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.
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.
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