I will be in Ecuador for 6 days in October, flying into and out of Quito. I'm in my 40s, traveling solo, and my main interests are nature and authentic local experiences (e.g. authentic markets, rural life etc.). I strongly prefer independent travel over organized groups, but due to the short time I have, I might have to make some sacrifices there to avoid wasting time in long bus rides.
Unfortunately I won't make it to Galapagos, so I'm not sure whether I should stay in Quito, spending 2-3 days in the city and going on day trips from there (e.g. to Cotopaxi, otavalo and Mindo), or is one of these places, or any other place, worth an overnight or longer trip.
Any advice on how to experience the most nature and local experiences in such a short trip will be highly appreciated. Thanks !!
Otavalo is worth an overnight. Firstly, you can see the market before all the tour buses arrive, plus the square is quite lively in the evening as all the food stalls open. Not to mention there are a few interesting things to do just out of town like Laguna Cuicocha or Peguche waterfalls.
Mindo is only really interesting if you are a birder. And the weekends it gets overwhelmingly busy.
Cotopaxi is a nice day-trip, especially if you do the 'bike down' option.
Have a look at Papallacta. The drive there is lovely, and there are some good (though more challenging) hiking opportunites around. Again, avoid a weekend visit.
Alternatively, for more of a local experience, the village markets around Laguna Quilotoa are much more authentic than the over touristic Otavalo. It's more of a pots&pans, brooms and container market than an 'original handmade Ecuadorian bag' made in a factory in Bolivia (like in Otavalo). Of course, the area around Laguna Quilotoa is also more time consuming to get into & out of independently.
Otavalo is beautiful for its colourful markets, the Saturday market is huge, you can make it by going yourself...but if you like to arrange this trip in Quito it can save your time, we join the tour because we had limited days in Quito.
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There are plenty of tours offer in Quito.... they make stops on the way such as "Mitad del mundo, Biscuchos factory, Mira Lago and then continue to Otavalo market, before going back to Quito you visit the small town Cotacachi [original VT link]
The second tour we've done is Quilotoa [original VT link]
which includes visiting Indigenous village and markets in Pujili [original VT link]
If you book daytrips from Quito it save you some days, and you can maybe visit the Amazon. We book 3 day to Cuyabeno which was worth a trip [original VT link]