Cuenca and the Southern Sierra
As you head south down the Panamericana from the central highlands, the snowcapped peaks and rumbling volcanoes give way to a softer, gentler landscape of lower elevations and warmer, drier climates. Ecuador’s southern sierra was until recently a very isolated part of the country, with some of the most rewarding and beautiful pockets of Ecuador tucked away here.
Within this region
About an hour south of Quito is the Cotopaxi National Park, which surrounds the world’s highest active volcano. Near the eastern flank of the park are some large haciendas whose annual cattle round-ups are an attraction for intrepid riders. There are also several important markets, such as Saquisilí, Pujilí and Zumbahua. »»
Riobamba is a lively and attractive city sitting on the Panamericana 52km south of Ambato. Most famously, it is the start of the stunning train journey passing the famous ‘Devil’s Nose’ switchback below Alausí village. »»
On the northern edge of the Sangay National Park and at the base of Tungurahua volcano is the scruffy pilgrimage town of Baños, popular as a tourist destination for its hydrothermal springs as well as its many adventure activities giving it the reputation as 'the adventure capital of Ecuador'. »»
Retaining its old colonial atmosphere Cuenca is one of the most attractive cities in Ecuador, with the historic centre containing churches dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. West from Cuenca is the Cajas National Park, full of glacial lakes set amongst breathtaking scenery at 10,000 feet, an excellent area for walking and bird watching. »»
A couple of hours north of Cuenca are the impressive ruins of Ingapirca (meaning 'Inca stone wall'), Ecuador’s most important Inca site with the empire’s only remaining sun temple set high on a hill overlooking the surrounding valley. »»