Wonderful scenery is common-place almost everywhere you travel in the Andes, but the central highlands south of Quito offer some of the loveliest mountain scenery in the country.
The fertile valley between the main eastern and western sierras has been heavily populated since pre-Incan times. Large haciendas control the best land on the valley floor, while higher slopes are farmed by Quichua-speaking families who wring small crops of potatoes and maize from precipitous fields and terraces. Their winding lanes and peaceful hamlets, coupled with immense views, volcanic peaks, beautiful crater lakes, and 'perpetual spring' weather, make many parts of the sierras especially good for walking and trekking.
The Incan Royal Road between Quito and Cusco in Peru followed the valley's contours, as does the modern Pan-American Highway and the old railway line, whose westward branch plunges down the Devil's Nose towards the Pacific.
The Avenue of the Volcanoes
In this part of Ecuador, the Andes are at their most volcanic, with over fifty peaks (a good number of them active) pushing upwards from the colliding tectonic plates below. Alexander von Humboldt described the route south from Quito to Riobamba as the 'Avenue of the Volcanoes', with the peaks of the twin sierras arrayed on either side.
Driving south on the Pan American Highway on a fine day gives dramatic views of Pichincha (4,675m), Atacazo (4,463m), Corazón (4,788m), Ilinizas (5,248m), Carihuayrazo (5,028m) and Chimborazo (6,310m) in the western chain, while seen to the east are Pasochoa (4,199m), Rumiñahui (4,712m), Cotopaxi (5,897m), Quilindaña (4,877m), Tungurahua (5,029m), El Altar (5,319m), and Sangay (5,230m). The snow-line is usually around 5,000m.
The most impressive of these are Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Its perfectly symmetrical cone covered in a thick blanket of snow and ice rises gracefully from a beautiful high plain of grasslands grazed by herds of wild horses who gather to drink at the lovely Limpiopungo lagoon-a good spot for waterfowl and other birds, with the jagged white peaks of nearby Rumiñahui volcano reflected in its surface.
Walking in Cotopaxi National Park you will notice volcanic debris of pumice and ash amid the tiny páramos plants. On a day trip it is possible to drive as high as 4,600m (15,092ft) on the slopes of the volcano then hike up a scree to reach the snout of its glacier at 4,800m (15,748ft). The thinness of the air means this short distance can take well over an hour.
Chimborazo, long extinct, is the tallest mountain in Ecuador. Due to the bulge in the Earth at the equator its summit is the furthest point from the centre of the planet, surpassing even Everest. It was first climbed by English climber Edward Whymper in 1880. Day walkers who have acclimatised well to the altitude can trek to the edge of the glacier with 'los hieleros' (the ice men) who collect blocks of ice every week to supply stallholders in Riobamba market.
The Quilotoa 'loop'
Laguna Quilotoa is a breathtaking emerald green lake lying hidden until the very last moment behind the steep walls of a 3km wide volcanic caldera. It is well worth walking from the crater's rim down to the lake shore 300m below, returning by mule.
A small country road passes near the crater and links a number of local villages in a circular route, each with its own character. The larger villages hold markets on different days of the week: at Saquisilí, the Thursday market fills seven small plazas and connecting streets. Naïve paintings are a speciality of Tigua.
Springs and spas
Because of the geothermal activity in the Andes sulphur baths and hot springs are a welcome diversion. Whatever their therapeutic claims, the experience of bathing outside in steaming bubbly water after a day in the highlands is not to be missed.
Some, such as those in Baños are aimed at the local family market, while others, notably Termas Papallacta in the north, make foreign visitors and sophisticated spa enthusiasts from Quito their priority.
Several of Ecuador's haciendas -- large private estates scattered throughout the highlands -- make characterful and comfortable places to stay in a variety of styles and sizes, from sprawling mansions to ancient farmhouses much adapted over generations.
