Introducing Southern Highlands
As you roll further south along the Panamericana, the giant snowcapped peaks of the central highlands fade from the rearview mirror. The climate gets warmer, distances between towns become greater and the decades clunk down by the wayside. Although few peaks top 4000m here, the topography is rugged – so rugged in fact that not until the 1960s did the first paved road reach Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city and the southern highland’s main urban center.
The region’s isolation has given it a rich and tangible history. Many villages have cobbled streets and old houses with balconies, and the tradition of handicrafts is still very strong. In and around Cuenca, women wear white straw hats and colorful skirts, while further south the striking jet-black clothing and white felt hats identify the indigenous Saraguro.
Although you won’t be out scaling glaciers down here, outdoor activities are abundant. The lake-studded Parque Nacional Cajas offers great hiking and camping, and superb trout fishing.Parque Nacional Podocarpus offers magnificent hikes through cloud forest, tropical humid forest and páramo (Andean grasslands). From the laid-back gringo hangout of Vilcabamba you can spend days walking or horse riding through the mysterious mountainside.