5 Best Day Trips from Quito to Add to your Ecuador Itinerary

Monument at Mitad del Mundo

Last updated on June 17th, 2024 at 02:36 pm

Ecuador is a small country in between Colombia and Peru, most well known for the Galapagos Islands. However, there is so much more that this tiny country has to offer. If you’re into colonial architecture, hikes, waterfalls, small towns and shopping, then add Ecuador to your list. I spent two months living in Quito and during that time I took as many day trips as possible so I could see more of this beautiful country. In this post, I’ll share 5 of the best day trips from Quito that provide glimpses into life outside of Ecuador’s capital city. These Quito day trips are easily accessible by public buses but many tour companies also offer day trips. So depending on your time availability and budget, there is something for everyone!

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Ecuador travel resources

How to Get Around Ecuador

There are many ways to get around Ecuador. The option you choose depends on your travel budget and style. For some of these day trips, you may find it easiest to use public transit while others you may want to hire a driver or do a group tour. 

I always encourage my readers to make their itinerary fit them and what they want out of their experience!

Using Public Transportation

I loved using public transportation to get around Ecuador. The buses are cheap, run mostly on time, and it was a great way to see local culture in smaller towns along the way. Here are the three main bus terminals in Quito

  • Quitumbe: Located in the south of Quito, Quitumbe is where you’ll go for buses to Latacunga, Baños, and Cuenca. 
  • La Ofelia: Located in the North of Quito, you can get the bus to Mindo and the Middle of the World here. 
  • Carcelén: Located in the north of Quito and the jumping off point for Otavalo Market.

Buses in Ecuador

For the most part, you can purchase your bus tickets when you arrive at the bus station. Most buses make stops along the way. When the buses stop, sometimes people will come on to sell snacks or water. Keep some small bills handy if you want to purchase anything.

Some buses on longer journeys also play movies which I found quite fun actually. They’re in Spanish, of course, but I found it an enjoyable way to pass the time. 

For each of the day trips below, I’ll share with you how to get there using public transportation.

Renting a Car

You can rent a car in Ecuador, but make sure you have all of the appropriate insurance coverage and a good GPS system. I wouldn’t recommend renting a car as a solo traveler, because many roads are unmarked, so you will need someone to help you navigate.

If you do want to rent a car, I recommend using Discover Cars who will get all of the insurance you need.

Hiring a Private Driver

If public transportation and renting a car sound overwhelming to you, trust me, I get it. You may want to consider hiring a private driver with daytrip. This is a service that connects you with a local driver who knows how to navigate the area and can even help with translation and tips to make these day trips even better.

The day before your trip, you’ll connect with your driver and get set up to go!

I think this is a great compromise to make sure you get the flexibility of doing what you want with the safety of a local guide.

Using Guided Tours

Guided tours are a great way to see a lot in a short amount of time. For instance, there are Quito day tours that will help you see Cotopaxi and Quilotoa in one day! Others will combine Otavalo and Cuicocha Lagoon.

Plus as a solo traveler, group tours are a great way to make friends and meet new people.

While group tours take the planning out of your hands, the downside to this is that you are on someone elses schedule. 

For each of the day trips below, I’ll highlight the best guided tours so you get the most bang for your buck!

Me at the top of the Basilica del Voto Nacional
After Climbing very rickety ladders to to top of the towers

Safety Tips for Traveling Ecuador

While on the whole, Ecuador is a safe country, theft does occur, most commonly on public transportation. While there, I learned some things about how to stay safe traveling around Ecuador that I’d like to share with you. 

  1. NEVER put your belongings in the overhead compartment or at your feet on a bus. People WILL steal it. You can put larger items safely underneath the bus and hold your smaller items on your lap!
  2. Avoid bus stations at night. While I never felt unsafe at the bus stations (and sometimes I was there when it was dark out) it’s best to take the bus during the day when possible. I also simply find it easier to navigate new areas in the daylight hours.
  3. I never had an issue with taxi drivers in Ecuador, but make sure you agree upon a price or that the meter is turned on before getting in the car. Uber is also a reliable option, especially in the city of Quito.
  4. Keep your cell phone out of site. I know, you want to check your maps to make sure you haven’t missed your stop, but do your best to keep your cell phone tucked away as they’re easily stolen on buses. I recommend putting it in an inner pocket of your jacket.
  5. Thieves can look like anybody. They can be children, older women, or just a normal looking person.
  6. Don’t stray far from the bus stations. When you need to get to or from a bus station, make sure your Uber or taxi picks you up out front. 
Ocho y Medio Theatre and Cafe in La Floresta
Ocho y Medio Theatre and Cafe in La Floresta

The 5 Best Day Trips from Quito, Ecuador

Straddle the Equator at Mitad del Mundo

Can you go to Quito and not visit the center of the world? I mean, no. Supposedly there are two centers of the world, a real one and one that is close enough. I went to the one with the huge monument and museum.

Inside the monument which is a museum filled with trippy things that happen at the middle of the world, and a history of the area. There are also shops, a planetarium, and a craft beer museum. 

And of course, make sure to take a photo of you straddling the line dividing the earth. I failed at that one…too many people and I was impatient.

