There are plenty of good hikes in the hills around Papallacta, but take a compass and the IGM 1:50,000 map for Papallacta; it’s notoriously easy to get lost in the featureless páramo, which is often wet, cold and, between June and August, snowy. The best time to come is from October to February, but you’ll need warm clothes and waterproofs year round. The Fundación Terra at the head of the valley above Las Termas de Papallacta manages three short and easy trails nearby (1–4hr), including their self-guided Sendero de la Isla ($2) along the Río Papallacta, and offers horse rides depending on the weather ($6 per hour). For more serious hikes and treks in the Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca to the north of town, talk to someone at the Fundación Ecológica Rumicocha (w www.rumicocha.org.ec), which has an office on Papallacta’s Calle Principal and is responsible for managing this part of the reserve. It offers hiking tours using either tents or its two refuges, which are small but comfortable and heated by open fires, and can provide guides for $15 a day, plus $13 per person for the reserve entrance fee and support for the foundation.
One of the longer walks begins by heading up the main road toward Quito for 2km to the slender Laguna Papallacta, disfigured at its eastern end by a promontory of lava. This is the northern tip of a six-kilometre lava flow running all the way up the Río Tumiguina valley, the remnants of Volcán Antisana’s eruption of 1773. A moderate to strenuous trail traverses the flow, passing some small lakes before ending at the larger Laguna Tuminguina, a full day’s hike from town. Another day-walk is over the waterlogged páramo of the Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca from the antennas above the Papallacta Pass down to the thermal springs, giving you the best of this bleak landscape: undulating hills, windswept grasses and silent, mist-laden lakes, with perhaps the occasional glimpse of such creatures as the South American fox, the white-tailed deer, the carunculated caracara, the plumbeous sierra finch and the Ecuadorian hillstar, a high-altitude hummingbird.