Highlights of the Ecuadorian Andes

February 27, 2013 by

South & Central America, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

The Andes are one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world. With an average elevation of 12,000 feet, the range stretches for 4500 miles, from the southern tip of South America all the way up to Panama. In Ecuador, they run the length of the country and vivisect it into three distinct regions, divided by two parallel ranges: the Cordillera Occidental (the western range) and the Cordillera Oriente (the eastern range). Between the ranges are fertile valleys known as the Andean Highlands, where civilizations have cultivated the land for thousands of years. Here are a few places worth a visit within this fascinating landscape.

Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi Volcano

About 40 miles southeast of Quito lies Cotopaxi National Park, home to the 19,347-foot (5,900-meter) Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Summiting this great peak is a must for any adventure-traveler in Ecuador. It is a challenging, two-day climb, but rewards the courageous with an impressive glacier encrusted crater and unparalleled views. The volcano was once worshiped by the country’s ancient civilizations, who thought it had the power to bring rain and successful harvests. Entrance to the park costs around $2, with additional fees if you wish to ascend Cotopaxi. Guides are required

For those who just want to wander the park, you’ll find the landscape typical of recently active volcanic areas, full of strange igneous rock formations, scrubby woodland, open grasslands that shags the lower mountains skirts and plenty of peaks over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). You’ll also want to check out Limpiopungo Lagoon, a large lake at 12,631 feet (3,850 meters) elevation, a great place for panoramic views of Cotopaxi and nearby Rumiñahui. Besides the intriguing land, you’ll also find a number of rare Andean species, including the Andean condor, spectacled bear and brocket deer, along with more common foxes and white tail deer. The park is also excellent for mountain biking (no bikes available to rent in the park, so you’ll need to arrange beforehand), horseback riding and bird watching.

For culture, there are the ruins of an Inca military fortress in the southeast of the park, and a small museum, the Cotopaxi Museum and Visitor Center, which features a collection of stuffed wildlife (including an Andean condor) and a relief map of the volcano.

Visit Cotopaxi on a 2-Day Andes Tour from Quito with Avenue of the Volcanoes Train Ride and read more about climbing Cotopaxi

Middle of the World Monument

Middle of the World Monument

Middle of the World Monument

Ecuador, which means “equator” in Spanish, was named as such because the country straddles the great line that slices our planet into hemispheres. A short drive north of Quito you’ll find an artificial town, the Middle of the World City (Ciudad Mitad del Mundo in Spanish), which celebrates this great line, located in San Antonio parish of the canton of Quito. The story goes that French scientists set off on a difficult mission to find exactly where the equator was located, and the spot they discovered is where a 30-meter-tall monument rests today. The pyramidal monument, with each side facing a cardinal direction, is topped by a globe 14 feet in diameter and weighs five tons.

Unfortunately, and not to disparage those brave French scientists, the equator actually falls about 240 meters north of the marked line, according to readings based on the World Geodetic System WGS84. But who cares? Around the park you’ll find the Museo Etnográfico Mitad del Mundo, an interesting museum about the indigenous ethnography of Ecuador, and many indigenous market shops, eateries, statues, monuments and gardens.

The park also contains other attractions, such as a planetarium, a miniature model of Quito, and an art museum. On weekends, Ciudad Mitad del Mundo’s Central Plaza hosts varied musical and cultural events for tourists. One fun activity to do while your here is to try to balance an egg on a nail, witness water flowing both counter-clockwise and clockwise down a drain due to Coriolis effect, or witness the weakening of your muscles due to latitude, tricks which are supposedly possible only on the Equator. All of this trickery is unrelated to the proximity of the equator, but fun to indulge in nonetheless.

Visit two hemispheres on a Private Tour: Middle of the World Monument from Quito

Otavalo Marketplace

Stalls at Otavalo Market

Otavalo Market

If you want to get your hands on some handmade indigenous goods, or just want to stroll through congeries of colorful vendor stands, Otavalo Market is a worthwhile day trip from Quito.

Otavalo is a small town that is world-famous for its indigenous population, the so-called Otavalos, who are considered the economically most successful indigenous group of Latin America. Otavalos are easily recognized by their traditional dress: a dark skirt and a white blouse with colorful embroidery and waistband for the ladies, and white pants and a dark poncho for men.

