There is no better way to explore the highlands of Ecuador than by taking a road trip. The high-altitude road between the country’s two biggest cities, Guayaquil and Quito, zigzags between snow-capped volcanoes, remote national parks and traditional Andean villages. This 1-week itinerary will help you make the most of the Ecuadorian Andes’ natural and cultural attractions.
Ecuador road trip itinerary highlights:
- Day 1: explore Parque Nacional Cajas and the colonial town of Cuenca
- Day 2: check out the Andean villages around Cuenca or the indigenous animals at Bioparco Amaru
- Day 3: tour the ruins of Ingapirca, sleep below majestic Volcan Chimborazo
- Day 4: spot vicuñas in the Reserva de Produccion Faunistica Chimborazo, hike to waterfalls on the Ruta de las Cascadas between Baños and Puyo
- Day 5: drive the Quilotoa Loop and admire Quilotoa crater lake
- Day 6: hike in Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
- Day 7: finish in style in Quito
To complete the experience, you can stay at beautiful old haciendas. And don’t forget to explore local markets whenever you get the chance! Many towns and villages have a market day once a week, it’s worth arranging your trip to coincide with at least one of these (ask around or check out this schedule of some well-known markets).
Roads are in pretty good condition and it is easy to drive in Ecuador, but Google Maps does often come in handy (download maps for offline use or buy a local sim card). The best time to visit Ecuador’s highlands is during the dry season from June to September, but you can go all year round. The sun is strong, but altitude and wind can make temperatures drop considerably: bring sunscreen, hat and lots of warm layers at any time of the year. Except around Cotopaxi and Baños there is surprisingly little tourism, even in high season.
This Ecuador road trip itinerary starts from Guayaquil. It might be worth spending a night there for an early start the next day. I can recommend Hotel del Parque, a luxurious hotel in a renovated historic building just minutes from the airport. You can of course also do this road trip the other way around, from Quito down to Guayaquil, or just to Cuenca where you can catch a flight back.
Day 1: Guayaquil to Cuenca
Leave Guayaquil as early as possible. The first part of the road to Cuenca is rather boring, but once it starts to go up, you’ll have sweeping views. Have a coffee and bathroom break at Mirador el Paraiso Restaurant (or at least stop for a look at the vertiginous view).
Some 30 kilometers before Cuenca, the road passes right through Parque Nacional Cajas. A wild and desolate place at an altitude of around 4000m, Cajas has a unique paramo (Andean grassland) landscape. It’s cold and windy but beautiful, and of surprising biodiversity. There are several short hiking trails around some of the many chilly lakes, like Laguna Toreadora. For more serious hiking you need to be acclimatized (and preferably hire a guide).
You can have lunch here at Rancho Hnos Prado. They serve delicious trout and locro de papa in a quaint stone hut with cozy fireplace. Try some tipo tea if the altitude bothers you! They can also help organize activities in the park, including guided hikes, horseback riding and fishing.
After exiting the park it is only a short drive to Cuenca. An attractive colonial town, Cuenca’s historical center is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. While not as impressive as Quito, it has some beautiful churches and plazas. Many inhabitants dress traditionally, adding to its charm.
I highly recommend staying at Mansion Alcazar, a boutique hotel in a beautiful and atmospheric colonial-era house. Rooms are set around a charming interior courtyard. They are a little dark but comfortable and tastefully decorated, in a fancy great-aunt kind of way. The hotel has parking space nearby.
The nicest thing to do in Cuenca is just to wander around its colorful streets and pretty plazas. Check out some of the churches around Plaza de San Sebastian, Plaza de San Francisco and Parque Calderon. Take a stroll along the Rio Tomebamba and drop by the grand early 20th century home of poet Remigio Crespo Toral, now a museum. Other museums of note include the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes and Museo Pumapungo.
Cuenca is also a great place to shop for what we know as panama hats: they actually come from Ecuador and are called sombreros de paja toquilla, or toquilla -straw hats. The area around Cuenca is the most important production center. There are several independent shops scattered around the city, or you can try the Barrancos Museo Del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (more shop than museum) for a huge selection of qualitative hats in all price ranges. They also have a café overlooking the river. Have dinner nearby at El Mercado, a trendy place serving rather delicious food.
Day 2: Cuenca and around
In the morning, visit any churches or museums you missed the previous day (many have very restricted opening hours). On the way out of Cuenca, consider stopping at the Mirador de Turi for views over town and a look at the nearby workshop of Eduardo Vega, a famous Ecuadorian ceramic artist.
