Most visitors to Ecuador don't take the time to explore the southern Sierra, which is a shame. This region, often called El Austro, offers rich and varied rewards for all sorts of travelers. The colonial city of Cuenca is the region's de facto hub, not to mention its main attraction. One of South America's best-preserved and most charming colonial-era cities, Cuenca is compact and vibrant, and readily offers up its many charms: a wide range of wonderful boutique hotels in restored mansions, a plethora of excellent restaurants and bars, and some of Ecuador's best shopping outside of Otavalo. A few hours from Cuenca sits Ingapirca, Ecuador's principal Inca ruins, as well as Cajas National Park, a nature-lover's and bird-watcher's paradise.
South of Cuenca is the city and province of Loja. The Andean mountain peaks aren't quite as high or imposing here as they are in the central Sierra, but they still provide numerous opportunities for hiking, trekking, wildlife-viewing and camping. Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador, and thanks to its remoteness it retains much of its old-world ambience. Just outside Loja are Podocarpus National Park and the isolated mountain hamlet of Vilcabamba. Podocarpus, one of the country's most biodiverse national parks, is a must-see for any serious bird-watcher. Vilcabamba, for its part, is world-renowned for the remarkable longevity of its inhabitants, and it has become a pilgrimage destination for those seeking a bit of spiritual healing.