Editor’s Note: Our Adventure Riding in Ecuador series was kindly sponsored by Court and his team at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental in Quito. Ecuador Freedom offers Bike and 4×4 Rentals, Self-Guided Tours of Ecuador as well as all-inclusive Guided Tours.
When it comes to adventure travel in South America, Ecuador usually gets less press than the Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia, Peru, or the high Andean plains of Bolivia. In a way, that’s good news because some of Ecuador’s most stunning roads, off-road trails, and places to see aren’t yet overrun by tourists. Ecuador may be a small country but it boasts some of the most spectacular scenery, biodiversity, and cultural curiosities in South America.
If you’re traveling to or through Ecuador and want to get off the “gringo trail”, here are some of the country’s hidden gems to explore.
Located just a little over fifty miles north of Quito, the town of Otavalo is best known for its colorful indigenous market that takes over the town on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Otavalo is still largely populated by the local indigenous Kichwa community, and the town’s market is a reflection of the wonderfully diverse local culture.
With its central location in the Plaza de Los Ponchos, the Otavalo market occupies over a third of the whole town. On Saturdays, the market is bustling with people from the town and surrounding villages offering everything from food, fruit and spices to traditional clothing, brightly colored shawls and handmade jewelry, as well as art. Food stalls are common all throughout the market offering local delicacies, and there are live music bands performing on the streets of Otavalo all day long. Just outside of town, there’s also a large and lively livestock market where horses, cattle, pigs, rabbits, and chickens are sold each Saturday.
The best days to visit Otavalo are Saturdays and Wednesdays between 7 am and 5-6 pm.
A little further North, you’ll find another small town of Cotacachi, famous for having elected Ecuador’s first indigenous mayor. Cotacachi is smaller and even less known than Otavalo, yet it has one unique feature that draws travelers here: artisan leather tanners and saddlemakers. In Cotacachi, the local leather tanning traditions go back thousands of years. While some of the local artisans now choose to work with imported leather or use chemicals in their tanning process, some remain faithful to the traditions of old and tan leather using an ancient huarango tree seed recipe.
Cotacachi’s streets are lined with leather shops offering boutique jackets, bags, belts, exquisite saddles, and just about everything in between.
To see and experience the ancient leather tanning traditions, visit the small local tannery owned by Luis Yamberla Cacuango located just off the main square. Luis is happy to receive visitors and show them around his shop explaining the centuries-old leather tanning techniques and showing off his beautiful leather designs, including traditional Kichwa costumes.
Tufiño Hot Springs
There’s nothing like a dip in the water after a hard day’s ride. Tufiño Hot Springs, located way off the beaten path right on the Colombian border, is an excellent place to unwind and relax. Situated near the small border town of Tufiño west of Tulcan, the hot springs, known locally as Aguas Hediondas, are said to have healing properties and vary between 80 and 95 degrees in temperature. Beware; “Aguas Hediondas” literally means “Stinky Waters”, as the hot springs are very rich in Sulphur. Still, sitting in the hot springs admiring the view of the lush green hills around Tufiño more than makes up for the funky smell.
Often dubbed “The Eden of the Amazon”, Laguna Azul is a series of natural, fairytale-like pools, waterfalls, and a natural water slide. Fed by the snow cap of the Cotopaxi volcano, Laguna Azul boasts crystal clear waters and deep natural pools perfect for swimming after a long ride. Located just outside the town of Tena, Laguna Azul is a must-see Amazonian paradise.
For more secret swimming holes around Ecuador, check out this post.
The best chocolate in the world comes from Ecuador, and its highly prized Arriba Cacao makes for the finest dark chocolate on the planet. Only 5% of all world’s cacao is labelled as Fine Aroma, and the Ecuadorian Arriba Cacao is part of that rare five percent. Ecuadorian chocolate is made from locally grown beans and is often produced by hand by local communities, making it even more exquisite. Lemongrass, chili, and banana-flavored chocolate are among the most popular, as well as a variety of cacao nibs and coffee roasts.
To experience some of Ecuador’s best chocolate, visit the small town of Mindo located North-West of Quito. Here, a collective of local cacao farmers and chocolatiers offer daily chocolate tours where you get to experience the whole process from bean to bar and taste some of the region’s best chocolate, hot cocoa, and coffee.
In fact, chocolate making is becoming so widespread in Ecuador you can actually design your very own chocolate tour by motorcycle.
For more information and tips about riding Ecuador, see this ADV Route Guide for Ecuador.