La Sierra of Ecuador
Concierge.com's insider take:
The stunning Andean highlands are getting easier to access, thanks to the array of newly opened haciendas in this region. More and more of the elite of the land are opening their ancestral piles to paying guests (although many are still working farms and offer small-scale lodging options like uniquely decorated rooms and home-cooked food). From these comfortable bases, you're free to explore a landscape more varied than it seems at first, with paramo (high-altitude grassland) and lush farmland alternating with cloud forest, mountain lakes, active and glaciated volcanoes, Incan ruins, thermal baths, and colonial towns. Here you'll see condors (if you're lucky—they're an endangered species), horses, llamas, and the people who tend them in their multicolored woven wraps and black trilby-like hats.
The capital, Quito, is partly colonial (in fact, its historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978), but it's also part sprawling modern metropolis. North of Quito in the Imbabura province is the town of Otavalo, utterly unmissable on account of its huge daily market brimming with top-quality handmade goods (especially of the woven variety) as well as chickens, llamas, spices, potatoes, and exotic fruit. Imbabura's capital, Ibarra, with its colonial whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets, and red-tiled roofs, is known as the White City. It's where to board the atmospheric, scenically stunning, but totally unreliable steam train to the coastal town of San Lorenzo. Near here is the center of the world—literally. The Mitad del Mundo, the monument that marks the equator, is nondescript, but it's still kind of cool to know you're straddling the earth (so to speak). Other major must-sees (or must-hikes) are the Avenue of the Volcanoes—the jagged southern Andean region stretching from Quito to Cuenca—and Cotopaxi National Park, home to the Mount Fuji of Ecuador, the perfect snow-capped cone of Cotopaxi. At well over 19,000 feet high, it's the world's second-highest active volcano, and it's breathtaking.