The Ecuadorian Andes Mountains
From a bird’s eye view, the Andean highlands spring forth with a collage of colors, as if nature has woven its own tapestry. A closer look, however, tells us that the striking panorama is not only an expression of nature, but also a product of people’s labor. In the upper reaches of the Andes, the afternoon sun drapes over wide stretches of untouched paramo.
Down in the valleys, it illuminates fields of corn, barley, wheat, and quinoa, turning them into gold, amber, lilac and amethyst patterns that change with the shadows cast by playful clouds. In the Andes, land of interplay between light and dark and the natural and the man-made, it is impossible to experience the same day twice.
Quintessentially Ecuador, the Andean region (also known as the Sierra and the Highlands) is the most visited region in the country. Its cultural and natural diversity spans grassy highlands (paramo), cloudforests, mountain lakes, active volcanoes, thermal baths, Indian markets, colonial towns and haciendas.
Lush Andean countryside.
Not surprisingly, this region possesses Ecuador’s most developed tourist industry, providing a wide range of accommodations, culinary options, shopping opportunities, and cultural festivals, all easily accessible from the capital of Quito. In addition toQuito, Otavalo and Baños are considered travelers’ meccas, boasting an extensive infrastructure supporting tourism. In these towns you can expect a wide selection of restaurants, hotels and activities. Choose a luxurious suite in a 400-year old hacienda, or nestle down in a backpacker’s $3 per night hostel. Dine on veggie pizza one day and barbecued guinea pig the next!
Most travelers arrive first in the capital of Quito, often described as a city with a small town atmosphere (although it is rapidly growing into a sprawling metropolis). Once the capital of the northern Inca Empire,Quito is home to “Old Town“, one of the most extensive colonial districts in Latin America. Named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, Quito’s Old Town will transport you back and forth between centuries as you meander down its cobblestone streets, passing by vendors selling everything from choclo (Andean corn) to ceramics to techno CDs.
Centrally located, Quito is also an excellent jumping-off point for a number of interesting one and two-day trips, including river-rafting, cloudforest exploration, birding, mountain biking and hotsprings, and more.
Imbabura province, north of Quito, is famous for its lakes, traditional adobe villages, indigenous communities and native handicrafts. The town of Otavalo is home to one of South America’s most famed indigenous market – a definite stop for most visitors. This open-air extravaganza overflows with a wide variety of handicrafts, as well as llamas, hand-woven sweaters and bags of potatoes, all piled high and wide and sold side by side.
Surrounding Otavalo are a handful of well-preserved haciendas, a number of which now operate as B&Bs. Horseback riding programs home-based at these haciendas have recently become a popular way to experience the highlands. Two hours north of Otavalo is the Guandera Reserve, a spectacular sliver of Andean cloudforest and paramo, near the Colombian border.
Ibarra, Imbabura’s provincial capital, is also known as the White City due to its colonial whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets and red-tiled roofs. Horse-drawn carts clattering down the streets add to the historic ambiance. Most travelers come to Ibarra to hop aboard the train which rolls its way down from the Andes to the coastal town of San Lorenzo, 193 miles away. Service at this point is intermittent.
Check with our transportation section for more details.
Just north of Quito, you’ll find the Mitad del Mundo, a monument marking the equator, is a convenient half hour from central Quito. It includes a museum with informative displays on Ecuador’s four regions and ethnic groups. Don’t miss the opportunity to place one foot in each hemisphere!
Avenue of the Volcanoes and Cotopaxi National Park
Quichua resting in the Andean highlands.
An hour and a half from Quito, along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, lies the dominant image on the Ecuadorian national psyche: the perfectly conical Cotopaxi volcano (5897m), one of the world’s highest active volcanos. Most visitors with a bit of verve at least contemplate making the ascent to its 19,890 foot peak. The volcano is the highlight of Cotopaxi National Park, which straddles a number of provinces and protects a wide swath of Andean paramo, the Ecuadorian equivalent of the Arctic tundra, and homeland to the Andean condor and paramo fox.
