Stepping out from the opulent Casa Gangotena Boutique Hotel in Quito, Ecuador, I took in the views of a bustling plaza that dates to the 1500s and fronts onto the ornately decorated San Francisco Church and Convent.
In every direction of the enormous cobblestone-paved square, I witnessed lively interactions. Stray dogs cavorted together and the requisite shoeshine man awaited customers, while moms and youngsters scurried to school — some with their breakfast plates in hand.
A small group of rowdy men in a corner appeared to be recovering from the festivities of the night before, and an elderly indigenous woman perched on the ground, petting her dog. I overheard two women in bowler hats speaking Quechua, an ancient language dating to the Incas and still spoken by millions of Ecuadoreans .
“May I take your photo?” I asked them in Spanish. “Claro que sí,” they consented with big smiles. “As long as we can see the results. We don’t have cameras.” foreign
They shyly posed and leaned over to see the picture of themselves, then beamed and thanked me. What must it be like to never see photos of oneself, I wondered.
Many people don’t realize that the Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador. And even those who do don’t know how much more there is to see besides the islands, magnificent as they are.
Most people probably also don’t know that chocolate originated in Ecuador, not in Mexico, that the country boasts 75 volcanoes (62 of them over 12,500 feet) or that Ecuador is one of the world’s leading producer of roses — and they are grand, aromatic specimens, as big as peonies.
Ecuador also lays claim to being the original source of Panama hats (really named toquilla hats). The more common reference came from workers on the canal who 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, and the electrical current is the same as ours.
In just a little over seven hours from Dallas, you can be in a whole different world, or as the Ecuadorean tourism campaign phases it, in “FOUR worlds in the middle of Planet Earth.”
It’s 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 rain forest, the Andes highlands, the coast and the Galapagos.
In 2013, this small country ( about the size of Colorado or England,) won the World Travel Awards’ World’s Leading Green Destination for 2013 and was nominated in four additional categories at the international level.
The newly reopened Tren Crucero (Tourist Train) was named one of the world’s top five journeys by rail by Lonely Planet and also received accolades from the British Guild of Travel Writers, winning the Best Wider World Tourism Award.
‘Land of eternal spring’
Spanning 40 percent of the country’s territory, the Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest is home to 10 percent of the world’s known species and is one of the most spectacular biodiversity regions on the planet.
Ecuador was named one of CNN’s 11 Places to Go in 2014 and ranked seventh on The New York Times’ list of 52 Places to Go in 2014. Few places 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 ecosystems and is home to 62 percent of the total species of South America, including 1,695 bird species and a staggering 4,250 orchid species — with 19 percent of its territory designated protected areas.
Altitude is an issue in Ecuador, and it’s essential to plan accordingly.
Experienced tour operators (it is recommended to contact one) know that most folks need some acclimatizing time and cannot go straight from the airport to the highlands. A good option is a visit to one of several rose plantations near Quito, or to one of several historic haciendas to have a meal or spend the night.
La Jimenita is just 20 minutes from Mariscal Sucre airport (which opened in 2013.) La Jimenita is a splendid place to pass the time, lovingly restored to its colonial charm, with just 15 beautifully adorned rooms, pretty gardens, nightly guitar music, 18 acres of dense forest with hiking trails and more than 20 rare species of hummingbirds.
The Cruz family welcomes all visitors to “your house” and seems to mean that sincerely. You’ll see your first view of Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano, from its observatory. Private transfers to the airport are just $20 per party.
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 (Now there are six sites.)
Founded in the 1500s, Quito is one of the best preserved historic centers in the Americas. With some 2.6 million residents, Quito is surrounded by emerald-green mountains with misty cloud banks tucked among them — and on a clear day, the snow-capped Cotopaxi can be seen.
Exquisite churches and snow-capped summits
With its altitude and proximity to the equator, Quito has a year-round cool climate, averaging in the 50s and 60s. The city has several world-class luxury hotels, as well as many more-modest accommodations, plus a dizzying number of exquisite churches, colonial-era mansions and excellent museums.
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, and a sea of shades of lush greens with purple mountains looming in the distance.
We arrived at the paramo (a 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 mystical landscape reminded 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 toward the end of the hike, were rewarded by our first view of Cotopaxi, resplendently emerging from the cloud bank with its snow-capped summit.
After that came the biggest reward of all — a night of pampering at the Termas de Papallacta spa and hot springs resort. What could be more perfect for sore muscles than a cozy, cabinlike room fronting a series of hot-springs pools, heated by volcanic waters?
