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Southern Highlands

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.

Top attractions

These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southern Highlands.