Leaving the rugged, rumbling volcanoes of the Northern Andes, and heading south along the Panamericana, one enters the softer and slightly more isolated scenery of the impressive Southern Andes. No longer bearing the scars of a violent volcanic past, this region is home to long, lonely stretches of untamed, sparsely inhabited, historically and culturally rich landscapes. Lower elevations give way to warmer, drier climates, which with the stunning countryside, make the Southern Andes supreme walking and trekking territory.
Vilcabamba is a good base for hikes and horseback treks, while the glimmering lakes and grand views of El Cajas National Park, or wild waterfalls and breathtaking scenery of Podocarpus Nacional Park offer some of Ecuadorâ€™s finest backcountry adventures. Tucked neatly into the folds of this striking landscape are historical sites and cities steeped in centuries-old traditions, which make the region intellectually, as well as topographically astonishing.
The seat of southern culture, and the Southâ€™s only large urban center, Cuenca is a remarkable city graced with spectacular colonial architecture and a wealth of local artesanĂa, including gold and silver jewelry, textiles, ceramics and of course the ill-named Panama hat. Just a short shot from Cuenca is Ingapirca, Ecuadorâ€™s only major Inca ruins, where history buffs can contemplate the genius of Incan stonemasonry.
Slipping south of Cuenca, the traveler encounters more secluded, but no less surprising territory. Meander through the streets of Saraguro, where the locals maintain an age-old tradition of dressing in black, and take a stroll back in time. For a bit more action, head further south to Loja. A buzzing city known for its swift intellectual and cultural currents, Loja is also the piggy-back point for direct service to Peru. Draped in dramatic scenery and festooned in history and culture, the Southern Andes are amply armed to entertain intrepid trekkers and cultural explorers alike.