Ecuador: The Middle of the World
Quito colonial center is understandably the prime draw for the city’s visitors.
But for those with more time, excursions outside the capital can add richness, texture, and adventure to the journey.
One of the closest attractions to Quito is the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) equator monument, located 15 miles or 30 minutes due north of the city.
French Geodesic Mission
This massive, globe-topped pylon anchors the plaza and honors the achievements of the French Geodesic Mission, credited with deducting the location of the equator here in 1739.
Although this site caters unabashedly to the tour bus crowd, even our most serious clients can’t resist the temptation to photograph themselves with one foot in each hemisphere.
The monument complex also includes a small ethnographic museum, a planetarium, and a miniature model of Quito.
Notably, a neighboring site known as Inti Ñan lays competing claim to the globe’s center.
Birding in Mindo Cloud Forest
North of the equator and the town of San Antonio de Pichincha, the E25 highway curves westward into densely forested mountains.
Within two hours of Quito, the road reaches the Mindo Cloud Forest.
This mist-shrouded woodland is one of the most biodiverse zones in the Northern Andes. Over 400 bird species have been observed in Mindo, including:
- Golden-Headed Quetzals
- 19 Species of Hummingbird
- Five Varieties of Toucan
Much of the Mindo Valley is protected as an “absolute reserve”—open only to wildlife and researchers.
However, a collection of well managed private reserves allows visitors to experience the forest by foot, horseback, mountain bike or zip-line.
Trails to the area’s many waterfalls are flanked by brilliantly colored orchids and bromeliads.
The lodges here offer expertly guided nature hikes, many focused on early birding.
Papallacta & The Antisana Volcano
The regions southeast of Quito are also well-regarded for their natural beauty. Papallacta is a village 40 miles (90 minutes) southeast of Quito on highway E20.
Perched 10,825 feet above sea level, Pallacta is best known for its nearby hot springs and rewarding views of the ice-capped Antisana Volcano.
Horseback, mountain bike, and trekking tours of Papapallacta can all be arranged as day trips from the capital.
Past Papallacta, the highway descends from the chilly Eastern Cordillera into the humid Amazon Basin.
San Rafael Falls
Travelers en route to Lago Agrio and the Cuyabeno Reserve can stop to visit San Rafael Falls, one of the continent’s most majestic waterfalls (180 miles from Quito).
The viewpoint for the thundering, 450-foot cascade is reached by a one-mile trail through tropical rainforest.
This is also the location of Reventador, an active volcano that regularly emits rumbles, ash, and glowing cinders.
Yasuní National Park & Napo River
Farther to the southeast, the port town of Coca serves as the gateway to Yasuní National Park and the Napo River jungle lodges.
While the scenic overland route from Quito takes eight hours, flights from the capital reach Coca in only 30 minutes.
From the port, most lodges are another two hours downriver by motor launch.
Those who make the journey are rewarded with the rare opportunity to observe exotic wildlife and explore one of the most diverse rainforests on Earth.
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