Andean Highlands

Sat 30 Jan, 2016

Still overwhelmed by the rainforest and the Huaoranis, we started early in the morning from Quito to go south. We rented a car and a driver without any guide. Our planned itinerary included the Quilotoa loop, Baños, Riobamba, Guamote, Alausí and finally Cuenca.  Then we would take the plane back to Quito and spend one more day in Otavalo, before returning back to Athens.

The Quilotoa loop is defined by a road that circles the Quilotoa crater. It takes about three hours from Quito on the Panamericana to reach Pujili, the point where we diverted and started ascending the Quilotoa volcano. We entered a traditional Andean rural house – really not more than a hut – build of clay, where we took a glimpse at the – not so distanced – past of the everyday life on the Andes. I assume that the house was there for the family to raise some income from passing tourists, although they assured us that grandpa and grandma lived there for most of the time. The hut was really small, one small room, with a small bed, a kitchen bench and a wood stove, no windows and about 200 resident guinea pigs used for heating (!) and food. I bet that this setup was common on the mountains some thirty-forty years ago.

Traditional House
A traditional Andes house near Pujili, on the Quilotoa loop.


Next stop in Tigua, a small town on the mountain, famous for its painters and artists. The Ecuadorian rural economy seems to be organized around towns that specialize in one thing. Tigua makes art, Otavalo makes textiles, Pelileo makes jeans, there are towns that specialize in leather clothing, ice creams, flowers and so on. I have not seen this pattern to such extend anywhere.

Art Shop
An art shop in Tigua, a village known for its artists.
Masks in an art shop in Tigua, on the Quilotoa loop.


After one-hour drive, in rainy and foggy weather we reached the top of the Quilotoa crater. The view is truly spectacular. The 3-kilometre wide caldera and lake was formed by the collapse of the volcano about 800 years ago. It is one of the rare occasions that I wish I was shooting under a bright sun, as I believe that the muted colors would pop up and offer a unique landscape.  Descending to the lake was not easy, as the slope is steep and the ground slippery, so it took about 30 minutes. There was no way we would climb back the slope without a long rest, so we decided to hire four mules to ride back to the top. It felt really weird that the 60-something year old owner of the mules, escorted us to the top, a 20 min challenging climb, while running most of the time.  I assume that he does this at least five times per day.

Quilotoa Lagoon
The Quilotoa lagoon
Mules that carry visitors back on the top of the Quilotoa crater.
Mule Man
The mule owner of the mules we used to climb back to the top of the Quilotoa crater.
Going Uphill
Mule ride uphill the Quilotoa crater.
Mule Ride
Preparing to ride the mule back at the top of the Quilotoa crater.
Man in the Andes
A man at the bottom of the Quilotoa crater.
Zumbahua, a town on the Quilotoa loop.


We continued to Baños, a four-hour drive from the top of the loop listening form most of the time to the radio broadcast of the Venezuela-Ecuador world cup qualifier, with Ecuador winning by a landslide. Both our driver and the game speakers were hyper throughout the whole game. If you ever listened to a radio broadcast of Latin American football, you will immediately get the picture.

The hotel in Baños, was clearly below our expectations, the night walk in the town proved a bit boring and the Mexican food we had indifferent. It seemed that Baños does not have much to offer to visitors. The next morning, we received a call from the travel agency that arranged for the car rental that our driver had been beaten and robbed the night before. This was really strange, as the city seemed to be pretty safe. They would send another car to pick us up and drive us to Riobamba, so we spent the whole morning in Baños. By daylight, the town seems to be a lot better. It has some interesting cafes, colorful buildings, a beautiful cathedral, an impressively tall waterfall and a hipster ambience. Frankly, I would not stay here another day, but I could understand why some people spend a whole week here.

