Ecuador’s Coastal Region
The Andean region of Ecuador is a showcase of impressive volcanoes, quaint colonial towns and home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Andean region of Ecuador is divided into two sections: the Northern Andes and Southern Andes. Also known as La Sierra or the highlands, the northern part of this impressive mountain chain, which cradles the capital city of Quito, is the most visited region of the country. Grassy prairies high up on the paramo (plateau), reach the foot of some of the country’s most magnificent volcanoes. Cloud forests, mountain lakes, thermal springs, Indian markets and quaint towns are also part of this breathtaking landscape.
Adding to this enchanting panorama are haciendas that date back as far as the 16th century. Domesticated llamas and alpacas, roam these farms, along with sheep, horses and cattle. Many main houses in these haciendas have been converted into comfortable lodges with high-ceilinged rooms and cozy fireplaces. Well-kept stables provide guests with horses to ride around the high prairie, enjoying sweeping views of this highland environment that sometimes blossoms with carpets of wildflowers. Visitors can keep warm in a thick woolen poncho and shed any chills upon returning to the hacienda with a canelazo, a hot liquor flavored with cinnamon. Offering of this drink is a sign of welcome throughout the Andes. Although not lacking in precious colonial architecture, the Southern Andes are mostly noted for having some of the oldest archeological ruins, as well as several handicraft villages that produce exquisite woven articles, ceramics and medicine plants. Colorful festivals with roots in the country’s indigenous past, as well as the more recent Spanish colonial presence, are also part of the region’s allure.
The capital of Ecuador is nestled in a fertile valley 9,350 feet above sea level at the foot of the Pichincha Volcano in the heart of the Andes. First settled by a nomadic tribe, it later became the seat of the Inca Empire during the reign of Atahualpa, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors who founded the present city in 1534.
Quito blends history and modern comforts with the presence of some of the most important international hotel chains, venerable mansions converted into luxury boutique hotels, large convention centers and business and entertainment facilities in the newest parts of town, which fortunately developed to the north, thereby leaving the historical center intact.
While not much is left of the Inca presence in Quito, possibly because the Spaniards built on top of many of its monuments, the colonial heritage is rich in the magnificent buildings that have been preserved in the old city. Renaissance, classical and baroque styles of architecture gleam in the light of renovations completed in recent years. Ornate churches, cathedrals and palaces still flank narrow cobblestone streets. Moorish details, prevalent in Spanish architecture in the centuries preceding the conquest of the New World, lend added charm to balconies and other façades. Quito’s historical center is the largest and best preserved in Latin America – a living museum of colonial history and architecture. UNESCO declared the historic center a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978, making Quito the first city in the world to receive this prestigious honor.
The old city spreads out from Independence Plaza, which is the center of town. It is surrounded by the most important religious and government buildings, many of which date back to the 16th century. The best way to enjoy this old part of town is on foot, walking along narrow cobblestone streets that lead to wide open squares. The attractions are endless, and visitors are constantly drawn to churches and palaces to explore their sumptuous interiors. Many important buildings around or in the vicinity of the square have been converted into upscale restaurants where delicious local and international dishes are served.
Among other highlights are the Metropolitan Cathedral and the churches of San Francisco, San Agustin, Santo Domingo, El Sagrario, La Merced, Carmen Bajo, San Sebastian, Santa Barbara and San Blas. All feature exquisite interiors adorned in gold leaf details, vaulted ceilings, elaborate woodwork and a large collection of religious art. The Carondelet Palace, the seat of Ecuador’s central government, also overlooks the central plaza.
The city can best be seen from El Mirador del Panecillo, a vantage point high on a slope that climbs toward the edge of the old city. A gigantic statue of La Virgen de Quito takes residence on top of this hill, and visitors can admire the church towers rising from a sea of red tiles and the surrounding mountains and volcanoes from this 360° viewpoint. The Mirador was the site of an Inca temple built in honor of the Sun Yavirac. Likewise, the Plaza of San Francisco, a complex of religious buildings, was constructed over the remains of an Inca palace. This lovely plaza, which honors the patron saint of Quito, was built 50 days after the city was founded.
