The mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, colonial city centers, highlands and hot springs offer a wide variety of activities in the Ecuadorian Andes, known as La Sierra.
The Pacific highway crosses Ecuador from north to south. Along this road, spread over 200km, you’ll pass by 32 volcanoes. Many of these volcanoes and their surrounding national parks are open to the public. Some travelers rent a car and spend a couple of days during their vacation going from one national park to another, while others book tours to specific volcanoes.
The Chimborazo and the Cotopaxi are the 2 most famous and highest volcanoes of Ecuador. The Chimborazo has an elevation of 6.268m and the Cotopaxi an elevation of 5.897m. To compare: the Mont Blanc and the Mount Whitney have elevations of 4.809m and 4.421m respectively. Your body needs several days to get used to the altitude. We recommend planning your trip accordingly. So, you may want to avoid a volcano tour when you just came from sea level. It’s not per se dangerous, but it could make you feel nauseous or give you a headache.
Most activities at the Cotopaxi or Chimborazo are part of full day tours. Only a few tours include an overnight stay. Most tours start and stop in Quito.
At these elevations, there is no vegetation. The ground under your feed consists of (volcanic) stones and snow. The air you breathe is thin, but the view over the Andean landscapes is impressive. In a way, all tours up these volcanoes are panorama tours. But what we mean by ‘panorama tour’ is that you just come for the view, without any (intensive) sports activities. The roads up there, bring you very high already. Once there, you can decide to hike further up. However, hiking is not so easy at that altitude. Many travelers decide to just enjoy the view with a cup of coffee.
You’ll be driven up by a minivan. Where the roads end, you’ll spend some time enjoying the panorama and you can hike a little further up if you want. After, you’ll make your way down with a mountain bike over the dirt roads. It’s an adventurous fun activity and the nature around you is beautiful. The further you’ll decent, the greener the environment gets.
Climbing the Cotopaxi or the Chimborazo is not for everyone. It’s very tough. In particular the elevation should not be underestimated. Preparation makes all the difference in the world. Your body needs enough red blood cells. These are developed by spending enough time at high altitude ahead of the climb.
Nevertheless, this challenge is very rewarding. You and your guide will start to hike in the middle of the night. You’ll enjoy the most amazing sunrise and once you reach the top, the impressive view is more than worth the effort.
In the Ecuadorian Andes, lakes have formed inside craters of extinct volcanoes over thousands of years. The lakes high up the extinct volcanoes are an impressive piece of Ecuadorian nature worth a visit.
At the crater lakes of Quilotoa, Cuicocha, the Lago san Pablo and the Yawarkucha, you’ll find boat tours. The tours generally take a few hours max. The waters are calm, the tours are relaxing and you’ll get a nice view of the steep crater walls around the lake.
The relaxing boat tours are perfect to combine with a dinner or lunch at a restaurant overlooking the crater lake. Beside restaurants, there are a few hotels close by as well. Quilotoa is most famous among foreign tourists. At Cuicocha, the Lago san Pablo and the Yawarkucha, you’ll mainly encounter Ecuadorian tourists.
The most famous hike of the Ecuadorian Andes is the Quilotoa loop. On this multi day hike, you can choose for a few different routes. But eventually all take you to the Quilotoa crater lake. However, the Quilotoa loop is most definitely not the only hike in La Sierra. There are so many beautiful hikes in the Ecuadorian Andes that we could write a complete book about them.
Just outside of Quito, you can take the Teleferico into the mountains and enjoy nature while looking down over the city in the valley. In Molinuco, you can hike between hills and creeks until you reach amazing waterfalls. In Puebloviejo, you can hike amazing forest trails surrounded by guayacanes, oaks and plums. And of course, the many volcanoes are all surrounded by national parks and most of them have multiple hiking trails as well.
Let us know if you want to know more about hiking in La Sierra.
Outside of the small towns in the highlands, you’ll find several Haciendas, these are former Ecuadorian ranches. Many of these have become hotels nowadays. It’s a nice experience to stay at one. Some of these also offer horseback riding facilities. Horseback riding is a great way to enjoy nature in the Andes.
Baños de Agua Santa is in the Eastern Ecuadorian Andes at the border with the Amazon Rainforest. The mountains are high and the temperatures are between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius. Baños is a popular tourist destination. That’s because there is a wide range of activities, in particular if you like adventure.
Baños is full of canopy tours. The landscape with steep mountains is perfect for it. There are several tours which take you from one zipline to another for a full day. Alternatively, you can visit the different ziplining stations on your own. If you rent a mountain bike in the town, you can follow the road down. It’s a fun ride, on the way down there are several zipline stations as well as waterfalls. You can finish the day with a great hike passing massive waterfalls and take a bus or taxi to go back up to the town (they will take your bicycle as well).
