Those on the group flight will be met at the airport and transferred to our hotel in Quito this evening, the start point for the trip. Land only clients should meet at the start hotel.
We drive through the Andes to Otavalo situated in a valley at 2250m. Saturday is the main market day at this famous and bustling Indian market; whilst there are usually a few stalls set up on other days, this is the locals' day and so we see the market at its most exciting! Around the main town square there will be hundreds of stalls and many locals wearing traditional colourful clothes - a fantastic introduction to Andean life and a good place to pick up some souvenirs. We'll then continue on to a beatiful Hacienda, our lovely home for the next few nights at a comfortable altitude.
We drive in the morning to Cuicocha Crater Lake at approximately 3,000m. This beautiful caldera (volcanic crater) is about 2 miles wide (3 km) and was formed about 3,100 years ago by a massive volcanic explosion. We will take a short undulating walk part way along the lake to take in the impressive scenery. We will then continue on to Cotacachi, the perfect place to get a feel for small town life in Ecuador. The settlement resides amidst verdant pastures, below a volcano and has cobblestone streets, a UNESCO developed market and some beautiful colonial buildings.
In the morning we drive towards the northern part of Cotacachi Cayapas Nature Reserve, a 240,000 hectare area encompassing a vast, virtually untouched cloud forest. Mosses, orchids and ferns hang from the trees, some 500 species of bird have been recorded and sloths, anteaters and other small mammals can also be found here. Our walk commences from a small indigenous settlement at around 3,000m above sea level, taking us up to an altitude of around 3,200m where we can appreciate the beauty of the cloud forest. On the way back to our hacienda we stop at the thermal springs of Chachimbiro for a comforting hot bath (optional).
We drive back to UNESCO awarded Quito stopping in Cayambe en route at the Equator line for that essential photo opportunity! In the afternoon we'll take a walking tour of old Quito - the heart of which is a colonial masterpiece and one of the most beautiful cities in South America.
We'll start quite early on our drive over the dramatic (and breathless at 4,064m!) Papallacta Pass to the east of Quito. Antisana Volcano stands proud and snowcapped at 5,758m and we drive around its flanks before the long descent into the Amazon Basin and to our rustic rainforest lodge. We'll have a briefing upon arrival here and when ready will start to explore our new surroundings on a short night walk - a lot warmer than Quito and an exotic experience with fantastic nighttime sounds.
We'll explore this part of the vast Amazonian basin by canoe and on foot. The incredible biodiversity of the rainforest will be explained by our indigenous guide. Our lodge here is based in secondary forest (we would need to travel a lot further west to reach the primary forest) and whilst the lodge will serve as a great introduction to the forest and is a wonderful experience, this is not a zoo and you should not expect to see hordes of animals! Our guide will point out the most interesting and medicinal plants and we have a good chance of seeing some kingfisher, parrot, oropendula and other bird species. Larger mammals are considerably more shy and harder to spot. The insect life is also fascinating, with exotic and beautiful butterflies flashing by and army ants and leaf-cutters on patrol. We will also visit the Amazoonica animal rescue centre where we can meet some of the forest's larger inhabitants who are being rehabilitated towards release.
We begin the wonderfully scenic drive west along the 'road of the waterfalls' with spectacular views of the upper Amazon Basin and the Andes towering above. The climb back to the highlands is mesmerising as we watch the ecology change and the many waterfalls cascade from the high peaks into the lush valley of the Pastaza River. There are plenty of photo opportunities along the way! We pass through Banos, a picturesque spa and pilgrim town adjacent to the 5,000m high volcano of Tungurahua. There is some time to explore Banos or take a bath at the hot springs. After dinner we drive to our hotel in Patate, as the Tungurahua Volcano is currently in an active phase and so it's likely that we will need to stay outside town in a safer area. Please note that we follow Foreign Office Advice regarding the volcanic activities of Tungurahua and if it seems wiser to, we will partake in various optional activities nearer to our hacienda.
In the morning we drive to the Chimborazo area to visit the Chimborazo National Park at approx. 4,600m. We undertake a short hike and if time allows we can walk to the glacier of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak. Due to the equatorial bulge, the summit is the furthest place from the centre of the earth! There are good possibilities to observe vicuñas here, a relative of the llama. In the afternoon we continue for the short drive to Riobamba where we stay overnight.
We take the colourful train ride across the Andes through the steep and spectacular 'Nariz del Diablo' or 'the Devil's Nose'. The train ride gives us a wonderful opportunity to see rural life and small villages with vibrant markets. If the weather is clear, we can see smoking volcanoes as we chug slowly down a steep series of switchbacks with impressive drops. This train is very occasionally cancelled due to poor weather and cannot always be confirmed in peak periods. Please note that it is no longer permitted to sit on the roof during the train ride. We then head on to the incredible Inca Fortress at Ingapirca, Ecuador's principal ruin from the great Peruvian civilisation. The Inca Empire stretched along the Andes north through Ecuador into Colombia and south deep into Chile and Ingapirca has fine examples of their famed brickwork as well as a solar observatory. We will then descend down to beautiful, colonial Cuenca.
Cuenca, like Quito's old centre, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we take a guided tour of the charming city this morning. The old town is remarkably intact and compared to the hustle and bustle of Quito is a relaxing base for today. Many artisans have taken up residence amidst the narrow colonial streets and many famous landmarks. The afternoon is free to explore at your own leisure.
We will head west in the morning for the short drive to Cajas N.P., its name meaning 'Gateway to the Snowy Mountains' in local Quichua. It is a stunning area of lofty peaks, lagoons, lakes and rivers amidst pristine paramo vegetation. This is another place where we may spot condor and also the Giant hummingbird amongst 125 other bird species. We will take a short walk here to look for wildlife and admire the scenery, the last chance for us to enjoy the Andean highlands. Our journey continues into the coastal lowlands and on to the port city of Guayaquil.
The wildlife of Pacific Ecuador is both vigorous and utterly different to that in the highlands and so no trip to the country should be complete without a trip out from the coast. Today we board a boat at the small fishing community of Puerto Morro and cruise out to explore the huge mangrove forest sprawling across the many river inlets and islands to observe the wildlife. It is not unusual to see dolphins whilst we cruise amidst the estuary and they will often come and play and show off in the boat's wake. We will also land at a small island and take a walk here to view the birdlife, much of which is common to the Galapagos Islands. With luck we may see pelicans, cormorants and frigatebirds. We will return to Guayaquil for our final night after the boat trip.
Those on group flights will return to the airport and arrive in the UK the following day.