An even better view of the old city and its surroundings will dazzle tourists boarding a new cable car that travels up to 13,300 feet. The 10-minute ride departs from the skirts of the Rucu Pichincha, where an amusement park, shops, restaurants, art and culture centers, and more were recently opened. At the end of the line on Cruz Loma, a series of paths and viewing points impress visitors with a spectacular bird’s eye view of surrounding valleys and snowcapped peaks, as far as the eastern mountain chain. These heights seem to be so close to the heavens, visitors could easily think they can touch the sky.
The Middle of the World
Located 20 minutes from the capital, La Mitad del Mundo may be the most popular landmark in Ecuador. This monument stands in San Antonio de Pichincha and is visited by 10,000 tourists a week. It is built in the form of a pyramid crowned by a metal globe. Facing a yellow line that passes through the park, the monument demarks the equatorial line that separates the world into northern and southern hemispheres. Ambitious plans for this park include building a recreation center with restaurants, modern museums and other recreational projects. Such as it is, the interior of the monument is an ethnographical museum depicting the cultures of Ecuador in scale models. Bilingual guides are on hand to show visitors around.
Beyond Quito, the Pichincha province holds many natural treasures. The huge Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve spans more than 988,000 acres of land across three provinces into the Amazon region. Its main attraction is the Cayambe, a snow-capped peak that towers 18,990 feet above sea level and attracts skilled mountaineers from around the globe. The Papallacta Hot Springs lie at the park’s entrance, just two hours from Quito, while the Mindo Nambillo Forest Reserve, about two hours northwest of Quito, is a popular spot for bird-watching. Roughly 500 species of bird can be found in this cloud forest, which also harbors an exuberant flora, along with a variety of mammals, reptiles and brightly colored butterflies.
Also worth mentioning is the Sangay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which stretches from the Andes into the Amazon. This natural treasure is home to a diverse wildlife that includes mountain dantas, spectacled bears and ocelots among other rare species. Three of Ecuador’s highest peaks – the Tungurahua, El Altar and Sangay volcanoes are located within its borders.
On a clear morning, guests having breakfast on the top-floor restaurant of their Quito hotel can see the Cotopaxi Volcano, nearly 40 miles away, as if it were next door. It’s an amazing sight to behold, as if looking through a magnifying lens. At 19,400 feet, the Cotopaxi is the world’s highest active volcano. It is protected by Cotopaxi National Park and is a popular spot for mountaineering.
Eternal snows and indigenous markets set the lovely Cotopaxi province apart. In the town of Latacunga, the famous Mama Negra Festival celebrates the earth’s fertility with one of the country’s major street celebrations. The feast is traditionally held in November, although local artisans organize a smaller festival in September. At this time the townsfolk carry the “black mamma” high on a chair, followed by dancing processions and musicians throughout town. The nearby town of Pujili is famous for its painted, glazed ceramics, while the colorful village of Sasquisili, to the north of Latacunga, holds a popular Thursday market, which spreads over eight blocks.
Of historical interest are the small Inca palaces built along the Inca Trail that connected Cusco, in Peru, with Quito. One of these buildings, which served as overnight refuge to the traveling Inca king and his nobles, is located at the foot of the Cotopaxi and still preserve walls that date back to Inca times. Now converted into an upscale hacienda, San Augustín del Callo has been receiving visitors since the 15th century. Atahualpa, the last Inca king, occupied this palace before his execution in 1536. The Augustinian Order established a monastery at this site, and later constructed the colonial part of the house. The main house, called the Inca House, is built around a Spanish courtyard and is a mixture of Inca, colonial and republican architecture. Perfectly carved Inca walls have been preserved and incorporated into the handsome architecture of this inn.
