Quito, Mindo & Hacienda El Refugio: A First-timer’s Guide to Ecuador

Ecuador is a traveler’s paradise! From the colonial city of Quito to the Amazonian Rain Forest and the Galapagos Islands, to all of the places in between, visitors to Ecuador have endless possibilities for where to spend their time. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It can be divided into four primary and vastly different geographical regions. These are the coastal lowlands near the Pacific Ocean, the mountain highlands in the Andes Mountains, the eastern jungle in the Amazon basin, and the Galápagos Islands.

Best things to do in Quito, Ecuador | Outside Suburbia
Quito, Ecuador is one of the highest capitals in the world.

Quito, Mindo & Hacienda El Refugio,
A First-timer’s Guide to Ecuador

with Travel on Purpose

Recently, Dianne Sivulka, owner of Travel on Purpose, visited Ecuador to spend time with several do-good partner organizations and enjoy some of what the country has to offer. Read on to discover more about Quito, Ecuador and a cloud forest experience nearby, and most importantly how to travel sustainably while doing good.

Quito, a capital city close to the equator

The trip began in the capital city of Quito, Ecuador. This city holds several extraordinary claims to fame. It was founded in 1543 and is South America’s oldest capital city. It sits at an elevation of 9,350 above sea level, making it one of the highest capitals in the world. If you were to trace your finger along the equator around a globe, you’d discover no capitals in any country that lie closer to the equator.

Basilica del Voto Nacional, Quito
Basilica del Voto Nacional

Quito was built on the foundations of an ancient Incan city, has a well-preserved colonial center, and has many 16th and 17th century historic buildings. Visitors often skip Quito in a hurry to get to the more popular Galapagos Islands or Amazon, but a stop in Quito, even if just a day or two, should be on everyone’s Ecuador itinerary.

Illa Experience Hotel

Illa Experience Hotel, right in the center of the historic district, is an excellent home base for a stay in Quito. Not only does it check all the boxes on location and luxury, but they also have a unique opportunity for guests to meet local artisans.

Illa Experience Hotel

Dianne had the pleasure of meeting Olga, a hatmaker. She has been making hats since she was eight years old. She grew up in a town named Cuenta, high in the Andes Mountains, where her mother taught her the craft of making “Panama hats” from toquilla reeds. The reeds grow in coastal waters, where they are harvested and dried out.

Making "Panama hats" from toquilla reeds in Ecuador | Outside Suburbia

After being cooked twice, they are ready to weave in a circular direction to create beautiful hats. The thinner the reed, the longer the process, and the more expensive the hat. Olga explained that she typically works on hats 5-6 hours per day, and while some hats take just a day to make, some take 3-5 days to make. Today Olga and her family live in Quito, where they have their own hat shop just a few blocks from Illa Experience.

Travel on Purpose | Outside Suburbia
Travel on Purpose

Olga is just one artisan that Illa Experience showcases. If you’re visiting Quito and staying at Illa Experience, be sure to inquire in advance about what artisans you might have the chance to meet.

Plaza Grande

Plaza Grande is a wide-open gathering place that is a perfect spot to people-watch. Instead of seeing a throng of tourists, the plaza is filled with locals, ordinary Ecuadorians enjoying the sunshine and each other. Children can be seen running about, and men sitting across tables from each other playing games. One of the best things to do in Quito, Ecuador!

The center of the square is marked with an independence monument and several fountains. The perimeter of the square is home to several stately and historic buildings, including the Carondelet Palace, government offices, and the Gallito Cathedral.

Basilica del Voto Nacional

Perhaps the most famous historic building in Quito, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, is a must for every visit to the city.  This church was built in the 19th-century and features ornate neo-Gothic styling. Many visitors enjoy a steep climb up its towers for a spectacular city view. This church has magnificent stained-glass windows and animal carvings inspired by the Galapagos Islands.

Basilica del Voto Nacional, Quito, Ecuador | Outside Suburbia

A Perfect Dinner Spot in Quito, Ecuador

Vista Hermosa, located between Plaza Grande and the Basilica, is an excellent spot for an afternoon snack or dinner.  If an empanada sampler plate and a pitcher of sangria sound like a tasty meal, then you’ve come to the right place! But it might be the 360-degree view from the rooftop of Vista Hermosa that you’ll remember the most.

A perfect dinner spot in Quito, Ecuador | Outside Suburbia

Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal

Shopping for local, traditional crafts is a must in Ecuador. The Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal is located a short 10-minute drive from the historic center. Ubers are plentiful in Quito, so getting around is not a problem. The covered market with vendors selling Ecuadorian textiles made from alpaca wool, jewelry, and other traditional crafts is a lively and fun place to spend a few hours. Shop owners love to barter, so get ready for an exciting exchange. And since the official currency of Ecuador is the US dollar, visitors from the United States will find shopping easy!

Shopping for local, traditional crafts is a must in Ecuador | Outside Suburbia

A Visit to the Equator – Both of them!

It turns out there are two equator sites that tourists can visit in the Quito area. The more popular one is called Mitad Del Mundo. It is located on the original equator site when an expedition in 1736 pinpointed the spot. But unfortunately, they were off by a couple of hundred yards which wasn’t discovered until years later when accurate GPS systems became available. Since it was too late to move the official site, the gigantic monument was left where it was and many visit it today, not realizing that it is not actually on the equator.

