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 Cotacachiand 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.
Top image © steve100/Shutterstock
Some 33km north of Ibarra, the Panamericana forks at the village of Mascarilla, a black community with an impressive sideline in clay masks and figurines; there’s a checkpoint here (have your passport ready). To the left is the old road to Colombia via Mira, which is paved as far as El Ángel, but for the final 48km to Tulcán is in poor shape and rarely used; to the right, the busy Panamericana ascends the sun-baked Chota valley before turning to Bolívar, La Paz and San Gabriel on its way up to Tulcán and the Colombian border.
From Mira the road continues its climb for the next 25km to EL ÁNGEL at 3000m. It’s a friendly highland town whose most famous resident was topiarist José Franco Guerrero, responsible for the fantastic gardens in Tulcán; the Parque Libertad, at the top of the town was his herbal sketchpad for the more advanced creations to come. A peaceful place, El Ángel only gets busy during its Monday market, held on the streets running downhill from the Parque Libertad, where you’ll find clothes, produce and fresh fish caught from the nearby mountain lakes.
Most people come here to access the nearby Reserva Ecológica El Ángel, but another possibility is spending a few pleasant hours at La Calera hot springs, 11km southwest of town, at the bottom of a winding cobbled road in the crook of a forested valley. The site is pretty well deserted during the week, when you’ll have its naturally heated pool and cooler, larger swimming pool all to yourself – though the latter is emptied three times a week for cleaning (Mon, Wed & Fri after 1pm). At weekends, jeeps leave for the springs when full from the Parque Libertad ($1), but at other times you’ll have to rent a camioneta.
Established in 1992, the Reserva Ecológica El Ángel ($10), 15km north of the town of El Ángel, is home to some of Ecuador’s most interesting páramo landscapes, a windblown rain-soaked wilderness of rolling grassland hills and lakes, ranging in altitude from 3644m to 4768m. It’s most famous for its frailejones, peculiar furry-leaved plants endemic to the northern Andes, which grow on dark stems up to seven metres in height and cover 85 percent of the reserve’s 160 square kilometres, covering the hillsides like a ghostly vegetal army. The reserve’s wildlife includes foxes, deer and condors, and streams teem with rainbow trout. In a few of its sheltered pockets, forest supplants the soggy moorland, and dense thickets of trees such as the polylepis – draped with mosses, orchids and bromeliads – make the best places to spot hummingbirds and armadillos.
At the Mascarilla junction, the busy Panamericana continues east up the sere and dusty Chota valley, where the only greenery clings tightly to the banks of the Río Chota. This and the Mira valley are home to a number of Afro-Ecuadorian communities, the principal highland settlement being the slightly ramshackle town of Chota. The communities have developed a unique culture, an exotic mix of African and Andean traditions best experienced at a cultural performance (check the local press or ask at the tourist office in Ibarra). Their distinctive Bomba music features percussion, guitars and impromptu instruments, such as those made from leaves, while local dances involve such feats as balancing a bottle on the head, thought to represent the traditional African way of carrying objects. The valley is also home to many of Ecuador’s best professional footballers, despite a lack of grass pitches or stadiums.
A few kilometres further on, in the dry Quebrada de Ambuquí (Ambuquí Gorge), local resort-hotels draw weekend crowds of affluent Colombians and Ecuadorians, but few gringos. The best of these is Oasis, at Km39 (t06/2941200), which hosts a live Afro-Ecuadorian music show at weekends and features “mini cabañas” set around three pools, one with a wave machine (weekends only).
TULCÁN (2950m), the provincial capital of Carchi, is a skittish frontier town, shifting people with ruthless efficiency across the Ecuadorian–Colombian border, 7km away. The main bus terminal has dozens of services primed for Quito, and every other car seems to be a taxi or camioneta shuttling to and from the frontier. Commerce thrives here, with markets on Thursdays and Sundays, and shops crammed with merchandise crowd the narrow streets. Since dollarization, however, and the resulting rise in domestic prices, business has not been so brisk. Where Colombians used to trawl the town looking for bargains, Ecuadorians are now the ones making the quick trip over the border in search of cheaper goods.
Most travellers don’t linger in Tulcán, but if you’ve got time between buses, make sure you see the splendid topiary gardens in the town cemetery, or for longer layovers, you could visit the isolated thermal springs, set high in beautiful páramo near Tufiño to the west (depending on the security situation). The town’s two spirited fiestas occur on April 11, for the cantonization of Tulcán, and November 19, to mark the day Carchi became a province.
Tulcán’s glorious topiary gardens are its one undeniable highlight, located at the cemetery on Cotopaxi and Avenida del Cementerio, a fifteen-minute walk northeast of the centre, or a short taxi ride from the bus station ($1). Fragrant cypresses have been snipped with meticulous care into more than a hundred different figures and patterns, including Arabian palms, Egyptian columns, Inca trapezoids and formal French lines.