Andes Travel Guide

Characterized by lush forested ridges, a patchwork quilt of small fields extending far up the sides of fertile valleys and overlooked by looming mountains sometimes topped by snowy summits, the landscape of the Andes is spectacular and diverse in every way. There are glaciated volcanoes that tower above 5000 meters, such as Chimborazo (the highest peak in Ecuador at 6310 meters) and Cotopaxi (the highest active volcano in the world at 5900 meters), and a wealth of national parks home to sub-alpine páramo, lakes, cloud forests and an array of wildlife.

The Ecuadorian Andes, known as the Sierra, cut through the center of Ecuador running 600 kms from north to south and squeezed between the lowland rainforest and the coastal plain. Nestled between eastern and western Andean ranges, the valleys of the Sierra are known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes due to the 84 volcanoes that can be found in the area. Adventurous travelers can follow in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, the German explorer and daring volcanologist, to explore them.

Ideal for culture lovers, Quito, in the northern Andes, and Cuenca, in the southern Andes, are both UNESCO world heritage sites and contain some of the finest examples of colonial art and architecture in all of Latin America. The Andes are home to colorful indigenous markets, natural hot springs, fascinating traditional events and a distinctive gastronomy. TerraDiversa specializes in travel to the Ecuadorian Andes, offering a wide range of activities, experiences and tours.

When to go

Weather patterns in the Sierra are complex and each region has its own microclimate. Temperatures can get cool because of the altitude with lows of 10ºC and highs of 24ºC, but the climate overall is mild. Throughout the Ecuadorian Andes there are no conventional seasons to speak of and there are often four seasons in one day. The highland dry season is from June to September with sunny clear days. The wettest months are around April and May with rain in the afternoons, although climate change is affecting the usual patterns.

High season
Besides public holidays, high season in Ecuador coincides with holidays in Europe and North America and runs from mid-June to early September and late December to early January.

Events and festivities
When planning your trip to the Andes, take into account the following events and festivities which are particularly attractive.

· Flowering of the Guayacanes · Loja Province · January or February:

Increasingly attracting visitors and funding from the Ministry of Tourism, the natural phenomenon that is the yearly blossoming of the guayacanes is most prominent around the towns of Magahurco, Bolaspamba and Cazaderos in Zapotillo Canton, located in Loja Province in southern Ecuador. The vast forest of guayacanes is one of the most important tropical dry forests in the region. Once a year, with the arrival of the first rains in either January or February, the guayacanes blossom for about a week turning the forest a deep yellow color as flowers pollinate and fall from the trees leaving a carpet of yellow in their wake. The blossoming marks the arrival of planting season, of great significance for the local agricultural and livestock communities. The communities at Mangahurco, Bolaspamba and Cazaderoshave have begun to organize a series of activities to celebrate and attract tourists to the area such as a craft fair, exhibitions, horseback riding excursions and motorcycle rides. They have also created cycle paths and some camping facilities.

· Good Friday · Quito:

A huge and spectacular procession makes its way through Quito old town, complete with flagellants, penitents in purple robes with pointed hoods, people dragging huge crucifixes or even wearing crowns of thorns, to celebrate Quito’s most prominent religious festival.

· Guamote Market · Thursday mornings:

Guamote is located fifty kilometers south of Riobamba and is home to a fabulous highland market that attracts hundreds of indigenous locals from the surrounding sierra. When visiting make sure you arrive early in the morning and make your way to the chaotic animal market where locals buy and sell guinea pigs, piglets, ducks, sheep and chickens. Keep in mind that some argue that it has lost some of its charm since it was organized and moved away from the center of town.

· Mama Negra Fiestas · Latacunga · September 24th & first weekend in November:

Located in Latacunga, capital of the Cotopaxi Province and 89 km south of Quito, these fiestas take place twice a year with both religious and secular celebrations. The festival reenacts the story of an African slave brought by the Spanish to Ecuador during the colonial period. Legend has it that she prayed to the Virgen de las Mercedes for her freedom and it was granted a few days later. She then rode through the streets proclaiming her thanks. Others believe the celebrations have derived from the expulsion of the Moors from Spain.