Mitad Del Mundo, original equator site in Ecuador | Outside Suburbia
Mitad Del Mundo

Then another museum was built on the accurate site of the equator. This one is called Museo Intinan. They offer a guided tour, showcase a few equator tricks, and have a small gift shop with local crafts.  Visitors can watch water swirling right or left highlighting the Coriolis Effect, balance an egg on a nail, and walk a straight line with their eyes closed.

Museo Intinan, accurate site of the equator | Outside Suburbia
Museo Intinan, accurate site of the equator

While Mitad Del Mundo is massive and stately, Museo Intinan is small and homey. But visitors don’t have to choose which one to visit, they can easily visit both as they sit near each other only charge a few dollars for admission.

Mindo, a Cloud Forest near Quito, Ecuador

For visitors who want to experience the natural side of Ecuador but don’t want to make the long drive to the Amazon, Mindo is the perfect solution. It is a quick and easy 2-hour drive from Quito. Mindo is a cloud forest and well-known for an abundance of outdoor activities. A cloud forest is like a rain forest, except that it is usually found at higher elevations and usually has cooler temperatures.  Mindo is a small town with eco-lodges and heaps of activities for tourists, with the most popular being bird watching.

Andean Cock of the Rock an extraordinary red-headed bird in Ecuador | Outside Suburbia
Andean Cock of the Rock, an extraordinary red-headed bird

Dianne chose the Casa Divia Eco-lodge for her two-day stay and was pleased with this choice. It has a gorgeous wooded main building with a handful of surrounding bungalows and is located just outside of town. Casa Divina serves a three-course dinner each evening that guests can enjoy. Each spread starts with a made-from-scratch soup, followed by the main entree of fish, chicken, steak, or pasta, and then finished off with dessert.

Casa Divia Eco-lodge in Mindo, a Cloud Forest near Quito, Ecuador
Casa Divia Eco-lodge

Guests are encouraged to spend their first night on a night hike. This is an excellent way to get to know a local guide and discover all the creepy, crawly things that live in the jungle. With rubber boots and flashlights, guests will be amazed at the secret life that is silently hidden and waiting to be discovered.

See other sustainable luxury resorts in South America

Bird watching in Mindo cloud forest near Quito, an easy Amazon experinece when visiting Ecuador | Outside Suburbia

The following morning, Dianne met her bird-watching guide in front of the lodge at 5 am. He greeted her with a large carafe of coffee and a picnic breakfast. After driving to the trailhead, they met another guide and headed up into the forest. Still dark, they made their way through cow pastures, across a river, and up into the forest, finally arriving at the viewing spot to see the Andean Cock of the Rock. This is an extraordinary red-headed bird that travelers come to see from all over the world.

After a hearty breakfast, it was off to the next activity, horseback riding. The day also included a coffee tour, a chocolate tour, and exploring the town of Mindo. Visitors can also choose ziplining and river tubing, both popular activities in the area.

The following day Dianne visited the Teleférico cable car, located just a 10-minute walk from Casa Divina. A traditional mountain lift carries visitors up to the Tarabita, another cable car that takes visitors across a gorge with connections to many hiking trails and a network of a dozen waterfalls.  Well-marked paths, swimming holes, and a restaurant mean that visitors can easily spend an entire day here exploring.

Hacienda El Refugio

The last stop on this week-long tour of Ecuador was Hacienda El Refugio, one of Travel on Purpose’s do-good partner organizations in Ecuador. Located about 45 minutes outside of Quito, Hacienda El Refugio is a retreat center on 300 acres of private property.

Hacienda El Refugio was established in 1999 as a place for youth, families, and small groups to escape the city, find rest and connection with God. With hiking trails, a zipline and high ropes course, guests can find plenty of activities if they want to stay busy or just take advantage of the quiet and peaceful surroundings instead.

Hacienda El Refugio provides a number of programs and initiatives that is making a difference in Ecuador. They hold summer camps for vulnerable youth from Quito’s inner city, family retreats, leadership training and internships. They are also providing help to their local neighbors with nutritious meals, school supplies and special events. There are plenty of ways for Travel on Purpose visitors to get involved at Hacienda El Refugio.

Travel on Purpose

Travel on Purpose is a small-niche travel company connecting travelers to organizations doing good. They plan customized vacations for customers and lead several group tours each year. Every Travel on Purpose trip supports the local economy by staying in hotels that are locally owned and serving the community. Trips are always culturally immersive and include unique experiences.

Best of all, Travel on Purpose trips connect travelers to a well-vetted organization that is making a difference. These connections allow travelers to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the people who live there and the challenges they face. Travel on Purpose visitors enjoy learning, connecting and finding ways to contribute to solutions that are sustainable and life-changing.

Dianne Sivulka from Travel on Purpose

Dianne Sivulka is passionate about travel and making a difference. She has worked in the travel industry as a family travel blogger and the global non-profit world for the last decade. A life-long learner and curious traveler, Dianne enjoys unique experiences, hidden gems, and spending time with locals. Dianne’s resume includes middle school teacher, curriculum writer, public speaker, donor management specialist, event planner, and fundraiser. But her absolute favorite role is wife to Steve for 28 years and mom to two creative and adventurous teen boys. Dianne and her family live in San Diego, CA, with their three white English Cream Retrievers.

Live intentionally and Travel purposefully!

I hope you find this Quito, Ecuador guide helpful when planning your trip.

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