Eight of Ecuador’s 10 highest peaks are found here: towering Chimborazo (6,310 meters), picture-perfect Cotopaxi (5,897 meters), the nine peaks of El Altar (5,319 meters), highly active Sangay (5,230 meters), the twin peaks of Iliniza Sur (5,263 meters) and Iliniza Norte (5,116 meters), tempestuous “Throat of Fire” Tungurahua (5,023 meters), and Carihuairazo (5,018 meters), Chimborazo’s little brother.
There are so many peaks in this region that climbers are spoiled for choice on where to start. There’s plenty for day hikers too, including Ecuador’s most visited national park, Cotopaxi, and its most spectacular lake, the extinct Laguna Quilotoa, whose turquoise waters are a wonder to behold.
In the rolling valleys of patchwork quilt of countryside below the mountains, you’ll find a string of colonial cities. Each is tucked into its own river basin, and farmland fills in most of the level space between. Large plantations hark back to the days when forced labor supported farms stretching beyond the horizon. The more remote and spectacular areas, fully stocked with volcanoes, lakes, and rivers, have been set aside as parks or reserves.
Indigenous cultures dominate the Central Sierra. During their reign, the Incas established outposts all along the road to Quito to keep the local populations in line. Today, indigenous pride burns brightly here, and 75 percent of Chimborazo Province residents consider themselves of native descent.
Dozens of different groups inhabit the highlands, often each in its own town. Small communities in the mountains plant crops at elevations as high as 4,000 meters, supplementing their income through shepherding and crafts.
Clothing and customs are the most distinguishing characteristics, from the white-and-black garments of the Salasaca to the white-fringed red ponchos of the Quisapinchas, and there is a bustling market every day of the week where you can pick up bargains on everything from textiles to leather goods and tagua carvings.
The largest towns in the region—Ambato, Riobamba, and Latacunga—have their own distinct identities and act as the commercial centers of Tungurahua, Chimborazo, and Cotopaxi Provinces, respectively.
With the regeneration of the Quito–Guayaquil train line, exploring parts of the Central Sierra is easier than ever. The Avenue of the Volcanoes route between Quito and Latacunga is now open, and the dramatic section descending La Nariz del Diablo, south of Riobamba, has recently reopened. By 2013 you may be able to ride all the way from Quito to Riobamba.
Away from the hustle and bustle is arguably Ecuador’s best tourist town, Baños, a place so idyllic and relaxing that you may find it hard to leave.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition