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Self-drive Ecuador: The back roads of the Andes

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Between the high Andean plateaux studded with snow-dipped volcanoes and the sultry rainforest of the Amazon basin, the eastern foothills and valleys of Ecuador are stifled with the giant ferns, creepers and orchids of misty cloud forest. Winding its way south through this ethereal landscape, parallel with the Andean spine and tracing what is known as the ‘eyebrow of the jungle’ is a newly-paved road, Route 45. The improvements to this road mean that places once almost inaccessible to visitors are now brought within easy reach of Quito and the country’s principal highland cities.  

The traffic is relatively light and the route is wondrously scenic throughout, creating for independent drivers a brand new opportunity to discover a little-visited region by self-drive hire car. We’ve designed an innovative itinerary for you where you travel under your own steam down this road staying at forest-based lodges along the way, with opportunities to take a dip in thermal pools, go river rafting, jungle trail walking and wildlife spotting, while visiting local indigenous communities and their farms to immerse yourself in their way of life. 

Climbing back up to the high Andes you’ll return north to Quito along the famed Avenue of the Volcanoes, a completely different environment of wide open spaces blanketed by sprawling pastures and haciendas pitted with the perfect cones of a string of ice-clad mountain peaks, some still fizzing with activity. You'll pull over to discover the dazzling colours of an indigenous market and venture off the paved road to explore safely the sublime Cotopaxi National Park, the most beautiful in the country. 

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive Quito, transfer to hotel in the historic centre.

Day 2

Guided walking tour of colonial Quito.

Day 3

Transfer to the airport to collect your hire car; set off on your self-drive adventure.

Day 4

Full day to explore the area around Cabañas San Isidro.

Day 5

Drive to Santa Rita, guided Pacari chocolate tour.

Day 6

Optional activities from Hamadryade Lodge.

Day 7

Drive to Baños via Puyo, visiting a botanical garden and waterfalls en route.

Day 8

At leisure in Baños.

Day 9

Drive up the Avenue of Volcanoes to Cotopaxi National Park.

Day 10

Morning optional excursions; drop off car at airport; international flight.

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Places visited on this holiday

Self-drive Ecuador: The back roads of the Andes

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Quito

Quito has long been a city of two halves. Occupying a highland valley at 2,850m and flanked by volcanoes, the setting of its historic centre and adjoining modern quarters is breathtaking. The formerly dark and run-down colonial heart has been magnificently restored. Cobbled lanes and whitewashed façades, scrubbed up churches and renovated theatres now gleam and echo with the sounds of the everyday life of its traditional inhabitants. Beyond are the skyscrapers and broad avenues of the contemporary commercial city, La Mariscal, with flashy shops, offices and restaurants, where busy young workers flock to the many bars and nightclubs.

When to go

The capital is an all-year destination. Lying at 2,850m on the Equator, Quito has a year round spring-like climate.  Most days have a sunny morning but there may be rain in the afternoon. Feb-Mar are the wettest months, Jul the driest.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency
Ecuador uses the US dollar. Notes can be withdrawn from the many ATMs using a UK credit or debit card. 
Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

A visit to Otavalo market in the northern highlands, 58km (1-2hrs by road); the bird-filled cloud forest in the Mindo region, 100km (1hr 40mins by road); the Avenue of the Volcanoes, 77km (2hrs by road); the Galápagos Islands, (2-3hrs by air).

Getting there

Average flight time is 15 hrs. There are no direct flights from the UK to Ecuador, popular routes to Quito involve a change of plane in Amsterdam, Paris or Madrid.

Key events

Dia de Quito: Quito, 6 Dec. The city’s own festival is actually celebrated from 1st Dec, with parades, street music and bullfights, right up until the fiesta’s climax on 6th. It can be quite boisterous.

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Andes to Amazon
river pastaZA

On the eastern flank of the Andean cordilleras, separating the high-altitude chain of snowy peaks on the Avenue of the Volcanoes from the steamy flatlands of the Amazon basin proper is a rugged area of misty mountains and steep valleys smothered in cloud forest and punctuated with thermal pools, waterfalls and silvery streams.

This scenically exquisite region has until recently not really been explored by visitors who head straight down into the jungle or visit the attractive little spa town of Baños and then head back up to the Andean spine.

But with improvements in the road infrastructure the region, fringed by the central highlands and the jungles of the northern oriente, is opening up to visitors keen to discover it hugely abundant and varied flora and fauna and become acquainted with the lifestyle of its rural and indigenous communities.  Sustainable eco-tourism is gaining ground here, fighting against the encroachment of commercial and industrial interests.

Easily accessible from Quito, Baños and river-ports Tena and Misahualli  are the centres of activity for visitors, with both a good range of hotels and lodges and a plentiful choice of walks, outdoor sports including river rafting and kayaking, wildlife spotting. Don't miss the thermal hot springs at Papallacta (above).

When to go

The cloud forest has an all year round spring-like climate with temperatures averaging 21°C.  There are on average a few hours of sunshine every day. It rains all year round, but the wettest months in the eastern Oriente jungle are Jun-Aug, when there can be landslides and airports may be closed. These however are the driest months in Baños, at a higher altitude. The closer you get to the Amazon region, the lower, more humid and hotter it will be. The hotels and tourist attractions in the region can be busy at weekends and at national holidays.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency
Ecuador uses the US dollar. You can withdraw cash from Quito and the larger towns in the region such as Baños, Tena and Mishaualli where there are banks and ATMs.
Time difference

GMT -5 hours.

Combines with

The Avenue of the Volcanoes; Otavalo and the northern highlands.    

Getting there

It’s a drive of 90 minutes  from from Quito to Papallacta in the cloud forest, 3hrs 40 minutes to Misahualli in the Oriente and 3hrs to Baños

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Avenue of the Volcanoes
Avenue of the Volcanoes
The aptly named Avenue of the Volcanoes is flanked by eight dizzyingly-high snow-mantled mountains striding south of Quito down the Andean spine. It passes through a valley rich with a landscape of dense forest and tiny fields plastering impossibly steep slopes. Dotted around is a mix of deeply traditional indigenous and colonial settlements with horticultural and artisan markets and cottage industries. There’s also a clutch of old estates gifted to conquistadores where the grandiose buildings are now countryside hotels. This is supreme hiking country, with trails leading to craters harbouring turquoise volcanic lakes, usually with views of the biggest peaks, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi.
When to go

The central highlands have an all year round spring-like climate with temperatures averaging 21°C.  The best time for a visit is Dec-Jan, while a lot of rain can be expected Mar-May. Jul-Aug are the driest months.  Visit Saquisili on a Thursday to see the market. Other towns have different market days.

Language

Spanish

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs

Combines with

Ecuador’s colonial southern city, graceful Cuenca, 250 km from Riobamba by road (3.5hrs) or rail and road.

Getting there

It’s a drive of 190 km from Quito to Riobamba, taking 2 hrs 40mins if you drive direct.

Key events
Fiesta de la Mama Negra, Latacunga, 23-25 Sep, a multi-cultural event with a historical narrative and costumed dancing and parades.  
Corpus Christi:  Pujili, Quilotoa Loop:  May-Jun. Masked parades, fireworks and competitions. 
Riobamba: There are several fiestas and parades, including one in celebration of Jesus in January; Holy Week, and the Fiesta de Abril on the town’s independence day, 21 Apr.

Getting local money

Ecuador uses the US dollar. There are banks in Riobamba but it’s best to take out money in advance in Quito where there are many ATMs.

Speak to an expert Travel Consultant or send us your enquiry today.

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Self-drive Ecuador: The back roads of the Andes

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