Stepping out from the opulent marble palace-like Casa Gangotena boutique hotel in Quito, Ecuador, I found myself in a bustling plaza dating from the 1500’s. The ornately decorated San Francisco Church and Convent fronts this enormous cobblestone-paved square. On this sunny, crisp morning, in every direction there were moms with their youngsters in tow, scurrying off to school – some with their breakfast plates in hand! There was a small group of rowdy men in a corner, apparently recovering from the festivities of the night before, three stray dogs cavorting with each other, an elderly indigenous woman sitting on the ground petting her beloved dog, the requisite shoeshine man, and two women in bowler hats speaking Quechua, the ancient language dating back to the Incas which millions of Ecuadorians still speak. “May I take your photo,” I asked them in Spanish. “Claro que sí,” they consented with a big smile. “As long as we can see the results! We don’t have cameras.”
They shyly posed and leaned over to see themselves. “Gracias,” they said to me happily. What must it be like to never see photos of yourself, I wondered?
Did you know that chocolate originated in Ecuador, not in Mexico? Or that it boasts 75 volcanoes or that Ecuador is one of the world’s leading producers of roses – and they are magnificent, aromatic specimens, as big as peonies. Ecuador is also from where those fine Panama hats come — they were called Panama hats because the workers on the canal used them. There are many other surprises that await travelers to Ecuador – and some handy ones at that: the U.S. dollar has been the official currency since 1999! In just a few hours from London, you can be in a whole different world, or as the Ecuadorean tourism campaign quips, in “FOUR worlds in the middle of Planet Earth.”
It’d be a shame to only visit the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast, thus neglecting mainland Ecuador, as many do. Ecuador has four diverse and unique regions – the Amazon Rainforest, Highland Andes, the Coast and the Galapagos.
The Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest makes up 40 percent of the country’s territory and is home to 10 percent of the world’s known species, and is one of the most spectacular biodiversity regions on the planet. Few places on Earth offer such wide diversity of ethnicities, landscapes, cultural and historical heritage and nature, as well as adventure. Indeed, this “land of eternal spring” received two of the first UNESCO World Heritage designations in 1978 – the only South American country to do so. Ecuador has 46 different ecosystems and is home to 62 percent of the total species of South America, including 1695 bird species and a staggering 4250 orchid species – with 19 percent of its territory designated protected areas.
Some folks opt to begin their exploration in Quito, the highest official capital city in the world, at 9,350 feet. This colonial gem was named, along with Krakow, as one of the two first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1978. Founded in the 1500’s, Quito is one of the best preserved historic centers in the Americas. Quito is surrounded by emerald-green mountains with misty cloud banks tucked between them, and on a clear day, the snow-capped Cotopaxi can be seen. Quito has several world-class luxury hotels, as well as many more modest accommodations, gourmet dining, beautiful plazas and a dizzying number of exquisite churches, colonial-era mansions, and excellent museums. With its altitude and proximity to the Equator, Quito has a year-round cool climate averaging in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. There are two seasons, wet and dry – with the wettest time from October to May, which is true of much of the country.
Others choose to get into the Andes Highlands, or the cloud forest, or the Amazonia region. Leaving Quito, one passes endless towering eucalyptus trees (an invasive species here,) grazing plump cattle, potato, bean and corn farms – a sea of shades of lush greens with purple mountains looming in the distance, cloud banks nestled between them. We arrived at the ‘Paramo’ (treeless Andes Highlands plateau) to begin a strenuous hike. Starting from the La Virgen Cruce Cordillera Milesone (13,123 feet,) we headed down winding, muddy trails, very grateful for the knee-high rubber boots we were given.
The landscape was mystical, somehow reminding me of the moors in western Ireland. Indeed, the vegetation was spongy and very moist, with plants I had never seen before, and huge mist-covered lagoons reflected the sky in every direction. We spotted three deer grazing between some rocks, and towards the end of the hike, were rewarded by our first view of Cotopaxi, resplendently emerging from the cloudbank with its snow-capped summit. Thrilled, we then ended up at the biggest reward of all – a night of pampering at the Termas de Papillacta spa and hot springs resort.
Ecuador’s enormous tropical rainforest region is filled with rivers leading to the Amazon. The upper basin of the Amazon is richly biodiverse in this always hot and wet region, known as “Oriente” by the Ecuadorians. One can arrange visits to small Quechua-speaking communities which welcome guests for tours. Fantastically lush with dense plants, flowers and animal life, this really felt like the jungle – we saw tarantulas, huge millipedes, frogs, orchids, 40-foot wide trees, Tarzan-type vines, multicolored birds and yes, the experience was well worth it.
I was entranced by the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes in the Andes Highlands, where we were immersed in the Ecuadorian “wild west,” replete with cattle branding, horseback riding and hearty, succulent meals of fresh-caught river trout with pesto and sirloin steak topped with local huckleberry sauce and toasted red onions. Hacienda El Porvenir, owned by a supremely warm, gregarious Ecuadorian couple, has been in the family for 100+ years, and is beautifully restored and modernized. Maria and Jorge invite guests to take part in activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, a ropes course and even cooking classes – delectable cheese empanadas and more. Riders wear traditional wool striped ponchos and leather chaps, long goat hair and tooling adorning them. I felt like a local, trotting up the long grasses in the brisk 13,000 feet-high highlands wind, gazing at the pretty ground daisies, crocuses, asters and Andean Indian paintbrush. Cotopaxi peaked at us at times through the clouds – and when it did, everyone shrieked with excitement.
Ecuador is renowned for its bird watching and one of the best places to enjoy it is in the cloud forest. While there are several lesser-priced options in the region, if it’s in your budget, make a visit to Mashpi Lodge, a one-of-a-kind ecotourism property in the middle of nowhere, one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. With the only pedaled Sky Bike in the world, a butterfly pavilion with full educational facilities, guided tours with experienced locals who have known the forest since childhood, waterfalls, rivers, birdwatching platforms – and truly gourmet cuisine to top it all off.
From cuisine to climate, to vegetation to culture, Ecuador has an astonishing mix within its small size, with constant surprises awaiting its guests. As I strolled in one of Quito’s many plazas, with just two hours to spare until heading to the airport, a folkloric group of dancers put on an impromptu performance, revelling with swirling skirts and a brass band playing raucously. Letting loose in a 16th century plaza with costumed dancers, under the moonlight, shimmering on the cobblestones, knowing that all too soon, I was on my way to the airport – yes, in Ecuador one does feel as though in ‘four worlds in one place.’