The area south of Quito is a continuation of the double ranges of the high Andes, separated by a central valley flanked by towering volcanic peaks (many still active). The Pan American Highway runs the length of the valley, and beyond, connecting Quito with numerous small towns and villages. This is the famous "Avenue of the Volcanoes", aptly named by the German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt.
The dominant presence along much of the valley is Mount Cotopaxi (an Indian word meaning "Throne of the Moon"), at 19,700 feet. Located 95 miles south of Quito, but visible from parts of the city, this is one of the world's highest active volcanoes and is considered one of the most important ecologic reserves in Ecuador. Within the park Lago Limpiopungo attracts high-elevation birds.
Between the rich farming country and various crossroads, the valley is dotted with numerous picturesque villages and towns. One of our favorites for their colorful weekly market is Saquisili (Thursdays). Other smaller village markets include Latacunga (Tuesdays and Saturdays), Pujili (Wednesdays and Sundays), and the hard-to-reach Zumbahua (Saturdays).
West of the highest peaks of the Andes, in the barren high plains, is the spectacular Quilotoa Crater. From the jagged caldera rim cliffs drop down over 1,000 feet to an opaque emerald/turquoise green lake that is a sight to behold; the lake surface is a constantly shifting light show as the clouds sweep over the surface.
The Tungurahua Volcano is one of Ecuador’s most active. The nearby town of Baños is a favorite destination for both national and international visitors, and a jumping off point for Amazonian exploration. The Basilica is a pilgrimage destination with the walls adorned with paintings crediting miracles to the virgin of the waters. The area is known for hiking and several hot springs allow visitors to test the waters.
Further south the town of Riobamba is located on the flanks of Chimborazo Volcano (the highest peak in Ecuador, at 20,504 feet (and 3rd highest peak in the Americas).
Cuenca, in southern Ecuador, is considered by many to be the most beautiful city in the country. Not as crowded as Quito, without the extensive high-rise business district, Cuenca offers the rich flavor of colonial history and traditional architecture. The setting is a high valley cut by four rushing rivers that pass through the city (Tomebamba, Machangara, Yanuncay, Amancay). City highlights included cathedrals, museums, and pre-Columbian ruins. This is also the heart of the “Panama” hat industry with many small factories turning out this famous straw hats.
Two hours north of Cuenca, one can visit the most significant Inca ruins in Ecuador - the Ingapirca Inca Fortress. Here each wing was designed to offer the inhabitants a direct visual and religious orientation to the sun at a particular time of the day. An on-site museum displays local artifacts relating to the Incas, as well as the Cañar Indians who first inhabited the area.
Nearby the Cajas National Park is named for a series of box lakes dotting the high mountains (the park straddles the continental divide of the Andes); a perfect place to hike and enjoy the scenic and varied landscape of the lake country - the flora, fauna, and birdlife of the region.
The Gualaceo Valley is located 25 miles east of Cuenca, at an elevation of 7,000 feet. This fertile valley is brimming with orchards and sugar cane plantations, and fields of toquilla grass - this straw is the material used in the finely woven Panama hats. The picturesque villages of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig (home to a colorful Indian market - Sundays only) are known for local handicrafts: ceramics in shades of green and yellow, shawls and scarves woven in a traditional Icat technique, musical instruments, and excellent gold and silver work.
