The southern sierra Travel Guide
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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 Cañaripeople 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 ofIngapirca, 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.
Top image: Glittering-throated Emerald © Wilfred Marissen/Shutterstock
There are a number of very rewarding excursions you can make in the area around Cuenca, using the city as a base for day-trips. Fifteen minutes away, the thermal baths of Baños are supremely relaxing, particularly after a spot of hiking or fishing in Parque Nacional Cajas, forty minutes west of the city, packed with trout-filled lakes, brooding mountains and swirling mists. Heading east, you can visit the rural communities of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig on a scenic bus ride through the hills, and find out more about the crafts produced there. Southwest of Cuenca, on the road to Machala, the small town of Girón makes a worthwhile excursion for its nearby waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation.
Only 35km northwest of Cuenca, PARQUE NACIONAL CAJAS is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador: a wild, primeval landscape of craggy hills and glacier-scoured valleys studded with a breathtaking quantity of lakes (235 at last count), glinting like jewels against the mottled earth and rock surrounding them. Spread over 290 square kilometres of high páramo (3000–4500m), the park offers superb hiking and trout fishing opportunities and – despite sitting on the doorstep of a major city – a tremendous sense of solitude, with visitors kept at bay by the rain and fog that so frequently plague the area. This inhospitable environment harbours more flora and fauna than first impressions might suggest: native quinua trees, with their gnarled and twisted branches, grow alongside the rivers that thread through the park, and many species of shrubs and flowers adapted to harsh climates – such as the orange-flowered chuqiragua – survive on the moorland. There’s also a tract of dense, humid cloudforest, peppered with orchids and bromeliads, on the eastern edge of the park. The park is also home to wildcats, pumas, deer and some spectacled bears, though you’re far more likely to see ducks, rabbits and perhaps some recently reintroduced llamas. Cajas is also rich in birdlife, including woodpeckers, hummingbirds, mountain toucans and Andean condors. Human relics include a scattering of pre-Hispanic ruins, probably of former shelters for those travelling between the sierra and the coast, as well as a four-kilometre restored section of the Ingañán, an old Inca road, conserving much of its original paving.
The best place to start exploring Parque Nacional Cajas is at the Information Centre on the edge of the shimmering Laguna Toreadora, easily reached from Cuenca along the paved highway running through the park on its way to the coast. This is where you register your visit, pay your $10 entrance fee (if you have not already done so at the Quinuas road control 8km closer to Cuenca) and pick up a free 1:70,000 colour map of the park.
The official map details ten hiking routes across the park, ranging from short hops of an hour or two to end-to-end treks of two or three days. You can supplement this map with 1:50,000 IGM maps covering the area (Cuenca, Chaucha, San Felipe de Molleturo and Chiquintad), but the black-and-white copies can be hard to read.
The most popular day-hike (a combination of route 2 and part of route 1; 5–6hr) starts at the Information Centre, taking you northeast past Laguna Toreadora, through a quinua forest and down southeast past Laguna Totoras and Laguna Patoquinuas. The hike ends back at the highway, some 8km east of the Information Centre, at the Quinuas checkpoint, where you can catch the bus back to Cuenca; ask the warden to show you the path, which is straightforward to follow and quite easy-going.
Alternatively, there’s a good hike (also 5–6hr), which starts 4km further west along the highway from the Information Centre, at the Tres Cruces hill on the left-hand (south) side of the road. At 4160m, the hill straddles the continental divide between waters draining west into the Pacific and east into the Amazon basin – you can scramble up it in about fifteen minutes, for great views over the park. The trail (route 5 on the map) takes you down past a string of three lakes – Negra, Larga and Tagllacocha – bringing you to the Ingañán (paved Inca road) by Laguna Luspa, before heading right (west) back towards the highway.
There are numerous possibilities for multi-day hikes too – consult the park map and IGM maps and ask the warden for guidance. It’s essential to come well prepared: with the possibility of thick fog obscuring visibility, and a tendency for paths to peter out into nowhere, you should bring emergency food and ideally a survival blanket even on short day-hikes, in case you get lost. Although it’s often hot enough to hike in a t-shirt when the sun’s out (usually in the morning), the temperature can quickly drop below freezing in bad weather, and is perishing at night, so take plenty of layers and warm gear, including a hat and gloves. You’ll also need waterproof clothing and sturdy, waterproof boots, preferably with gaiters; if you’re camping make sure your tent is well sealed or you’ll have a wet and miserable time. It’s driest between June and August, but it might rain, hail or snow at any time of the year.
Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca, otherwise known simply as CUENCA (2530m), is Ecuador’s most seductive – and possibly its most beautiful – colonial city. A classic example of a planned Renaissance town in the Americas, Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and shares many architectural features with Old Quito: narrow, cobbled streets, harmonious, balconied houses with interior courtyards and an abundance of flashing white churches and monasteries – all presented without the pollution, noise and overbearing crowds of the capital.
