The longest continental mountain range in the world (and also one of the highest), the Andes sweep down the spine of Ecuador setting the stage for serious adventure such as mountaineering and adrenalin-charged mountain biking, as well as rather more pastoral pursuits like hiking or a visit to a rose farm.
The northern, central and southern highlands present distinctly varied landscapes: from the eerie moors of Parque Nacional Cajas in the south with its chilly fairy-tale like forests of dwarf Polylepis, to the majestic snow-capped volcanoes and ice-blue glaciers of Cotopaxi, Antisana and Chimborazo in the central highlands.
To the north, the more arid landscape is softened by valleys of maize and flower farms, which nestle in the folds of the volcanic peaks of Cayambe, Imbabura and Cotacachi. High altitude landscapes eventually give way to the steamy lowlands of the west and the rainforest to the east, often with rich transition zones of luxuriant cloud forest in between.
The mountains are home to a diverse group of inhabitants: indigenous farmers, mestizos (of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent) and descendants of the old colonials come together to create a heady mix of cultures and rich traditions that can be found thriving in elegant colonial cities and tiny outlying villages alike. The traditions of the highlands are often best observed in the many bustling, colourful weekly markets. Here, the results of time-honoured crafts such as weaving, wood-carving and cheese-making can be sampled and enjoyed as locals, attired in the distinctive traditional dress of their clan, catch up on the week’s news over a plate of fritada.
The flora and fauna of this striking environment are not to be outdone: orchids, birds and rare mammals such as the Andean spectacled bear add to Ecuador’s astounding biodiversity. The world’s largest and smallest birds equally find their home in this wonderfully diverse mountain habitat — from the soaring Andean condor with its average wingspan of 10 feet to the tiny hummingbirds that dart from flower to flower in an exuberant display of colour and speed.
After an exhilarating day in the great outdoors, it is a comfort to know that the highlands abound with great places in which to stay and relax: from comfortable old colonial haciendas with their hints of the past, to steaming thermal baths and spas, cloud forest lodges and boutique or five star luxury hotels — all offering the traditional warmth and hospitality that characterise the serranos or peoples of the mountains.
Ishpingo Tours and the Andes
While more accessible than say, the rainforest or the Galapagos, the Ecuadorian Andes, like most mountains, are to be treated with a great deal of respect. We work only with reputable establishments that we trust to ensure our guests’ well-being — particularly where we are engaging in adventurous activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking or zip-lining, for example. We like to make sure that all is in top-notch order and as always, we avoid working with operators who may cut corners or who do not run on sound responsible tourism principles.
When to Come
In general, the highland climate is characterised by days that are warm and pleasant and evenings and nights that can be chilly. The dry season runs approximately from June to September with October to May being the wetter months. However, the weather depends as much on small differences in altitude as it does on the time of year, and so best be prepared pretty much anytime for wet/dry and warm/cold — as the locals will be quick to tell you; in the highlands you can experience all four seasons in a day.
What to Bring
As the weather can be changeable, it is wise to pack for wet and cold weather as well as warm days. Good walking boots are necessary if serious hiking is on the cards. The equatorial sun is exceptionally strong at these altitudes so high factor sunblock and some sort of hat are essential items.