avenue of the volcanoes One Day Tour Options
Cotopaxi National Park
Depart Quito this morning with your private driver and guide for a full day of exploration. The park, established in 1975, offers spectacular views of lava fields, colorful highland flora, llamas, deer, wild horses, and mountain birds, including an occasional glimpse of an Andean condor. If the clouds decide to part you will be treated to a beautiful sight - the higher slopes of glaciatic blue ice and the snow-covered peak, a perfect cone if ever there was one. This is a full day tour and includes a lunch at Hosteria La Cienega, a beautiful 300-year-old estate now functioning as a country inn. (daily; 7:30am-4:30pm)
Highlands of Cotopaxi
A trip similar to the regular 1-day Cotopaxi tour, but for the more adventurous. This full day complete tour via 4-wheel drive will travel farther and higher into the park (including an optional hike to the to the hikers' refuge at 15,000 feet). Traveling the dirt/ gravel roads up the mountain offers spectacular views, seldom seen by most tourists. The best opportunities for wildlife viewing are also found deeper in the park. This trip is only recommended for people in good physical condition due to the altitude. Box lunch included. (daily; 7:30am-4:30pm)
Saquisili Indian Market
The crossroads community of Saquisili, two hours south of Quito, is host to a vibrant once-a-week Indian Market (Thursdays only). Very much a local’s market, with each plaza or street having a different focus or specialty; everything from farm animals to fresh produce, weavings to housewares, fabric to furniture, may be found here. As this market is not oriented towards tourists expect to find few handicrafts (although there are a few). However, if your goal is to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling market, then this is a wonderful choice. Lunch at Hacienda La Cienega. (Thursday only; 6:30am-4:30pm)
Saquisili Indian Market - photography focus
The same tour as our standard Saquisili tour, timed to reach the market earlier for the the peak of activity and action. Following an early lunch at La Cienega return to Quito mid-afternoon. (Thursday only; 5:30am-3:30pm)
Zumbahua Market & Quilotoa Crater
The Zumbahua Village market may not be the best known of the rural markets, but many consider it to be the most unique and interesting. It has retained its traditional character; here llamas and riding horses are still traded, goods and products are still bartered - currency is generally not part of the transaction process. The colorfully dressed Indians and the thatched houses add to what is already a great photographic opportunity. The day also includes a picnic lunch high above Quilotoa crater, and a visit to the village of Tigua, known for a colorful type of local paintings rendered on dried sheep skin. (Saturday only; 5:30am-4pm)
avenue of the volcanoes Two Day Tours
The more time you are able to spend somewhere, the richer the experience and the more you will see. Take two days along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, savoring a longer visit to Cotopaxi National Park, plus a more culturally focused day in one of the local village markets. Overnight at Hacienda La Cienega or one of the other classic haciendas in the area.
Cotopaxi National Park & either Saquili or Zumbahua Market
Two days - two destinations - one great tour! Experience a slice of rural country life one day, and an amazing wilderness experience the other day. This is an expanded version of the standard Cotopaxi trip. One day will be dedicated to a longer visit to the national park, while the other day will take in the colorful Zumbahua Indian Market and the Quilotoa Crater. Overnight at Hacienda La Cienega or one of the other classic haciendas in the area.
Cotopaxi, Saquisili & Quilotoa: Wednesday/Thursday or Thursday/Friday
Cotopaxi, Zumbahua & Quilotoa: Friday/Saturday or Saturday/Sunday
Rose Plantation Option
Hosteria La Cienega’s grounds include one of Ecuador’s premier rose plantations. With advance reservations a visit can be scheduled Monday-Friday as part of any Cotopaxi or Saquisili 1 or 2 day tour. $10 rose plantation fee paid locally.
Three & Four Day Tours
A 3-day private tour focused on beautiful Cuenca and the wonderful surrounding area. Together with your local guide enjoy a half day tour of colonial Cuenca on the first day, with cathedrals, museums and pre-Columbian ruins. You will also have the opportunity to visit a factory where "Panama" hats are made.
The second day you have the option of touring either Cajas National Park for a bit of wilderness hiking, or the Gualaceo Valley for a more cultural day. On the third day explore the mysterious Ingapirca Inca ruins before transferring back to the airport for your late afternoon return flight to Quito.
This 3-day tour includes round trip flights, hotels (typically the river-side Hotel La Victoria), most meals, and airport transfers in Quito and Cuenca.
Avenue of the Volcanoes and Cuenca
This is a 4-day excursion combining the best of several trips. The first day you will travel south from Quito by car (with a Quito-based driver & guide) along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, visiting either a local market (depending on the day) or Cotopaxi National Park – the choice is yours. Following lunch at a local hacienda, continue to the town of Riobamba for the night. Once you were checked into your hotel the driver and guide will return to Quito.
The next morning you are met by a Cuenca-based driver and guide to the continuation of your journey south. The first stop will be the town of Alausi, where you board the train for a journey down La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's nose); the famous achievement in train construction along a sheer mountainside between Alausi and Sibambe. Rejoining the car continue to Ingapirca, the best-preserved Inca site in Ecuador, before arriving in Cuenca for the night.
The 3rd day you have the option of either a full day of exploration in Cajas National Park, or the Gualaceo Valley.
The last morning will be spent touring Colonial Cuenca prior to transferring to the airport for an afternoon flight back to Quito. Tour includes return flight, hotels and most meals. $30 train ticket not included.