Just outside Quito in the Tandayapa Cloud Forest Reserve, the secluded 370-acre San Jorge eco-lodges offer chances to spot many of Ecuador's 1,700 bird species—including 27 types of hummingbirds, Booted Racket-tails and Violet-tailed Sylphs. Several Old Town outfitters offer day trips to the misty Mindo Cloud Forest (120 species of birds, pumas, and bears) 90 minutes away.
Thirty-five miles south of Quito, Cotopaxi is Ecuador's most popular national park and home to one of the world's highest active volcanoes. The ever-rumbling Cotopaxi (19,347 feet) has erupted more than 50 times since 1738, and its picture-perfect snow-capped cone, sloping green highlands, and newly belched-up lava valleys are home to wild horses, Andean condors, llamas, foxes, and spectacled bears.
Modern-day Quito was built upon the remains of a former Incan capital, and one of the best places to come face to face with the city's tangled (and bloody) past is at the ruins of Rumicucho. Located a short drive from the Mitad del Mundo, this hilltop fortress is believed to have been built between 1480 and 1500 by indigenous groups as a last holdout against the advancing Incan Empire.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Quito's inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage city, and the 16th-century Old Town should be the focus of your visit. Amazingly, there are more than 200 churches, convents, and monasteries in this easily-walkable district. If you only visit three, check out the neo-Gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional, the gilded Compañía de Jesús, and the mammoth San Francisco.
Linger long enough in the Old Town and you'll inevitably spot signs advertising physical and spiritual cleansings from traditional curanderas (healers). After you strip to your underwear and select a treatment (cold remedy, stress relief, good fortune, etc.), the healer will select a bouquet of dried spices and flowers, brush them over your near-naked body and then shower you with Ecuadorean rose petals.
Best Day Trip
Ascend 1.5 miles into the heavens as you ride the TelefériQo cable car to a point 12,943 feet up the slopes of the Pichincha volcano. On clear days, you'll find sweeping views over the city and its parade of surrounding volcanoes. From the TelefériQo stop at Cruz Lomo, you can hike (and scramble) to the summit of Rucu Pichincha.
Most Iconic Place
Meander through Old Town's narrow cobblestone streets and the congested avenidas open onto one of South America's most show-stopping squares: Plaza San Francesco. Backed by the towering Pichincha volcano and framed by the white-washed walls and sharp spires of Ecuador's oldest church (San Francisco), the square is said to be built atop an ancient Incan temple.
Neighborhood to Explore
Don't leave Quito without exploring La Ronda, a recently restored, pedestrian-only neighborhood filled with artisanal shops and 17th-century buildings. Long home to writers, artists and musicians, the area comes alive at night when bars and restaurants pour cinnamon-spiced canelazo (alcoholic cider) and crowds pour into the narrow cobblestone streets.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Quito's largest, oldest, and most attractive square is also its best people-watching spot: the leafy Plaza Grande (also called Plaza de la Independencia). Quito's "living room" is abuzz with Quechua women in knee-length shawls selling handwoven clothes, young shoe-shiners busily polishing around the splashing fountain, and well-heeled politicians shaking hands a few steps from the president's palace.
Rio has Christ the Redeemer, Quito has El Panecillo (the "Little Bread Loaf"). Topping the loaf-shaped hill at the southern end of Quito's Old Town, a towering, 147-foot statue of the Virgin made from 7,000 pieces of aluminum watches over the city's 1.7 million inhabitants. Quiteños proudly claim she's the only Madonna in the world with wings.