Amagnificent sequence of volcanoes, sparkling crater lakes and patchwork scenery, the Northern Sierra extends northeast from Quito for 140 kilometres to the Colombian border. Down on the ground along the Panamericana, the main transport artery, this translates as 250km of highway snaking between cloud-piercing mountain peaks, windblown hilltop passes, warm valleys bursting with fruit orchards and flower plantations and a couple of major ecological reserves. For many visitors, the prime lure has long been the region’s vibrant markets, and although many key destinations are within easy reach of Quito, wandering from the bus-laden Panamericana will quickly take you into seldom-visited countryside.
Leaving the capital, the first town of any significant size is Cayambe, set at the foot of Volcán Cayambe – the highest point in the world on the equator. Close by are the pre-Inca ruins of Cochasquí, the Quitsato equator monument and the bone-warming hot springs of Oyacachi, an idyllic village nestled in the high forests of the vast Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca. The main attraction of the region, however, just forty minutes from Cayambe and two hours from the capital, is Otavalo’s irresistible artesanía market. One of the continent’s most famous markets, it’s at its biggest on Saturday but good throughout the week, bursting with an irresistible array of weavings, garments, carvings, ceramics, jewellery and many assorted knick-knacks. The weaving tradition in the Otavalo valley predates even the Incas, and virtually all of its towns specialize in a particular area of craftwork, from embroidery and woven belts to bulky knitted socks; furthermore, the nearby towns of Cotacachi and San Antonio de Ibarra, are the respective national centres of leather goods and woodcarving. An easy excursion to Laguna Cuicocha, tucked in the southernmost corner of the striking Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve, gives a taster of the wildernesses unfurling westward, not least the teeming cloudforests of the Intag region beyond.
The largest city in the northern sierra, Ibarra, 30km north of Otavalo, charms with elegant, whitewashed buildings and its relaxed atmosphere. Once the point of departure for a famously hair-raising train ride to the coast at San Lorenzo, Ibarra now sits at the head of a new road providing the country’s fastest highway link between the sierra and the sea, descending through dramatic scenery from highlands to cloudforests to coast. A few kilometres north of Ibarra, the old road to the Colombian border branches off from the Panamericana and climbs to El Ángel, the 3000-metre-high access point to the remote Reserva Ecológica El Ángel, where undulating páramo grasslands are speckled with rare frailejones flowers. Meanwhile, the Panamericana ascends the dry and dusty Chota valley, one of the few places where African and Andean traditions have blended, on its way to Tulcán, a frontier town close to Colombia that plays unlikely host to some remarkable topiary gardens.