As the world slowly recovers from a microscopic organism that has turned our world upside down, borders are gradually reopening. As this occurs, travelers are more eager than ever to head out — safely — on life-changing “once-in-a-lifetime” journeys. One such adventure is trekking along Ecuadorian highland trails back-dropped by magnificent snow-capped volcanoes, stunning river valleys, and rapidly disappearing cloud forests.
The trails themselves evidence plenty of wildlife – from condors, wild horses, and Andean fox, to subline orchids and bromeliads. On such trekking journeys, you will make contact with remote indigenous communities, learn of ancestral traditions, and experience new sights, sounds, flavors.
If you are thinking about your next adventure tourism trip, consider any of the Ecuadorian hiking routes that we present below.
1. The Condor Trek: Cotopaxi and the Avenue of Volcanos
One of the most famous hikes in the Andes mountains, “The Condor Trek” was listed in the National Geographic’s “Adventure Bucket List” just a few short years ago.
This demanding 4-day hike begins just east of Quito in the hot-springs resort village of Papallacta, before heading into the scenic Antisana Reserve until reaching Cotopaxi National Park. This highest altitude trek takes you more than 3-miles above sea level (14,763ft or 4,500m) in Ecuador’s stunning high grasslands paramo as you pass the Antisana and Cotopaxi volcanos. With a peak of 5,897 meters, Cotopaxi is the second-highest mountain in Ecuador and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.
At its top, you will be able to observe the 800-meter wide crater, where you can smell the steam and gas that it emits from its belly and witness the 360-degree panoramas of the magnificent Andes that surround you.
2. The Quilotoa Loop
The 24-mile (40 km) circular trekking route that connects remote mountain villages and Kichwa communities in Ecuador’s Cotopaxi province has been dubbed the “The Quilotoa Loop.” Beginning in a mountain town in the foothills of the majestic Cotopaxi Volcano, this 3- to 5-day hike takes you through long-distance trails in deep valleys, passing indigenous markets, llama farms, cheese factories, and other local attractions.
Each night, you’ll sleep in plush haciendas of colonial estates outside of the small traditional villages along the trail. The hike will lead you to Quilotoa Lake, a stunning sky-blue crater-lake created many moons ago by a large eruption. After reaching the lake and enjoying the views, you will end with a 3 mile (5 km) technical walk around the shimmering waters, finally reaching the village of Quilotoa.
The trail itself is a relatively easy hiking trail, as long as you are in good physical condition. There are several routes to choose from, but be careful, if you go alone, the maps do not always match the signs, so make sure you are prepared and always walk with a guide or a friend.
3. The Inca Trail to Ingapirca
This trek is along the 25-mile (40 km) route that follows some of the Inca trails that once ran from Quito to the Inca capital of Cusco, Peru. Without horses or donkeys, the Incas made this route on foot, using super capable messengers called Chasquis who lived in houses along these roads, they were in charge of transmitting information around the empire.
The trail reaches an altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level and, generally, this long-trek extends over three days. During this adventure, you’ll be in direct contact with uninhabited nature as you experience parts of the original Inca Trail built more than 1000 years ago.
Before finally reaching the Ingapirca site itself, you’ll visit age-old tambos (Inca rest houses), pass by pristine mountain lakes, Inca ruins, and astounding water systems that put even the Romans to shame.
4. Cajas National Park
Located about 18 miles (30 km), west of Cuenca (Ecuador’s third-largest city), Cajas National Park is a unique and prominent place for high-altitude hiking in Ecuador.
The protected-UNESCO park currently covers more than 50,000 acres while its trails zigzag between elevations of 3,100 and 4,450 meters. The trekking routes here range from a couple of hours to a few days.
The park’s sheer size makes it perfect for exploring. However, as it’s also easy to get lost, we recommend going with a local guide or planning a group trip in advance.
5. Podocarpus National Park
In Ecuador’s southern region, you can discover the expansive 360,000-acre (146,300-hectare) Podocarpus National Park, which consists of vast tropical cloud forests and virgin lower subtropical jungle.
