The Most Beautiful Towns in the Ecuadorian Andes

With its elaborately carved hedges, Tulcán's cemetery is a popular tourist destination
With its elaborately carved hedges, Tulcán's cemetery is a popular tourist destination | © Barna Tanko / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Angela Drake
Founder, Not Your Average American14 October 2021

The Andes run down the spine of mainland Ecuador from north to south – home to beautiful towns where Spanish colonial buildings, indigenous cultures, and modern architecture give each community a unique sense of identity. Here’s our selection of the best ones to visit.

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Architectural Landmark

Relatively few tourists venture this far north in Ecuador, right next to the Colombian border, but those who do will come across one of the country’s most intriguing sights. Tulcán is renowned for its unusual cemetery featuring over 300 elaborately trimmed cypress bushes, sculpted in all manner of shapes and patterns, including archways, animals, and people. In 2005, the cemetery was renamed after the man who founded it in 1936, Josè Maria Azael Franco.


Architectural Landmark
Pastoral Lake Yahuarcocha (Yawarkucha), Ibarra, Ecuador
© dave stamboulis / Alamy Stock Photo
Ibarra, also in northern Ecuador, lies next to Laguna Yahuarcocha, the ancient glacial lake where indigenous tribes once fought against the invading Inca – hence its name, which translates to Blood Lake in the Kichwa language. The Imbabura volcano – measuring 4,630m (15,190ft) – is also nearby, and you can climb to the summit for spectacular views of the city below. The Spaniards settled in this region in the late 16th century, building many of the whitewashed structures that give Ibarra its modern nickname.


Bikers and pedestrians on a sunday closed street of Quito and Basilica del Voto Nacional - Quito, Ecuador
© Diego Grandi / Alamy Stock Photo
Quito – the world’s second-highest capital city at 2,850m (9,350ft) above sea level, was awarded Unesco status in 1978. Since that time, it has undergone numerous renovations and maintains the best-preserved colonial architecture in all of South America, such as La Compañía church, the Presidential Palace, The Church and Convent of San Francisco and the Basilica del Voto Nacional in the historic center. The equator is also nearby, which you can visit, along with a guided walking tour of Quito, on Culture Trip’s specially curated small-group Ecuador trip.


Architectural Landmark

The road leading to the tiny town of Sigchos in the Cotopaxi Province passes through some of the most alluring mountain scenery in Ecuador. The town is a pleasant place to stroll around with its central plaza, charming church and hillside statue of the Archangel Michael brandishing his sword high overhead. Sigchos is also a highly convenient starting or finishing point of the Quilotoa Loop – one of Ecuador’s most popular multi-day hiking trails, which passes by the Quilotoa volcano, known for its emerald green crater lake.


Farmers' Market, South American
Maria Natividad de Balbanera Earliest church in Fundada,  Ecuador. 15/8/1534,
© Martin Lindsay / Alamy Stock Photo

Riobamba was one of the very first settlements established under Spanish colonial rule in Ecuador in 1534, and is the capital of the Chimborazo province. Its well-maintained old center contains one of the oldest churches in the country, the baroque-style Balbanera Church, which sits against the dramatic backdrop of the Chimborazo volcano – Ecuador’s highest peak at 6,263m (20,548ft).


Architectural Landmark

Farmers still walk cattle from field to field using roads along the borders of Azogues, high in the Andes mountains in the Cañar province. This small city is tied not only to its agricultural roots but its Catholic ones, with plenty of attractive colonial churches dotted throughout the streets.


Architectural Landmark
Inca ruin at Cojitambo in Ecuador old
© Burt Johnson / Alamy Stock Photo

Both village and an Incan archaeology site, Cojitambo is a must-visit destination for ancient history buffs. The view from the timeworn ramparts of the Incan fortress looks out over the quiet streets of modern-day Cojitambo. The towering volcanic cliffs above the town are also one of Ecuador’s best rock-climbing sites.


Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
After Quito, Cuenca (officially known as Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca) became mainland Ecuador’s second Unesco-listed site in 1999. It’s known for its cobblestone streets and alleyways, colorful-domed colonial churches and the Tomebamba River which runs through town flanked by the Parque El Paraiso. The Inter-American Center of Popular Arts and Crafts, which houses over 8,000 art and craft pieces from 28 countries, is also worth a visit.


Architectural Landmark
The small town of Saraguro in southern Ecuador is home to a proud indigenous Kichwa community. Locals wear traditional hats made from pressed wool, which are painted white, with black spots under the brim, which look somewhat like cow markings. Head to the central park or main plaza to soak up the atmosphere of the place, or, if you’re there on a Sunday, visit the lively market where you’ll find stalls selling all kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables, street food, clothing, jewelry and more.


Park, Architectural Landmark
Loja is the heart of the southern Ecuadorian Andes. Home to two major universities, it has plenty of modern architectural touches while still managing to preserve its colonial, small-town roots. With many atmospheric streets, plazas, leafy gardens and a flourishing music scene, there’s ample reason to stop by Loja. The surrounding nature is also worthwhile exploring; the nearby Podocarpus National Park, home to Ecuador’s only native pine trees and an abundance of wildlife, is an excellent hiking spot.


Church, Architectural Landmark
Vilcabamba church in a sunny day. Image shot 02/2019. Exact date unknown.
© Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Vilcabamba has been an international center of spiritual and meditative pilgrimage for decades, largely due to the belief that the local water increases the lifespan of its residents, as well as its proximity to forest-covered mountains facilitating an active, outdoor lifestyle. Despite its strong ex-pat influence, the town – nicknamed the Valley of Longevity – retains many Ecuadorian architectural and cultural features, including a central plaza with gardens and a small, brightly colored church.
These recommendations were updated on October 14, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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