The experience of Ecuador’s melting pot begins in the capital. Declared as UNESCO’s first World Heritage site, Quito’s historic old town, with its baroque churches and palaces, is becoming Latin America’s leading urban getaway. Beyond the architectural beauty, you’ll find that Spanish and even pre-colonial influences still inform the street music, bustling plazas, and local cuisine. Up in the misty mountains, denizens of deep-rooted communities will travel miles with their goods to Andean towns. Market squares then display a kaleidoscope of colors, with handwoven garments and odd-shaped fruit, and the aromas of roasting meat and sounds of trade swirl along the streets.

La Mama Negra commemorates the Virgin of Mercy’s saving of Latacunga from a volcanic eruption in 1742. In September, and again during the first week of November, the streets of this small town throb with the sounds of drums, trumpets, and trombones from various parades (though the sight of a black-faced virgin and colorful transvestites may live longer in the memory). As the important Catholic festival before Easter, Carnival prepares devout believers for 40 days of fasting—with an almighty blowout. If you’re walking outside, expect to be covered in eggs, soap, and foam. The best way to enjoy the event is to grab a can and join in. At the beginning of December, Quito explodes into the weeklong Fiestas de Quito, celebrating the founding of the city in 1534. Open-air stages sprout up around the old town, featuring parades, street dances, and bullfights (without killings).