Begin your Ecuador travel adventure with an exhilarating descent down the slopes of Pichincha Volcano to the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve. The tundra grass of the Andean paramo (high altitude grassland) changes before your eyes (and the knobby tires of your bikes) as you roll into the lush cloud forest. Steep gorges and ridges covered by impenetrable jungle provide spectacular views on the 3-4 hour downhill ride. In the afternoon, settle into Bellavista's cloud forest lodge and begin your first explorations of this unique ecosystem.
Bellavista protects 1800 acres of endangered cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. Bordering the Choco bio-region, the forest is part of something that scientists refer to as a biodiversity "hotspot" - a place of extreme biodiversity in danger of extinction. Today you'll explore the miles of trails at Bellavista, passing by waterfalls, steep ravines, and thick gardens of hanging epiphytes in search of some of the 320 bird species recorded here. You'll learn more about the area's complex ecology, what Bellavista is doing to protect it, and about the endangered mammals such as the spectacled bear, mountain lion, Andean coati, and others that take refuge here.
Time to hit the Class III+ rapids of the best whitewater in the Western Andes! During the winter months, you'll be on the Rio Blanco and in the summer you'll paddle the Rio Toachi. On these exhilarating rides, you'll pass through forested canyons and isolated villages as you descend towards the Pacific lowlands. This afternoon, you return to the highlands to the western flank of the Cotopaxi Volcano for dinner and to rest after an exciting day.
After breakfast you drive to El Porvenir, a fully-functioning hacienda and your base for the next three nights, set high in the Andean paramo with spectacular views of Cotopaxi. After a brief orientation is given to get acquainted with the horses, you head out on horseback in the spirit of the Chagras (Ecuadorian highland cowboys) to visit the foothills of Rumiñahui Volcano, riding side by side with herds of wild horses and bulls. As you cross the paramo, enjoy the birds and wildlife while the local guides share their knowledge of medicinal plants. Afterwards a delicious lunch of local dishes awaits you upon your return to the farmhouse.
The afternoon is free to explore the hacienda grounds, and there are a couple of self-guided paths to the Manto Blanco Waterfall and to lookouts with nice views of the mountains and surrounding landscape. Click here to watch Youtube video to learn more about El Porvenir and the Tierra del Volcan's area near Cotopaxi.
A thirty minute drive takes you to the Hacienda Santa Rita Ecological Reserve and the impressive 270 feet high Condor Machay Waterfall. Continue on foot along a trail that takes you through a very unique native forest of the Andes known as the "paper bark tree forest". Continue to the village of El Pedregal where you will have the chance to experience the local culture of the area before continuing to El Porvenir. Today's hike is 11 kilometers (7 miles).
After enjoying the views of the volcano over the last three days, you drive for 45 minutes into the Cotopaxi National Park. An hour hike takes you to the climbing hut (refugio) and a nearby glacier at 4,800 meters (14,760 ft) above sea level.
Continue by vehicle to visit Laguna de Limpiopungo, a shallow Andean lake with great birdwatching, and from here you start your ten kilometer (7 mile) trek back to El Porvenir. You stop at the Chusig Machai cave for lunch and continue on foot through beautiful mountain valleys before returning to a good dinner and the last night at the hacienda.
Today explore the forest canopy by zipline. The zipline provides a great vantage point for birdwatching and enjoying the scenery and is an adrenaline rush as you soar above the trees. After the flying adventure, hike to the Pita River waterfall for lunch. (Zipline available starting March 2014. Or choose an alternate excursion this morning such as mountain biking or ropes course challenge).
In the afternoon, travel to Sangolqui, a village with a traditional market. Browse the market stalls with traditional arts and crafts and sample some of the local produce, particularly the fruits. Return to Quito in the evening.
Return home, or with more time, extend your trip in Ecuador's mainland or travel to the Galapagos or Peru!