The religious celebration (Fiesta de La Virgen de Las Mercedes) takes place on September 24th. The Mama Negra, a blacked-up man dressed as a woman, is accompanied by paraders in bright costumes and mischief-making characters who squirt perfumed milk on bystanders. The Virgin of the Iglesia de la Merced, believed to have protected the city from Cotopaxi’s eruptions, is paraded through town and up to El Calvario, a monument located on a hill to the east of town. The secular celebration takes place on the first Friday or weekend in November with the same colorful costumes and characters, bands and lots of street dancing. The celebrations continue until November 11th, the town’s Independence Day.

· Otavalo Market · Saturdays:

This world-renowned crafts and produce market located in the northern Andes has attracted indigenous people from the surrounding villages for centuries. These days people come from throughout Ecuador and Colombia to sell their wares, while tourists come in droves to purchase them. There is a produce and an animal market, as well as a more touristy section filled with clothing, carvings, craftwork, ceramics, musical instruments, souvenirs and famed weavings, tapestries and garments sold at Plaza de Ponchos.

Accomplished weavers since pre-colonial times, Otovaleños are one of the most prosperous indigenous groups in South America known for having a strong sense of identity and incredible business acumen. This has allowed them to set up outlets throughout the world and to travel abroad. When the Incas took power in 1495, they exploited the Otovaleños’ skills by extracting tribute from the weavers. At that time locals adopted Inca clothing. Remnants of this can be seen in the traditional dress of native women you’ll spot in the area. More than any other indigenous people of the Andes, this look most resembles the old style of dress.

· Pase del Niño Viajero · Cuenca · 24th December :

This is the most important religious celebration and procession in Cuenca, and a wonderful spectacle for travelers. It begins on Avenida de las Americas and crosses the city on Calle Simón Bolívar ending up in Parque Calderón. Thousands of children of all ages participate in this huge parade wearing costumes that evoke biblical episodes of the birth of Jesus, mixed with representations of Ecuadorian ethnic groups, many on richly decorated trucks. Of special interest are the Mayorales, children with luxurious outfits riding horses decorated with candies, sweets, loaves of Christmas bread, fruits, money and typical dishes, who march to the sound of Christmas carols which enliven this great parade. It is said that the Pase del Niño is the fifth river of Cuenca due to the large number of participants it has each year.

· Saquisilí market · Thursday mornings:

Only about 25 minutes from Latacunga and one of the largest in the highlands, Sasquisilí market fills seven plazas, each specializing in different sorts of goods. Indigenous people travel from all over the central Sierra to buy vegetables, grains, yarns, kitchen utensils, baskets and curiosities. Don’t miss the animal market that starts before dawn and ends around 10am.

· Zumbagua Market · Saturday:

Located in the province of Cotopaxi and near the Quilotoa crater, this curious and colorful market is packed with traders, buyers and produce. There are stands selling everything from vegetables, animals and even barber or tailoring services.

Getting there & around

Direct international flights are available to both Quito and Guayaquil airports with regular direct service from Miami, Houston, New York, Atlanta, Panama, Amsterdam, Madrid and most South American countries. The northern Andes are best reached from Quito airport, while the southern Andes is easier to reach from Guayaquil airport on the coast. Air travel in the Ecuadorian Andes is quick, convenient and relatively inexpensive with airports in Cuenca, Loja and Quito. From them you can fly to airports located in Balta, Coca, Lago Agrio, Manta, Salinas, San Cristobal and Tena from both Cuenca and Quito, though not by direct flights in the case of Cuenca. There are direct flights to the Galapagos Islands and to Manta from Quito or Guayaquil airports, while direct flights to Salinas, Lago Agrio, Coca and Tena depart from Quito only.

Traveling by bus is simple and cheap, though levels of comfort vary widely and it can be harder getting to some of the more remote attractions. Another option is to take a furgoneta or minivan for a more comfortable experience that will take you to your destination in less time. There are also some scenic train routes which have recently been revamped, but they are more an experience rather than a way to travel. The Tren Crucero runs from Quito to Guayaquil over the course of four days and three nights. There are other shorter journeys available.

