The Best of Ecuador’s Andes Mountains
Are you wondering what to see in the Andes mountains in Ecuador? Ecuador is the 9th biggest South-American country from a total of 12 countries. So, it’s quite a small country when compared with others. Ecuador is megadiverse for its ecosystems and native species and contains 4 central regions. The regions are Amazonia Cordillera de Los Andes, Coast, and Galapagos Islands.
If you visit anything in Ecuador’s Andes mountains, you must see the hot springs, and the waterfalls. To be sure, the hot springs are a popular choice among tourists. And the waterfalls, well, they will take your breath away. Lets discover some of the best things to see in Ecuador’s Andes mountains.
The equatorial line passes just the north of the capital city of Quito, and it’s where Ecuador gets its name. Since the equatorial line crosses the country, there is a tropical climate. Also, altitude defines the local climate. In this article, we will focus on some Anduvian Cordillera spots, which are distinctive in their unique way.
Hot Springs in Papallacta
Papallacta is a tiny highland village in the Andes, less than 2 hours far away from the capital Quito, Ecuador. Also, it’s the stop on our tour of this tropical country. Papallacta became a trendy place, not only for nature and hot springs lovers but especially for “quiteňos” for the weekend or a day trip. Moreover, the road from Quito to Papallacta has beautiful landscapes, passing over 3000 meters above sea level. Drivers will immerse themselves through mists and green mountains of the High Andes forest, almost touching the level of the páramo ecosystem (alpine tundra). So already on the road to get there makes you feel like in the land of fairies.
Papallacta is a one-road village full of hot springs and hot mineral baths, which you can visit privately in the hostels. Unfortunately, the local hostels are not the highest quality. Alternatively, you can visit the hot springs in one of the three public ones, which I recommend. Prepare yourself for much colder weather, which goes early in the morning and by night not far away from 0 degrees. Still, during the day, it can go on approximately 15 degrees, and with the occasional sun, it feels much warmer. But be careful, this sun is quite dangerous. Even we got burnt when it was partly cloudy and sunny with very light rain.
Papallacta Hot Springs
There are three main hot springs in Papallacta. They are Jamanco 1 and 2 and Las Termas. If you would like to have some much way cheaper and simple option – choose Jamanco 2. If it’s sunny, you have a great view of the landscapes and hills. Also, you will see lots of cows.
But if you would like to have a little more comfort (such as restaurant and buffet) and more pools with fancy design, check out Las Termas. You will find them just totally at the end of the road in Papallacta. On our expedition, we always hire the Colectivo taxi down the village. For 1 or 2 dollars per person, it takes you up, directly in front of the doors of Las Termas. It costs double the price in comparison with Jamanco pools. Still, you can stay there till evening (and swim when the lights inside of the pools are reflecting cozy environment). You can enjoy various sized pools here with different depths and temperatures.
The setting is very picturesque. You can admire a lot of lichens and mosses, flowers, and other botanical species from the ecosystem of High Anduvian Forest. Many birds will surround you. The only disadvantage is that just because of the trees, there is not such a great view from every pool to the distant hills.
Accommodations in the Andes (Ecuador)
I recommend spending one day here. Then, you can continue your trip to another small city like Baeza in the foothill of Andes mountains in Ecuador. Indeed, it’s part of High Amazonia. If you decide to spend the night, you have various cheaper lodging options. However, but the service is just okay. If you are willing to spend a little more, get accommodation directly in Las Termas, has a resort.
The combination of colder weather, healing properties of mineral hot springs, and remarkable landscapes are both relaxing and satisfying.
After the hot springs, you’ll likely be hungry.
You can eat directly in Las Termas or go to the few restaurants in the village. We usually go for lunch at the local restaurant, which you will find downtown. Specifically, the restaurant is just on the crossroad, that connects Papallacta with directions to Amazonia and the other side to Quito. We prefer this place because it is delicious, economical, with excellent service. Also, you can taste typical local food in this area. For example, soup such as vegetable or chicken broth and fried/baked or cooked trout. Also, you will always find rice and sweet or green fried plantains – they are delicious!
