Southern Andes Travel Guide

When traveling through the Andes down the Panamericana, the peaks and volcanoes of the central Andes give way to a gentler landscape. The southern sierra, made up of the provinces of Cañar, Azuay and Loja, has a faraway feel to it, with a scarcity of large towns, long stretches of wild uninhabited countryside, far less tourists and some of the most beautiful destinations in Ecuador.

Famous for its colonial architecture, Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city, and is the ideal base camp to explore the southern Andes. From there you can visit Incapirca, Ecuador’s only major Inca remains, and craft-making villages such as Gualaceo, Chordeleg, Sigsig and San Bartolomé, which specialize in the production of ikat woven handicrafts, Panama hats, gold and silver jewelry, guitar making, orchids and fruit. Cajas is paradise for nature lovers and hikers thanks to its páramo-covered hills, mountain lakes, forests and trout fishing.

Heading further south the sense of remoteness increases with towns such as Saraguro that enjoys a palpable indigenous tradition and the provincial capital of Loja which is a jumping point for excursions to the Podocarpus National Park and to the relaxing gringo hangout of Vilcabamba, known as the valley of eternal youth.

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 southern Andes, take into account the following events and festivities which are particularly attractive.

· Corpus Cristi · Cuenca · June:

The Feast of Corpus Christi and Septenary is a week-long event is held to celebrate of the Eucharist of the body of Christ. Corpus Cristi begins on the first Thursday after the week of Pentecost and is a commemoration that is both religious and popular regarding the universal celebration of the body of Christ.

Festivities take place around the Parque Calderón. Each day, different priostes (stewards) pay all the expenses of the festivities—amazing towers of fireworks and many hot air balloons made out of paper. Bands enliven the festivities and popular games of chance are set up and played. Very traditional in this celebration are the “Dulces de Corpus” (Confectioner’s Sugar Candy of Corpus) such as quesitos (honeymoon pies), arepas (butter cookies), huevitos de faltriquera (sugar candy), and roscas de viento (puff-pastry).

· Fiestas de Cuenca · Independence of Cuenca · November:

Cuenca’s independence from Spain occurred on November 3rd 1820. From November 1st to 4th commemorative acts of a civic, military, cultural and folklore nature are held throughout the city.

· 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.

· Inti Raymi · Festival of the Sun · Ingapirca & Cañar · June 24th:

An Incan religious ceremony in honor of the god Inti, the festival takes place on the day of the winter solstice to mark the importance of the sun in the lives of the Incas. Indigenous communities throughout the Andes still celebrate Inti Raymi to renew their connections to Mother Earth and make offerings to the sun and the earth. In Ingapirca this festival would have been celebrated undoubtedly at the Temple of the Sun. These days the celebrations and ritual ceremonies are reenacted at the ruins with dancing, symbolic battles and offerings. At Ingapirca the celebrations combine Inca rituals with the traditions of the local Cañai culture.

· 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.

Getting there & around

There are direct flights to Cuenca and Loja Airports from both Quito and Guayaquil. 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. Traveling by bus from Cuenca you can reach Guayaquil in about 3 or 4 hours, Quito in 8 hours, Huaquillas on the Peruvian border in 4 hours and Loja in 3 or 4 hours. From Loja you can reach Peru via Macará in about 3 hours. Vilcabamba is only 30 minutes from Loja and 5 hours from Cuenca.

Another option is to take a furgoneta or minivan for a more comfortable experience that will take you to your destination in less time. 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 Cuenca and Loja, 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.

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 Cuenca and Loja, 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. If you’re going to do any hiking in the natural parks wear long sleeves and lightweight clothes for mosquitos and for quick drying in the case of rain. 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. If you’re traveling to more remote areas, take food with you.

Fact file

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

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.

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 southern Ecuadorian Andes:

· 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 super markets.

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 Simpson (Tapichalaca Reserve – Loja)
  • Copalinga (Podocarpus Natural Park)
  • Hacienda Uzhupud (Paute)
  • Hillary Nature Resort (Arenillas)
  • Hostería Izhcayluma (Villcabamba)
  • Hostería Santa Barbara (Cuenca)
  • Hotel Gran Victoria (Loja)
  • Inca Real (Cuenca)
  • Mansión Alcazar (Cuenca)
  • Posada Ingapirca (Ingapirca)


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