Next, depending on the day and your interests, either go to Bioparco Amaru or to some of the villages around Cuenca. Bioparco Amaru is a great, ethical take on a zoo. A rather steep trail takes you through natural landscape with enclosures of Ecuadorian animals (except the rather odd-one-out lions). Most are rescue animals and the park serves a clearly educational purpose. The trail takes about 3 hours, so it’s not for small kids or less mobile people, but it’s a great way to see hard-to-spot indigenous animals like the Andean bear.
If it’s a Sunday, you can opt to go to the crafts markets in the nearby villages of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig instead. As we were there on a weekday, we only dropped by Gualaceo for a quick look. The town has a nice central square with old buildings and a mountainous backdrop, but otherwise it’s not that interesting. We had some food at the mercado, where you can try great hornado (slow roasted pork), or cuy (guinea pig) … if you dare.
Next, drive on to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s most important archeological site. While far from being as awe-inspiring as Inca ruins in neighboring countries, the small Inca and indigenous Cañari settlement is definitely worth seeing. We kept the ruins for the next morning, but if you arrive before 5.30pm you can visit today.
Sleep at pretty Posada Ingapirca, just next to the ruins. Rooms could use some freshening up, but the setting and the communal areas are very charming, with cozy fire places, a pool table, and a lovely garden, including some llamas. The restaurant looks great, but unfortunately local dishes are only so so…
Day 3: Ingapirca to Volcan Chimborazo
In the morning, we visited the Ingapirca ruins. You can only visit with a guide, but the included tour is very informative and definitely adds to the experience of the otherwise quite bare site. Tours leave every 25 mins and last about 45 minutes, or longer if you are unfortunate enough to be in a big group.
Our next destination was Volcan Chimborazo. Unfortunately, there is not really anything worth seeing along the way. You can stop for lunch in Alausi, at one of the basic cafeterias or at the food court of the Mercado Central. The Nariz del Diablo train leaves from here, for train buffs, but otherwise the small town is not very interesting nor pretty. Also make a quick stop at the church of La Balbanera in Colta, one of Ecuador’s oldest. Across the road, the Laguna de Colta with its supposed golden reeds is rather unimpressive.
Volcan Chimborazo has been looming over the road for a while now. It is the highest peak in Ecuador and, because of the equatorial bulge, the point farthest from the earth’s center. There is no better way to visit the area than to stay at Chimborazo Lodge, a rustic-chic, mountaineering-themed lodge in a stunning setting right below the volcano.
Comfortable mountain view rooms (although double beds are rather small) adjoin a shared sitting room with fire place. The charming restaurant has picture perfect views over the looming volcano, often with a herd of llamas in front. The service is slow but friendly and the food, although simple, absolutely delicious. Keep an eye out for Ecuadorian hillstar hummingbirds and white-tailed deer around the lodge!
Day 4: Chimborazo to Baños
Spend the morning exploring the Reserva de Produccion Faunistica Chimborazo. You’ll see plenty of vicuñas (wild relatives of the llama) from the road bisecting the park, but if you have a decent car you can explore a bit more. About halfway through the park, look out for a sign indicating the Bosque de Polylepis. This 4km unpaved road offers stunning views over Chimborazo, if not covered by clouds. To get to the actual polylepis forest (a species of high-altitude trees) you would have to hike the last 750m, but because of the altitude and difficult conditions this takes up to 3 hours, so only for the well-prepared!
Continue onto road 491 for more views over Chimborazo from a different angle, and for a better look at its smaller neighbor Volcan Carihuairazo. Both volcanoes can be climbed, but more serious hiking here requires consulting a qualified guide and spending time at altitude to acclimatize.
The great thing about Ecuador is that you can go from 5000m altitude down to tropical rainforest in a matter of hours. Our next stop was Baños, a town on the border between the windswept highlands and the humid and warm jungle below. Although situated among high peaks and lush forests, Baños itself is a rather ugly town. Don’t stay longer than necessary and continue along the road to Puyo. Nicknamed La Ruta de las Cascadas, the road follows the Rio Pastaza canyon and is punctuated by hiking trails and waterfalls. They’re not always well indicated so pay attention.
The most spectacular of the waterfalls is the Pailon del Diablo. There are two separate entrances, one leading to the upper and one to the lower viewing point, both are impressive. Unsurprisingly, the place is very popular and can get crowded.