Baños de Agua Santa is also a perfect rafting and white-water kayaking location. There are rapids for all levels and the instructors are very professional.
One of the most famous activities in Baños de Agua Santa is the swing at the end of the world. At a mountaintop, you’ll swing over the edge of the steep mountain. It feels as if you’re about to jump off a cliff, but fortunately you’re well secured to the swing’s seat.
Baños de Agua Santa is Spanish for holy water baths. The town is basically named after its natural hot springs. The groundwater is naturally heated and pushed up to the surface, giving some very enjoyable hot springs. In Baños de Agua Santa, they have built complete spa resorts around the hot springs. Which are very relaxing while you enjoy the view over the mountains.
Besides Baños de Agua Santa, also Papallacta has natural hot springs. Papallacta is at an elevation of 3.300m. Therefore, the climate is a little chilly. That can actually be very enjoyable combined with the hot waters. In Papallacta, you’ll find a complete SPA resort build around the hot springs as well. It’s a very relaxing place to spend a day and a night while you’re on your way from Quito to the Amazon rainforest.
While staying in Papallacta, you can combine the hot springs with hikes in the mountains.
Mindo is a protected biodiverse cloud forest in the western section of the Ecuadorian Andes. Temperatures are around 24–28 degrees Celsius. Skies change between foggy cloudy and clear blue. Mindo has mountains too, but not as high as Baños.
Mindo is a great place to be active in nature. There are several ziplines through the cloud forest. You can tube down the river or you can hike through the cloud forest and swim under amazing waterfalls.
But what really separates Mindo from the rest of the Ecuadorian Andes is its bird population. There are over 500 different species, such as hummingbirds, toucans, umbrella birds, Scaled Fruiteater and many more. For those interested in seeing some of these special bird species, from which many are endemic, there are several birdwatching tours.
The Ecuadorian Andes has a very rich history. You’ll encounter remains of different eras. Such as the colonial times, the Incan empire, Pre-Columbian times, but also the modern Andes.
The central old town in Quito is the perfect place to connect with Ecuador’s culture. The Spanish rebuilt the city in the 16th century. Today, it’s the best maintained colonial city center in all of Latin-America.
The narrow Centro Histórico streets are filled with restaurants and cafes which offer traditional food and drinks at any time. From some of the bars and restaurants, there are beautiful panoramas over this mountain city.
Quito is known for its fantastic churches and museums. The astonishing neo-gothic Básilica del Voto Nacional is at the entrance to the old town. It is the tallest religious temple in Latin America. From this point, you can walk to the San Francisco Plaza, which is Quito’s main square. Here, you’ll find the Iglesia de San Francisco, the president’s residence and the city hall.
To better understand the history of Quito and Ecuador, we’d recommend the Museo de la Ciudad. Also, the Museo Casa de Sucre is interesting to learn more about Quito’s battle for independence from the Spanish. Museo del Alabado is also highly recommended. There, you will find archaeological remains of ancient cultures in Quito.
Cultural museums such as Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia and Museo Camilo Egas will give you a closer look at Quito’s history of art.
In the province of Cañar are the Ingapirca Ruins. This was a sacred place for the Incas in Ecuador. From here the Incas studied the stars, sun and moon. Today, it is considered the most important pre-Columbian archaeological complex of Ecuador. It is also one of the biggest and most well-preserved Inca sites in the Andes. Therefore, it is an incredible place to learn about the religion, politics, science and traditions of the ancient Incan empire.
2 hours north of Quito in La Sierra, you’ll find the handicraft markets Otavalo and Cotachi. Otavalo is the most famous of the 2.
At the Otavalo market, several indigenous families sell their high-quality handmade products. Most products are made of Alpaca wool. You can think of ponchos, jackets, blankets, carpets, trousers, etc. Everything they sell here is in the authentic colorful Andean style. This is the perfect place for your souvenirs.
Only 15 minutes north of Otavalo, you’ll find Cotacachi. This town is a lot less known to tourists, but it’s worth a visit as well. While Otavalo is known for its colorful fabrics of Alpaca wool, Cotachi is known for its high-quality leather. You’ll be surprised by the quality of the handmade shoes, wallets, leather jackets, hats and anything else the locals make of leather. The Cotacachi market is more than a market for souvenirs. The high-quality products have modern designs and last many years.
On this page, we describe the most popular places. For more travel ideas including more off the beaten track destinations in Ecuador, we recommend checking our blog articles. Or if you have any other questions about Ecuador, don’t hesitate to contact us.