Quito, formerly known as San Francisco de Quito, was founded on the ruins of an Incan city. In 1978, this huge city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Quito has some of the best-preserved historic centers. This city has a rich pre-Colombian history and has a lot to offer to tourists. Thanks to its close proximity to the equator and its elevation of 9,350 ft above sea level, Quito has a fairly constant climate.
1. Experience Cotopaxi National Park.
Cotopaxi National Park is the 2nd most visited National Park in Ecuador after the Galapagos and for good reason.
Cotopaxi Volcano is the 2nd largest active volcano in the world. On a clear day in Quito, the volcano can be seen in the distance, with its snow-capped top and reddish mid-section.
The park terrain is rugged and beautifully barren, except for small, low to the ground shrubs and wildflowers that can survive the elevation and (sometimes) harsh winds. Cotopaxi National Park is also one of the few places where its possible to see herds of wild horses roaming the expanse.
To ensure your day is pleasant, make a checklist of what outdoor gear you need.
The most popular day tours from Quito involve seeing Cotopaxi Volcano.
You can spend the day hiking and take in the volcano views from over 16k feet. There’s a popular hike up Cotopaxi to a summit ranger station. You can also tour around the volcano by bike.
Or, you can also opt for a horseback riding excursion around the volcano and through the National Park like I did and be blown away by the beauty of this National Park! Either way, a Cotopaxi tour from Quito is listed first in this guide for a reason. It’s a can’t miss Quito day trip.
If you choose to go hiking, make sure you’ve prepared yourself with the gear essentials you need to make your hike a great experience.
2. Shop at Otavalo Market.
The famous indigenous market consists of 2 locations, the animal market and the crafts and goods market.
On weekends, the animal market sells animals from livestock to puppies. As an animal-lover, it’s difficult to see animals being thought of as commodities rather than actual creatures with minds and hearts.
If you’re part of an organized Otavalo day trip from Quito, you’re likely to stop at the animal market. However, most organized tours visit near the market’s end and for just 10-15 minutes.
From there, it’s on to the craft market. On weekends, the market expands from the main square in Otavalo to the nearby side streets.
Locals sell everything from blankets to jewelry to indigenous musical instruments and spices for cooking. There’s an expectation of haggling which adds to the fun. Not to mention how easy it is to pick up any and all gifts for friends and family back home in one place.
From Quito to Otavalo, connecting buses make this trip possible for independent travelers. An organized tour is convenient. In addition, it combines additional stops like a visit to Cotacachi’s Volcano crater and the town’s leather markets.
3. Visit the Mitad del Mundo.
Ecuador, and in particular the Quito area, sits along the equator. Just outside of the capital city is a newer monument and a museum to mark the location.
The rather funny detail in this whole visit is the actual equator line was every so slightly miscalculated! The real equator is about 250 meters south of the “official” Middle of the World monument. The former monument was moved to the official location in a small village nearby called Calacali.
Visitors to the newer Monument can stand on the “Equator” line for photo-ops. You can even have your passport stamped from the Equator.
It’s completely possible to take connecting buses from Quito for the hour ride or you can even negotiate a taxi fare to the monument and museum.
Some taxi drivers will even take you to the actual, lesser-known Equator location in Calacali for an additional cost. If you’d like to streamline your visit, opt for a Middle of the World tour, typically lasting 3 hours including round-trip travel time from Quito.
4. Get Adventurous in the Mindo Cloud Forest.
The Mindo cloud forest is just a couple hours from Quito and offers a range of outdoor adventures from hiking to tubing to zip-lining and biking.
The cloud forest stretches outward for about 100 square miles thriving in the valleys and along the slopes of the Andes. In particular, Mindo’s protected valleys get gentle winds and just the right amount of moisture.
The result is a perfect nursery for birds and butterflies. Birdwatchers flock to Mindo (couldn’t help myself!) to see the area’s 350+ species of birds. Mindo’s butterfly exhibition and chocolate tours are also popular Mindo things to do.
If you can spare more than a Mindo day trip from Quito, it’s actually worth an overnight. Arriving early on a bus from Quito and departing the following afternoon/evening will allow you plenty of time to get into the cloud forest for a fuller experience.
I’ve put together this 2-day Mindo cloud forest guide to make your planning easier!
5. Hike into the Quilotoa Crater.
Around 800 years ago, the volcano at Quilotoa erupted and collapsed in on itself. While not necessarily great news for anyone living in the area back then, the crater lake that formed as a result, has become one of Ecuador and South America’s most beautiful natural wonders.
The sulfur and minerals in the crater give the water in the Quilotoa crater its gorgeous turquoise color. The crater’s elevation at over 11k feet provides stunning panoramas of the area and a birds-eye view over the crater itself.
Some travelers on a backpacker route through Ecuador opt for the multi-day trek known as the Quilotoa Loop. A Quilotoa day trip from Quito, though, allows visitors to hike down partways into the crater.
Alternatively, you can explore around the rim. If you hike down into the crater, you can hire a mule for the ride back up. Organized tours simplify getting to Quilotoa, as there are no direct buses from Quito. Tours also allow time for visits to nearby villages for a glimpse of local life.
6. Quilotoa Lagoon
Breathtaking sights await you at the Quilotoa Lagoon.
This lagoon was formed as a result of the collapse of a now-extinct volcano whose 3-kilometer wide (and 250m deep) crater was filled with water. The volcanic mountain collapsed about 600 years ago after a catastrophic eruption which was followed by a period of dormancy. The lagoon waters are green in color, thanks to the dissolved volcanic minerals. The surface of the lake is located 3,500m above sea level
Situated about a 3-hour drive from the southwestern end of Quito, Quilotoa is a common day-trip destination that is growing in popularity.
Expect nothing short of spectacular views and unending photo opportunities. Also, do not forget to bring a bottle of water and wear comfortable shoes if you plan on taking a walk around the crater.
7. Parque Bicentenario
This modern park is the second largest in Quito, covering an area of 200 acres. Having only been inaugurated on 27th April 2013, Parque Bicentenario is located in the area previously occupied by the Old Mariscal Sucre Airport. The park is at 2,800 meters above sea level.
The former runway is what makes the park’s design so beautiful. It has now been painted and converted into a recreation site which comprises play structures for kids and lanes for cycling.
Within the park, there are more than a thousand trees as well as a man-made pond.
Where do I meet my Quito Tour Bus?
If you’ve opted for an organized tour for any of the above excursions, you’ll want to stay in a convenient location.
La Mariscal near Plaza Foch and the old town have meeting spots where many tours begin. For travelers looking to maximize their time in Quito and the surrounding area, consider staying in a or renting an apartment in these neighborhoods. I chose a neighborhood and never needed to walk more than 5 minutes to meet up with my tour group.
Yes! Book your flight to Ecuador. There are so many things to do in Quito and the surrounding area. Get active at a natural wonder or explore Ecuador’s culture! Whether you choose to set off independently or join one of the Quito tours mentioned above, you’re sure to experience some of the best day trips from Quito!