One of the best things about traveling is sharing the experience with those you love. This post is about a wonderful week we spent traveling with my (Kari’s) sister, niece, and nephew during their spring break. It has a LOT of pictures plus some commentary. Think of it as a scrapbook of our travels in Quito, Mindo, and Otavalo.
Small Country, Many Choices
It was my niece and nephew’s first time traveling to South America, so the pressure was on to make it a memorable and positive experience. In planning the itinerary, I wanted them to get a glimpse of some of the diversity this small and beautiful country has to offer.
So, we began in Quito, which is the national capital and a UNESCO world heritage site for its beautiful colonial splendor. We also planned to visit the cloud forest with big trees teeming with life in Mindo, just a couple of hours west of Quito. I also hoped to soak up the volcanoes, mountains, and indigenous cultures around Otavalo, just a two-hour drive north of Quito.
Arrival in Quito
Kim (Kari’s sister), Kaitlyn (Kari’s niece), and Phillip (Kari’s nephew) were happy to be off the plane when they arrived in Quito at 11 pm Friday night. Their five-hour flight from Texas was uneventful, but nonetheless, it was wonderful to be on the ground.
I was eagerly awaiting them as they stepped out of immigration. But I was surprised and excited that they were one of the first to come through the lines. I told them that bringing only carry-on bags would pay off!
We then took a taxi to our hotel and rested for the night.
Day 1 – Colonial Buildings, Cathedrals, & Cafes
The next morning we went out to breakfast in a beautiful old colonial building just off the main square, Plaza de la Independencia.
Just after breakfast, Chad and the girls met us. They flew up from Cuenca that morning because Serena had an overnight outing with her classmates we didn’t want her to miss.
Churches in Texas and much of the US can’t compare in size and grandeur to the ones here in Ecuador, so we wanted to visit at least one. We walked a couple of blocks from the main square to the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a neo-gothic church constructed in the 19th century.
The Basilica also has impressive views of the whole city from its rooftop. Only Serena was brave enough to climb to the top with her trembling and afraid-of-heights-but-trying-to-disguise-it mama following her. To get to the lookout tower, you first have to cross a narrow catwalk made of planks (YIKES!).
Never would this be allowed in the States. One slip or broken board and you’d fall from above the high arches of the Basilica’s entrance. Did you see how tall those arches were?
From the first level, you can see one of the details that makes this a uniquely Ecuadorian church. Instead of the gargoyles that you might find on a European or American Basilica, this one has animals from the Galapagos Islands!
Then we went up steps and more steps that seemed to be suspended in mid-air even though they were attached to the support of the tower.
Once my legs stopped trembling, Serena and I enjoyed the spectacular views from the top of the cupola. Between the clock towers, you can see El Panecillo, a famous landmark on a hill above Quito that we visited the next day.
It was getting cold and windy, so Serena and I hurried down… carefully!
On the way back to the hotel, it started raining, so we ducked into a cute cafe and had some sweet bread, coffee, wine, and beer.
Day 2 – More Quito Exploring & Bus Trip to Mindo
On Sunday in Quito, we caught some street performers doing a traditional dance from northern Ecuador.
Then, we went to El Panecillo, for spectacular views of the city and fun photo ops.
On Sunday afternoon, we were ready to hit the road. We took a 2.5-hour bus trip to Mindo, a smaller town high in the cloud forests.
I was excited to visit the cloud forest in Mindo. We love our city of Cuenca, but we often fill our need for tall trees and clean air. So, Mindo was a perfect get away.
Our home-base in Mindo was a lovely hotel with cute cabanas and a delicious breakfast of eggs, coffee, fresh juice, and fruit salad every morning.
Day 3 – Butterfly House, Zip Lining, & Chocolate Tour
On our first morning in Mindo, we walked up the road to the Mariposario (live butterfly exhibit).
Hundreds of butterflies fluttered through the air above our heads. Many of them made themselves at home on the kids who were, of course, sweet as flowers. They kids even let the butterflies lick bits of banana off their fingers.
Phillip was kind of freaked out by so many butterflies and was ready to leave soon after we arrived.
One of my favorite things about the Mariposario was the exhibit that showed the different stages of a butterfly’s life.
Later that same day, Kim, Kaitlyn, Phillip, and I saw the cloud forest up close and personal as we zipped over the treetops suspended from cables. It rained, and we got soaked. We had lots of fun, though I couldn’t admit it until I was safely back on the ground!
Ten years earlier (pre kids), Chad and I also did a zip lining trip in Costa Rica. This time, I didn’t feel the same kind of carefree rush as a mama of two precious little girls.
Although the day already seemed full, it wasn’t over yet! After zip lining, we headed to El Quetzal Artisanal Chocolate Factory for a delicious chocolate tour to end our day.
Cacao trees grow in warmer, lower areas of Ecuador, but this place buys the fruit and knows just what to do with cacao. They have a wonderful tour that shows the whole process to make chocolate, our favorite of sweet treats.
