stunning views of the area. On a clear day, you can see all the volcanoes around. There are a few hikes of varying difficulty and length you can take from there, including a track to the Pichincha Volcano (namesake of the province). Plan at least half a day and go early if you want to go to the volcano. There are also horseback riding tours available and a cafe overlooking the city if you just feel like relaxing and heading back down.

Check out more of the historic center: Marvel at Plaza San Francisco and the namesake convent and church. Check out a beautiful courtyard and try the amazing Ecuadorian chocolates at Yumbos. They offer free presentations if you want to learn more about cacao production and do a little tasting. If you feel like climbing another hill, visit the Virgin of Panecillo up close or just enjoy the street art around Av. 24 de Mayo before strolling along the charming Calle la Ronda. Some excellent dining options in the area include Claroscuro Gastro Bar and Restaurante Casa Gangotena. Cap off the night with cocktails at the rooftop bar of Carlota with its amazing craft cocktails or Vista Hermosa, more traditional but with amazing night views.

Day 3: Botanical Garden & museums

A green garden with flowers.

Check out the Botanical Garden with its awe-inspiring orchid collection and adjacent Japanese garden and Bonsai Museum. Stop for a bite and refreshment at the Coffee Factory, nice coffee and tasty tamales.

Consider checking out some of the nearby museums. I highly recommend Foundation Guayasamin, featuring the amazing home of Ecuador’s most beloved and prolific artist, as well as the Temple of Man, his tribute to humanity and the peoples of the Americas. Stroll through the neighborhood of La Floresta for hip street art, tasty food and bars. Some of the options are Quitu Identidad Culinaria, Botánica and Curuba.

Day 4: Drive to Baños de Agua Santa

A town on a cliff with mountains at the back.

Rent a car and drive to the spa town of Baños de Agua Santa. I rented a car one way from Quito airport (downside is you have to go back to the airport) to Cuenca airport. The drive from Quito to Baños is about 3:30 hours. Leave early and plan on stopping at Cotopaxi National Park. The most known and iconic of the Ecuadorian volcanos with its snow-capped perfect cone. The park sits just off the highway about 90 min from Quito. All national parks are free, but you have to register at the entrance. Cotopaxi is easy to explore by car, with various hikes available depending on how much time you want to spend. Stop at the Laguna de Limpiopungo for views of the cone as well as short hikes around the lake in the presence of a heard of wild horses.

When ready to continue to Baños replenish your energy with some coca leaf tea from the cafe at the entrance. When in Baños plan on staying at Deluxe Volcan, four free standing industrial/scandi design apartments with breathtaking views of the valley and Tungurahua volcano. If you get there early enough, head straight to El Refugio Spa Garden for a well-deserved relaxation. They offer different massage and facial options, swimming pools and hot tubs and a must-try Cajon treatment. The Cajon is a hot/cold circuit which combines a wooden box (cajon) with steam in which you sit with only your head out and cool down with ice-cold water administered in varied ways (poured from a bucket, being dunked in a small basin to full-out hose-down) while sipping on special herbal tea. Have a beautifully cooked traditional Ecuadorian cuisine at Kawsay Native.

Day 5: Chasing waterfalls

A  waterfall on mountains.

Baños de Agua Santa is situated on the edge of the Sierra and Oriente regions. Although still considered Sierra, it is at a lower altitude and the climate feels a little more tropical, a little warmer and more humid. The town itself is literally hanging off the cliffs of a small canyon on Rio Pastaza, surrounded by beautiful mountain views and waterfalls. There are tons of outdoor activities to enjoy, from ATV tours to paragliding, canyoning, zip lining and biking.

I loved exploring the waterfalls on the Ruta de las Cascadas, starting in town with Cascada de la Virgen and ending 61km (38mi) later in Puyo, the first town upon entering the Amazon region. However most people only go as far as El Pailón del Diablo as this is considered the highlight of the route. Some other points to check out before that: Agoyan Waterfall, Zipline at Canopy Puerta del Cielo, Cascada Manto de la Novia. El Pailón is situated in the small town of Rio Verde.

