Follow the snaking Panamericana past florid Cayambe to the vibrant market town of Otavalo and surrounding indigenous villages. As the spine of the Andes bends north from Quito, volcanic peaks punctuate valleys blanketed by flower farms and sugarcane fields. This is Ecuador’s beating heart and a cradle of Andean culture: artisans produce their wares using methods unaltered for generations, and visitors find some of the country’s best deals here, on everything from leather goods to traditional weavings.
High-altitude landscapes surrender to steamy lowlands in the west, a rich transitional zone where coffee plantations flourish in the spectacular but politically-contested Intag Valley. Further south, laid-back Mindo is a base for bird-watching, hiking and river romps. Remote jungle lodges are scattered around the region for those looking to retreat deeper into nature. Wherever you go, off-the-beaten-path adventures, sustainable community tourism initiatives and volunteering opportunities are close by.