Culture & Adventure Collide In Andean Ecuador

1 December 2014
Read Time: 3.7 mins

The Galapagos Islands may hog the limelight, but mainland Ecuador isn't short of superlative sights. Pristine, palm-fringed golden beaches rim its sun-soaked Pacific coastline, tropical birdlife enlivens its mysterious, misty cloud forests, while jaguars, monkeys and caiman are among the exotic creatures to thrive in its steamy Amazonian jungles.

Ecuador's most spectacular-looking region, however, is its awe-inspiring Andean spine. Rolling 1000 kilometres through the country, from the border with Colombia to its frontier with Peru, the Ecuadorian Andes are a treat for culture vultures and ardent adventurers alike, hiding a bounty of breath-taking experiences and pit stops.

 The patchwork of Vilcabamba's rural town and Andean surrounds (Credit: Steve McKenna)

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Quito

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Ecuador's main entry point, and capital, is one of South America's most invigorating cities - especially once you acclimatise to the altitude. Perched a heady 2800 metres above sea level, Quito was founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in AD1534 over the ruins of a routed Inca settlement, and boasts some of the prettiest colonial architecture on the continent.

Humming with roving food vendors and buskers strumming folksy tunes, Quito's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is an absorbing hive of cobblestone lanes, elegant plazas and Baroque churches - the most gob-smacking of which is the Compania de Jesus church, whose interior is flush with intricately-carved, gold-laminated ceilings, columns and altars.

 A local Quito man playing guitar on the street for change (Credit: Steve McKenna)

A ten-minute taxi ride away, Quito's New Town grinds to a very different beat, with eye-catching modern art, chic hotels, buzzing nightlife and a smorgasbord of restaurants, serving everything from authentic Andean cuisine (including roasted guinea pig and llama steaks) to swish Euro-Asian delicacies.

Quito's myriad vantage points offer wondrous panoramas of the city and its Andean surrounds, with the Teleferico cable car zooming up to a 4100-metre lookout. Another place with good vistas is the Guayasamin Museum, which houses the eccentric paintings and sculptures of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador's most revered artist.

 Quito and the surrounding Andean landscape (Credit: Steve McKenna)

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Otavalo

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Souvenir hunters, anthropologists and photographers will adore Otavalo, a quaint highland town edged by picturesque lakes and volcanoes, 100 kilometres north of Quito. The indigenous Otavalenos are renowned weavers, boasting enviable skills that have been passed through the generations for centuries.

 Locals haggling in an outdoor market (Credit: Steve McKenna)

Each Saturday, hand-made arts and crafts grace the stalls springing off Otavalo's Plaza de Ponchos, where tourists and locals fossick an astounding array of goodies. Woven alpaca rugs, hammocks, blankets, sweaters and shawls nestle alongside curios such as clay pipes, silver jewelry and wooden masks etched with devilish faces.

Adding to the atmosphere are the soothing sounds of Andean pipe music and the good-natured haggling between shoppers and traders, whose fashion sense remains rooted in tradition. Most Otavaleno women wear white blouses embroidered with flowers, long woolen skirts, headcloths, woven belts, canvas sandals and strands of beads and necklaces. Their long hair braided into pig and pony tails, the men sport dark ponchos, calf-length pants and felt hats.

 Hand-made treasures in a market stall (Credit: Steve McKenna)

One of the perks of travelling between Quito and Otavalo is that you'll cross the equator. A clutch of attractions, such as the sprawling Mitad del Mundo complex, celebrate this geographical landmark, where visitors can simultaneously plant one foot in each hemisphere.
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Avenue Of The Volcanoes

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Venturing south of Quito, you'll be dwarfed by Ecuador's most dramatic landscapes - what the 19th-Century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt dubbed 'the Avenue of the Volcanoes'. Parallel snow-capped chains of the Andes flank the Troncal de la Sierra (Highland's Road), Ecuador's portion of the Pan-American highway (known as La Panamericana).

 The Avenue of the Volcanoes gives way to rugged nature (Credit: Steve McKenna)

Eight of the country's ten biggest peaks dot this region, the loftiest being Volcan Chimborazo (6268 metres). While Everest is the world's highest mountain, thanks to the earth's equatorial bulge, Chimborazo's summit is actually the furthest point from the planet's centre. Chimborazo and its cone-shaped neighbour Cotopaxi attract both hardcore mountaineers and casual adrenaline seekers (plus notable birdlife such as the elusive Andean condor). As well as hiking up, you can cycle down the slopes of the volcanoes with tour agencies like Quito-based Gulliver Expeditions.

The elements and the elevation can be challenging, so wrap up warm and do as the Andeans do and chew coca leaves or sip coca tea at the mountain refuges. Consumed since pre-Incan times, the coca leaf is a remedy for altitude sickness. Accommodation along La Panamericana ranges from rustic walkers' hostels to luxurious hotels converted out of grand haciendas (farming estates from the colonial era).

 Cycling down from Cotopaxi volcano (Credit: Steve McKenna)

Rail buffs shouldn't miss the Devil's Nose, a tourist train that zig-zags 12 kilometres through spellbinding mountain scenery, descending from the highland town of Alausi - 120 kilometres south of Chimborazo - to the little village of Simbambe and back.
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Seductive Escapes

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With its balmy sub-tropical climate and luxuriant waterfalls, Banos - a one-hour detour off the Avenue of the Volcanoes - is an enticing chill-out spot. Activities like rafting, kayaking and horseback riding are popular, but many visitors simply enjoy lolling in the town's hydrothermal springs. Translated into English, Banos means Baths.

Another fine place to rest up is Cuenca, regarded by many travellers as Ecuador's most charming city. Its UNESCO-rated colonial core is a lovely place for cafe-hopping, people-watching and gallery-browsing, while nearby El Caja national park makes for a memorable side trip. About 200 kilometres south of Cuenca you'll find Loja, another pleasant colonial hub, where you can catch a bus to one of Ecuador's most enchanting destinations.

 Watching a street music performance in Loja (Credit: Steve McKenna)

In Quechua, the old language of the Incas, Vilcabamba means 'Sacred Valley', but its modern moniker is the 'Valley of Longevity'. Steeped in myths, this beguilingly tranquil town made international news in the 1970s after rumours spread that many of its citizens were over 100 years old (in a census, one man claimed he was 140). Scientists were sceptical, and found no centenarian living here, but tests revealed that the average Vilcabamban had super-low cholesterol levels, few heart problems and generally led long healthy lives.

Lured by the promise of an alternative lifestyle - and the idyllic spring-like climate and pollution-free air - foreign expats and eco-minded city slickers have migrated to Vilcabamba and run many of its quirky guesthouses, shops and bars. The town is the launchpad for a range of thigh-straining, soul-stirring treks - including a trail to the jagged Mandango. Labelled the 'Sleeping Inca', it's said to protect Vilcabamba from earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Steve McKenna

A regular contributor to some of Australia's leading newspapers and travel magazines, Steve McKenna has visited, written about and photographed more than 80 countries on six different continents. He fears he has an incurable case of wanderlust and is particularly fond of Europe, Asia and South America.