Day 1 Quito
Arrive in time for an evening Welcome Meeting and optional group dinner. There are no activities planned today, so check into our hotel and enjoy the city. Ecuador is the smallest of the Andean countries, and in many ways it is the easiest and most pleasant to travel in. Colonial Quito, considered one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere, has an astonishing location more than a kilometre and a half above sea level and almost directly on the equator, nestled in the Andes beneath the sparkling snow cone of Pichincha Volcano. Our exploration takes us from the Amazon lowlands, where we experience life with a Quichua community, to the heights of the Andes near mighty Chimborazo Volcano. Ecuador is a country of great diversity and beauty. There are approximately 1,200,000 inhabitants in an area of 283,520 square km (177200 miles), similar in size to New Zealand. The country consists of three main regions: the coastal lowlands, the Andean Highlands, and the Eastern Amazonian jungle, all of which we discover on this journey. Remember that although near the Equator, the higher altitude on some parts of the trip make for cool evenings and you will need warm clothing. It’s best to layer clothes rather than bring a heavy parka so that you can take layers off. When you arrive in Quito, you will likely feel the effects of the altitude. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, general lethargy and a reduced appetite. This is no cause for alarm; it is simply your body’s way of coping with the altitude. It may take a little time to acclimatize, but before long you probably will not even notice it. Take it easy for the first day or two, and reduce alcohol and cigarette consumption to minimize the effects. Be sure to drink plenty of water and do not attempt too much in any given day. Located 2850m (9348 ft) above sea level, Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, enjoys a wonderful spring-like climate, despite the fact that it is only 22 km (14 miles) south of the Equator. It is in a valley flanked by mountains, and on a clear day, several snow-capped volcanoes are visible. As well as its beautiful location, it is rich in history and much of the Colonial Old Town is well preserved. In 1978 UNESCO declared Quito a World Heritage site, and any new development in Quito's old town is now strictly controlled. Life in Quito tends to be peaceful, though the drivers are fond of using their car horns! There are approximately 2,000,000 inhabitants in the metropolitan area, but the pace is relaxed and the residents hospitable. Quito is separated into two basic sections, the old and the new cities. The old city is full of interesting historical buildings and many churches. Some of the more interesting ones include the Catedral de Quito, located on the Plaza de la Independencia. Built between 1550 and 1562, it was one of the first neoclassical works in Quito. La Compañía de Jésus Church is considered one of the most beautiful in the Americas. The decorations in the Compañía contain approximately one and one-half tons of gold, and construction of the church took 170 years (1605-1775). The small, rounded hill that dominates the old town is called El Panecillo or 'the Little Bread Loaf', and is a major Quito landmark. Marvellous panoramic views of the entire city, as well as views of the surrounding volcanoes stretch out at your feet. You can take a trolley (streetcar) or a cab to the Old Town from the New Town. Quito has a large population of foreigners and is a popular destination for travellers, resulting in a varied and vibrant nightlife where salsotecas and other dance clubs abound. For a real Ecuadorian experience though, be sure and drop by a peña if you can; these are great places for meeting locals and dancing, as well as enjoying local cooking.
Days 2-3 Baños (1B)
Baños means 'baths' and that is precisely what the town is famous for. Some thermal springs come from the base of Tungurahua Volcano; others have melt water running into them from the volcano’s glaciated flanks. The town is the perfect setting for outdoor pursuits, including horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking and climbing and rafting in the surrounding mountains and on the River Patate. Baños is one of the most popular and important tourist spots in the country and you will find many Ecuadorian families vacationing here. One look at this delightfully green mountain town and you will know why. Surprisingly, it is pleasant and unspoiled. Baños means 'baths' and that is precisely what the town is famous for. Some are thermal springs from the base of Tungurahua Volcano, which means 'little hell' in Quichua. Other baths have melt water running into them from Tungurahua's glaciated flanks. Locals swear that the baths are good for your health; it’s definitely worth rising early to watch the dawn creep over the mountains from a hot spring vantage point. There will also be options for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding.
Days 4-5 Amazon homestay (1B, 2L, 2D)
Travel by bus to the Amazon Jungle region. Notice the scenery and climate change dramatically as we leave the mountains and enter the lush tropical rainforest. Optional activities include visiting an animal rescue centre, caving and white water rafting. In the Ecuadorian jungle layers of exotic vegetation block the sky, and brown waters sweep beneath gargantuan foliage as hundreds of species of exotic birds and equally brilliant butterflies provide constant bursts of colour. Discover why this tropical rainforest is one of the richest and most complex ecosystems in the world.
Days 6-7 Otavalo/Quito (1B)
Today we explore the largest handicrafts market in South America before returning to Quito. Villagers from the surrounding countryside come here every week to sell handmade goods as well as livestock, fruits and vegetables. Otavalo is justly famous both for its friendly people and its market. The market dates back to pre-Inca times when jungle products were transported from the eastern lowlands and traded for highland goods. Today's market has two different functions: the local market for buying and selling animals, food and other essentials, and the crafts market for the tourists and other interested people. There are three main market plazas in town, with the overflow spilling out onto the streets linking them. The Plaza de Ponchos is where you will find most handicraft items. You will find colourful woollen goods such as ponchos, gloves, hats, blankets, scarves and sweaters, as well as fine tapestries and a variety of embroidered blouses and shirts, shawls, string bags, and rope sandals. This market gets underway at dawn and continues until early afternoon. Remember, bargaining is expected for every purchase! If you're good you should be able to get at least 20% off of the starting price. The food market sells produce and household goods for the locals, and there is an animal market beginning in the predawn hours on the outskirts of town. Although these are not designed for visitors, they are cultural experiences to see and are definitely worth a visit. One of the most obvious signs of the Otavaleños' cultural integrity is their traditional dress. This is not just put on especially for the tourists at the Saturday market, but is worn throughout their daily life. Return to Quito for our farewell evening.
Day 8 Quito (1B)