Founded by the Spaniards on April 12, 1557, Cuenca was not the first dazzling city to be erected here: the Inca Tupac Yupanqui founded the city of Tomebamba here around 1470, which was said to have rivalled Peru’s Cuzco with its splendour. Its glory was short-lived, however, as the city was destroyed during the Inca civil war that broke out during the second decade of the sixteenth century, prompted by rival claims to the throne by the brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar. By the time Cieza de León (one of the chroniclers of the Spanish conquest) saw it in 1547, Tomebamba was in ruins, but enough remained to evoke its former grandeur: “These famous lodgings of Tumibamba were among the finest and richest to be found in all Peru…The fronts of many of the buildings are beautiful and highly decorative, some of them set with precious stones and emeralds…Today, all is cast down and in ruins, but it can still be seen how great they were.” These days, Cuenca’s Inca legacy has all but vanished, hinted at only by the foundation stones of some of its buildings, and some modest ruins excavated in the twentieth century.
About half a kilometre east of the Iglesia Todos los Santos, at the eastern end of Calle Larga, the Museo del Banco Central is Cuenca’s most polished and absorbing museum. The ground floor contains a room devoted to the Inca city of Tomebamba, displaying some beautiful Inca artefacts including jewellery, fertility symbols and ritualistic objects. Also on the ground floor is a collection of nineteenth-century art, dominated by religious paintings and sombre portraits, but with some wonderful costumbrista (folk art) pieces showing indigenous people dancing, playing the fiddle or roasting a hog. The highlight of the museum is the Sala Etnografía Nacional on the first floor, which illustrates the diversity of Ecuador’s indigenous cultures using day-to-day objects and reconstructions. Displays include an extraordinary exhibition of Shuar tsantsas (shrunken heads) from the southern Oriente; a model of a masked dancer from the southern sierra; a collection of festival costumes; and many musical instruments. At the bottom of the building is the Museo Numismático, holding coins and notes of the republican and colonial epochs, dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.
Entrance to the Museo del Banco Central includes access to the Pumapungo archeological park (same hours), right behind the museum, which is where most of the artefacts displayed in the museum’s archeological sala were found. Excavations have revealed this is where the most important religious buildings of Tomebamba were located, though all that’s left to see are the foundation walls. The site also features the so-called Jardines del Inca, combining the ruins with botanical displays of important Andean plants and a bird-rescue centre.
Marooned at the bottom of the country and several hours’ drive from any other major town, LOJA is a remote but thriving little provincial capital. Thanks to its isolation, it has long been good at taking care of its own affairs, even dabbling with self-government in 1857 – not to mention its distinction of being the first city in the country to generate electricity, in 1897. With a progressive emphasis on learning and culture, the city boasts two universities, a law school and a major music conservatory, which give the place a youthful, vibrant atmosphere. Spread over a fertile valley at 2100m above sea level, Loja is about 500m lower than most sierra cities, and noticeably warmer (usually 16–21°C).
Loja’s most exciting fiesta kicks off on August 20 when the icon of the Virgen del Cisne arrives in the cathedral for a two-month “visit”, having been carried on foot from El Cisne, accompanied by hundreds of pilgrims. The festivities which follow culminate on September 8 with the Feria de Integración Fronteriza, a huge craft and trade fair Simón Bolívar established in 1824, in an effort to promote cross-border relations; the fair is still attended by many Peruvians today.
The town sits on the doorstep of the western edge of Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a pristine tract of páramo and cloudforest, and is the best place to get information on the park or arrange a visit. The eastern part of the park, over the sierra and down towards the Oriente, is approached from Zamora, easily reached by bus from Loja. Loja is also the gateway to Peru via two border crossings, one of which is a short hop from Vilcabamba, an easy-going village that has become an obligatory stop for many backpackers before leaving the country.
A paved road heading east connects Loja with the small town of ZAMORA, sitting 64km away in foothills on the edge of the Oriente, the other side of the Sabanilla Pass which, at 2700m, is one of the lowest crossing points in the Andes. For most visitors Zamora’s main use is as a base for visiting the lower section of Parque Nacional Podocarpus, but the bus ride here is itself worthwhile, with the road snaking down from the sierra past numerous waterfalls, giving occasional views onto miles of densely forested hills. As you get lower, the air becomes warmer and moister, and the vegetation becomes increasingly lush, with giant ferns hanging over the road. At 970m above sea level, Zamora has a subtropical climate, with an average temperature of 21°C – a stark contrast to the coolness of the sierra.
