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Ecuador’s capital and second-largest city has a setting of great natural beauty, overshadowed by the volcano Pichincha with its twin peaks of Ruco and Guagua. Quito is located at 2850m (9348 ft) above sea level and some visitors may suffer from altitude sickness during the first hours after arrival. Quito used to be a major Inca city that was destroyed shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Although no Inca traces remain, the city has preserved much of its Spanish colonial character, the cathedral in the Plaza de la Independencia (the oldest church in South America) and the many old churches and monasteries being among the most notable instances. Also in the plaza is the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Palacio Presidencial. Many of the city’s famous churches and monasteries contain priceless examples of Spanish art and sculpture, particularly the Monasterio de San Francisco (located in the beautiful plaza of the same name) and the Jesuit church of La Compañía. Most of Quito’s colonial churches are located in the Old Town, parts of which have been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Perhaps the best preserved colonial street is the historic alley of la Ronda. Other places in Quito worth visiting include the Parque la Alameda (a triangular-shaped park), the astronomical observatory, the School of Fine Arts and the modern Palacio Legislativo. As the cultural and political capital, Quito has a number of museums of colonial and modern art. The Museo del Banco Central, located in the Casa de la Cultura, has a vast archaeological repertory as well as displays of colonial furniture and religious art. Also of interest is the Museo Guayasamín, home to many fine works of Ecuador’s renowned modern artist Oswaldo Guayasamín.

The Andean Highlands

The Pan-American Highway traverses the country from north to south, a spectacular route which passes through all the principal cities of the Andean Highlands. Tulcán, centre of a rich farming area, is the northernmost of these. Further south is Chota, still inhabited by the descendants of former African slaves who retain some of their tribal customs (the city’s population being made up largely of Africans). Chota’s Indian market (particularly good for traditional art and weavings) is renowned throughout Ecuador. The peak of Mount Imbabura signals the approach to the valley of Otavalo (95km/60 miles from Quito), the town of the same name being famed for its craftwork and Indian market (which is at its biggest on Saturdays). Approaching Quito, one passes a granite monument which marks the Equator. South of Quito, the region of Latacunga and Ambato has much fine scenery, marked by an avenue of volcanoes. Two active ones are located within the Parque Nacional Sangay, a national park of outstanding beauty which has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The park is characterised by a variety of landscapes, ranging from rain forests to glaciers, as well as numerous indigenous animal species, such as the mountain tapir and the Andean condor. Located within Sangay park, the Tunguraha volcano (5016m/16,453ft) is popular with tourists, especially at night, since it became active again in 1999. West of Latacunga, the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s most visited national park. It includes the active Cotopaxi volcano which, at 5895m (19,345ft), is the world’s highest active volcano. All have refuges at the snow-line where intrepid walkers can make overnight stays. Visitors are, however, advised to be cautious when setting out on walking or trekking trips as robberies have been reported in certain areas; experienced mountain guides are available. Further south, the city of Cuenca was founded in 1577 and still contains many examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Contrasting with this, a vast cathedral has recently been built. The nearby ancient Inca settlement at Ingapirca, 50km (32 miles) north of Cuenca, is worth visiting. In the highlands of southern Ecuador, Loja is the last city of importance on the Pan-American Highway, being originally a trading station on the Spanish ‘gold road’. Not far from Loja, the Parque Nacional Podocarpus is, along with Ecuador’s other national parks, a popular destination for walking and climbing.

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