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Self-drive Ecuador: The back roads of the Andes

10 days from £2,565pp

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Self-drive Ecuador: The back roads of the Andes:
Trip Dossier

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. 

Short itinerary

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.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Arrive Quito, transfer to hotel in the historic centre.
 
quito

Transfer to your hotel in Quito, the Andean capital of Ecuador. The active volcano Guagua Pichincha, to the east, glowers over the dynamic city which, at 2,850m, is one of highest capitals in the world. Quito is divided into two contrasting districts. The modern zone is characterised by towering glass buildings and houses banks, international companies, hotels, shops and restaurants, while the central colonial area has well-conserved and recently spruced-up white-washed architecture, open air markets and graceful Spanish-style mansions and churches.

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quito

Day 2

Guided walking tour of colonial Quito.
 
Quito

Visit the colonial centre of the capital, the first city ever to be named a World Heritage site. High on the agenda is a walk through the main plaza, the Plaza de Independencia, where you will see the government palace, the cathedral, and some of the most important churches built around the 16th and 17th centuries, including the monastery of San Francisco.

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Quito

Day 3

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

As you leave the car hire agency, which is well beyond the urban sprawl of Quito, you’ll follow a major road through Andean forests of hardy, red-barked polylepis shrubs up to the wind-blown prairie grasslands of the upland páramo.  Having climbed over a pass at over 4,000m, you start to descend towards the cloud forest  (this is bear country – keep your eyes peeled!) with if it’s clear, views on the snowy bulk of Antisana volcano. 

It’s only about an hour’s drive from your departure before you reach the thermal baths at Papallacta - feel free to stop here to take a dip in the steamy waters at the leisure facility and maybe have a snack or even lunch.

The road then descends a valley between the crinkly mountains of two nature reserves, enriched with the dripping foliage of ever-thickening cloud forest and enlivened by the fluttering of birds’ wings.  At Baeza you turn onto the pristine tarmac of Route 45, turning off to reach your lodge at San Isidro.  If you haven’t lingered too long at Papallacta (which is a temptation) you may arrive in time for lunch there.

In the afternoon you can choose from a variety of activities and experiences offered at the lodge. We suggest you set out on their self-guided walking trail, which is marked with interpretation boards helping you to familiarise yourself with this new and exotic environment. There’s a thermal pool here too, a bit cooler than at Papallacta, with wonderful views of the conservation area.. 

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ecuador picillacta road

Day 4

Full day to explore the area around Cabañas San Isidro.
 
eastern cloud forest

There’s a good choice of things to do from your lodge. The principal attraction for wildlife lovers is bird-watching: this is one of the country’s prime locations for spotting the myriad of bird species of the forest.  But that’s not all: as well as feeders for hummingbirds, there are feeding stations placed to attract tapirs and agoutis if you’re lucky you’ll spot one or two of these creatures.

You can set off with a local guide on a hike along the many kilometres of trails through the woodland, exploring by day, or by night (with a guide). Visit the Biology Station to see what scientific research is going on in the region, or, back at the lodge, take a cookery lesson to create Ecuadorian delicacies or try out the eight course tasting menu in the restaurant . (You have dinner included, this more extensive menu is charged extra).  

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eastern cloud forest

Day 5

Drive to Santa Rita, guided Pacari chocolate tour.
 
Explore Mindo cloud forest

If you are at all interested in birds you won’t want to miss the pre-breakfast dawn hike as the forest awakes from its slumbers.  Spot species with bright plumage such as trogons and tanagers, tree-creepers and flycatchers as they seek out their breakfast.

After your own meal, stretch your legs with a stroll to the waterfall but be sure to be on the road by 10.30. driving through the Antisana Reserve where the road follows the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon basin.  On your left is the Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park, featuring the pointed peak of symmetrical volcano Sumaco, which is in constant eruption. The road twists and turns as it descends, the vegetation fringing it becoming more and more succulent as the temperature rises.  In harmony with a more tropical environment, local people live in thatched homes on stilts, and luscious fruits are on sale from stalls beside the road.

You'll visit the cocoa plantation at Santa Rita, which is set off the main road down a gravel track. Having observed the beans growing on the farm you’ll be taken through the production process, where the beans are picked, roasted and ground. There may also be weaving, ceramics and dance presentations, interpretive trails to follow and talks about local legends. 

Your appetite having been stimulated by tasting the high quality end product, you’ll have a traditional lunch, cooked in banana leaves, at a community tourism project in the village.

Drive on through the town of Tena, known as the gateway to the Amazon, and follow the road towards the riverport Misahualli. Your lodge is off the main road: turn off down a 1km bumpy track to reach it. 

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Explore Mindo cloud forest

Day 6

Optional activities from Hamadryade Lodge.
 