Monument at Mitad del Mundo
Monument at Mitad del Mundo

How to Get to Ciudad Mitad del Mundo

By Public Transit:

Hire a taxi to take you to La Ofelia bus station and find signs for Mitad del Mundo. Hop in line and pay $1.00 for the ride. It will drop you off in front of Mitad del Mundo. This was my first Ecuador public bus experience. Be sure to keep your belongings visible and enjoy the wild ride as the bus barely stops as people hop on and off and vendors sell their goods.

It took about two hours one way to arrive as there was quite a bit of traffic leaving the city, but it’s only 20km away!

Once there, it costs $5 to enter. 

By Guided Tour:

This guided tour includes a tour of the city of Quito on a tram. It will take you to some of the best things to do in Quito like the Basilica del Voto Nacional Church and the Panacillo. After exploring Quito’s Old Town, you’ll head to the Middle of the World!

Book your Quito and Mitad del Mundo Tour here.

Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador

Hike Waterfalls in the Mindo Cloud Forest

Mindo is easily one of my favorite places in Ecuador. It’s a lovely escape from the noise of Quito. As soon as I stepped foot on the quiet dirt roads of Mindo on a rainy day, I was hooked. 

And, well, most days in Mindo are at least a little bit rainy, because you’re in the cloud forest! Which means lush vegetation, sounds of nature, adventure activities, and waterfalls.

Mindo makes a great weekend trip, but you can definitely see the highlights in one day. One of the most popular outdoor activities to do in Mindo is the waterfall hike. Once in the town of Mindo, hire a taxi (approximately $10 round-trip) to take you to the Tarabita, a small cable car that will take you over the forest canopy to a series of 6 waterfalls on a well-marked trail. 

It takes about 3-4 hours depending on if you decide to jump into one, swim, or take lots of photos. There are dogs along the trail who are harmless and just walk with you like little trail guides. 

A waterfall in Mindo Cloud Forest
Hiking the waterfalls in Mindo Cloud Forest (you can jump from the platform on the upper right of this photo)

It will be rainy, but muggy. Gotta love that jungle weather. I wore a raincoat over a tank top, shorts, and my waterproof hiking boots that came in handy when crossing streams. If you plan to swim or jump wear your swimsuit underneath your clothes.

After the hike, return to Mindo for lunch at one of the many restaurants. Mindo is a small town and you can see most of it in an hour. 

If you have more time, I highly recommend going to the butterfly farm and learning about the chocolate making process at El Quetzal.

view of the cloud forest from the cable car
the cable car ride to the start of the hike

How to Get to Mindo

By Public Transit:

To get to Mindo by public bus, take a taxi from Quito’s Old Town to La Ofelia bus station. There are three companies that take you to the town of Mindo starting at 6:30 am. I was misled and told that one left earlier than that. When I arrived, there was no bus! But another company told me they would take me on their way to Los Bancos. I trusted them and hopped on.

They remembered to inform me of where to get off the bus, which is on the side of the road. Across the road, there were pickup trucks waiting to take me to the center of Mindo. 

The main bus company that will take you to the center of Mindo is Flor de Valle.

Either way, it’s really easy to get to Mindo and takes 2 hours and costs about $5.00. When you get into town, I recommend checking the timetables for the return to Quito and to purchase your ticket. 

By Guided Tour:

This 8.5 hour tour helps you see the best of Mindo! Upon arrival in town, you’ll take the cable car to the waterfall hike. Then you’ll have free time to explore the small town and have lunch before checking out the butterfly farm or chocolate factory! 

Book your day trip to Mindo here!

Mindo Waterfall

Hike Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi is perhaps the most well-known volcano in Ecuador. If you were to draw a volcano, you would draw Cotopaxi as it comes to a perfectly symmetrical snow-capped peak. It’s also an active volcano, in fact until the end of 2017 it was closed due to its increased activity. Cotopaxi is a part of the avenue of volcanoes this area is known for, which also includes Chimborazo (which has the highest peak).
Located just 30 miles south of Quito on the Panamerican highway, it makes for a perfect day trip.

I highly recommend visiting Cotopaxi National Park with a guided tour. That’s how I did it and I had a memorable time hiking up the volcano, riding a mountain bike down, and stopping for local food along the way. 

The hike to the refuge on Cotopaxi is fairly intense with the high altitude so I felt safer having a group with me and local guides. Plus I was able to learn more about the area including the local wildlife like the Andean condor.

me in front of cotopaxi
Perfect Cotopaxi

How to Get to Cotopaxi National Park

By Public Transit:

You can DIY this by taking a local bus towards Latacunga and then a taxi to the parking lot where the hike begins. Then returning in the same way. I didn’t do this, so, unfortunately, I don’t have too much information about it. At this point, I still wasn’t confident enough in my travel skills to handle this alone.

By Guided Tour:

As mentioned above, I paid for a day trip to Cotopaxi that included round-trip transportation, two guides, filtered water, breakfast, and mountain bikes to ride down the volcano after the hike. We had a clea day to view Cotopaxi’s peak and for the hike up. When we reached the refuge the fog began to roll in and hung around for the bike ride down the volcano. It was a pretty epic day.