This province hosts the famous market of Otavalo, one of the largest in South America. Here, indigenous people from villages across the Andes congregate in booths in the Plaza de los Ponchos to sell their handicrafts, ceramics, textiles, housewares and more. The nearby town of Cotacachi, known as Ecuador’s music capital, specializes in high-quality, inexpensive leather goods ranging from clothing items, to bags, shoes and a wide range of accessories. The shopping experience wouldn’t be complete without a stop at San Antonio de Ibarra located just 15 minutes from Otavalo. This town is renowned for its handmade wood crafts and stone sculptures. Also close to Otavalo, the indigenous village of Peguche is famous for its spectacular waterfalls and huge eucalyptus trees.
Worth mentioning to clients is the production of perfect roses around the region, as well as in the rest of the highlands. As a matter of fact, roses are not only exported in large quantities, but are also an integral part of local life. Restaurants and hotels, from small country inns to international four-star hotels, display large bouquets of fragrant roses as well as use these flowers in their cuisine. These exquisite dishes include quail in petal sauce or rose petal ice cream, for example. Many spas in the Ecuadorian Andes also integrate roses into their health and beauty treatments. Tours to local rose farms are easy to book for agents who want to send their clients on a different Ecuador experience.
Cuenca and the Southern Andes
Colonial Cuenca, surrounded by mountains and crossed by four rivers, is one of the country’s most beautiful cities. It is adorned with a stunning display of 16th and 17th century architecture amid paved streets, parks and plazas, of which the famous Parque Calderon is a worthy example. Neighborhoods date back to the first days of the Spanish conquest of the area, which has thrived in this perfect mountain climate. Religious art museums showcase some of Ecuador’s most impressive artwork.
The city is so identified with colonial Ecuador, the blue domes of the Cathedral have become a symbol of this tranquil city, which in 1999 was named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and in 2002 was proclaimed the Cultural Capital of the Americas. Interesting lodgings, such as private estates, charming country inns and haciendas, which date back to the city’s early days, have all been renovated and offer exquisite service, accommodations and cuisine. In Cuenca, as well as in most of Ecuador, prices tend to be on the low range of the scale. Cuenca is also noted for its well-crafted ceramics, woven Panama hats (contrary to general belief, these hats are not made in Panama, but in Ecuador) and leather goods.
Cuenca is also home to many local celebrations and festivities that may last for several days and include fireworks, processions and concerts. Most popular are Corpus Christi (between late May to mid-June) and the Pase del Niño (December 24), feasts that combine colorful folklore with religious traditions.
Ecuador’s most important archeological site, Ingapirca is known for its perfectly carved stones held in place with natural mortar as well as for its strategic position overlooking the surrounding valley. Cemeteries, observatories, roads, storage rooms, priests’ chambers and an indigenous plaza have all been found here. The site’s most impressive structure is the oval-shaped Temple of the Sun, which was an important ceremonial and ritual center for the Cañari-Inca people. For visitors who want to stay overnight, there are dormitory- style accommodations on the grounds.
Devil’s Nose Train Ride
For clients who like to combine culture with adventure, several tour operators in Ecuador offer a thrilling train ride through the Andes. The route goes from Riobamba to Quito and passes through Devil’s Nose – an exciting, near-vertical drop from the highlands to the lowlands. Clients can board in Riobamba to disembark in Ingapirca and then go to Cuenca by road, or return to Riobamba. Hard-core train buffs can go the entire route to Quito. For real excitement and the best views, seating is available on the roof of the train.
Visitors can take the Panamerican Highway from Quito to Cuenca to explore the Cajas National Park. Located 18 miles from Cuenca, Cajas extends over 70,000 acres of land and features 275 lakes. Several rivers have their source in the park, with some draining into the Amazon Basin and others flowing into the Pacific. Since the temperatures never drop below 50 degrees the area nurtures a variety of species of flora and fauna, which can be easily seen from the many trails that cut through the park.