Purchasing handicrafts in Otavalo is possible any day of the week, but it’s best to visit on Saturday, when the town erupts with the Mercado Artesanal at the Plaza de Ponchos, where indigenous and mestizo people from Otavalo and surrounding communities sell their handicrafts. You will find a wide range of handbags, instruments, weavings, jewelry, clothes, wood carvings, paintings, hats, masks, scarves and even some products from neighboring Peru and Colombia. Come ready to barter.

While you browse you can also make cultural observation with these tips: you can tell a local woman’s marital status by looking at her head shawl, or fachalina. A knot tied on the shoulder means she is single, while a knot tied on the heart means she is married. Their yellow jewelry represents the sun and corn, while their red bracelets are worn to ward off evil spirits.

For something that feels a little more authentic try the town’s largest food market, Mercado 24 de Mayo (open all week), or the little organic market Feria IMBABIO, where women from the surrounding villages sell traditional dishes and organic produce that they harvested the same day on their farms (open on Saturday mornings only). There is also an animal market, the Mercado de Animales, northwest of town where local farmers buy and sell their livestock.

Along the route from Quito you can also stop in the town of Calderon, or at the San Pablo lake, both great for photos. Also consider a shopping detour to Cotacachi Village, a small town famous for its leather goods.

Shop at Otavalo and other markets on a 2-Day Markets Tour from Quito: Calderon, Otavalo and Cotacachi

Ibarra

Ibarra is a good place to stay for those going to Otavalo’s market, especially if you want to avoid the crowds but still be a short bus ride from the market. It is 2.5 hours north of Quito on the Pan-American highway, and about 30 minutes by bus from Otavalo.

Besides being a nice place to snooze for a night, Ibarra is also a destination in itself. Ibarra has preserved much of its colonial architecture in the city center and its plazas are comely and picturesque. About three miles away is the beautiful lake Yahuarcocha, where you can take boat trips, go fishing or paragliding, and also nearby is the Valle del Chota, an area populated by African-Ecuadorian descendants. You may also want to consider the Tren de la Libertad, a two-hour train ride on bus-type contraption that has been converted to run on the former San Lorenzo railway line. The price is $7.50 for a return trip, but it’s necessary to make a reservation at the railway station at least one day in advance.

Avenue of the Volcanoes

Avenue of the Volcanoes, Andes

Avenue of the Volcanoes. Photo credit: Peter Gene via Flickr.

One of the impressive natural features of Ecuador is the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, which runs south of Quito between the two main Cordillera ranges of the Andes for 202 miles. It contains seven peaks more than 17,000-feet (5,180 meters) high. The term “Avenue of the Volcanoes” was first coined by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who journeyed through Ecuador in 1802. The free-standing, massive, snow covered volcanoes provide a stark contrast to the tropical greenery of the rain forest regions. Two of the best known peaks are Chimborazo and Cotopaxi.

Chimborazo stands at an impressive 20,565 feet (6,526 meters) and was at one time believed to be the world’s tallest mountain, until Mount Everest was discovered. When measuring from the earth’s core rather than sea level, Chimborazo is in fact the world’s tallest mountain, thanks to its location on the planet’s equatorial bulge. It is also Ecuador’s highest peak.

Cotopaxi, while not as high as Chimborazo, is climbed more often due to its claim as the world’s highest active volcano.

Aside from Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, more climbing can be done at Cayambe and Antisana, the third- and fourth-highest peaks in Ecuador. Antisana is often considered to be one of the most challenging climbs in the country, but also features one of the most scenic peaks. Two of the other volcanoes, Sangay and Tungurahua, are often cited as being among the 10 most-active in the world, with Sangay erupting virtually all the time.

Day trips and train rides through this stunning landscape can be easily be arranged.

Travel through this unique region on a 2-Day Avenue of the Volcanoes and Baños Tour from Quito

The Devil’s Nose Train, Alausí

Nariz Del Diablo Train, Ecuador

The Devil’s Nose Train. Photo credit: David Joshua Jennings.

Alausí is a charming little town in the Andean highlands, known for its proximity to the Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose), a train that trundles down the steepest descent of any section of railroad track in the world. It includes two switchbacks and features impressive views of the surrounding Andean terrain.