“Biodiversity” is the keyword here, as you’ll be exposed to an enormous variety of exciting animal species. You’re sure to keep busy attempting to spot Spectacled bears, pumas, the Andean fox, giant armadillo, jaguar, mountain tapirs, Pudú, the smallest deer in the world, and a huge variety of exotic birds (as many as 500 registered species).
Exploring this reserve, you’ll feel like you have just found paradise as you discover many of the 3,000 species of vascular plants and 260 different types of spectacular butterflies, as well as a host of thundering waterfalls that all provide unimaginable beauty.
6. Piñán Trekking to Andean Villages
The 7-day trekking adventure to the Ecuadorian village of Piñán is like traveling back in time. Along the way, you can stop at magnificent colonial-era haciendas, witness ancient pre-Incan earth mounds, and make contact with highland villagers who herd their livestock the same way this was done a hundred years ago.
This journey will take you through pristine highland valleys surrounded by imposing mountains as you make your way around snowcapped volcanoes, shimmering waterfalls, and mountain-top lakes and rivers bathed in green.
This hike to Piñán will take you to an altitude of 3,112 meters above sea level in the heart of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, one of the largest and most biologically diverse reserves in Ecuador. Led by an experienced multilingual guide, all of this provides an opportunity to profoundly reconnect with nature, taking in awe-inspiring panoramic views of Andean volcanoes, summits, and valleys.
7. Oyacachi Trekking: From the Andes to the Amazon
This trek of between two and five days will begin in an Andean village located just 54 miles (90) km east of Quito. Known as Oyacachi, this small indigenous community is increasingly known for its hot springs pools and captivating history, making it a popular weekend spot for visitors from Quito.
The trek itself takes you through one of the passes that connects the Andean highlands and the Amazonian basin, following a pre-Hispanic trading route along the Oyacachi River. The rather difficult 42-km trek gradually descends through the cloud forest to the town of El Chaco at 1,600 m which is one of the main gates to the Amazon.
Along the trail, you’ll hike through the jungle, witnessing myriad plant and animal species as you trek through one of the country’s most pristine ecosystems. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a tapir or the elusive Andean Spectacled Bear.
8. Rucu Pichincha
Rucu Pichincha is a cluster of stratovolcanos that rise above the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito. These volcanos can be approached via a cable car that takes you directly to the beginning of the trail, allowing you to trek to the top and return in a day. For its part, the cable car takes 15 minutes to take you to your trekking route, at a not inconsiderable altitude of 3,945 meters above sea level.
From this point begins a fairly easy three to four-hour hike along winding dirt roads through grass and past orange cactus flowers. As you get closer to the top along the 10km trail, you will come to a steep section of sand and rock, which you will have to climb, this is probably the most difficult section you will have to deal with.
Once you reach the top, at 4698 meters, you will be rewarded with epic views of Quito and its surroundings. Although it is quite accessible, it is important to go with a guide or someone who knows the route, as it is easy to get lost among so many similar roads.
9. Abraspungo Valley Trekking
With a tongue-twisting name that means or “mountain with great wind” in the indigenous Kichwa language, the Carihuayrazo Mountain rises out of the Abraspungo Valley in the northern Ecuadorian highlands. Trekking through this valley to this mountain means passing through the quintessential Andean landscape, spotted with llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, as well as making contacts with local people tending their flocks. All of this will give you an authentic taste of the authentic mountain cultures of Ecuador.
The climb to Carihuayrazo’s summit is relatively easy and can be undertaken by those with no previous mountaineering experience. While this is your chance to climb a mountain that’s more than 5,000-meters high (over 16,000 feet), you should be in at least average physical condition.
To discover all of this, Ecuador possesses experienced, certified, and professionally trained trekking guides and tour operators who promise you the ultimate eco-adventure hiking experience. These guides and staff will skillfully handle every detail of even the most complex itinerary, allowing you to focus on enjoying your adventure.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.