Book your Cotopaxi day trip here!

Me on a bike in front of a cloud covered Cotopaxi on my Cotopaxi day trip
Cotopaxi is behind me covered in clouds!

Go Shopping at Otavalo Market

Otavalo is one of the most popular day tours in Ecuador to visit known for being on of the largest indigenous markets in South America. 

There is a market every day, but all of the action takes place on Saturday, so if you can try to visit on a Saturday. 

I did this as a day trip, which meant I missed the 6:00 am animal market, which I’ve been told is quite a site to see. I imagine the treatment of animals here is in stark contrast to the treatment on the Galapagos Islands. If you’d like to witness the animal market, arrive on Friday night and rise early so you don’t miss it. 

At the market, you’ll find food stalls cooking up local delicacies, clothing stalls, artists selling their goods. You’ll find stalls filled with sacks of spices, fruits, and veggies. The center of the traditional market, called Plaza de Los Ponchos, sells, well, a lot of ponchos, scarves, and other clothing items. 

Try your bargaining out here, but be respectful.

I recommend exploring stalls further away from the center to get a better price and higher quality items. 

When you’ve eaten and shopped to your heart’s content, return to the bus station and hop on any bus headed for Quito. You will pay the driver on board. Make sure to carry plenty of cash. There are ATMs around if you just need to get one more sweater.

If you have more time and want to make a weekend trip out of it, you should definitely check out Cuicocha Lagoon. It’s a huge regret of mine that I didn’t visit.

Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market

How to Get to Otavalo Market

By Public Transit:

From the old town of Quito, head to the north bus terminal, Carcelen, early on Saturday morning. It’s a very popular destination for tourists on Saturday mornings, so just look for the long line under a sign that says Otavalo to buy your bus ticket. Then head to your bus. 

Buses to Otavalo leave every 20 minutes, cost $2-3, and take about two hours to get to Otavalo. 

The earliest bus leaves at 5:00 am.

The bus drops you off one block away from the heart of the market. It’s very hard to miss, just follow the vibrant colors. But if you’re unsure, just ask one of the bus drivers where the market is and they’ll point you in the correct direction.

By Guided Tour:

This is an awesome tour to Otavalo market that also includes a visit to Cotacachi to see an Andean instrument workshop and learn more about Andean culture. It also makes a stop at the Cuicocha Lagoon, where, weather permitting, you can take a walk or sail on the lagoon!

Book your Otavalo day trip here!

Hike Quilotoa Crater Lake

Quilotoa Lake is a stunning turquoise blue lake in the crater of a formerly active volcano. It’s a breathtaking site and one that should be firmly on your Ecuador itinerary. Visitors usually arrive at Quilotoa crater lake after a 3-day hike through the Andes Mountains, called the Quilotoa Loop

However, if you’re pressed for time or just not into hiking, a day trip is an excellent option to check this beautiful place off of your bucket list.

You can walk down to the water, and while swimming is not an option, you can rent a kayak to get on to the lake. I didn’t rent one, as I did the three-day trek, but it sounds like a fun day activity. 

It’s a steep climb back to the top, so a great opportunity to work in some exercise or there are mules you can rent to take up.

Another popular hike here is to hike around the entire rim of the lake.

Make sure you spend some time exploring the small village around the lake and enjoying a hot chocolate!

Quilotoa Crater Lake
The breathtaking Quilotoa Lake

How to Get to Quilotoa

By Public Transit:

Hire a taxi to take you to the south bus terminal in Quito, Quitumbe. Purchase a ticket for Latacunga. It should cost about $2.00 and will take an hour. From Latacunga you can take a bus directly to Quilotoa or to Zumbahua. This bus journey is roughly $2-3.00 and will take two hours. If you go to Zumbahua a truck will take you to Quilotoa for $5.00.

To return to Quito, just do the reverse. As it is later in the day, buses directly to Latacunga may not be available. So you’ll have to go back to Zumbahua and then hop on a bus to Latacunga. From Latacunga you will change to Quito.

Honestly, using public transit makes for a long day. I’d recommend staying in either Latacunga or Quilotoa for the night so you’re not rushed.

By Guided Tour:

If you truly have only one day to do this, then a good option could be to book a full-day tour. This takes out all of the switching buses and ensures reliable transportation to and from Quito. It also includes a meal!

Book your Quilotoa day trip here!

First view of the turquoise blue waters of quilotoa crater lake
Taking it all in at Quilotoa Crater Lake

A Day Trip I Wish I Made Time for is Papallacta Hot Springs

My roommate while I was staying in Quito went to Papallacta Hot Spring. She said it was a great way to spend the day, soaking in the natural hot springs and escaping the chaos of Quito. She went by public bus and said it took about 2 hours. If you have an extra day to fill, why not relax in hot springs?

And for me, another reason to go back!

Ecuador is a small but mighty country and there are so many great places to explore. But if you’re short on time, these day trips will give you a great taste of the various activities and experiences Ecuador offers!

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5 Coolest Day Trips from Quito
A compilation of the 5 best day trips from Quito, Ecuador.

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