Vasilica Virgen de Agua Santa
The Vasilica Virgen de Agua Santa in Banos.
Colors of Banos
A colorful fence in Banos town center.
Street in Banos
A street in the center of Banos.
Vasilica Virgen de Agua Santa
La Vasilica Virgen de Agua Santa in Banos
Vasilica Virgen de Agua Santa
The interior of the Vasilica Virgen de Agua Santa in Banos
Coffee Shop
A coffee shop in Banos
House in Banos
A colorful house in banos.
Students returning from school in Banos


It took us about three hours to reach Riobamba and settle in the wonderful Mansion Santa Isabella, in the center. Riobamba is a major city in Ecuador, much larger than Baños, with a beautiful city center and indifferent, if not ugly, surrounding areas. We went out to dinner in a nearby restaurant with Ecuadorian cuisine, which was very well cooked but not something extraordinary. Nights on the Andes are chilly and Riobamba was no exception., with the temperature going down to 5°C. You need the right clothing to feel comfortable and fortunately we were well equipped, but walking in the night streets of Riobamba did not seem like a lot of fun that night. In the early morning we took the rural road to Guamote. After Cajabamba, we stopped to visit Iglesia de Balbanera, the first Catholic church in Ecuador, founded in 1534.

Iglesia de Balbanera
Maria Navided de Balbanera, the first catholique church in Ecuador, founded in 1534.
Iglesia de Balbanera
The interior of Iglesia de Balbanera.
Woman in Cajabamba
A woman in Cajabamba.
Woman in Cajabamba
A woman reading her newspaper outside her shop in Cajabamba.


Guamote (pop. 2000) hosts the largest weekly market in all of rural Ecuador, attracting a lot of locals from the whole region that come to buy and sell textiles and clothes, agricultural produce, animals and even electronics or furniture. The people are all dressed in their traditional clothes, colorful dresses, hats and blankets for the cold, a paradise for the visiting photographer. One has to be careful though, because the locals are not particularly thrilled to have their photos taken and they can get under certain circumstances unpleasant. I did not have any problem but they rarely broke a smile and I observed some tension when I was pointing the camera at them.

A man in the Guamote market, the largest rural market in Ecuador.
The railines cross the center of Guamote, where the regional market takes place on Thursdays.
People of the Andes
Locals at the Guamote market, the largest in rural Ecuador.
Woman in Guamote
A woman in the Guamote market.
Man in guamote
A man sitting in the Guamote market.
Ready to Serve
A small local restaurant with an impressive display in Guamote.
Guamote Market
The center of Guamote hosts the largest weekly market in rural Ecuador.
For Sale
A woman and her sheep for sale in the Guamote market.
Women in Guamote
Women in the Guamote rural market.
A mother with her kid in the busy Guamote market.
Market Colors
A woman with her baby in the Guamote market.
Woman in Guamote
A woman in red and green in Guamote.
A little girl crying at the back of her mother in the busy Guamote market.
Hats for Sale
Hats for sale in the Guamote market.
Woman in Guamote
An old lady sitting outside a shop in the Guamote market.
Efie in Guamote
Efie in the Guamote market.
A woman selling local snacks in the Guamote market.
In the town center of Guamote.
Kid in Guamote
A kid eating icecream in Guamote.
Market Day
A woman with her child at the Guamote market.
Woman in Guamote
A woman walking in teh narrow streets of Guamote on the market day.
At the Market
Women in the Guamote rural market.
Pig for Sale
A woamn carrying a pig to the animal section of the Guamote rural market.
Pigheads in the Guamote market.
An elder lady eating her icecream in the Guamote market.
Market Day
Selling in the Guamote market.
Something Cooking
Food cooking in the busy market of Guamote.
Woman in Guamote
an elder lady in Guamote.
Pulling the Rope
A man pulling his sheeps for sale in Guamote.

We continued to Alausí, a beautiful small town further south, where we jumped on the Naris del Diablo train. Alausí is picturesque and very colorful, with well preserved building painted in bright and bold colors.

