Those on the group flight will be met at the airport and transferred to our hotel in Quito this evening. Those on land only arrangements should make their own way to 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 comfortable and beautiful Hacienda, our home for the next few nights at a comfortable altitude and settle in for a great dinner.
We drive in the morning to Cuicocha Crater Lake at approximately 3000m. This beautiful caldera (volcanic crater) is about 2 miles wide (3 km) and was formed about 3100 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 will drive to the beautiful El Angel Nature Reserve. This picturesque wilderness, around 3,500m above sea level, is a biosphere in which we walk through exotic high altitude paramo (the unique Andean ecosystem) covered with tall Frailejones plants. Condors and hummingbirds can be seen here. We then drive down to an afro-ecuadorian village with a more Caribbean vibe than Andean - a great juxtaposition to the more traditional settlements. We'll return to our Hacienda for the night and there's the option to take a hot spring bath.
We drive back to UNESCO awarded Quito stopping in Cayambe at the Equator line en route 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 4064m!) Papallacta Pass to the east of Quito. Antisina 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 short briefing upon arrival here and when ready will start to explore our new surroundings - 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! They 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. It's a long climb back to the highlands, but mesmerising as we watch the ecology change and the many waterfalls cascade from the high peaks into the lush valley of the Pastaza River. We arrive in Banos, a picturesque spa town adjacent to the 5,000m high volcano of Tungurahua. As the volcano is presently in a more active phase, we will likely need to stay outside of town in a safer area, but we will heed the latest advice.
In the morning we will drive to Banos (if staying outside of town), with the option to visit the hot springs, take a city tour or just enjoy this attractive pilgrimage town. Please note that we follow Foreign Office Advice regarding the volcanic activities of nearby Tungurahua and if it seems wiser to, we will partake in various optional activities nearer to our hacienda. In the afternoon we will continue for the short drive to Riobamba. This town is only a few miles from Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak and due to the equatorial bulge, the summit is the furthest place from the centre of the earth. If the weather is kind, we should get great views of this huge volcano on our drive into Riobamba.
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. Note: This train is very occasionally cancelled due to poor weather and cannot always be confirmed in peak periods; 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 or head off on one of the many optional activities available.
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. We will the continue on descending into the coastal lowlands and on to the port city of Guayaquil.
The wildlife of Pacific Equador 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 will 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 viewing birdlife much of which is common to the Galapagos Islands; with luck we may see pelicans, cormorants and frigate birds. We will return to Guayaquil for our final night after the boat trip.
Those on group flights will be escorted to the airport and arrive in the UK the following day.