6 of the Best Mountain Towns in Ecuador
The highlands of Ecuador are pulling many expats to the region, thanks to their mild climate and rich cultural offerings. Whether you want big city amenities, natural beauty, or historic ambiance, these towns have it in great quantities. Here are our Viva Tropical choices for six of the best mountain towns in Ecuador.
The tranquil, rustic vibe of Cotacachi is what draws visitors to this small town. Situated with a volcano on both the east and west sides, Cotacachi still has much of the flavor of old Ecuador. Most of its activities and festivals revolve around nature and the seasons, and markets feature local arts and crafts. There’s a vibrant Andean music scene there as well, and traditional pan flute music can be heard wafting from the street corners.
Cotacachi is so small, most people find no need for a car there. And the cost of living is so tiny, you may pinch yourself when you see rental fees or grocery prices. The great thing about Cotacachi is that you can enjoy the serenity of life there and go to nearby Ibarra or Quito for more lively activity.
Cotacachi’s neighbor, Otavalo, is just an inexpensive bus fare away. Surrounded by mountains, Otavalo is known for some of the most beautiful and interesting markets in all of Latin America. Be sure to get plenty of pics of the Incan Mercado Artesanal, where brilliantly colored fabric and clothing, as well as handicrafts, are unparalleled. Otavalo also has an animal market where livestock is bought and sold and a produce market nearby.
Like much of Ecuador, Otavalo is a mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures. Although the nights are cooler (down to the 40s sometimes), days are frequently in the 70s, which is ideal for seeing the abundance of local natural sights. Don’t miss the Imbabura volcanic mountain ranges, Peguche Waterfall, or Lago San Pablo – a perfect one-day hike in this gorgeous setting.
If you want to live a long time, enjoying a healthy lifestyle, you can’t beat Vilcabamba. While the locals there may not be quite as old as their reputed 100+ years, they have virtually no heart disease, diabetes, or serious illness. Much of their longevity is attributed to healthy diet; until the rest of civilization descended on Vilcabamba around the ’60s, Ecuadorians there ate an organic vegetarian diet, full of fresh vegetables and grains, with little fat and no animal products.
Nowadays, Vilcabamba is an ideal destination for anyone who wants to grow their own food. With fertile soil at its altitude of 5,000 feet and temperatures in the 65-80 degree range, it’s a year-round farmer’s paradise. The water is as clean as the air there too. Vilcabamba’s water comes from glacier-fed lakes in the mountains above, and it’s packed with minerals, without any of the chemicals and preservatives found most other places around the world.
Throw in the low cost of living, reasonable real estate market, and stunning surroundings, and Vilcabamba is a winner. You can live like the natives and practice functional exercise by hiking or riding the area on horseback. With views like sacred Inca sites and lush waterfalls, be sure to bring your camera.
Cuenca is the most well-known of the expat magnets in Ecuador. The third largest city in the country, it has a big-city feel with a manageable population of 350,000. While you can find fine arts and gourmet dining there, the cost of living is still quite low; a couple can live very well on $1,500 per month.
Cuenca offers a balance of old Ecuadorian culture and new amenities. The real estate market has slowed down slightly from its rollicking 5-12% appreciation rate of the last decade, which makes it a good time to snag an investment property at a deal. Historic and agricultural properties are available for purchase and are largely accessible via the city’s fine public transportation system. Other reasons people love Cuenca:
- excellent health care
- widespread availability of high-speed Internet
- few cars for a city its size
- family-friendly atmosphere
- safety (very little violent crime)
- year-round temperatures in the 70s
- four rivers in the area
- multiple universities and good schools
- connected but locally assimilated expat community
Nicknamed “The White City,” Ibarra was founded by the Spanish in 1606 at the base of the Imbabura volcano. While it boasts the great climate and low cost of living of many other cities in Ecuador, Ibarra is known for its appeal to outdoor enthusiasts. If you like organized sports competition, try one of their running or bike races. Or how about a public park with climbing walls and an abundance of post-workout hot springs?
Although it’s quite cultured, Ibarra is a less typical expat destination than many spots in Ecuador. This has less to do with what’s offered there than the fact that little English is spoken in Ibarra, so the learning curve as an expat is a bit steeper for some. It’s also tougher to reach, with no direct flights into the city; visitors must fly into either Quito or Tulcan and drive from there.
Loja, in the Southern Sierra region, is another less frequent expat destination. Located near Vilacamba, with a population of around 200,000, Loja has the warm days and cool nights favored by nature lovers. With temperatures ranging from the mid-40s to the mid-70s, there’s no need for heat or air conditioning, which cuts down on the already reasonable cost of living there.
Loja’s natives and small expat community enjoy the city’s layout, which is organized, Spanish-style, around town squares. What Loja is really known for, however, is being the music capital of Ecuador. With two orchestras and a music conservatory, there is never any lack of melodic entertainment there.
No matter where you land in Ecuador, you are sure to be wowed by the incredible scenery, warm people, and diverse culture of its cities. Once you find a home base, you can take advantage of places like Papallacta, with its volcanic heated hot springs and see more than 130 species of hummingbird in the Amazon Basin cloud forest nearby. The ease of immigration in Ecuador is a fantastic plus. No wonder so many expats are now calling the Ecuadorian highlands home.