Beyond the Galapagos: Ecuador’s Majestic Highlands

Beyond the Galapagos: Ecuador’s Majestic Highlands

February 8, 2011

Every year, thousands of people flock to Ecuador to see the Galapagos.  And with good reason – the Galapagos are fascinating and absolutely unique.  Anyone interested in wildlife will find them the experience of a lifetime.

But most people hustle off to the Galapagos and straight back home again, without seeing the other wonders that Ecuador has to offer.  Ecuador is one of the most diverse countries on earth, with wildly different ecosystems and cultures, all easily accessible from Quito.

The easiest region of all to explore from Quito is the highlands.  You are already there – Quito is nestled in the Andes mountains at over 9,000 feet (2850 meters) above sea level.  Stretching north and south from Quito is the Panamerican Highway, along which are a number of fascinating sites that are well worth a visit.

The stretch northward is the better known of the two, as it include Mitad de Mundo, a monument and tourist attraction where the equator crosses Ecuador, and the famed market town of Otavalo.  The two can be easily combined as a day trip from Quito, and if that is all you have time for, go for it.  While it’s only a small taste of what the highlands have to offer, it’s still better than nothing!

Mitad del Mundo is only 16 miles north of Quito.  It has become quite a complex, with an ethnography museum, a planetarium, and a miniature model of Quito.  And, of course, restaurants and souvenir shops.  Ironically, the line that shows the equator is not where the equator is currently considered to run.  Due to changes in mapping strategies, the actual equator is now considered to be about 240 yards north of the line.  But it’s still an entertaining photo op.

The market at Otavalo is the most famous market in Ecuador, and justly so.  It’s huge.  Really huge.  There’s a livestock market, and food market, and an enormous artisan market selling every kind of handicraft you can imagine (and some you would never have imagined).

Saturday is the main market day, but there is also a lively market on Wednesday, that is less crowded and still has a wonderful selection.  And don’t limit yourself to the market itself – Otavalo is a thriving town with galleries, artist’s cooperatives, and restaurants.  Surrounding Otavalo are small villages specializing in particular crafts or arts – leather, weaving, or music to name just a few.  And of course there are the waterfalls and lakes, hiking opportunities….you won’t be bored.

The stretch from Quito south to Cuenca is know, appropriately enough, as the Avenue of the Volcanoes.  From this stunning stretch of roadway, you can see 9 of Ecuador’s 10 tallest peaks.

Only an hour and a half south of Quito lies Cotopaxi, a majestic, perfect cone that at 19,350 feet is the world’s highest active volcano.

Cotopaxi on a clear day

The mountain is the centerpiece of the large Cotopaxi National Park.  The main attraction is, of course, the mountain itself, which at certain times of year can be climbed without technical equipment.  Be aware, however, that it is still a very challenging climb, and anyone attempting it should be in good physical condition and well acclimatized to the altitude.

There’s plenty for non-climbers as well – hiking, bird watching, and mountain biking are all available in the park.

While one can camp in the park, there are a number of nearby hotels that offer accommodation of all types, from basic hostels to luxurious historic haciendas.

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