Before heading on the trails, stop for a bite at Aromas y Sabores de Mercedes (try the freshly prepared empanadas). Now off to El Pailón, there are two ways to access the park and the waterfall, the old trail a little longer starting almost across from Aromas y Sabores de Mercedes and a new one (which they call short cut) further into town. Both lead to amazing views of the waterfall but give you different perspectives, so it might be worth doing both if you’re a waterfall enthusiast. If you’re not continuing to Puyo, head back into Baños for a stroll through town.

Caffeination is available at Aromi Cafe. I opted for another visit at El Refugio, soaking in the pool and enjoying the amazing views of the river and canyon. If you feel like “retoxing” after all that nature and spa goodness, head out to Crater Rooftop Bar. For dinner, check out Mozzafiato Reserve, also available for delivery if staying at Deluxe Volcano.

Day 6: Drive to Cuenca

City buildings during daytime.

This drive is about six hours through some magnificent mountain scenery, however road closures are not unusual so leave on the early side and plan on a short detour to the Incan ruins site of Ingapirca (about 5 hours from Baños).

The ruins of Ingapirca are the most significant Incan-repurposed-Cañar-ruins in Ecuador. Although most of the site is the remains of the foundations of what used to be a vibrant community, I though it was presented in a very clear and educational way to help learn more about these two cultures. The most well-preserved and impressive structure is the elliptical Temple of the Sun, the only elliptical structure in the Incan empire. The site visit requires about 60-90min which makes it perfect for a short detour. You can only enter with a guide either by paying a nominal fee at the ticket counter and joining a scheduled tour or if you’re in a hurry, you can pay a little more for a private guide, from the businesses right before the complex entrance and enter at anytime.

In Cuenca, stay at a boutique hotel in the historic center, such as: Mansion Alcazar, Casa del Aguila, ITZA, the stylish Hotel Cruz del Vado with breathtaking views or the hip hostel Selina. Stroll through the old town in the evening and enjoy the beautifully lit buildings around Parque Calderon and the blue domes of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, before heading for dinner at El Mercado. This was easily my favorite restaurant of the whole trip. It offers a chic interior with impressive vies of town, innovative but unpretentious Ecuadorian cuisine and craft cocktails.

Day 7: Cajas National Park

A man with hoodie and backpack hiking.

Get up early and head for a hike or drive through Cajas National Park. About a 40-minute drive from Cuenca, the park offers amazing high Sierra scenery. There are numerous hike options of varying difficulty and lengths, as well as options to drive around and stop at certain view points. Downloading the park’s app is really helpful for planning and navigation while on the trails. The rangers at the visitor center were also very helpful at suggesting the best routes for what we wanted to see and do. Our hike was about four hours through mixed terrain, marveling at lakes, surrounding peaks and the beautiful flora of the Andes. Bring warm and dry clothes, most of the time; you'll be around 13/14,000 ft (3/4,000 m), maybe even a change of shoes as trails can get muddy. If you feel like a bite, coffee or hot chocolate after your adventure, stop at Molino del Puente before heading back into town.

Take another stroll through the old town: walk around Parque Calderon, the small but charming Plaza de las Flores beside the Cathedral, Plaza San Francisco, Plazoleta Cruz del Vado then down to the river park. Walk through the river park towards Puente Roto, stopping at Puente Mariano Moreno for a bit of reflection, commemorating the victims of domestic violence and transphobia in Ecuador.

Alternatively visit the archeological museum Pumapungo to learn about the local cultures, Inca and Cañar, including the Pumapungo Inca ruins.

Consider having dinner at Restaurante Cristo del Consuelo - a very traditional Ecuadorian restaurant with charmingly tacky decor.

Need to Know

When to go: The temperatures in the Sierra are very constant throughout the year with highs around 68℉/20℃ and lows 50℉/10℃. The best time to visit are the months with lowest precipitation, June - September. I would avoid January - May and October as these get a good amount of rain.

Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide, Vail in the Summer, There’s Something for Everyone.

Advisor - Slaveiko Savov

Travel Advisor

Slaveiko Savov

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Ecuador.