Simon Matzinger

6 Spectacular Mountain Drives In Ecuador That Will Have You Hanging On To The Edge Of Your Seat

Thinking of taking a mountain drive? Be prepared to enjoy amazing scenery and awesome experiences. Bordered by Colombia to the north and Peru to the south and east, Ecuador’s part of the snow-capped Andes is bound to offer plenty of opportunities for awesome mountain drives. Whether you embark on an afternoon drive, overnight stay, or extended trip, you will not be disappointed with the spectacular scenery and memorable experiences along the way. Keep in mind, however, that you will not always be driving on flat terrain. Be prepared to maneuver steep sections of roadway.

Of course, expect all the usual driving challenges – such as possible congested traffic when passing through major cities like Quito. Just as when driving anywhere, be cautious and mindful of the road and other drivers. When planning mountain drives – especially any “off the beaten track” ones–check ahead of time for road conditions. If you are traveling on dirt roads, remember that the rainy season (from January – May on the coast and the western cliffs of the Andes, from November-May in the Sierra and main Andes area) could create condition issues.

Be well-informed. Not all car models are practical for certain challenging roads in Ecuador. In addition, driving in the mountains means an increase in gasoline consumption (up to more than 15 liters/100 km). Your car uses more power while climbing to higher levels. Fill your tank regularly; as an extra precaution, you could take a reserve canister with you. Of course, gas stations are located throughout the country, but it doesn’t hurt to take a few extra precautions.

Take a map and know road conditions, estimated travel time, and distance. The driver’s license issued by your country of residence is acceptable for driving in Ecuador whilst you’re on a tourist visa. Once you obtain a residency visa, you should go through the effort of getting your drivers licence. And no, as tempting as it may be, we don’t suggest trying to shortcut the system by buying your licence.

Once you are all prepared, get on the road and enjoy your trip.

An Extended Trip: Drive from Manta into the Andes of Quito and Otavalo 

Leave Manta and head north on the coastal highway past Crucita, a tiny Ecuadorian town, and then up the mountain pass towards Chone, and then Santo Domingo. As you head up the winding roads and towards Quito, expect to see several corn and sugar cane fields. You will drive through small quaint villages and observe houses made of bamboo on stilts.

Native hardworking farmers with their small herds make for a friendly presence and charming sight. There will be no shortage of road stands selling everything: drinks, honey, oranges, and more. Once you arrive in Quito, you can stay overnight, and begin the next stage of your journey the following day.

In the morning, depart from Quito and start on a 2-hour drive which will take you along steep mountain passes. Head north to the Andean town of Otavalo–a clean and beautiful town with colored tile sidewalks reflecting the red, blue, and yellow of the Ecuadorian flag. Otavalo has a crafts bazaar every day of the week, but visit on a Saturday when the Super Artisan Market is at its best.

The world-famous market at Plaza de los Ponchos is filled with colorful goods–fabric, ceramics, woven hats, blankets, sweaters, wall hangings, oil paintings, and countless other items, as well as delicious food. This event draws thousands of visitors. The market features live music and gives tourists the opportunity to interact with friendly local vendors.

The Otavaleños (or runa) are a people and culture indigenous to the Otavalo valley in the Imbabura province of Northern Ecuador. These native people are descendants of the Cara Indians who inhabited this region of South America almost five centuries ago. Currently, there are more than 50,000 Otavaleños.

Many live in the valley surrounding Otavalo while some have moved to other Ecuadorian cities. Otavaleños are known as skilled textile weavers. Within the past 20 years, several Otavaleños have been traveling to sell their handicrafts in other South American countries, as well as in North America and Europe.

Take time on your journey to travel onward a few miles north of Otavalo to quiet Cotacachi. Enjoy an espresso at a cozy café or explore the town’s leather shops where sometimes you can see the workers honing their craft.

 Drive from Machala to Cuenca 

Journey northeast from Machala, capital of the El Oro province, to Cuenca. See an array of sights: banana fields, winding mountain passes, and cacao beans set out for drying. Crest an Andean summit and feel like you are in a lunar landscape. Then descend into different valleys underneath terraced hillsides dotted with horses and cows

 Drive from Cuenca to Ingapirca  

This beautiful drive is an easy day trip (just over an hour’s drive) and worth the time. The spectacular journey takes you through the Andes Mountains and several lovely small villages. Ingapirca has exceptional Incan ruins and far older Cañari architecture.

Drive from Cuenca to Guayaquil 

Take a trip from Cuenca to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, and pass through the extraordinary Cajas National Park. This 3.5 hour (198.3 km) drive up the mountain is well worth the effort. The excursion offers breathtaking views and amazing scenery.  Surrounded by mountains carved out of glaciers, more than 200 crystal lakes and rivers make up beautiful vistas where herds of sheep and llamas are common sights. Just 30 km west of Cuenca, capital of the province of Azuay, Cajas National Park is home to unique flora, as well as a variety of animals including highly endangered species.

Expect colder temperatures (cold 40s) in this national park – especially after 13:00 when it can become cloudy, cool, and wet in the area. Morning time is best for exploring this region.

Just know there have been several landslides on this route during 2021, so additional caution is advised.

Drive from Papallacta to Mount Cotopaxi 

This drive provides gorgeous scenery. Papallacta, a small village in Napo Province, is just off the Eastern Cordilleras on the road from Quito. Located almost 50 km from Quito, Mount Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains and the second highest summit in the country.

When you reach the foot of the volcano, a short hike will acclimatize you to the altitude. Then continue in your car to an altitude of 4,500 m/14,764 ft. If you are a hiker, you can trek up to the Jose Ribas shelter at 4,800m/15,750 ft. to view glacial ice.

Drive from Quito to Mount Chimborazo 

Journey 3.75 hours (221.7 km) from Quito to the base camp at Mount Chimborazo–the highest volcano in Ecuador, with an altitude of 6,310 m/20,700 ft. As you drive up the mountains, you can stop at different centers where there are restrooms, exhibits, and gift shops. There are hiking trails throughout the park–even as you drive down from the peak.

You can always have a walk around this beautiful area, even if you are not an avid hiker. If you drive to an altitude of 4,800 m/15,750 ft., however, you can hike to the Edward Whymper shelter at 5,000 m/16,400 ft. in about three-quarters of an hour. Driving back to Quito will offer splendid views of mountain and sky.

Feature Photo Credit: Simon Matzinger

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