Hiking Ecuador gives you a new appreciation for this amazingly diverse country. And while your first walks here will inevitably leave you breathless (in all ways imaginable), trekking at high altitude also means experiencing the Andes at eye-level in all of their glory; rain, hail, wind, and sun-soaked if you’re lucky. Hiking Ecuador is an easy way to get off the tourist track, to escape the crowding of the cities, and to experience a slice of what life is for the majority of Ecuadorians; a slower rhythm that still bases farming times off of the sun and moon, and a diet that has changed little since ancient times: rich in potatoes, meat and choclo. We still speak often about the hikes we did in Ecuador, and are sure to recommend them to every traveler we know heading that way. These are just a few of the favorites, spread out across the country. We hope they’ll inspire you to lace up your own hiking boots, grab a buddy, take a deep breath, and go.
Rucu Pinchincha and Teleferico, Quito
Highest altitude: 4,784 m / 15,695 ft (summit)
Cost: $8.50 if you choose to take the teleferico
When people think about hiking in Ecuador, the capital city is not usually high on the list. However, one of Ecuador’s hidden gems lies just a short taxi ride from downtown. Unlike other hikes in the list, this one has a transportation option that makes it possible to summit the volcano in a day trip: the teleferico. The gondola (a fun excursion in itself!) takes you up the first 6,000ft, giving you a birds-eye view of the sprawling city and a great starting point for day hikes as well as the volcano. As most people will do this hike early on in their trip at arrival, we suggest treating it as a way to acclimate rather than a hard set goal. Within an hour of hiking I was already feeling the affects of altitude sickness (read: pounding headache and breathless even on flat parts), so we opted to hike around the trails and not continue up. The views of the city are spectacular, especially in good weather when you can see the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. Get there early, bring a friend (there have been safety issues in the past, though we heard nothing but good reports at the time of our hike), pack plenty of water and snacks, take it slow, and enjoy the climb!
Lake Cuicocha, Otavalo
Highest altitude: 3,380 m / 11,089 ft
Cost: less than a dollar taking public transport, and entrance is free!
Lake Cuicocha is a beautiful crater lake located about 1hr away from Otavalo by bus (you;ll pass through the town of Quiroga). While thousands of tourists flock to the Saturday market in Otavalo, staying a couple extra days means you’ll be able to discover more of the region and get well off the tourist track. We volunteered in the area for 2 weeks and this one one of our favorite excursions for the color of the lake, the constant views, and the beautiful surroundings. This pleasant trail is an ideal way to acclimate if you plan on doing any tougher hiking in Ecuador. You’ll have views of the lake the whole way, along with vistas of Andean farm lands, and access to a charming visitors center where you can buy coffee, snacks and hadicrafts. Make sure to bring plenty of water, get an early start, and pack a rain jacket in case of rain – the whole loop should take about 4 hours to complete.
Cotopaxi Volcano, Cotopaxi National Park
Highest altitude: 5,897 m / 19,347 ft (summit – most hikers will end at the lodge)
Cost: Free entrance to the national park (all national parks in Ecuador are!) and upwards of $40+ for an organized day trip from Quito
Cotopaxi is the volcano you picture in our mind when you hear the word; a near perfect cone, ice-crusted at its peak and often with smoke billowing out of it’s mouth. Consequently, it is one of the most popular excursions from Quito, and a great place to camp and explore for a few days. While we were visiting the volcano was listed at “orange” status meaning hikers could only trek as far as the lodge and no summit trips were allowed up due to the volcano being too active. Even so, we met many travelers who did that hike and loved it and even more who decided to skip the organized tour, pitch tents in the park and hike the surrounding lakes and grasslands at the foot of the volcano. They were rewarded with far fewer tourists on the trail and constant views of the iconic volcano. We’ve added it to our list of must-do excursions when we come back for more hiking in Ecuador someday and we’ll be staying at the Secret Garden Hostel when we do – it comes highly recommended by many travelers we’ve met along the way!
Quilotoa Loop, Latacunga
Highest altitude: 3,914 m / 12,841 ft
Cost: For a multi-day trek the Quilotoa loop is extremely affordable if you plan it yourself. See what we spent
One of the best hikes/treks we have done in South America and definitely the best values. This multi-day trek through Andean villages and past potato farmers, donkeys, and eucalyptus forests holds a special place in our hearts not only for it’s spectacular scenery at every turn, but for the charming hostels that mark the route. Comfort food at cozy hostels, a great camaraderie among fellow hikers, and a sense of adventure that can only come from getting off the tourist track are just a few of the reasons to make this a must-hike trail while in Ecuador. The final point in the trek, the sparkling Quilotoa crater lake, is one of Ecuador’s national treasures and the hike along the rim is an incredible day hike in itself. The hike has some challenging up-hill sections and all of it is done at high altitude so it’s important that you’ve spent a couple days acclimating. It’s important to get maps at the hostel check-points as getting lost is a definite possibility, but that’s no reason not to go. Pack your daypack, drop your big packs off in Latacunga, and get out there! Read our complete guide to the Quilotoa Loop to get started.
Cajas National Park
Highest altitude: 4,310 m / 13,550 ft
Near the end of the bus ride south from Banos to Cuenca, both of us were literally pressed against the window in awe of the passing landscapes. They were different than any we had seen in Ecuador; towering rock walls, grey-green moss covered rocks, balls of grassy shrubs and countless lagunas and lakes. It was nearly sunset and the entire park was illuminated by a perfect evening haze and we immediately regretted having bought an onward bus ticket. When we arrived to our hostel, we were met with enthusiastic reviews of other travelers day hiking in Cajas National park, although many warned that getting lost is very easy as trails are not well marked and maps are basic. The weather has a reputation of turning on a dime, so it pays to be prepared, but the most common day hike, the Ruta 1 is a straightforward and fairly easy way to explore the beautiful landscape. Camping is available and the park is less than an hour from the city of Cuenca. If you go hiking there, feel free to leave a comment on why we need to make it back for a visit!