The Andes are the longest and possibly the greatest mountain range in the world. They include some of the world’s highest peaks with more than 50 of them soaring higher than 6,100m above sea level. Forming the backbone of many countries, the Andes stretch 7,250km through the southern half of the world, running north to the warm equator and stretching south towards Cape Horn and Patagonia.
The Andes have been formed by one of the crustal plates of the Pacific Ocean floor pushing slowly against the American continental plate. This pressure has caused the sedimentary rocks to bend and fold up into long ridges, known as "sierras". The majority of the highest mountains in the Andes are volcanoes, some still active; however, many are dormant or extinct. The tallest peak is Mt. Aconcagua, a giant volcano of 6,959m above sea level.
Named after its position on the equator, Ecuador is the smallest country of South America consisting of over 30 volcanic cones; many of which are over 5,000m high and almost a third are still active in this region of the Andes. Home to numerous national parks and protected areas of wilderness the Andes feature a wide range of microclimates and enormous bio-diversity, making the Sierra a paradise for bird watching in particular. The highlands provide exciting hiking and trekking with excellent routes for mountain biking and horse riding. Many inhabitants of these Sierras are native and these areas are abundant with fascinating indigenous markets and craft centers, living testimony to the regions rich indigenous and artesian heritage.
One of the world's most spectacular train journeys starts in Riobamba. Prepare to twist and turn over the Andes along bridging ravines and river gorges enduring the Devil´s Nose switchbacks on one of the most impressive feats of rail engineering in the world. Situated within a circle of mountainous peaks, Quito is the world's second highest capital home to excellent museums, churches and art galleries. Its colonial center is one of the finest in Latin America and has been designated a World Heritage Site, by UNESCO. Not surprisingly, this region possesses Ecuador's most developed tourist industry, providing a wide range of accommodation, culinary options, shopping opportunities, and cultural festivals, all easily accessible from the capital of Quito.
In the Southern Andes, colonial Cuenca near the Inca fortress ruins of Ingapirca is considered by many to be one of Ecuador's most charming cities. In addition to Quito, Otavalo and Baños are considered travelers' Mecca’s, boasting an extensive infrastructure supporting tourism. In these towns you can expect a wide selection of restaurants, hotels and activities. Choose a luxurious suite in a 400-year old hacienda, or nestle down in a backpacker's $3 per night hostel. Dine on veggie pizza one day and barbecued guinea pig the next!
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