For those seeking a reprieve from the heat and humidity of the Galapagos, a trip into the northern highlands offers travelers misty mountain views, charming indigenous communities, bustling marketplaces, and of course the gorgeously-preserved colonial architecture of Quito.
Upon arrival in Quito, we promptly hit the road, watching the mountain-side neighborhoods disappear in our rearview mirror as we headed toward Otavalo via the Pan American Highway, the famed 30,000 mile route that connects Alaska to Patagonia- a road-tripper’s dream. Along the way, we stopped for a delicious lunch of locra de papa (potato soup, a regional specialty) at Molino San Juan, one of many cozy haciendas that dot the Ecuadorian Andes. Haciendas have become great destinations in and of themselves, giving travels a glimpse into farming lifestyles of the past, while also acting as a peaceful rest spot for those who wish to curl up by roaring fire with a canelazo, a popular hot cinnamon cocktail.
With bellies full, the afternoon was spent in Cotacachi learning about a homestay program offered by Runa Tupari, a community organization committed to facilitating sustainable and socially responsible tourism in rural indigenous communities. Spending a night or two in the homes of indigenous families is an excellent option for groups looking to get off the beaten path and truly immerse themselves in the local culture. We were warmly welcomed into one such home, where we found the guest quarters to be impeccably clean and comfortable. We loved practicing our Spanish as we fed the chickens and played soccer with a father-daughter team.
After spending the night at one of Simon Bolivar’s favorite rest-stops, the blissfully relaxing Hacienda Pinsaqui, we were ready to take on the crowds of the Otavalo Crafts Market. Being the largest- and historically most important- market in South America, the impressive celebration of ancient artisan practices is understandably Otavalo’s claim to fame, and a not-to-missed cultural experience. As you roam the overwhelming maze of stalls, vendors in traditional garb will tempt you with handmade jewelry, colorful textiles, and countless other wares. Make sure you’re ready to bargain, and if possible, craft your itinerary so you can visit on Saturday, the official market day. For a more unusual shopping experience, walk over to the neighboring animal market to observe locals haggling over surly llamas and baskets of guinea pigs, among other creatures.
Of course, no trip to the mountains of Ecuador is complete without spending a few days in the stunning capital of Quito. Perched at 9,350 feet, Quito oozes history and character, with cobblestone streets and Spanish architecture acting as a reminder not only of the city’s colonial occupants, but also the indigenous tribes whose labor and craftsmanship laid the groundwork for much of the city. Although there are a number of attractive neighborhoods throughout Quito, the undisputed crown jewel is the Centro Historico, or Old Town. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Old Town is renowned for being the best-preserved, and least-altered, history city town in Latin America.
Travelers of all ages will enjoy the many lively plazas, ornate churches, and informative museums. After a day of historical sights, spend the evening mingling with the locals as you stroll along the vibrant pedestrian street of La Ronda. If entertainment is what you seek, pop into one of the countless karaoke clubs to sing the night away, or simply follow the crowds to check out the varied talents of street performers that treat La Ronda as their personal stage. When it comes time for a meal, you’ll find dozens of options at your disposal, whether you crave a gourmet sit-down, or a piping hot empanada from a street-side stand.
Overall, although Quito’s highlights can feasibly be crammed into one whirlwind day, devoting a minimum of two full days to the city will allow travelers much-needed time to appreciate the many layers of this mountain capital.