This whole stretch of railway, from Riobamba to Alausí, and then down to Simbambe, passes through every climate zone of Ecuador and was once part of the grand Southern Railway system, which was constructed at the end of the 19th century in an effort to connect Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest port city, and Quito, the capital. At least 2000 indigenous and Jamaican workers were killed during its construction and, due to political wrangling and a few presidential assassinations, it took more than 60 years to complete. Today the Nariz del Diablo route exists purely as a tourist attraction. You can ride the full line on a normal train coming from Riobamba, but most prefer the tourist train that just goes down the devil’s nose and back up (about 2 hours round trip) for $20.

You were once able to ride atop the train all the way from Riobamba, but this is no longer permitted for safety reasons (there was a fatality in 2006). The section of the track from Alausi has recently undergone a 4.6 million dollar renovation, so the once normal derailments have been greatly reduced.

Just keep in mind that all the good views are from the right side of the train (both ascending and descending). Seats are assigned beforehand, so it’s recommended that you work a deal with someone sitting on the opposite side of the train to switch seats halfway through so that everyone has a chance to enjoy the view. If you get stuck on the left side you will be quite disappointed.

Baños

Waterfall at Baños, Ecuador

Baños. Photo credit: Jonathan Hood via Flickr.

The charming town of Baños is famous for its hydrothermal springs, but around town you’ll also find a generous offering of waterfalls, including the Cascada de La Virgen, the main waterfall near the city center that empties near the thermal baths. On the “Avenue of Waterfalls” you can also visit Manto de la novia, which features a cable car ride, and the Pailon de diablo, the most impressive of the falls.

Well-known as the country’s adventure capital, there are several companies around town that offer rafting trips (rapids range from class II to IV, depending on the recent rainfall), treks to Cotopaxi, jungle tours (ranging from day trips to two-week adventures), bungee jumping, bridge jumping (“puenting”), rappelling, canyoning and more.

Baños also has plenty of hiking opportunities in the surrounding region, with marked trails to guide you. Mountain bikes can be rented for around $5 a day, or $1.25 an hour. The most popular bike ride is the 40-mile, mostly downhill, road to Puyo (from Puyo there are frequent buses back to Baños, some of which will put you bike on the roof).

In short, if you’re looking for adventure, Baños is the place to be.

Quito

View of Panecillo in Quito

View of Panecillo

The great metropole of Quito is an exhilarating experience. From the wild nightlife in the La Mariscal district to the unique architectural jewels of the colonial center, the city has more than enough to keep you busy. If you’re only here for a few days, consider exploring the city through its unique churches, perhaps staring with the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the biggest Neo-Gothic style church in Latin America. At 361 feet, it is also the highest building in Ecuador. For some Italian Renaissance architecture, visit El Sagrario Church, the newest church in Quito; or make a journey to the baroque La Compania, the biggest church in Quito.

You’ll also want to check out the Central Bank Museum (Museo del Banco Central in Spanish), which is probably the best museum in Quito. Combining culture, archeology, history, technology and art, its all-inclusive nature has something for everyone. Some of the exhibits deal with currency, but you’ll also learn about Inca artifacts, ancient tools, modern art, pre-Colombian pottery and the evolution of Ecuadorian culture. Unlike many museums in Ecuador, most exhibits here include English translations and tours!

For the best views of the city, during both day and night, head up to Panecillo Mountain. You can see the entire region from the top of this once-volcanic site. It’s easy to spot from almost anywhere in the city, just look around for a giant Virgin Mary statue with wings. You can reach Panecillo by taxi or teleferico (cable-car). After taking in the views, visitors can enjoy the amusement park, cafes, handicraft shops, go-carts, horseback riding, restaurants and nightclub.

National Folkloric Jacchigua Ballet

The renowned National Folkloric Jacchigua Ballet is a spectacular way to learn about the traditional lifestyle of Ecuador through music and dance. It may be a little touristy, but nonetheless is a worthwhile experience. It is presented daily at the Teatro Demetrio Agilera at the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana in Quito. It consists of three hours of entertainment, with 90 talented dancers and musicians – wearing colorful hats, ponchos, shawls and skirts – demonstrating their ancestral traditions and customs from several Andean regions of Ecuador. As the website says, “poor and rich, tall and small, plump and thin, mestizo, black and Indian, the National Folkloric Ballet Jacchigua is the image and face of Ecuador.”

- David Joshua Jennings

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