Renting a car is also an option though prices can be pretty steep and you should have both your national and international license with you. At TerraDiversa we also recommend bike rentals, chauffeur-driven minivans or 4×4 vehicles. We can provide professional guides to accompany you on your adventures if needed. Contact us for bookings.

Travel essentials

Please read our Ecuador Travel Guide for information about entry requirements, vaccine requirements, V.A.T. and luggage when traveling in Ecuador.

The official currency of Ecuador is the US dollar. Bring low-denomination bills as $50 and $100 bills are rarely accepted, except in banks. In smaller towns, you might have trouble with $20 bills. ATMs are readily available in bigger towns and cities such as Ambato, Baños, Cuenca, Loja, Otavalo, Quito and Riobamba, mostly connected with Visa/Plus and MasterCard/Cirrus/Maestro systems, though some accept American Express and Diners Club cards, but you usually won’t be able to withdraw more than $300-500 from an ATM in a day and local handling charges will apply. Traveller’s cheques are getting difficult to change.

Take into account that Value Added Tax (I.V.A. in Spanish) is 12% and is added to most goods and services, particularly in larger towns. This is often included in the quotes price directly, while others add it to the end of the bill. Sometimes a 10% service charge is added automatically as well, while often this at the clients discretion. V.A.T. can be refunded to foreign tourists leaving from Quito or Guayaquil airports for some Ecuadorian-made goods or accommodation services.

ID cards
Full-time students, under-26s and teachers should consider getting an ISIC card, International Youth Travel Card or International Teacher Card as these are sometimes recognized for discounts in larger towns. Over 65’s who are either residents or nationals are entitled to discounts on buses, flights, V.A.T. refunds, cinema tickets and more when they present an Ecuadorian cédula (ID card) as proof of identity.

Always ensure you purchase a suitable travel insurance policy when traveling abroad. When planning to take part in adventure activities, ensure your policy covers them. If you’re not sure, contact your insurance provider. We can provide information about travel insurance on request.

There is high quality and professional healthcare available in larger cities of the Ecuadorian Andes, such as Ambato, Cuenca, Loja and Quito, but smaller towns have only basic services.

If you are traveling to altitudes above 2500 meters, talk to your general practitioner to discuss health risks. To avoid altitude sickness we recommend you ascend gradually, stay well-hydrated and wear appropriate clothing. If you notice any signs of altitude sickness descend to a lower altitude and seek medical attention.

To avoid food poisoning or stomach problems, wash your hands frequently, use a sanitizing gel, avoid food sold on the street, drink bottled water and make sure your food is completely cooked or peeled.

Phone & Internet
Public and private phone offices with phone cabins are widely available, as are internet cafés. Roaming isn’t cheap anywhere in the country, so consider buying a phone and account in Ecuador, though coverage is limited when you’re off the beaten track. If you wish to use your own phone and purchase a chip, remember to unlock your phone before arrival as this is costly in Ecuador.

* This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please check before traveling.

Packing tips

The weather can be unpredictable in the Andes. When packing make sure to bring warm clothes, rain gear, hiking boots or shoes, light clothes for sunny weather and a swim suit for visiting hot springs. We always recommend sun protection and sunglasses as the sun can be very strong. If you are going to be doing any adventure activities you can usually rent all equipment from the tour operator but bring your own if you are particular.

Fact file

The official language of Ecuador is Spanish, but native communities in the Andes also speak Quichua (the Ecuadorian dialect of Quechua).

UNESCO world heritage sites
The Ecuadorian Andes are home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the city of Quito and the historic center of Cuenca.

The Ecuadorian Andes are home to a surprising number of national parks, species and ecosystems. It is possible to drive from humid cloud forests, through dense forests, páramo-covered hills dotted with mountain lakes and barren slopes of snow-capped volcanoes in a short space of time.

