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A twin chain of Andean peaks, the Avenue of Volcanoes, cuts through the centre of Ecuador from north to south, like the dislocated spine of some fossilized creature, each vertebra a volcanic peak. A series of wide, intensely cultivated, densely populated valleys lie between the parallel rows of mountains. These are the food baskets of Ecuador that for thousands of years have produced grain, fruit, vegetables and dairy products for the high sierra. As you pass through the fertile highland basins you'll see a panoramic patchwork of fields planted with all manner of crops. Stretching across some of these fields are huge plastic greenhouses used for one of the country's fastest-growing export businesses, the cultivation of flowers.

The Avenue of Volcanoes also cradles the main thoroughfare that runs up and down the spine of the country. For centuries local Quichua Indians and other indigenas have trudged this route, or ridden it on mules and donkeys, carrying crops from the fields, and produce to market. So they do today, many still wearing traditional costumes of hand woven shawls and wide-brimmed hats, and carrying huge loads on their backs. But more often these days, they travel in cars, trucks or flashy, honking, dangerously speeding buses. Today this dusty, often pot-holed, sometimes smooth road that follows the ancient route, is part of the rather grandly named Pan-American Highway [theoretically it's possible to journey through North and Central America and down the South American continent without leaving the highway].

Travelling up and down the Pan-American Highway [known as “the Pana”] through the Avenue of Volcanoes, is a pleasure for any visitor who spends some time in Ecuador. To visit the famous Indian market at Otavalo, reputedly the largest in South America, you pass north from Quito along the Pana by car or bus. To get to the popular spa resort of Banos you'll travel south through Ambato. If you want to stay at one of the fine haciendas of the Sierra you should take the road south or north. To go in another direction would mean hurtling down the steep slopes of the Andes, either towards the upper reaches of the Amazon basin to the east, or to the coastal plain in the west. The Pana is indeed Ecuador's main transport artery.

For many foreign travellers the most dramatic and fascinating features of Ecuador are its mystical, majestic mountains. Some 30 peaks in the vicinity of the Avenue of Volcanoes, some still smouldering, give the area one of the highest concentrations of volcanoes in the world. Much of the time these peaks are draped in swirling clouds and mists because, it is said, the mountains are shy and modest. But on a clear day the views over green fields to the snow-crowned peaks are spectacular.

At 6,310 m [21,031 ft], Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest mountain, presides over the western chain of mountains, Cordillera Occidental. It was believed to be the tallest mountain in the world until Mt. Everest was surveyed in the mid-19th century. Indeed, every Ecuadorean schoolchild knows that Chimborazo, which means “mountain of snow,” is the world's tallest mountain if measured from the centre of the earth — remember the earth bulges around the equator! The English climber, Edward Whymper first climbed Chimborazo, in 1880.

The tallest peak of the eastern, and geologically older chain, Cordillera Central, is the stunning and almost perfectly symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi, which means “shining peak.” At 5,897 m [19,654 ft], it is the world's tallest continuously active volcano. It has erupted some 50 times since 1738, and scars and lava flows from past volcanic activities can be seen in its vicinity. The 1877 eruption produced mudflows which travelled 100 km [62 miles]. In 1997 people living near Cotopaxi reported that the snow cap was melting, fearing that the mountain would erupt again and destroy their homes and farms.

The upper part of Cotopaxi is permanently covered in snow and often hidden by clouds that at night are sometimes lit up by fires in the 360m [1,200ft] crater. The base of the volcano stands in open mountain grassland, the paramo, which is part of the bleak, yet beautiful 34,000-hectare [84,150-acre] Cotopaxi National Park. Only 50 km [31 miles] from Quito, this is Ecuador's most frequently visited national park. The German scientist and traveller Wilhelm Reiss first climbed Cotopaxi in 1872.

Last updated 4th July 2006

|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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