Ecolodges and an Amazonian jungle experience
Ecuador’s enormous tropical rain-forest 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 Ecuadoreans. One can arrange visits to small Quechua-speaking communities, which welcome guests for tours.
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 and multicolored birds, and yes, the experience was well worth sweating through.
Miraculously, no one complained of mosquitoes (but don’t take my word for it). There are many ecolodges and small inns in the jungle regions, but it is recommended to use a tour operator for your Ecuador adventure travel.
In the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes in the Andes highlands, we were immersed in Ecuador’s “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 warm, gregarious Ecuadorean couple, has been in the family for 100 years, and is attractively restored and modernized. This working ranch is furnished with charming native handicrafts and plump, cozy chairs and sofas.
Maria and Jorge invite guests to take part in activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, a ropes course and even cooking classes. Riders wear traditional wool striped ponchos and leather chaps with long goat hair and tooling adorning them.
I felt like a local, trotting through 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 peeked at us at times through the clouds — and when it did, everyone shrieked with excitement.
One way to travel between regions in style is with the historic Tren Crucero, which offers several touristic excursions on very comfortable trains with panoramic windows.
On our trip from Bolillo to Machachi, a stream of village locals waved at us — it felt like we were in a parade. The trains are either new or recently refurbished and offer two classes of service, at very reasonable prices.
At our one stop, a troupe of Ecuadorean dancers met us to put on a folkloric show, and when we reboarded, we were surprised by fresh fruit kebabs and tropical juices at our tables.
Birds and gourmet dining in the middle of nowhere
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.
I was mesmerized by the level of sophistication in the architecture, cuisine and accommodations that this property somehow brings about flawlessly, many miles from the nearest village, let alone a city. With the only pedaled sky bike in the world (like a zip line but much better, soaring 180 feet high), a butterfly pavilion with full educational facilities, guided tours with experienced locals who have known the forest since childhood, waterfalls, rivers, bird-watching platforms and gourmet cuisine to top it off, Mashpi is a treasure.
Soft-spoken Jose Napa, one of the original guides, still shows his excitement when he spots birds. He led us in different directions to see toucans, collared trogans, broad-billed motmots and more.
Cuisine in Ecuador ranges from rustic dishes dating from ancient times, such as yucca tortillas, various soups — including quinoa soup and choclo, a potato and cheese soup topped with roasted corn and popcorn — and maito (tilapia or other fish, seasoned with lemon, salt, garlic and onion, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted), to sophisticated restaurants with multicourse meals worthy of urban addresses.
You’ll try new fruits and vegetables, such as tree tomatoes, with a taste that tiptoes between that of an orange and tomato, and taxo, a type of passion fruit.
Trout is abundant and prepared in many ways.
While Ecuador has excellent coffee, there are also many teas that are worth trying, some with medicinal or healing properties. Service is friendly, professional and quick — Ecuadoreans expect that.
From cuisine to climate, vegetation to culture, Ecuador has an impressive mix of surprises within its borders. As I strolled in one of Quito’s many 16th-century plazas, with just two hours to spare until heading to the airport, a folkloric group of dancers put on an impromptu performance.
A brass band played raucously and the performers, with swirling skirts, soon grabbed spectators’ arms, pulling us into the dance. With the moon
light shimmering on the cobblestones, I let loose with the costumed dancers, knowing that all too soon, I’d be on my way to the airport.
Yes, in Ecuador one does feel as though it’s “four worlds in one place.”
If you go
Transportation: American Airlines has filed with the Department of Transportation for five-times-per-week service between DFW and Quito and is set to begin service Dec. 18. Other airlines flying to Quito include United, LAN Ecuador, Avianca and Copa.
Tour operators: It is highly recommended to travel with a tour operator if venturing out of Quito or other urban areas. Roads are very mountainous and signage is not ideal, even for those fluent in Spanish. A good site for finding tour operators like Surtrek (www.surtrek.com) is www.adventuretravel.biz.
When to go: Because Ecuador lies on the equator, it has no seasons. However, June, July and August are the driest months of the year, affording best visibility of volcanoes — but they are also the windiest months. Year round, sunrise is around 6 a.m. and sunset is around 6 p.m.
Where to stay:
Casa Gangotena, Quito: www.casagangotena.com
Hacienda Porvenir, Cotopaxi area: www.english.tierradelvolcan.com/english/hacienda/el-porvenir/descripcion
Mashpi Lodge, Mashpi: www.mashpilodge.com