Emerging from the shadows of the breath-sapping peaks, glaciers and active volcanoes of the north, a gentler land reveals itself. Still mountainous, but also more benign, the southern spine of the Ecuadorian Andes ushers intrepid travelers down lush valleys that hide some treats: pastel-hued colonial towns and remote villages where indigenous cultures thrive.
Veering from chilly, elfin woodland to humid lowland forest, the region is home to a huge diversity of wildlife and landscapes; make time for a trip to at least one of the region’s national parks.
Most journeys begin in Cuenca, a classic South American traveler hub with one of the continent's best-preserved colonial centers. Then it’s a choose-your-own-adventure romp through seldom-visited ancient settlements and untrammeled wild areas toward vibrant, museum-rich Loja and balmy Vilcabamba. From here, forays begin into stark ocher hills, along verdant slopes where Ecuador's best coffee is cultivated and down into sticky semitropical forest.