The Charming Town of Baeza
The next stop of our expedition is also a small village, but way more extensive, then Papallacta. Its name is Baeza. You will find Baeza directly east, between the foothill of the Andes mountains in Ecuador, and High Amazonia around 2 hours from Papallacta. If you wish to get public transport, you can just wait for one of many local bus companies that stop in front of the only restaurant downtown.
The city practically lies along the main road continuing to low Amazonia.
Baeza is an exceptional and unique place. Why? Here is a great variety of many species of birds, making it an ornithologist’s and biologist’s paradise. Indeed, this is the site of many birdwatching and ornithologist competitions and national countings. While I’m not a birder, I appreciate birdwatching after I could found (the famous and rare) Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola Peruvianus).
The Local Specialty of the Andes (Ecuador)
Despite the fact, it is a tiny city, here are quite competitive lodging options, but the price is high in all of them. And where to eat? In the same place, usually. I would say that the majority of the hostels also offer restaurant service with breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. If you choose a hostel without food service, you can visit those, as they are also open to public customers. There is one restaurant I could recommend – just at the end of Baeza’s main road direction to Tena city. You can try here also fish specialties like in Papallacta – trout fish.
And what else is so special about this place and why we are stopping here for one/ two nights? Well, it is a place of many rivers, waterfalls, and lush green hills with volcano peaks. So if you’re not into extreme sports like wild kayaking or hiking, you can visit amazing waterfalls on the distant volcano Sumaco. Until last year you could visit a small but wonderfully beautiful 20-meter high waterfalls at the beginning of Baeza.
Unfortunately, there was a natural disaster last year. After a storm in the upper parts of the Andes mountains, a giant wave destroyed the local bridge and area with part of the forest and the waterfall.
Andes Waterfalls (Ecuador)
There are two main waterfalls, and they are quite a hike to get too. To be sure, it’s the reason many travelers stay in Baeza overnight as the base for the trips to make around. Usually, in Ecuador, public transportation is efficient, and there are always many options. But it’s not this case here. And, if you don’t have the whole day for this trip or wait for the bus, rent a car.
For me, renting a car is more comfortable. For sure, to get here and there while guiding my group, I’ll rent a van. The whole trip takes about 4 hours, and you see the San Rafael Waterfall and Cascada Mágica following the same road. They are nearly half an hour driving distance between each other, and farther away is San Rafael driving the car about 90 minutes from Baeza. You need to follow the central road direction north till you reach city El Chaco.
Cayambe-Coca National Park
Then about 50 km further north, a sign indicates the entrance of the national park Cayambe-Coca, home of the waterfall. San Rafael is known as the biggest waterfall in Ecuador, as it’s 160 meters high and 14 meters wide. There is a breathtaking view from the top of the outlook. Unfortunately, there is no option to get very close and be able to “touch” it. However, you can walk about 30 minutes along the path. In the end, you’ll enjoy the spectacular view of the waterfall. Indeed, the Quijos and El Salado rivers converge into a stream at the main tributary of the Amazon river called El Coca.
Whenever I go to that place, there is always a bit different view, as the stream of San Rafael. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the waterfall as the fog is very dense. However, other times, you get clear skies and excellent visibility.
Cascada Mágica Waterfall
You will find the second waterfall on the same main road and we always stop by there on the way back to Baeza. The waterfall’s name changes as it isn’t well known. Besides, it’s on the private land and the owner asks you to pay a few dollars to entre. Well, one of the names is Cascada Mágica or Waterfall on the river Río Malo. The translation of the river name means the Bad River – why? Well many fairy tale explanations exist. For example, one of them says that when the main road nearby was under the reconstruction, there was just finished the bridge and due to heavy rains the river swept it out completely.
