, Ecuador's capital is a destination in itself. It is the very first city in the world that UNESCO included on its World Cultural Heritage site list in 1978 and is the repository of a broad range of architectural schools and trends of the past five centuries. It has the largest and best preserved historical colonial downtown district in all the Americas. Its fascinating history, architecture, religious art and fine museums make it an exceptional city to visit.
Farther north, there is the valley of Guayllabamba, with its dry, barren look, its avocado plantations and the odd-looking fruit called “chirimoya”, whose exotic flavor you can enjoy if you wish. The next valley is the perpetually green valley of Cayambe, located at the foot of the 18,990-foot snow-capped volcano, Mount Cayambe, which in fact is the highest point of the equatorial line on Earth; it now has a vast expanse of greenhouses for rose production, making Ecuador the second-largest exporter of roses in the world. The main village produces traditional “biscochos” which are salty wheat-flour biscuits served normally with a locally made cheese similar to mozzarella. Enjoy a tasty snack along the road.
Without a doubt, Otavalo is South America’s most famous indigenous market. It is comprised of a mosaic of colors, ethnic groups and crafts and offers shoppers superb bargains for fine textiles, paintings, ceramic ware or Panama hats, an incredibly fun market experience. On Saturday, you can start early with an exciting visit to the farm animal market on the outskirts of the city, where livestock is traded among local owners and merchants.
A few minutes away from Otavalo, there is Peguche, a village known for its traditional textile looms and fabrics. Almost every house has a loom, and therefore a large part of the merchandise sold in Otavalo is actually made here. You will be able to see musical instruments, arts and crafts, and typical dances performed when visiting one of the homes. There are cottage industries where you can find fine wall-hangings, alpaca sweaters, blouses and more.
Only a few miles away is the village of Illuman where felt hats are manufactured from sheep wool in the old way just by the road. Many shamans live there, drawing people from all over Ecuador and even abroad for their mystical knowledge and practices. Leather is the word in Cotacachi. This village offers great quality and prices on fine leather goods and you can shop for coats, purses, belts, wallets, boots and even horse saddles. Less than forty minutes away from Otavalo, there is the scenic crater lagoon of Cuicocha, famous for its landscape and wildlife comprised of a wide variety of plants and birds that can be seen when hiking along trails that are perfect for nature lovers.
The most important woodcarving center in the area is San Antonio de Ibarra. Walnut, red cedar and other tropical fine woods are hand carved into classical and modern sculptures, including home furniture and doors. Ibarra, the capital of the province of Imbabura, has many colonial cobble-stoned streets and white stucco facades. The slow pace of life in the province provides for a relaxing walking experience to see the colonial churches and buildings. In town, enjoy the famous hand-whipped fresh fruit ice cream. After lush the green scenery, you will find a semi-desert territory, which is called the Chota Valley. This beautiful valley is inhabited by the descendants of African laborers who used to work in the area's sugar cane and fruit plantations. They inherited colorful folklore and traditions. Music, dance and interesting ceramic masks are found in villages such as Salinas known for salt mining. The Karanki Community of Magdalena is immersed in a remarkably breathtaking pastoral setting where its people tend their livestock, cultivate their land and enjoy the clear mountain air.