Sitting at the confluence of the Zamora and Bombuscaro rivers with a backdrop of steep, emerald-green hills rising over its rooftops, the town’s setting is lovely, yet the town itself is unattractive, with sprawling grid-laid streets and functional, cement-built houses. Despite having been founded by the Spaniards in 1549 it’s still, at heart, a modern, rough-and-ready pioneer town, its main function being to service the local gold-mining industry – which it’s being doing on and off for four hundred years.
Although visitors to Zamora mainly use it as a base from which to visit Podocarpus, there are a couple of other sights to take in while you’re here, including a 1600-square-metre clock – apparently the largest clock face in the world – in the hillside above the market, where it glitters like a fairground at night. A block from the parque central is the Refugio Ecológico Tzanka, on Tamayo and Mosquera, once the town rubbish dump, but now a small zoo and orchid garden.
Spilling down the eastern flanks of the Andes towards the tropical valleys of the Oriente, PARQUE NACIONAL PODOCARPUS presents a spectacular landscape of high páramo, dense, dripping cloudforest, rushing waterfalls and crystalline rivers. Its wide-ranging altitudes (900–3600m), climates and habitats harbour a staggering diversity of flora and fauna, including an estimated 3000 to 4000 plant species, over 500 recorded bird species – hummingbirds, toucans, tanagers and parrots among them – and important populations of mammals such as mountain tapirs, giant armadillos, pudu (dwarf deer), spectacled bears, monkeys and pumas. The park was created in 1982, partly to protect some of the country’s last major stands of podocarpus trees (Ecuador’s only native conifer, also known as romerillo), whose numbers commercial logging had drastically reduced. Other notable trees here include the cinchona (known locally as cascarilla), whose bark is the source of quinine, first discovered in this very region.
There are two main entrances to the park, corresponding to its geographical divisions: one is the Sector Cajanuma in the Zona Alta (upper section), near Loja; the other is the Sector Bombuscaro in the Zona Baja (lower section), reached from Zamora. Also in the Zona Baja is a third, little-visited entry post at Sector Romerillos, the gateway to a very rugged, long-distance hike down to an even less frequented entrance to the Sector Valladolid in the far south. The southwestern reaches of the park are often visited on guided hikes and horse treks from the small village of Vilcabamba (for more details), though there’s no formal entry post here. Tickets, available at the entrance posts, cost $10 and are valid in all sectors for up to five days.
South of Cuenca, the Panamericana winds its way through increasingly remote and isolated countryside, passing only a handful of villages on its way to the city of Loja. The most interesting stop en route is the small agricultural town of SARAGURO (“land of corn” in Quichua), 140km south of Cuenca and 64km north of Loja, the site of a lively and atmospheric Sunday-morning market. As you approach from the north, a large sign proudly announces your arrival in “Saraguro, Tierra de Maíz, centro indígena más importante de América” – the centre of one of the most distinct highland groups of Ecuador, the Saraguro indígenas. Their forebears, originally from the altiplano region of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, were relocated here by the Incas during their expansion into Ecuador, as part of the mitimae system used to consolidate colonization. More than 500 years on, the Saraguros are still set apart by their particularly pure form of Quichua and very distinctive clothing. The men wear black ponchos and black knee-length shorts, often over black wellington boots used for their farm work, while the women wear pleated black skirts and hand-woven black shawls, fastened by elaborate silver or nickel brooches called tupus. Saraguros have also maintained very traditional forms of celebrating religious festivals. Their Easter celebrations, in particular, follow a strict pattern of processions, re-enactments and symbolic rituals, all marked by their great solemnity. Other important Saraguro festivals include Tres Reyes (January 6), Corpus Christi (early or mid-June) and Christmas.
Most Saraguro indígenas live as cattle herders in rural farming communities, but just about all of them come into town for the Sunday-morning market for fresh produce, cattle and household goods, and Sunday Mass, held in the handsome, honey-stone church on the main plaza.
Regular buses make the five-hour journey from the terminal in Loja to MACARÁ along the Panamericana via the town of Catacocha, with a slower service on subsidiary roads via Cariamanga. Three daily direct buses also go all the way from Loja to Piura in Peru (7am, 1pm & 11pm; 8hr journey; $8, best bought a day before travel), operated by Cooperativa Loja Internacional (t 07/2579014), which has offices in Loja at the bus terminal and at 10 de Agosto and Avenida Lauro Guerrero. In Vilcabamba, there’s an office near the bus terminal or you can buy tickets from one of the hostales in Vilcabamba that act as agents, including Madre Tierra and Las Ruinas de Quinará; note this bus does not go through Vilcabamba.