The external slopes of the Andes rise abruptly from the coastal and Amazon plains whose humidity nurtures lush cloud forest filled with tall trees, orchids and a vast array of bird species. Above 3000 meters begins a transition zone between cloud forest and páramo where trees become smaller and there is a curious mixture of small bushes, grasses and polylepis trees with their characteristic peeling red bark. The páramo itself begins at about 3300 meters, made up of grass covered hills able to survive the harsh climate. The páramo is home to the white-tailed deer, spectacled bear, mountain lion, miniature deer, rabbits, Andean fox, great horned owl and the Andean condor. There are many high lakes which were filled with trout in the 1970s that are perfect for fishing fanatics. The páramo are vital to the well-being of other ecosystems located downslope.

The Inca Trails
Did you know that the term Inca Trail is not exclusive to Peru? Qhapaq Ñan is an extensive Inca network of roads covering more than 30,000 kilometers and made up of two north-south roads with numerous branches. Qhapaq Ñan (meaning the beautiful road) was the main north-south highway of the Inca Empire running along the spine of the Andes and passing through six countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru – over some of the worlds most extreme geographic terrains. In 2014 the Qhapaq Ñan, including 273 sites spread over more than 6000 km, granted World Heritage status by the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO. This will make the deteriorated ancient route eligible for much-needed restoration funds and the six South American countries have agreed to work together to preserve it.

National Parks
For a country of historically limited resources, it is an impressive feat that Ecuador has managed to create so many protected areas, many of which lie in the Andes. If you’re looking to explore them, here is a comprehensive list of national parks in the Ecuadorian Andes, from north to south:

· Cayambe Coca National Park (Sucumbíos, Napo, Pichincha & Imbabura Provinces)

Located only about 38 kms from Quito, this park covers an area of more than 4000 km2. The local habitat includes the grasslands of the páramo and cloud forests. There are over 100 species of endemic plants and the area is home to the Andean condor, variable hawk, spectacled bear, foxes, armadillos, the pram rabbit, mountain tapir, cougar, over a hundred species of mammals, almost 400 species of birds, 70 reptiles and more than a hundred amphibians.

· Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park (Napo & Orellana Provinces)

Covering a remote area of more than 2000 km2 that reaches from the Andes down into the rainforest to the east, Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park contains inaccessible areas of which as yet little is known but experts estimate vast biodiversity. Lower altitudes are covered in humid tropical forest, while at higher altitudes surrounding the Sumaco volcano there are untouched primary forests. Some of the species present include the brown-throated sloth, military macaw, pink-throated brilliant, spectacled bear, tapir, jaguar and puma. To date scientists have recorded more than 800 bird species from over 60 families.

· Cotopaxi National Park (Cotopaxi Province)

Located about 50km south of Quito, Cotopaxi National Park is home to the Cotopaxi volcano, the dormant Rumiñawi volcano and Sincholagua volcano. Cotopaxi is amongst the highest active volcanoes in the world and is clearly visible from Quito on a clear day. It has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world and is popular with climbers.

· Llanganates National Park (Cotopaxi, Napo, Pastaza & Tungurahua Provinces)

Most famous for the Treasure of the Llaganatis, a legend that claims that Rumiñahui hid the treasure of Atahulapa in the region, the park is divided into two ecological zones with the Andean páramo to the west and the eastern zone that expands down the eastern flanks of the Andes made up of the twisted forests of the upper Amazon and rivers that empty down into the rainforest. The altitude ranges from 1200m to 4570m. Much of the landscape is untouched and many areas are as yet unexplored and unmapped. The highest mountain in the park is Cerro Hermoso. Researchers claim there are more than 800 plant species, 194 bird species and 51 mammal species, and visitors often spot toucans, monkeys, spectacled bears, capybaras, ocelots, parrots, jaguars, weasels and Andean tapirs.

· Sangay National Park (Morona Santiago, Chimborazo & Tungurahua Provinces)

Sangay National Park is home to two active volcanoes (Tungurahua and Sangay), one extinct volcano called El Altar and both tropical rainforests and glaciers. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an important refuge for rare species such as the Andean spectacled bear, wooly mountain tapir, pumas and Andean foxes. Experts estimate there are about 400 bird species inhabiting the park.