If you want to get to the waterfall, you walk even less then to San Rafael waterfall. You follow the black sandy path along the river. Then, after about 10 minutes and crossing another little stream, you find the impressive waterfall itself. The humid air full of crazily flying drops will make you jump with joy as the breeze produced by the 50-meter long fall of the mass of water that is energetic, and refreshing. Be sure to take with you some clothes to change as you will definitely go out from there totally wet ;).
Tena and Puyo
After the trip, our group usually continues down to the low Amazonia. There, they find the land of indigenous communities around Tena and Puyo. In the territory distant from these cities there are many. For example, the Kichwa and Shuar and Achuar indigenous communities, which preserve their traditional way of living. But that would be another story. On the way back to the Cordillera of Andes, we stop at a unique place in Ecuador called Quilotoa. That is almost the last stop before the capital Quito, where we are finishing our 3 week-long trip.
How to get there? The most natural and direct way is from the city of Latacunga. There are some local buses that will take you directly to this tiny village – the land of Quichua indigenous highlanders. The road offers you spectacular views full of green hills, rocks, and distant peaks of volcanoes. Also, you can see local cultivators with red cheeks harvesting the crops, or working in their fields.
If you are lucky enough you would see sometimes a lamas around. When you finally arrive in Quilotoa, you’ll find it very small. But, in the last few years, it has been growing. Also, many new hostels and lodging facilities got built as it’s now touristically famous. But still, it will take you about 10 minutes to walk the whole village 🙂 It’s one of the pearls of the Andes mountains – shining in its 3 900 meters above sea level. Also, it’s just a few meters from the border of the crater of the volcano with the same name as the village itself – Quilotoa. It’s a giant caldera (crater) of water that’s the result of its eruption, about 600 years ago. The caldera measures 3km wide, in diameter.
The depth of the water is about 250 metres and is highly alkaline, so you cannot drink it and you will not be able to see any fish there.
Hiking and Trips In Quilotoa
There are two hikes you can do, but ideally, not on the same day. Always wake up quite early in the morning to enjoy an impressive view as the fog is still coming later in the morning.
Well, the first option is to go down by dusty path (in case of rain it changes in quite a muddy place) and reach the bottom of the crater directly down to the lake. You can camp there for a night if you get your own tent. Also, you may rent a kayak and take a ride on the lake.
Take a Hike (Around the Crater)
The second option is to hike around the borders of the crater. That is my favorite one and I definitely recommend it if you should choose only one of those options. Because of the high altitude, which varies from 3 500 to 3 990 meters above sea level, you should walk slowly. Also, you can take short breaks to restore your oxygen, and also enjoy those fantastic views on the landscape. The clouds, fog, wind, and sun are playing a great game and continually changing the scenery around you. Sometimes it seems the color of the lake is green. Other times, it’s blue and in one moment you do not see anything for 2 metres of distance. The whole hike takes approximately 6 hours if you take your time. Indeed, you can stop and appreciate local fauna and flora of this Andean high altitude tropical ecosystem.
There’s always the possibility to eat directly at one of the local hostels or hotels. Indeed, they’ll accommodate you. Also, for more energy, I recommend getting a “un canelazo” . To be sure, this is the traditional drink from hot “maracuya” juice with shots of alcohol to make you warm. Just don’t drink too much of it, as the high altitude helps get you “borracho”, AKA tipsy.
Ecuador is just a beautiful tropical Latin American country and there are much more of these unique and exciting places to visit.
Monika has been always interested in diverse cultural performances and customs, so she got attracted to live for longer terms in different countries meanwhile working, volunteering and sometimes just discovering many remote places. She gained deeper insight into the local culture and society. By the time she started to be more fond of nature and especially medicinal plants and spending more and more time with the indigenous tribes and communities in Latin American countries. On the base of her experience and knowledge, she designed expeditions, which she organizes for about 3 weeks to special and unique places in Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia and soon to other places.