Colorful Alausi
The colorful towncenter of Alausi.
The town of Alausi on the Andes.
The central square in Alausi.
Woman in Alausi
A woman with a puzzled look in the streets of Alausi.
Buildings in Alausi.
Woman in Alausi
A woman in traditional clothes near the train station in Alausi
Colorful House
Vivid colors on a house right across the train station in Alausi.
Colorful Alausi
Alausi has a colorful town center.
Woman in Alausi
A woman in her shop in the Alausi train station.
Street in Alausi
A street in Alausi.
At the trainstation of Alausi.
The street across the train station in Alausi.
At the train station, ready to jump on the Nariz del Diablo train.


The Nose of the Devil line is allegedly the most difficult train line in the world and took its name by the hill close to the Sibambe. Around 2’000 slaves that were brought by the Spanish to build the rain line lost their lives here. The half hour train ride from Alausí to Sibambe is essentially tourist trap. The views are beautiful but not spectacular and there are many more locations on the Andes where you can see the same views, without being surrounded by one hundred fellow tourists. I’d skip if I knew better.

Nariz del Diablo
The Nariz del Diablo train on its challenging route to Sibambe.
Nariz del Diablo
The train to Nariz del Diablo is ready to leave.
Nariz del Diablo
The train to the Nariz del Diablo, in the Alausi train station.
The outskirts of Alausi from the Nariz del Diablo train.
Nariz del Diablo
The Devil's nose peak in Sibambe. Many wprkers building the rail line lost their lives here.
Nariz del Diablo
The Nariz del Diablo train line.
Nariz del Diablo
The Nariz del Diablo train going downhill.
Nariz del Diablo
The river running along the Nariz del Diablo train line.
Nariz del Diablo
In the Nariz del Diablo train, going to Sibambe.
Lady and The Llamas
A lady in front of her llamas, soliciting pictures from visitors.
Lamas in Sibambe.
A lama in the Sibamba train station.
Nariz del Diablo
The Nariz del Diablo train in Sibamba.
The central plaza in Alausi.


Another three hours drive and we reached Cuenca. It was already dark and we were tired so we settled in Hotel Victoria, overlooking the river and had an indifferent dinner in the otherwise beautiful hotel restaurant.

Hotel Victoria
Our beautiful hotel Victoria in Cuenca.


We spent the following day wondering around the streets of Cuenca with an exotic ambiance, a mix between colonial and European. Cozy modern cafés neighbor beautiful 16th century buildings, students on custom bikes blend nicely with women wearing traditional Andean clothes, modern galleries and colonial time museums.

The beautiful city of Cuenca.
A busy Cuenca street.
Street in Cuenca
A street in the Cuenca city center.
The courthouse in Cuenca.
A lady selling vegetables in the city center.
Quite Spot
A quite spot in the otherwise busy center of Cuenca.
A clock on one of the many churches in downtown Cuenca.
Catedral de Cuenca
One of the domes of the Cuenca cathedral.
La Catedral
The cathedral of Cuenca.
La Catedral
The entrance to the cathdral of Cuenca.
Beautiful Cuenca
Cuenca is a beautiful city
Street Jam
A local band performing outside the cathedral and a little girl enjoying her icecream.
A beautiful building on a busy street in the center of Cuenca.
Centro Cultiral
tthe colorful entrance of a small cultural center in Cuenca.
The city gets quite in the early afternoon when many go to have their siesta.
The town center of Cuenca is an architectural gem.
Fruits Anyone?
A lady selling fruits in the streets of Cuenca.
Posing in Cuenca
Posing in Cuenca city.
Building in Cuenca
A building in Cuenca.
A colorful Cuenca balcony, decorated for Christmas.
In Style
A girl, her violin and her Vespa in the city center.
Cuenca Building
Another beautiful house in the center of Cuenca.
An otherwise busy street in Cuenca, almost empty in the early afternoon.


Among the highlights, our visit in the amazing Casa del Sombrero, the tiny but famous shop of Alberto Pulla, the famous panama hatter that covered the heads of presidents and celebrities. Alberto passed away in 2010, but his family still operate the shop. The shopping experience is on a class of its own. Check this blog for more on Alberto’s shop.

Panama Hats
The upper floor of la Casa del Sombrero in Cuenca.

Next: Quito & Otavalo