We learned so much about how chocolate is made.
- Did you know that white chocolate isn’t true chocalate? The only part of the cocoa bean it has is the fat – called cocoa butter. This is extracted when the rest of the cacao bean is ground to make chocolate.
- Did you know that 70% chocolate is 70% cacao and the rest is sugar?
- Milk chocolate is (obviously) normal chocolate with milk mixed in.
As much as we enjoyed learning about cacao, our favorite part of the tour was EATING it! Our tour hosts brought out a big tray of different chocolates. One side of the tray had samples with different percentages of cacao (70%, 80%, 90%). The other side of the tray was 70% chocolate with different flavors mixed in (cacao bits, sea salt, spicy aji pepper, and ginger).
We also got to taste pure chocolate that had just been ground. It is really bitter! Chocoholic Chad still loved eating the pure stuff. But for the rest of us, it tasted much better with some sugar mixed in. It’s amazing how the flavor changed and suddenly I could eat it by the spoonful!
As if we had not had enough chocolate, they finished our sampling with rich, chocolate brownies with chocolate sauce to pour over it! To help the brownie go down, we had hot tea made from the cacao shells! Yum, yum!
Day 4 – EARLY Bird Watching & Bus Trip to Otavalo
We got up at the crack of dawn on Tuesday to go bird watching in the cloud forest of Mindo. Early mornings aren’t the best time for teenagers or kids under 7, but it is the best time of day to spy birds.
And with that, our time in Mindo had come to a close. We all wished we’d planned to have one more day to relax in Mindo, but we had reservations at a hotel in Otavalo. So, we took a bus back to Quito and caught another to Otavalo.
The last city on our tour was Otavalo, famous for its natural sights, strong indigenous presence, and huge crafts market. I was looking forward to glimpsing the huge volcanoes and crater lakes nearby and seeing some of the famous crafts in the area at the market.
We got to see a few sights in Otavalo before heading to bed for the night.
Day 5 – Learning to Haggle, Fresh Food Markets, and a Pizza Party
On day 5, we did some shopping in Otavalo, mainly at the Plaza de Ponchos, aka the handiwork market. Visiting markets is one of our favorite experiences in Ecuador. I do love shopping. Hahaha!
Phillip learned to haggle while buying some socks. Kaitlyn got a really pretty necklace pendant. Kim and I got some matching scarves, and Kim also bought herself a stylish poncho.
After shopping at the artisan market, we stopped in a cafe for a tasty lunch and some relax time before heading out again.
I really wanted Kim and the kids to experience a fresh food market in Ecuador. These markets sell everything from chicken feet to whole pigs to tomatoes to papayas to apples. The market was impeccable here in Otavalo as it was brand new. We didn’t snap any pictures of the delicacies you can find in the fresh meats section (probably because some of us were holding our noses and walking rapidly through that section).
Later that night at our hotel, we had a pizza party. We got lots of personal pizzas and had a fruit tasting from some of our purchases at the market.
Day 6 – Volcanic Lake, Scenic Views, & Haggling For Leather
We were ready for another adventure after our shopping day in Otavalo. So, we headed to a volcanic lake, Laguna de Cuicocha. I just couldn’t wait to see the other nearby volcanoes, but when we got there it was really cloudy. Nonetheless, it was still beautiful, and we were floating around in one big volcano that was now filled up by the water of the lake!
We didn’t spy the other volcanoes, but we did take a boat ride to the island in the lake before it started raining.
We took lots of photos at the lake. I couldn’t choose which ones to include here. How could I with all these beautiful people?!
After our visit to Lake Cuicocha, we went to the town of Cotacachi, which is famous for its leather goods. Phillip bought a new belt, and Serena and Ali got little kitty shaped coin purses. We all enjoyed a tasty, warm lunch together.
Day 7 – Horse-Back Riding, Ancient Hacienda, & Meet-Up With Friends
On our last day in Otavalo, Kim, Kaitlyn, Phillip, and I went to nearby San Pablo del Lago to visit Hacienda Cusin. We toured the grounds of this estate built in 1602.
After a brief tour of the hacienda grounds, we hitched up our horses.
For our last meal in Otavalo, we got to have lunch with friends from Clemson who have been living in Otavalo for 3 years.
After our tasty meal and wonderful conversation, we took our last bus ride together back to Quito.
Back to Quito & An Upscale Hotel (Relatively Speaking!)
For our last night together in Ecuador, we stayed at a more upscale hotel in the modern section of downtown Quito called El Mariscal.
We enjoyed an Italian dinner together after our last bus ride.
Day 8 – Relaxation, Sharing Memories, Going Home
For our last day together in Ecuador, we slept in and then walked around enjoying our last bit of time together in the parks, plazas, and markets of Quito.
At the end of another fun day in Ecuador, Kim, Kaitlyn, and Phillip headed home on the 11:15 pm flight to Dallas-Ft. Worth. What a special week we had together in Ecuador!