We had decided to stay at Hacienda Manteles, a lovely countryside house with extensive grounds on the road towards Patate, a bit of a drive from Baños. The Baños-Patate road is paved and in relatively good condition: you don’t need a 4×4 but you do need to feel comfortable driving on a very narrow and steep winding road. When not covered in clouds, there are amazing views over Volcan Tungurahua just across the valley, and you can really admire the quite spectacular setting of Baños on the edge of a sheer drop down to the river.
Hacienda Manteles has comfortable rooms in the main house, plus some luxurious independent bungalows in the pretty garden. They even have their own small waterfall, a short hike from the house. Food served in the cozy restaurant is nothing special, but there is a good selection of wines. I do realize it’s a lot of driving for one day, so if you’d like to stay closer to Baños or the waterfalls, check out Hosteria Finca Chamanapamba or Miramelindo instead.
Day 5: Quilotoa Loop
After breakfast and maybe a morning hike, it’s time to head north to the famous Quilotoa Loop. This is a circular backroad connecting several villages and, most importantly, passing by Laguna Quilotoa, a stunning volcanic crater lake. Forget all you might have read about this road: it is newly paved all the way round and is now actually one of the best roads we encountered in Ecuador. Nevertheless, it still takes about 4 hours to drive the full loop from Latacunga to Lasso, so it’s a day-filling trip. Depending on your timing, you can have an early lunch at Hacienda Tulapachan, an old farmhouse right next to the highway just after Ambato which serves copious portions of tasty barbecued meat, or a late lunch at Kirutwa, right on the rim of the crater lake in Quilotoa.
Laguna Quilotoa is admittedly beautiful, but otherwise this was the first disappointment of a month of traveling in Ecuador: the Quilotoa Loop villages are ugly and the scenery is average, with very little wild nature. There are sweeping views, but you have those almost everywhere in Ecuador. Biting wind makes hiking rather unpleasant. Most importantly, there are hardly any nice places to stay or eat. We slept at Samay Kirutoa Lodge: sad, cold and overpriced. The only hot food we could get in Quilotoa after 5pm was the terrible meal at our hotel.
Instead, I suggest you visit Laguna Quilotoa during the day, before driving on to Hacienda la Cienega, for example. This beautiful 400-year-old hacienda turned boutique hotel is a real special place to stay. If your visit coincides with market day in one of the Quilotoa Loop villages, you might want to adapt your travel plans accordingly, as these markets are best visited in the morning. We went to the Saturday market in Zumbahua (don’t miss the livestock market on the outskirts of the village, which finishes early). Guantualo has a Monday market and Saquisili’s is on Thursdays.
Day 6: Volcan Cotopaxi
Next stop: Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s most well-known volcano. Enter Parque Nacional Cotopaxi through the southern entrance at Control Caspi, where you need to register (there can be quite a queue on weekends). It’s possible to drive all the way through the park, although part of the road is unpaved. You don’t need a 4×4, but a good, high car is preferable.
There are several short, easy hikes around the park. Of these, the most interesting is around Laguna Limpiopungo. It’s a perfect spot for bird-watching, and you might also see wild horses and other animals. The sight of Cotopaxi’s majestic symmetrical cone is quite mesmerizing.
Have lunch at tastefully designed Tambopaxi Lodge. The only lodge inside the park, it’s also a great place to sleep if you want to stay longer (book well in advance as it’s often full). The food is a little inconsistent, my locro de papas was amazing, the trout less so. When it’s not windy (if that ever happens) horse riding here should be amazing.
From Tambopaxi, exit the park through the north entrance. From there, it’s a short but not so easy drive to Hacienda Santa Ana. The rocky road is quite tricky without a 4×4, but doable. Santa Ana is a wonderful old hacienda with very comfortable rooms, a cozy living room with fire places, llamas and horses in the garden, and great views. The restaurant is decent but not very inspired.
Day 7: Cotopaxi to Quito
After a last morning hike around Santa Ana, for us it was the end of our trip and time to head to the airport. But if you haven’t been there yet, you should definitely add a couple of days in Quito, Ecuador’s atmospheric capital. Check out my guide to 2 days in Quito for what to see and do in this wonderful colonial town.
Another option, if you have an early flight the next day, is to spend a final night at Hacienda La Jimenita. This charming old hacienda is near the airport, but in fantastic natural surroundings. The extensive grounds are visited by lots of hummingbirds and offer some great short walks (and the opportunity to feed the llamas, at your own risk). The restaurant serves simple but tasty food, with vegetables from the garden.
Of course, there is much more to see in Ecuador than just the highlands! Now that you’re here, you can’t miss out on the unique wildlife and landscapes of the Galapagos and the Ecuadorian Amazon. Check out my Galapagos Islands itinerary for more!