The best land in the highlands was parcelled out to the conquistadors and the settlers that followed in the form of encomiendas -- entitlements to tributes in cash, produce and labour from the 'indians' (a hated name, 'indígenas' -- indigenous people -- is much preferred). In return the settlers were entrusted to convert their charges to Christianity. Initially a practical encouragement to colonisation with altruistic overtones, the system became subverted to the simple accumulation of wealth, reducing indigenous people to extreme poverty and serfdom.
By the late 1690s the encomiendas were in decline as the indigenous population was reduced by epidemics, drought and earthquakes. They were replaced by the hacienda estates and a new system of serfdom called huasipungo. The workers' obligations continued but they were allowed tiny allotments in which they were expected to grow their families' food in their spare time. Typically these plots were on the steepest, least fertile parts of the estate. This system was not replaced until a 1964 land reform which entitled the indígenas to own land their families had farmed for centuries.
The haciendas' land has been significantly reduced by further reforms, and their owners have diversified. Many now receive paying guests. Origins aside, they are fascinating places to stay, often set in beautiful gardens, furnished with family heirlooms, and with log fires lit against the evening air of the mountains. Horse riding is commonly available but note that few can supply hard hats, so bring your own if you wish to ride.
On any visit to the Andes you will certainly see a great many people wearing traditional dress of many kinds. The strength and vibrancy of indigenous cultures, which have persisted since pre-Incan times, gives the highlands a special flavour.
A quarter of Ecuador's population are indigenous. The largest of the indigenous 'nations' is the Quichua, who are spread in various groupings throughout the highlands and in Peru (where the spelling is 'Quechua'). Quichua is their language of choice, though most are bilingual in Quichua and Spanish.
Traditional costume is used in the highlands to show one's standing as a true runa (Quichua for 'person') and to denote the local community to which you belong.
Different styles, designs, and colours of ponchos and blouses, skirts and trousers, belts and hair bands are worn by the men and women of each highland community. Hats too show where you are from. Felt trilbies trimmed with peacock feathers are favoured by men and women around Quilotoa. Around Riobamba, Cañaris wear straw bonnets of the type our grandmothers wore to school, while their neighbours, the Puruwas, choose white straw bowlers. The Salasaca, in the south, wear broad brimmed white hats with ponchos and shawls dyed the darkest blue-black in mourning for the Inca Atahualpa.
How you wear your clothes is important too: a shawl tied with a knot indicates an unmarried woman, whereas a clasp or ornate pin shows she is married.
Keeping up appearances nourishes a craft industry that extends through every village and almost every household. You will see ladies spinning yarn by hand, even while carrying a load of fire-wood along a mountain trail. Skeins of dyed wool dry on washing lines, sheaves of toquilla straw for hats hang to dry by the road, and home weavers work looms of uniquely Ecuadorian design.
All this creativity can be seen, and bought, in markets throughout the highlands, in different villages according to the day of the week. It's a time for locals to socialise and catch up on news, as well as browse colourful displays of textiles, clothes and hats, bulging sacks of maize, quinoa, lima beans and potatoes, piles of fruit, chilli peppers and spices, and useful assortments of buckets, rope and utensils.
It is more than likely that at some stage your visit will coincide with a village fiesta, may be to celebrate a day in the traditional calendar -- perhaps a solstice or equinox, a Catholic holy day or saint's day, or a local wedding. Each is celebrated at length and with fervour.
Devil's Nose train
'The most difficult railway in the world' was built between 1899 and 1908 to link Guayaquil on the Pacific coast and Quito in the highlands. The greatest of many obstacles along the route was a forbidding rock face known as the Devil's Nose, half a mile high. To climb this near vertical wall of rock engineers carved zigzag cuttings allowing trains to make the ascent in forward and backward stages.
The new railway was hailed as a triumph of railway engineering and was one of the great railway journeys of the world. Travelling on the roof of the train on surviving sections of track through the Andean countryside and down the formidable Devil's Nose section is an experience not to be missed.