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An Outing Near Quito
Already familiar with Ecuador’s capital? Come explore the province of Imbabura, northwest of the city.
A weekend in the heart of Quito lets you get to know the city and immerse yourself in its spectacular colonial past, but the countryside surrounding the Ecuadorian capital also offers lovely towns, scenery and cultural activities that merit a visit. A great place to start is the province of Imbabura, about 70 miles northwest of Quito.
There’s no need to get up early. Nine in the morning on a Friday is a fine time to leave Quito, taking the Panamericana Norte (North Pan-American Highway), with the snow-capped Cayambe volcano looming in the background. The first stop is Guayllabamba, a small village filled with traditional restaurants. The scent of mandarin oranges, chirimoyas and limes fills the air. This rather warm locale is home to the Quito Zoo, which features native species from throughout Ecuador, including the famous spectacled bear and the Andean condor.
Your best bet for lunch is a simple Guayllabamba restaurant. The specialties are locro (potato soup) and fritadas (pork cooked to a crisp in large bronze frying pans). Saving room for dessert, continue the trip after midday. It only takes a half hour to reach Cayambe, a village famous for delicious cookies » baked in old-fashioned wood-burning stoves. You can accompany your dessert with queso de hoja (a mild, semi-soft, white cheese) and the rich milk caramel of dulce de leche.
The sun keeps on shining. At two in the afternoon, you will enter the province of Imbabura, and soon after, you’ll come to Lago San Pablo, watched over by the imposing “Taita” (Grandpa) Imbabura mountain. Around this immense mirror of water, you’ll find comfortable colonial-era haciendas turned into hotels (the Hacienda Cusín, for example), as well as cozy lodging houses, like Puerto Lago, where you can sail, play squash and spend the night to continue your trip the next day.
It’s best to start the day in the nearby city of Otavalo, home to the largest indigenous market in the Americas, where the Otavalo people come to sell their woolen fabrics. There’s also a colorful fruit and vegetable fair. The Otavalos still speak Quichua (a version of the indigenous language of Quechua that is spoken in Ecuador), and the men weave their hair into a thick braid. Exploring the fair will take all morning. You’ll find woolen tapestries made with natural dyes and vibrant colors. There are also ponchos, “Panama” hats (the authentic Ecuadorian originals) and painters selling their original works of art. You’ll leave with a treasure trove of folk art, which will make great souvenirs and terrific gifts.
Just 20 minutes from Otavalo, via the Panamericana Norte, you will reach the city of Cotachachi, famous for its leather goods. For lunch, try the local specialty, carne colorada con tortilla de papa (braised beef with potato frittata). After lunch, continue on to Cuicocha, a lake in the middle of a volcano, which you can cross in a small boat. Bring something warm to wear because there is often a cold wind.
On the outskirts of Cotachachi, you’ll find La Mirage, an exclusive hotel that belongs to the Relais & Chateaux chain, which has won a host of international awards for the quality of its service and food. Enjoy a massage in the spa, savor a dinner accompanied by any wine in the world and sleep in a comfortable room that includes an always-blazing fireplace. »
At 10 a.m., its time to get back on the Panamericana. In 20 minutes, you’ll arrive in the city of Ibarra, the province’s capital. The most delightful part of visiting Ibarra is exploring the colonial churches and cobblestone streets, an experience that truly soothes the soul. The walk will require refreshment, so try a delicious paila ice cream, made from fresh local fruits in old bronze pans with dry ice and straw from the plains.
A great place to have lunch is the Hacienda Chorlaví, once a stately country house and now a hotel and restaurant with a selection of national and international dishes. On weekends, a dinner show features dances from Ecuador’s mountain region, a testament to the country’s cultural and ethnic richness.
To wrap up your adventures, take a drive out to Lago Yaguarcocha (which means Blood Lake in Quichua), where an immense racetrack (for cars) runs around the lake. Then it’s back to Quito. Didn’t the time just fly by?
Vuelos LAN: a Quito todos los días desde Guayaquil, Lima, Medellín, Madrid, Miami y Santiago de Chile. LAN Flights: To Quito daily from Guayaquil, Lima, Medellín, Miami and Santiago (Chile).
Where to stay
Hostería Puerto Lago
What to do
Zoológico de Guayllabamba
Monday to Friday, 9 am – 5 pm;
Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 9:30 am – 5 pm
Price: adults, US$3.50; children, US$2
Sitio oficial de turismo de Quito