Ecuador: Land of Endless Surprises

From hiking the rainforest to horseback riding in the Ecuadorian “wild west,” this tiny country offers many unexpected experiences.

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Travel in Ecuador - An elderly woman and her beloved dog in the Plaza San Francisco. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
An elderly woman and her beloved dog in Plaza San Francisco. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

On that brilliant blue sky morning, there was a great deal of activity in the bustling Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. I watched a small group of raucous men in a corner, apparently recovering from the festivities of the night before, an elderly indigenous woman petting her beloved dog, the requisite shoeshine man hard at work 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.

Dating from the 1500s, the plaza fronts the opulent marble palace-like Casa Gangotena boutique hotel. The ornately decorated San Francisco Church and Convent lines one side of the enormous cobblestone-paved square. In every direction, at this sunny, crisp early hour, there were moms with their youngsters in tow, scurrying off to school – some while balancing their breakfast plates in hand.

Many people know little about Ecuador. They might not know that chocolate originated in Ecuador, not in Mexico. Or that it boasts 75 volcanoes (62 of them over 12,500 feet,) 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 (really named Toquilla hats) come from — they were called Panama hats because the laborers on the canal wore them.

Travel in Ecuador: A morning scene in Plaza San Francisco, Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
A morning scene in Plaza San Francisco, Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

Travel in Ecuador

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 in North America. In just a few hours from many major airports in the U.S, 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 would 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.  In 2013, this small country (only about the size of Colorado or England,) won the World Travel Award’s World’s Leading Green Destination and was nominated in four additional categories at the international level.

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.

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. Ecuador has 46 different 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.

Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador peeking through the afternoon cloudbanks. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
Cotopaxi Volcano peeking through the afternoon cloud banks. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

Altitude is an issue in Ecuador and it’s essential to plan accordingly. Experienced tour operators (it is recommended to contract 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, just 20 minutes from Mariscal Sucre airport (which opened in 2013), is one option. 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 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.

Quito, Ecuador

Founded in the 1500’s, Quito is one of the best preserved historic centers in the Americas, and is the highest official capital city in the world, at 9,350 feet. With some 2,600,000 residents, 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.

Many tourists opt to begin their exploration in Quito. This colonial gem was named, along with Krakow, as one of the two first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.

The Ecuadorean highlands are misty, mysterious and magnificent. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
The Ecuadorean highlands are misty, mysterious and magnificent. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

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, reminding me somewhat 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 cloud bank with its snow-capped summit.

The Termas de Papillacta spa and hot springs resort is a delightful, relaxing spot. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
The Termas de Papillacta spa and hot springs resort is a delightful, relaxing spot. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

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. What could be more perfect for sore muscles than a cozy, cabin-like room fronting a series of hot springs pools, heated by volcanic waters?

Tropical Rainforests in Ecuador

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 sweating through. Miraculously, no one complained of mosquitoes. There are many ecolodges and small inns in the jungle regions, but again, it is recommended to use a tour operator for your Ecuador adventure travel.

The so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes in the Andes Highlands was quite magical. We stayed at the El Porvenir Hacienda, owned by a supremely warm, gregarious Ecuadorian couple. The hacienda has been in the family for 100 years, and is beautifully restored and modernized. This working ranch is furnished with charming native handicrafts and plump, cozy chairs and sofas, with delightful bedrooms featuring lovely wrapped hot water bottles in every bed. 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.

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. Riders wear traditional wool striped ponchos and leather chaps, long goat hair and tooling adorning them.

The author gets ready for her Highlands horseback ride at El Poremor. Photo courtesy Irene Middleman Thomas
The author gets ready for her Highlands horseback ride at El Poremor. Photo courtesy Irene Middleman Thomas

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.

One way to travel between regions in style is with the historic Tren Crucero (tourist train,) which offers several touristic excursions on very comfortable trains with panoramic windows. The newly-reopened Tren Crucero 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.

On our trip from Bolillo to Machachi, I was charmed by the stream of village locals waving 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 Ecuadorian dancers met us to put on a folkloric show – and when we reboarded, we were surprised by fresh fruit kabobs and tropical juices at our tables.

Ecuadorian folkloric dancers perform for the Tren Crucero passengers. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
Ecuadorian folkloric dancers perform for the Tren Crucero passengers. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

One of the best places to enjoy Ecuador’s renowned bird watching is in the cloud forest. While there are several lesser-priced options in the region, if it’s in your budget, splurge on the 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 highly impressed 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 city.

With the only pedaled Sky Bike in the world (like a zipline 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, birdwatching platforms – and truly gourmet cuisine to top it all off – Mashpi wins prize after prize. It’s a treasure.

Soft-spoken Jose Napa, one of the original guides, still shows his excitement when he spots birds. Touching my arm lightly, he led me in different directions to see toucans, collared trogans, and broad-billed motmots, watching my face to enjoy MY excitement.

Cuisine in Ecuador ranges from rustic dishes dating from ancient times, such as various soups, including quinoa soup, ‘choclo,’ a potato and cheese soup topped with roasted corn and popcorn, yucca ‘tortillas,’ and ‘maito’ (tilapia or other fish, seasoned with lemon, salt, garlic and onion, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted) to sophisticated restaurants with multi-course meals worthy of New York, Paris or Buenos Aires.

You’ll try new fruits and vegetables, such as ‘tree tomatoes,’ with their delectable taste somehow in between oranges and tomatoes, and taxo, a type of passionfruit. Trout is abundant and delicious in Ecuador – 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 – Ecuadorians expect that.

A typical Ecuadorian stew with "choclo" - (popcorn). Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
A typical Ecuadorian stew with “choclo” – (popcorn). Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

As I strolled in the 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, reveling with swirling skirts and a brass band playing raucously. Passersby stopped and before long, the performers reached out and grabbed spectators’ arms to join them. Letting loose in a 16th century plaza with costumed dancers, under the moonlight shimmering on the cobblestones, I understood what they meant by ‘four worlds in one place.’ From cuisine to climate, to vegetation to culture, Ecuador is full of surprises.

If You Go to Ecuador:

Transportation:  Airlines flying to Quito include American, United, LAN Ecuador, Avianca, Copa and various others. Flight time from Fort Lauderdale/Miami to Quito is about 4 hours.

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 is: www.adventuretravel.biz.

When to Go: Since 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. Sunrise is around 6 a.m. and sunset is around 6 p.m., year round.

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

Author bio: Irene Middleman Thomas is a Colorado-based writer for a variety of local, national and international publications and websites. She will never forget Joseph and the mango-stealing monkey. www.irenethomas.com