· Cajas National Park (Azuay Province)

Cajas National Park is located about 33 km west of Cuenca in Southern Ecuador. The park covers about 285 km2 at an altitude of between 3100m and 4450m above sea level. It is famous for its characteristic tundra vegetation covering hills and valleys. There are about 270 lakes and lagoons throughout the park. The name of the park comes from the Quichua word cassia which translates as gateway to the snowy mountains, though some link it to the Spanish word cajas meaning boxes due to its hundreds of lakes.

· Podocarpus National Park (Zamora Chinchipe Province)

Covering almost 1500 km2, this national park has a wide range of endemic species due to its location in the meeting point of four ecological systems: Northern Andes, Southern Andes, Amazonian and Pacific ecosystems. Named the Botanical Garden of America, there is a vast range of flora with more than 4000 species such as the romerillo tree, the cinchona and many orchids. Almost 70 mammals have been records including the mountain tapir, spectacled bear, northern pudu and jaguar. The area is ideal for hiking.

· Yacurí National Park (Zamora Chinchipe & Loja Provinces)

Over 400 km2 in the southernmost part of the Ecuadorian Andes, Yacurí National Park contains a variety of ecosystems including cloud forest, Andean evergreen forest and Andean brush plains. Ideal for hikers, the park contains almost fifty high-altitude lakes including Laguna Negra and Laguna Yacurí. The Inca Trail passes through the park and there are several archeological ruins. The area contains 280 plant species and 18 mammal species including the cougar, mountain tapir and spectacled bear. There are over a hundred species of birds.

Food & drink
In the highlands make sure you try locro de papas (a delicious soup of potato, cheese and corn with avocado), llapingachos (cheesy potato cakes), cuy (roast guinea pig), seco de chivo (mutton stew), hornado (slow-roasted pig), motepillo (boiled corn mixed with eggs) or even humitas (cakes of ground corn with cheese, sugar, butter and vanilla steamed in banana leaves) and higos con queso (figs with cheese). Also try to get your hands on nationally produced chocolate such as those made by Pacari which you can buy in select shops or in one of the bigger supermarkets.

We recommend visiting local markets to try one of the many fresh jugos (fruit juices) made from carrot, orange, coconut, taxo (a kind of passion fruit), mora, (blackberry), maracuyá (passion fruit), tomate de árbol (tree tomato), naranjilla or babaco (both fruits native to Ecuador). Pilsner and Club are the main national beer producers. Other nationally produced alcohol includes chicha (fermented corn drink), rum and aguardiente (sugar-cane spirit). In the mountains they combine aguardiente with sugar, cinnamon and hot water to make canelazo which is ideal for staying warm. Imported spirits and drinks are highly taxed and expensive.

Where to stay

When traveling through the Andes on your voyage in Ecuador, take note of the following recommendations of the best places to stay that includes boutique hotels for urban explorers and rural haciendas for nature lovers. Contact us if you’d like our advice on accommodation in Ecuador or need help making a reservation.

  • Casa Gangotena (Quito)
  • Copalinga (Podocarpus Natural Park)
  • Estrella Chimborazo Lodge (Chimborazo Base Camp)
  • Hacienda Abraspungo (Riobamba)
  • Hacienda Cusin (Otavalo)
  • Hacienda El Porvenir (Cotopaxi)
  • Hacienda La Alegría (Cotopaxi)
  • Hacienda La Cienega (Cotopaxi)
  • Hacienda Pinsaqui (Otavalo)
  • Hacienda San Agustin de Callo (Cotopaxi)
  • Hacienda Ushupud (Paute)
  • Hacienda Zuleta (Otavalo)
  • Hillary Nature Resort (Arenillas)
  • Hostería Izhcayluma (Villcabamba)
  • Hotel Gran Victoria (Loja)
  • Hotel Volcano (Baños)
  • Inca Real (Cuenca)
  • La Floresta (Baños)
  • La Mirage (Otavalo)
  • La Quinta (Alausí)
  • Luna Runtun (Baños)
  • Mansión Alcazar (Cuenca)
  • Mansión del Angel (Quito)
  • Mashpi Lodge (Mindo)
  • Posada Ingapirca (Ingapirca)
  • Santa Lucía (Quito)

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