Mainland Ecuador with Teens

Senior editor Norie Quintos, who edits the annual Tours of a Lifetime package in the magazine, recently returned from a trip to the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador with her teen sons. This is the last of a four-part series. Click to read the first, second, and third posts.

A confession: Travel editors don’t always plan their trips perfectly. Having focused all my attention on the Galapagos, I gave short shrift to mainland Ecuador, only allowing for three days (over the objections of my consultants–Justin Laycob of Seattle-based Southern Explorations and Alfredo Menenses of Quito-based Ecuador Adventure. Dudes! You were right, I was wrong.)

Here’s our day-by-day itinerary, and what I would have added had I a chance for a do-over.

Day 1: Biking in the Andes

From Quito, we drove down the north-south Pan-American Highway along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, so called because the road is flanked on both sides by some of the world’s highest volcanoes, several of which are disquietingly active. (One volcano, Tungurahua, burped a mini-cloud of smoke and ash before our very eyes.) We had a picnic lunch within sight of another–snow-capped Cotapaxi. It was a beautiful drive, the air crisp and clear, the diaphanous white clouds and pastoral green valleys belying the turbulence below ground. This was the setting for our mountain-biking adventure. For teenagers: Cycling on the sides of fire-breathing volcanoes is a singular thrill. For parents: You’ll put existential worries aside for immediate ones like staying on the bike on the killer downhills.

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Day 2: Rafting in the Jungle

One unique feature of Ecuador, the smallest of the Andean countries, is that you can drive from the high sierra to the low jungle in a matter of hours, passing through multiple micro-climates along the way. It’s a chapter on ecosystems in a science book come to life. On the Jatunyacu River, a tributary of the Amazon, we got on inflatable rafts and bobbed in the sediment-churned water, waving at children playing at the water’s edge. At one point, we got out of the rafts, waded through a narrow slot in the densely forested canyon, and emerged in a natural cathedral of stone and vines and dappled sunlight. We slept that night at the Cotococha Amazon Lodge, pitch black except for the amber light of oil lamps and silent save for the hum of billions of bugs.

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Day 3: Bathing in the Hot Springs

I was a trooper, if I do say so myself, risking wipeouts on the mountain, enduring dousings in the river, and otherwise engaging in activities beyond my comfort level, in an effort to share unrecoverable time with my teens, who are presumably only two and four years away from leaving the nest for college. I’d tested my mettle and my kids grudgingly acknowledged my fortitude…for a mom. This last day, however, was for me. I opted to recover, to relax, to pamper at the Papallacta Hotsprings, where I indulged in fresh passionfruit shakes and local trout. In geothermal pools of varying temperatures, I soothed away two days of grime and aches and adrenalin surges. The kids just relished the steamy outdoor bath.

Regrets, I Have a Few

Despite several transfers through Quito, I hadn’t scheduled enough time to experience this ancient/modern, elevated, equatorial, volcano-shadowed, UNESCO World Heritage capital city; we missed out on seeing one of the largest and best-preserved city squares in Latin America, with its colonial-era churches built upon Inca ruins. I would also have liked to visit the Saturday market in Otavalo, famous for its locally woven textiles. And I would have wanted to go deeper into the Ecuadorian rainforest than time allowed. And if we had, oh, say two extra weeks, I would have signed us all up for a Spanish-language immersion homestay. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

Oh, well, maybe next year.

All photos by Norie Quintos