With so much on offer for hikers and shoppers alike, it’s no surprise that this is one of the country’s most popular regions for visitors.
Many of the highlights are just a few hours from Quito, but it may surprise you how easily you can leave the beaten path and find yourself in rural areas and nature reserves far from the tourist crowds.
Otavalo’s textile market, one of the most spectacular in South America, is the biggest draw in the region, and many of the smaller villages around Otavalo specialize in particular crafts, so there are rich pickings on offer for those seeking handmade clothing, jewelry, and ornaments.
For nature lovers, several spectacular lagoons are close by—notably Laguna Cuicocha and Lagunas de Mojanda, and this region also contains some impressive peaks—Imbabura, Cotacachi, and snow-capped Cayambe.
Farther north, the quiet colonial “White City” of Ibarra is larger but less visited. Fewer visitors make it up to Tulcán unless they’re crossing to Colombia, but the town’s famous topiary cemetery is another highlight of the region.
Parks and nature reserves offer hiking, camping, and mountaineering. The Cotacachi-Cayapas and Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserves spill from the highlands into the coastal lowlands and the Oriente, respectively. Many smaller private reserves, such as Intag and Cerro Golondrinas, are tucked into the corners of the larger ones.
After a long hike, ease those aching limbs in hot springs that bubble up from the hillsides. The best example is at Chachimbiro, northwest of Ibarra.
Some of the region’s most beautiful scenery is found at Mindo, a small town on the western Andean slopes. It is a bird-watcher’s paradise surrounded by cloud forest, waterfalls, rushing rivers, and an incredible diversity of birds and butterflies.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition