South of Quito, the two parallel chains of the Andes running the length of Ecuador rise to their most dramatic and spectacular heights in the central sierra, forming a double row of snowcapped peaks the nineteenth-century German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, memorably christened “the avenue of the volcanoes”. Eight of the country’s ten highest summits are found here, including Chimborazo (6268m), Cotopaxi (5897m) and El Altar (5320m), towering over a series of inter-montane basins separating the two ranges. Sitting in these basins, at an altitude of around 2800m, are the region’s principal towns – Latacunga, Ambato and Riobamba – strung north to south along the Panamericana. On a very clear day, the drive south from Quito through this parade of mountains facing each other across the highway ranks among the world’s great road journeys. Frustratingly, the highest peaks are often lost in the low, grey clouds so typical of the region, and it’s quite possible to travel right through the central sierra without spotting a single summit.
Yet even with these pinnacles hidden from view the landscape is stunning. Almost every mountain is covered by a dense patchwork of fields stretching up the slopes to extraordinary heights. Alternating strips of maize, barley, potatoes and quinoa (a cereal grown only in the Andes) form streaks of intense greens and muted yellows, oranges and limes, splashed with the occasional scarlet poncho of the indígenas tending the crops. This deeply rural region is the indigenous heartland of Ecuador, a place still brimming with Quichua-speaking communities whose lifestyles and work patterns have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The economic and social focus of these communities – and the best place to get a feel for traditional Andean life – are the weekly markets held throughout the region. One of the largest and most exciting is at the small town of Saquisilí, near Latacunga, where hundreds of red- and pink-shawled indígenas fill the streets, examining mountains of fresh produce or stalls selling anything from rope to soap. Other notable markets include those at the village of Zumbahua, also near Latacunga, and the town of Guamote, south of Riobamba.
Most visitors stick to the more obvious destinations like Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, dominated by the perfect cone of the eponymous volcano, and the little town of Baños, whose warm climate, spectacular setting and thermal springs have made it a magnet for Ecuadorians and foreigners alike – despite the renewed activity of nearby Volcán Tungurahua. Another favourite with gringos is the famous train ride from Riobamba: it no longer runs all the way to Guayaquil, on the coast, but the hundred-kilometre stretch as far as the dramatic incline known as the Nariz del Diablo (“Devil’s Nose”) is maintained as a tourist service, offering fanatastic views and a thrilling ride.
To get the most out of the central sierra it’s worth straying off the beaten track, into the more remote areas east and west of the Panamericana. Rewarding outings include a trip to the stunning crater lake of Quilotoa, approached from Latacunga via some of the most gorgeous scenery in Ecuador; a trip from Ambato to the isolated town of Guaranda, then on to the lovely, lost-in-the-hills village of Salinas; or an exploration of the valleys, lakes and peaks of Parque Nacional Sangay, a sprawling wilderness area east of Riobamba, approached from various access points scattered around the western cordillera.