Ecuador’s Andean Highlands – Part 1
In Ecuador’s Andean Highlands, you are surrounded by a patchwork of green beauty all the way up the mountainsides. Ecuador’s Andean Highlands are located between the western and coastal lowlands and the eastern Amazonian jungle. They offer diverse nature including volcanoes – live and extinct, hot springs and thermal baths, and unique flora and fauna.
We made several different trips to Ecuador’s Andean Highlands, either day trips from Quito or 3-day weekends. It’s so easy to get to these areas. Buses are plentiful and cheap. Here is an overview of some of the places you might want to visit in Ecuador’s Andean Highlands.
Ecuador’s Andean Highlands – Imbabura Province
The scenery is a Wow! Exquisite green mountains, a collage of emeralds, hunter greens, lime greens and more – painted like a green patchwork quilt in Ecuador’s Andean Highlands! The landscape has terraced hillsides, dotted with trees and flowers. And such clean air!!
In Ecuador’s Andean Highlands, also known as La Sierra, our first trip took us to Yachay, which is not far from the Colombian border in the Imbabura Province. Yachay has been farming country and now Ecuador is converting Yachay to ‘The City of Knowledge.’ A new University – now active – is being continually developed there with surrounding highland farms. The University or ‘City of Knowledge’ is focused on high-tech R&D innovation with investments from Toyota, Intel, Microsoft, and more, with hopes of becoming the next Silicon Valley. It sits high in the Andes among calm, quiet, rural landscape. You would never know that you are close to the Colombian border. After all, in the Andes there are not many roads.
Learn about the plans at http://www.cnet.com/news/plotting-the-next-silicon-valley-youll-never-guess-where/. The countryside is gorgeous, and it is quite interesting to see Ecuador’s investment in education. Students go to the college for free provided they have good grades, and they pay very little to live on campus. There are electric cars (donated by Toyota) that can be borrowed to get around campus. An interesting concept, and an excellent direction for education. A walk through the university grounds treats you to a garden of carvings by woodworkers from the local Ibara area, known for its beautiful wood furniture, wood sculptures and art carvings. For me, the scenery is the draw. It is all quite impressive.
Drive from Quito on Pan American Highway
Even the views from the bus windows are beautiful as you drive north out of Quito on the Pan American Highway cutting through the mountains in Ecuador’s Andean Highlands. In some ways it reminds me of the US highways carved through the Rockies; however, the Andean Highlands differ in look and character. It is such an exquisite sight; I apologize that we don’t have any good photos of it. It is difficult to photograph, so you have to go see it for yourself. I recommend the bus from Quito to Otavalo (it is under $3 per person each way); they leave every 10 minutes from Terminal Terrestre, and the buses are run by Cooperativa Los Lagos and Cooperativa Otavalo lines. You only need to go for a day trip, or you can stay overnight in a local hostel (their name for BnBs) or on a Hacienda outside of town.
If you are on a tour or are driving, stop at Kichwa (Quechua) store and the San Pablo Lake (the largest lake in Ecuador) overlook as you come around the curve into Otavalo. At times the local Quechua people are playing music or showing off their Alpaca and Llama in traditional garb. The modern store serves coffee and snacks, and sells beautifully made local crafts – scarves, carved wood items, instruments, and more.
Cascadas de Peguche
On our 1-day trip to Imbarbura in Ecuador’s Andean Highlands, we stopped at the gorgeous Peguche Falls. It’s worth the stop. Peguche Falls is an Indigenous Ceremonial Site, as they hold their purification baths here during a harvest celebration in June. These waters are a sacred site within 40 acres of protected forest, which is known as one of the most beautiful forests in Ecuador.
Andean Highlands Ecuador – Otavalo
Otavalo is a colorful ‘must-see’ in Ecuador’s Andean Highlands, filled with local culture, indigenous people, their well-made crafts and local farm foods at Plaza de los Ponchos. It is known as South America’s largest indigenous market. Once people learn about Otavalo, they definitely put it on their ‘to do’ list – to see, to buy! Don’t forget an extra suitcase for the high quality crafted treasures you buy at bargain prices in Otavalo. And yes, you must bargain in Ecuador. Sometimes you can get gorgeous shawls or leather goods at half of the original asking price. Don’t be afraid to bargain. It is expected, and they will drive a hard bargain so stick with it, and be ready to walk away.
Although Otavalo is on the Equator and sunny most of the time (take sunscreen, water, and a hat), the indigenous ladies trek to Otavalo from the mountains with their goods. Fruits and veggies are outstanding. We tried things we have never seen before – Babaco, Guanabana, Pitahaya, and more. The spices are plentiful too.The big market day is Saturday.
On two trips to both Yachay and Cotacachi, we went to Otavalo, and we still could have gone to Otavalo another time. There is so much to see. While I am sure you need to watch out for some things made in China, there is no shortage of handmade rugs, fabric, alpaca sweaters and shawls, wood carvings, paintings, spices, fruits, wall hangings, yarns, blankets, jewelry. It’s so colorful too! If you go, don’t forget your gift list.
Andean Highlands Ecuador – Parque Condor
Have you seen a condor up close and personal? They are huge – the largest flying animal on the planet; you can appreciate their size when the little local people feed the condors. Would you like to see numerous types of birds of prey? See buzzard eagles, many types of owls, falcons, hawks. They rehab birds of prey.
Parque Condor is minutes from the Otavalo Markets, perched on the steep hillside of Pucara Alto, 2 km from town, and quite a different but exhilarating adventure high above the town. They offer birds of prey shows in the outdoor Roman-like arena. The park has shows at 11-11:30 AM and 3:30-4 PM weather permitting. In Ecuador, your have a better chance for no rain before 2 PM, so go for the morning show. We got caught in the rain, and there is no shelter, you’ll be drenched.
Andean Highlands Ecuador – Ibarra
On the way home from Yachay, we stopped in Ibarra for some local culture. A Christmas pageant with little girls dressed up was happening in the town square surrounded by the giant wood carvings of the saints. Ibarra, the Capital City of the Imbabura Province at the foot of the Imbabura Volcano, is known for woodworking. One of our group bought a beautiful wood end table for $15. If you are furnishing your home in Ecuador, Ibarra is a must. If not, you’ll still want to see the woodwork and bring home a small carving or sculpture. The markets are on Saturdays.
For some additional history of Ibarra – apparently ice cream or sorbet was first made here in Incan time.
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