86 imagesNot only Galapagos. Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador may be the smallest Andean nation but it’s packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery, biodiversity, stunning colonial architecture and diverse mix of people, a microcosm of South America. Many tourists only known the Galapagos islands but few travel in the Sierra, at around 2800m above sea level, formed by the eastern and western chains of the Andes, punctuated by more than thirty volcanoes and enclosed by a series of high plateaux. This is the agricultural and indigenous heartland of Ecuador, a region of patchwork fields, stately haciendas and remote farming villages, as well as the country’s oldest and most important cities, including Quito. The Avenida de los Volcanes is a gigantic valley in the heart of the Andes with impressive vertical landscapes and volcanoes like the Chimborazo (6310 m.), the furthest point from the centre of the earth thanks to the bulge around the equator. In the villages around Cuencas small factories craft the finest handmade Panama hats. Everywhere colourful Indian markets and colonial cities like Quito coexist with colonial haciendas (today often transformed in charming hotels) and traditional shamans. The historic centers of Quito and Cuenca cobblestone streets are lined with 17th-century churches and beautifully restored mansions. A capital city high in the Andes, Quito is dramatically situated with its crown jewel, the 'Old Town,' a Unesco World Heritage Site packed with colonial monuments and architectural treasures. There are timeless mountain villages, verdant landscapes and bustling town like Otavalo, one of the most important markets in the Andes, a weekly fiesta of vendors. The market tradition stretches back to pre-Incan times because the textile-making skills of Otavaleños (have been exploited by the Incas, the Spanish and, eventually, Ecuadorians. These days the market has become a must-see destination but Otavaleños still wear traditional clothing and are the most commercially successful indígena people in the country. The centerpiece of Ecuador's most popular national park is the snowcapped Volcán Cotopaxi, the second-highest peak of the country with fabulous old haciendas.