ECUADOR: LAND OF ENDLESS SURPRISES
On this clear blue sky morning, the bustling Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador was abuzz with activity.
I saw a small group of grumpy men in the corner, seemingly reeling from last night’s festivities, an old indigenous woman stroking her beloved dog, the requisite shoe polisher at work, and two women in bowler hats speaking Quechua, an ancient language dating back to the Incas that is still spoken by millions of Ecuadorians.
“Can I take a picture of you?” I asked them in Spanish.
“Claro que sí,” they agreed with wide smiles. “I wish we could see the results! We don’t have cameras.” They posed shyly and bent down to look at each other. “Gracias,” they said cheerfully.
The 16th-century square overlooks the luxury marble boutique Casa Gangotena. The ornately decorated San Francisco Church and Convent line the other side of the huge cobbled opening.
In that fresh, sunny moment, there were mothers hurrying to school with their children in every direction, some of them holding breakfast plates.
CHOCOLATE AND PANAMA HATS
Many people know little about Ecuador. What they may not know is that the chocolate comes from Ecuador, not Mexico. Or that there are 75 volcanoes (62 of which are over 12,500 feet), or that Ecuador is one of the world’s largest producers of roses—and they are beautiful, aromatic, peony-sized specimens.
Also from Ecuador are those beautiful Panama hats (actually called Toquilla hats) – they were called Panama hats because the canal workers used them.
HOW TO GET TO ECUADOR
There are many other surprises in store for travelers to Ecuador, and useful ones too: the US dollar has been the official currency since 1999, and electricity is the same as in North America.
Within a few hours of many major US airports, you can be in a completely different world, or as Ecuador’s tourism campaign quips, “FOUR worlds in the middle of the planet.”
It would be a shame to only visit the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast, and admire mainland Ecuador, as many do. Ecuador has four distinct and unique regions: the Amazon rainforest, the Andean highlands, the coast, and the Galapagos.
In 2013, this tiny country (only about the size of Colorado or England) won the World Travel Award for Best Green Destination and was nominated in four additional categories internationally.
There are few places on earth that offer such a wide variety of ethnic groups, landscapes, cultural and historical heritage and nature, and adventure.
In fact, this “Land of Eternal Spring” was awarded the first two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978, the only country in South America to do so.
ECUADORIAN AMAZON RAINFOREST
Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest covers 40% of the earth’s surface and is home to 10% of the world’s known species, and is one of the most spectacular areas of biodiversity in the world.
Ecuador has 46 different ecosystems and is home to 62 percent of all species in South America, including 1,695 species of birds and as many as 4,250 species of orchids, and 19 percent of its territory is designated as a protected area.
Height is an issue in Ecuador and planning accordingly is essential. Experienced tour operators know that most people need some time to adjust and cannot go straight from the airport to the highlands.
A good option is to visit one of the many rose plantations near Quito or one of the many historic haciendas where you can eat or stay overnight.
La Jimenita, just 20 minutes from Mariscal Sucre Airport (opened in 2013), is one option.
La Jimenita is a lovely place to spend time, lovingly restored to its colonial charm, with just 15 beautifully appointed rooms, delightful gardens, nightly guitar music, 18 acres of dense forest with hiking trails, and over 20 rare species of hummingbirds.
The Cruz family welcomes all visitors “home” and it looks like they really mean it. You will see the first view of Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest active volcano, from the observatory.
WHAT TO SEE IN QUITO, ECUADOR
Founded in the 16th century, Quito is one of the best-preserved historic centers in the Americas and the highest official capital in the world at 9,350 meters.
With a population of about 2,600,000, Quito is surrounded by emerald green mountains interspersed with hazy clouds, and on a clear day you can see the snow-capped Cotopaxi.
Quito has several world-class luxury hotels, as well as many more modest lodging options, gourmet restaurants, beautiful plazas, and a dizzying array of beautiful churches, colonial mansions, and excellent museums.
WHAT’S THE WEATHER IN QUITO?
Due to its elevation and proximity to the equator, Quito’s climate is cool year-round, averaging in the 50s and 60s. There are two seasons, wet and dry – the wettest period is from October to May, which covers a large part of the country affects.
Many tourists choose to start their exploration from Quito. This colonial jewel, along with Krakow, was declared one of the first two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978.
Others decide to go to the highlands of the Andes, the rainforest or the Amazon.
Leaving Quito, we pass endless towering eucalyptus trees (an invasive species here) with herds of grazing cattle, potatoes, beans and corn – a sea of lush greens with purple mountains looming in the distance, interspersed with banks of clouds.
MILESTONE OF THE CORDILLERA LA VIRGEN CRUCE
We arrived at the “Paramo” (arid plateau of the Andes) to start the strenuous journey. Starting at the La Virgen Cruce Cordillera landmark (13,123 feet), we walked along winding, muddy trails, very thankful for the knee-high rubber boots we were provided.
The landscape was mystical and reminded me a bit of the moors in the west of Ireland. In fact, the vegetation was spongy and very wet, and plants I had never seen before, and vast lagoons shrouded in mist reflected the sky in all directions.
We saw a deer grazing between three rocks and towards the end of the hike we were rewarded with our first view of Cotopaxi, rising magnificently from the bank of snowcapped clouds.
Excited, we then headed for the biggest prize of all: a night of pampering at the spa and spa resort of Termas de Papillacta.
What could be more perfect for sore muscles than a cozy cabin-like room with several hot springs heated by volcanic water?
Tropical rainforests in ECUADOR
Ecuador’s vast tropical rainforest is filled with rivers that lead to the Amazon. The upper Amazon basin is rich in biodiversity in this always hot and humid region known by Ecuadorians as the “Oriente”. Visits to small Quechua speaking communities that welcome tour guests can be arranged.
Incredibly lush with dense plants, flowers and animals, it really felt like a jungle. We saw tarantulas, huge centipedes, frogs, orchids, 40 foot wide trees, Tarzan-like vines and multicolored birds, and yes, the experience was worth it. Miraculously, no one complained about the mosquitoes.
There are many eco-friendly and small shelters in the jungle areas, but again it is recommended to use a tour operator for your adventure tours in Ecuador.
The so-called Avenue of Volcanoes in the highlands of the Andes was quite magical. We stayed at El Porvenir Hacienda owned by a very warm and friendly Ecuadorian couple.
The hacienda has been in the family for 100 years and has been beautifully restored and modernized. Furnished with charming natives and soft, comfortable chairs and sofas, this working farmhouse has lovely bedrooms with indulgent hot water bottles on each bed.
Maria and Jorge invite guests to participate in activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, ziplining, and even cooking classes: delicious cheese empanadas and more.
We immersed ourselves in the “Wild West” of Ecuador, complete with cattle roasting, horseback riding, and hearty, succulent meals of freshly caught river salmon with pesto and sirloin steak with local cranberry salsa and roasted red onions.
The riders wear the traditional striped ponchos of wool and leather trousers, long goat hair and tools that adorn it.