Ecuador // The central sierra //

Lagunas de Atillo and the road to Macas

About 500m south of the turn-off to Guamote on the Panamericana, a couple of large signs point east to Macas and the Lagunas de Atillo, marking the start of the controversial new Guamote–Macas road slicing through the Parque Nacional Sangay to the Oriente – one of the most scenic routes in the country, as it traverses raw páramo, mountain lakes, tumbling waterfalls and descends into virgin forest.

About 48km southeast of Guamote, the road passes a network of lakes known as the Lagunas de Atillo, in whose icy waters the Puruháe people are said to have drowned their most reviled criminals in pre-Hispanic times. The most beautiful is Laguna Magdalena, dramatically framed by jagged, spiky peaks – bus drivers are usually happy to stop for a couple of minutes at the mirador looking down to it. Just beyond, the road climbs to a pass through the eastern cordillera, flanked by a small lake filled with sinister-looking water. A few kilometres east is the Guardería Atillo park ranger station, where you pay your entry fee ($10) for Sangay park. The little settlement of Atillo is a good base for exploration, with (basic) accommodation at Los Saskines (t 09/4811161; under $10) and owners who can cook you up a fresh trout.

East of here the road gradually leaves the windswept páramo behind as it descends towards the Amazon basin, flanked by steep slopes covered by dense cloudforest. As you get lower, the climate gradually becomes warmer and moister, feeling almost tropical by the time you reach the tiny community of Zuñac, 15km on from the ranger station. Five kilometres east of here is the park’s second ranger station, the Guardería Purshi, followed a further 5km east by the hamlet of San Vicente de Playas. About 20km further is another park entrance sign and a car park, giving onto a trail that follows the Río Cugusha upstream (3–4hr one way) to a sensational 80-metre waterfall crashing through forest where you can often see capuchin monkeys. The next proper village is Nueve de Octubre, about 28km east of San Vicente de Playas, also home to another ranger station, the Guardería Nueve de Octubre. Some 20km short of Macas, just before you descend the drop known as the Loma del Tigrillo, there’s a dramatic bend in the road from where a short trail leads to a viewpoint; the turbulent confluence of the Upano and Abanico rivers, with ashen Volcán Sangay brooding in the distance, is visible from here. The road ends its descent at Macas.

Buses run on simultaneous schedules leaving Macas and Guamote at 7am, noon and 4pm (5hr). In addition, there are two to three daily buses to Atillo from Riobamba’s Mercado San Francisco, 10 de Agosto and Benalcázar.