As you head south down the Panamericana from the central highlands, the snowcapped peaks and rumbling volcanoes give way to a softer, gentler landscape of lower elevations and warmer, drier climates. Ecuador’s southern sierra – made up of the provinces of Cañar, Azuay and Loja – was until recently a very isolated part of the country, left without proper roads to the capital and Guayaquil until the 1960s. The region still has a lonely, faraway feel to it, reinforced by its sparse population, scarcity of large towns and long stretches of wild, uninhabited countryside. Its charms, however, are considerable, with some of the most rewarding and beautiful pockets of Ecuador tucked away here.
The main urban centre – and only large city – of the southern sierra is Cuenca, famed for its stunning colonial architecture and graceful churches and monasteries. Easily the country’s most captivating city, it was raised on the site of the ruined city of Tomebamba, built by the Incas in the late fifteenth century following their conquest of the region, which had been occupied by the Cañari people for almost a thousand years. Virtually nothing remains of Tomebamba, but you can get an idea of the remarkable stonework the Incas were famous for – executed without iron to carve it or wheels to transport it – at the ruins of Ingapirca, Ecuador’s only major Inca ruins, within easy striking distance of Cuenca. On Cuenca’s doorstep is an attraction of a very different nature: the starkly beautiful wilderness of Parque Nacional Cajas, which provides some of the best backcountry hiking and trout fishing in the country, if you’re willing to put up with a bit of rain and mist.
South of Cuenca, the sense of remoteness and abandonment increases as you pass mile after mile of largely uncultivated hills and pastures. The few villages and one-horse towns staggered down the highway seem scarcely to have entered the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first, with their steep cobbled streets, ageing stuccoed houses and grand old churches. The town of Saraguro, in particular, feels like a real step back in time, with an indigenous population that maintains a centuries-old tradition of dressing in black. Further south, the small provincial capital of Loja is an island of comparative motion and activity, hemmed in by jagged, deep-green hills that soar over the town. It serves as a good jumping-off point for a couple of highly worthwhile excursions: east to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, stretching down from the sierra to the tropical cloudforests of the Oriente, close to the old gold-mining town of Zamora; and south to the laid-back gringo hangout of Vilcabamba, nestled in a peaceful mountain valley. Loja is also the starting point of the only direct bus service to Peru; for more details.