Just down the “Avenue of The Volcanoes”, is the Quilotoa Loop, a spectacular area for Andean trekking and getting-off-the beaten path. Adventurous trekkers who make the effort will be treated to incredible vistas, unequalled mountain hospitality, and the possibility of a spontaneous encounter with a llama herder or a gaggle of giggly pigtailed indigenous girls.
Traveling on these scenic back roads you can Visit Zumbahua’s colorful Saturday morning market and see loads of llamas. Stop by Laguna Quilotoa, an emerald volcanic crater lake located high in the paramo at 3800 meters, and buy some Naif or primitive paintings from the indigenous artists. Completing the loop will take you through Chugchilan and the Rio Toachi Canyon system. Visit a European-style cheese factory high in the paramo or enter the Cloud Forest of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve. On Thursdays, don’t miss one of the Sierra’s most important markets in Saquisili. The Latacunga Loop gives visitors an authentic taste of the Ecuadorian highlands. Accomodations on the loop are available in Latacunga, Pujili, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilan, Sigchos, and Saquisili. The trip can easily be broken up into three or four days.
Tungurahua Province is famous for the Pujili and Salasaca Indian markets, where pre-Incan, Incan, Spanish and modern designs decorate the sides of ceramic bowls and tapestries. For the intrepid traveler, high and mighty Tungurahua volcano also beckons; the 5016 meter volcano has an illustrious and fiery past (just ask the locals), and is climb-worthy for those seeking a physical challenge. In the middle of the road between Quito and Baños lies Ambato, a travelers hub with bus connections to nearly all over the country, with exceptional traffic from those stopping over between these two cities.
After a long day of bargaining or climbing, you can unwind in the nearby hotspring baths of Baños, a town situated in a valley of eternal spring. Baños is also one of the gateways to the Amazon – albeit down a hairsplitting eye-popping road. Also easily accessed fromBaños is Riobamba, the starting point of the exhilarating train ride down the “Devil’s Nose”. Thrill-seekers can ride rooftop, which is the ideal place to watch the bucolic landscape roll by.
With one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity, and several hundred species of birds, Mindo is one of the Sierra’s most gratifying and easiest visits. Only two and a half hours from Quito, it is easy to access and features spectacular opportunities for birdwatching, canopying (zip-lining), hiking and other outdoor activities.
About two hours outside of Quito, and nestled into a cool, humid ravine between two volcanos, Papallacta is an easy day trip. Its main attraction are the natural hotsprings and well-maintained pools at Hotel Termas de Papallacta. Most visitors leave after a day or two because aside from basking in the hotsprings and some hiking, there is little else to do.
Ecuador’s tallest volcano, Chimborazo (6,310 meters), embraces in its surroundings centuries-old indigenous communities that have maintained many of their ancient traditions. This cloud-piercing volcano also provides experienced climbers with a challenge requiring crampons and ice axes. Those who succeed in conquering the peak will be rewarded with out-of-this-world views from the summit.
Not many tourists venture farther south, but those who do delight in exploring Azuay and Loja provinces, known for their hospitality, unique cuisine, and charming pueblos nestled between the softened folds of the Andes. In Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city, you can stroll the well-preserved colonial streets, trek through undulating countryside, and visit the nearby Incan ruins of Ingapirca.
In Loja visitors will find a splendid natural landscape. Vilcabamba, known for the longevity of its inhabitants, is a place for travelers who want to slow down and watch the flowers grow. A number of resorts catering to the backpack traveler (and others) offer therapeutic spa-like facilities. From Vilcabamba, it is possible to access Podocarpus National Park, an extraordinary collection of ecosystems ranging from paramo to endemic Podocarpus forests to rainforest (excellent for birding).
Any time is a good time to visit Ecuador’s Andean region. For those who prefer a drier climate, June to September is recommended, as well as November and December. The rest of the year is considered rainy season, with temperate weather and almost daily – but short lived – afternoon showers. However, as the locals like to boast, the Andean region is famous for experiencing “four seasons in one day”: Morning tends to be like spring, midday is summer, afternoon is fall, and night time is similar to a mild northern winter.
The Ecuadorian Andes beckon travelers with their blue skies and billowy clouds. If you are lucky you may come across a traditional Andean cowboy or “chagra,” who will share with you the legend of a condor swooping away a young damsel, and other imaginative tales that have survived the centuries.