Tena rafting

At 300m above sea level, in the foothills of the Andes, this is a transition zone for vegetation between cloud and rainforest, the climate is fresher than lower down in the Amazon basin proper, creating an agreeable environment with few mosquitoes.

Here there’s a real choice to make according to your personal interests and enthusiasms. (These optional trips should be pre-booked before you go, discuss your choice with us when you book).

The undulating landscape means that there are plenty of waterfalls and fast-flowing rivers to explore and this region is a centre for white water rafting, you can experience grade lll rapids on the river Jatunyaku while enjoying magnificent jungle views.

Alternatively, drive to nearby Paikawe lagoon to take a canoe trip on the calm water accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, with opportunities to spot hoatzim (startling prehistoric-style birds), spider monkeys and alligators and then move on with a tranquil boat ride down the Napo river to visit the AmaZoonico animal rescue project to see how damaged animals recuperate and released back into the wild.

A third choice is to spend the day combining short jungle hikes with a visit to Valle Hermoso, an indigenous community immensely proud of its traditions, for a presentation of music and dance. You might even take part in a pottery workshop or blow-gun contests (a favourite for children).

In the evening you can eat at the lodge or maybe drive into Tena or Misahualli where there are a couple of good restaurants.

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Tena rafting

Day 7

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

It’s only 90km to Puyo, a market town serving the various tribal communities in the vicinity and where you’ve a three course lunch booked at an excellent restaurant.  En route you will have a scheduled stop at Omaere Ethnobotanical Gardens which, as you would expect has collections of endemic medicinal plants, but is also concerned with reforestation and  there’s an education programme to assist local indigenous communities.

In the afternoon you’ll start driving back up towards the Andes. The drive from Puyo to Baños only takes an hour and a half or so without stops, but the variety of landscapes is stunning.

It’s a dramatic drive through a narrow gorge, a corridor between the ever-rising crests of vertiginous mountain ranges. In fact, it’s known as the Route of the Waterfalls and you can stop to stretch your legs with an hour long round trip to look down on the Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron), one of the most impressive of these.

The valley narrows and you pass through several tunnels as you climb back through cloud forest rampant with orchids to the pleasant spa resort town Baños, clinging to the edge of a cliff face and rimmed by emerald hills. Glowering over the town is the volcano Tungurahua, still active with a few hissing fumeroles but not expected to erupt in the near future. Your lodge and spa, built in the style of a colonial hacienda, has a countryside location where you can drink in the views of exquisite Andean scenery. 

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banos

Day 8

At leisure in Baños.
 
banos

With its thermal baths, agreeable climate and relaxed atmosphere, it’s easy to spend a day just relaxing in Baños and at your lodge. If you fancy something a bit more active however, you can fix yourself up with a rafting, tubing, horse-riding or cycling trip locally, there are plenty of agencies in town. The latest fad is for “swing jumping” where you jump from a bridge and swing like a pendulum. It’s a bit like bungee-jumping and not really something we’d recommend you try, but it might be fun watching others doing it!

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banos

Day 9

Drive up the Avenue of Volcanoes to Cotopaxi National Park.
 
COTOPAXI

Now back in the highlands, you’ll drive along one of Ecuador’s key arteries - possibly one of the most scenic roads in Latin America. The aptly named Avenue of the Volcanoes is flanked by a regiment of  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.

Set off from Baños early if you’d like to visit one of the indigenous markets along the way (depending on day of travel). There are fine ones in Saquisili and Pujili), where mountains of agricultural produce and jumbles of domestic and artisan goods jostle for space..

Now you’ll be setting of away from the main road  to drive through Cotopaxi National Park, dominated by the superbly photogenic volcano of the same name (5,897m), a (very) occasionally active peak of shimmering ice surrounded by rumpled skirts of highland moor with a tundra-like vegetation of altitude-resistant shrubs and flowers.

The park is inhabited by over 90 species of bird from pocket-sized hummingbirds to giant condors and a variety of hardy mammals including deer, rabbits, Andean foxes and puma, which shelter from view in the lacy veils of frequent swirly mists. You can visit the interpretation centre and you have the opportunity to walk the trail surrounding the stunningly reflective Lake Limpiopungo, ringed by bird-filled reed beds.

Lunch is arranged for you at Tambopaxi, a lodge in an equally exquisite location, after which you drive on gravel tracks at lofty altitude in remote landscapes -adventurous, but safe.. You should arrive to spend the night at your cosy countryside lodge Chilcabamba, set within sight of Cotopaxi’s perfect cone, well before nightfall. 

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COTOPAXI

Day 10

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

If you have time, you might go for a hike or horse ride from the lodge in the morning.. Or you can set off on a 5 hour guided walk along the course of the Pita river, which is fed by the glacial meltwater of Cotopaxi, before continuing to Quito airport to fly home – or maybe we can tempt you to fly west to the Galápagos Islands...

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