If you’re anything like the traveller that I am, a few days in a big city will have you feeling a little restless. After spending 3 days in Quito, Ecuador I began to wonder what was happening in, around, and behind the mountains that surround the capital city. So I ventured out to explore what else goes on in everyday Ecuador. What I came to find was that you can learn a lot about the Ecuadorian people and their land by hopping on a bus for a few hours and getting outside the city. In Quito there are countless options for tours as well as overnight trips to surrounding areas (which I would highly recommend as well) but these ones are the ones that are very easy to do on your own.
The Otavalo Market, or Plaza de los Ponchos, boasts South America’s largest open-aired market, selling a variety of crafts from paintings of Ecuadorian landscapes, to handmade wooden spoons, to alpaca wool blankets. In any which direction, you’ll find endless supplies of sweaters boasting the infamous animal along with countless geometric patterns and colors.
While many vendors set up shop every day of the week, the hustle and bustle of the market is best experienced on a Saturday. Work your way through the various setups towards the middle vendors. Like most markets, the best bargains can be found where there are less people. I got the price of an alpaca sweater down to $15, even though I’m a novice bargainer (and not to mention very shy). My advice here, don’t pay more than $25 for a sweater!
Saturday morning is the only day of the week where you can visit the Animal Market, as well. However, don’t feel like you need to rush to Otavalo to see the animal market; from the outside looking in, it seemed to me like too many farm animals in too small a space.
Travel time: 2-2.5 hours one way
While organized tours to Otavalo are an option, the transport from Quito is very simple and cost a fraction of the price. ($2.50 each way).
1. Make your way to Terminal Carcelene in the North of Quito (via complicated public bus system for 50cents or a $5-7 taxi/uber ride).
2. The buses from the terminal leave regularly and all you have to do is look for the buses with “Otavalo” in the bottom left corner of their front window. No transferring buses and no constant questioning of whether you’re on the right bus; it’s quite simple!
3. The bus stops at the station in Otavalo and from there, it’s pretty obvious which direction to head. Buses leave back to Quito regularly and will return to Terminal Carcelene in the North.
If you have the time and can spend the night, Laguna Cuicocha and Peguche Waterfall are near to Otavalo and definitely worth checking out!
Mitad Del Mundo
There aren’t many places where you can put one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern…and (spoiler) Mitad del Mundo actually isn’t one of those places either. The monument and its surrounding park is actually appx. 300m north of the equator line. But the site is considered the official — but inaccurate — division. Modern day GPS certainly hasn’t lessened the appeal of the park, and since it’s simple to get to, why not just pretend?
There’s two ways to see the site and thus, two ticket options: one is an all-access ticket ($7) to the museums and displays, small brewery, and viewing tower that the park has to offer. The budget option ($3.50) allows entrance into the site in order to walk around the monument, but does not allow access to the accompanying buildings. As a backpacker, I opted for the cheaper ticket, which I felt was sufficient to get the gist of the site, its history, and take some good pictures in two hemispheres.
P.S. Planning to spend half a day in the middle of the world will be plenty of time to get yourself there and back.
Travel Time: 1-1.5 hours one way
1. Get yourself to Terminal Ofelia, a bus station in North Quito – this is easy to do so via Quito’s public bus system ($0.25 each way).
2. From here, you’ll find buses that are labelled “Mitad Del Mundo” ($0.15). It’s important to note that the Mitad del Mundo stop is not the end destination of the bus, so make sure to keep an on google maps to make sure you don’t miss it. I’ve also found the workers on the bus to be helpful. If you stick out like I do (with my blonde hair and blue eyes), the bus workers are usually willing to let you know when the stop is. Don’t fret about transport – you’re probably not alone, and it’s hard to miss as long as you’re paying attention.
Termas de Papallacta
Tucked into the Andes mountains as you head Southeast from Quito, the Termas de Papallacta are a perfect way to relax after spending days exploring the cityscape. While thermal baths in other countries can charge a hefty price, Papallacta remains at the modest price of $7.50 for the entrance ticket; this way, your wallet can take a break too. The allure of the thermal baths lies deep within the mountains that you pass through on your trip to the springs. With Volcan Antisana close by, the water at Papallacta is naturally heated by the underground activity of the volcano. Ecuadorians have endlessly promoted the notion that the hot springs have natural health benefits, reducing swelling, allergic reactions, and symptoms of arthritis. The series of man-made pools here are of varying temperatures and depths, the changing temperatures becomes more and more recognizable as you move from about the pools. As you brace yourself for the cold and relax your muscles in the steaming water, you’ll be graced by the ever-present orchids, lush vegetation and hummingbirds that call the foot of the Andes their home. The experience is unique to Ecuador, and whether you’ve been backpacking for months or touring Quito for days, Papallacta is the perfect excuse to treat yourself.
Travel Time: 2 hours one way
If your trip to Papallacta goes anything like mine did, a dip in the hot springs will be well deserved after a long and unanticipated jumble of buses through the mountains. I’ve tried to make the steps as clear as possible to avoid (at least some) of the confusion I experienced (PS…if anyone knows of any way to do this more efficiently, please let me know so I can update!).
Quito to Papallacta
1. Get yourself to Rio Coca Station (Easy to access via Quito public transit system)
2. Catch the green bus to Cumbaya (Pay attention when you’re on this bus…if you don’t this is where you’ll get lost or miss your stop) ($0.25 one way).
3. When you see the bus approaching Scala Mall (on your left hand side) and the Pimax gas station/Kia Motors dealership (on your right), you’re at your stop! Get off here, the bus stops directly across from the mall. And be quick because the buses don’t wait very long.
4. Wait here at the bus stop (the same side of the road you get off the bus on — opposite Scala mall) for a bus heading towards Tena or Baeza. Don’t be alarmed if it seems like many buses are going by & you’ve yet to locate one to Tena or Baeza. When you do see it, flag this bus down to make sure it will stop for you! ($2.50 one way)
5. The bus towards Tena or Baeza takes you through Papallacta, and will drop you off in Papallacta on the main road (It’s a Y-shaped intersection). It doesn’t hurt to tell the worker on the bus that you are going to the baths.
6. From here, there will be truck taxis waiting to take you up to the hot springs. ($1 per person) It is possible walk to the baths, but it’s about 5km all uphill (I’d recommend splurging on the taxi).
Papallacta to Quito
1. Walk or take a taxi back down. It’s all down hill so walking is quite easy.
2. There’s only one bus stop so no confusion here, wait here for the bus to Quito. Important to note: the buses going to Quito that pick you here have an end destination of Quitumbe, a station in the outskirts of southern Quito.
3. You have two options on this bus:
a. Take it all the way to south to Quitumbe and catch a bus or taxi back to the city center. This can add up to an hour of extra travel time & taxis can cost $7-10.
b. Get off the bus again at Scala Mall and catch a different bus back to one of Quito’s main bus terminals closer to the city center to catch Quito’s public transit or take a cheaper taxi.
P.S. If you can manage it, try to bring with you: your own towel (to save the rental cost), a change of clothes (so you’re not damp for two hours on a bus), and a lock for one of the lockers at the baths. Otherwise, you’ll have to carry your belongings with you from pool to pool in a provided basket.