There isn’t much to do in Macará, but if you stay the night there’s decent accommodation. The best places are Terra Verde, on Calle Lazaro Vacao a couple of blocks west of the Coop Loja Internacional terminus (t 07/2694540; $16–20), the smartest hotel in town, with clean a/c rooms; El Conquistador on Bolívar and Calderón (t 07/2694057; $16–20) with fans, cable TVs and private bathroom; and Espiga de Oro, on Antonio Ante and 10 de Agosto by the market (t 07/2694405; $11–15), which is a little cheaper for only having cold water, but has en-suite facilities and a choice of air conditioning or fan. Nearby D’Marcos’s, Veintimilla and Calderón, offers standard, inexpensive food. The banks do not change currency or traveller’s cheques, but you can find moneychangers with Peruvian soles at the border and around the park where taxis to the border are ranked.
If you’re on the through bus to Piura it will simply wait while passengers have their passports checked and stamped. If you’ve taken the bus to Macará, you’ll need to get to the international bridge between Ecuador and Peru, a little over 2km southwest of town, which you can walk to in about forty minutes, or take a taxi ($1) or colectivo ($0.25) from 10 de Agosto at the park near the market. Either side of the bridge, the Ecuadorian and Peruvian immigration offices, where you get your exit and entry stamps, are open 24hr. In La Tina, the little settlement on the Peruvian side, you’ll be whisked away by colectivo to Sullana (2hr), from where there is easy transport to the larger city of Piura (40min further). You could also hop on the international buses direct to Piura as they pass through Macará.
Just over 40km south of Loja, sitting in a beautiful valley enfolded by crumpled, sunburnt hills, VILCABAMBA is a small agricultural village that’s become something of a tourist magnet over the last couple of decades. It first caught the attention of the outside world back in 1955, when Reader’s Digest published an article claiming Vilcabambans enjoyed a considerably higher than average life expectancy, with a very low incidence of cardiovascular health problems. Soon Vilcabamba was being touted as “the valley of eternal youth” and the “valley of longevity”, as international investigators unearthed a string of sprightly old people claiming to be up to 120 or 130 years old. More rigorous studies revealed these claims to be wildly exaggerated, and to date no hard evidence has been produced to support theories of an abnormally long-living population in Vilcabamba – though scientists acknowledge villagers in their 70s and 80s tend to be extremely fit and healthy for their age.
These days Vilcabamba feels like a place not quite grounded in reality – partly because of the myths associated with it, partly because of the high proportion of resident gringos who’ve come here in search of the simple life (and, inevitably, have ended up competing vigorously with each other for business), and partly because of the conspicuous presence of foreign tourists. People head here for a variety of reasons. Some come for the hallucinogenic cactus juice, San Pedro, the village has become famous for, even though this is illegal and heavily frowned on by locals. Others come for the hiking and birding in the nearby hills of Parque Nacional Podocarpus, but most come just to relax, enjoy the warm climate and nice views, or maybe take a horse ride or indulge in a massage or steam bath. The best months to be here are June to September, while October to May can often be rainy. Daytime temperatures usually fluctuate between 18°C and 28°C.
There’s not a great deal to do in the village itself. The focal point is the leafy Parque Central, surrounded by the main cornerstones of village life: the church, the municipio and the telephone office. The church is quite a grand affair, with its large, white Neoclassical facade sporting a row of apricot-coloured pillars. It’s worth wandering down to the square around 6 or 7am – you’ll catch a beautiful dawn chorus, and the early-morning light is gorgeous. A short walk southeast of town down Calle Diego de Vaca de la Vega for 1.5km will bring you to the Centro Recreacional Yamburara, the site of a swimming pool ($0.50), a small zoo and an impressive orchid garden (closed at lunchtime).
Striking a little further afield, you could hike up Cerro Mandango for fabulous, panoramic views over the valley. The hill resembles a person lying down – with the forehead, nose and chin quite distinct from certain angles – and rises over the village’s southeastern side. The tourist office can give you a map with instructions on finding the path, which can be tricky. It’s best to set out before 7am to avoid walking during the hottest part of the day; take plenty of sunscreen and water with you.
There’s a less-used border crossing near ZUMBA over 145km due south of Vilcabamba, on a rough, slow road through remote and beautiful country, which is serviced by eight daily buses from Loja (6–7hr) via Vilcabamba (5–6hr). From Zumba, where there are a few simple hotels, catch a ranchera (Mon–Fri 8am & 2.30pm, Sat–Sun 8am, 10am & 2pm) or hire a private camioneta to La Balsa, about 1 hour 30 minutes away on a potholed road, which is prone to landslides and closures in the rainy season. The Ecuadorian immigration office, not far from the international bridge over the Río Canchis, is open 24hr, though you may have to search around for an official at quiet times. Once in Peru, busetas ferry you to Namballe (20min), from where there is transport to San Ignacio (around 2hr), a nice enough place to spend the night, then Jaén (3–4hr), a city of reasonable size with hotels, money-changing facilities and transport connections to major centres.