POPULAR TOURS AREN’T typically appealing for my wife Nikki and me. That’s why the thought of a week in Ecuador — hiking in the Andes, riding a 150-year-old train and prowling through countryside marketplaces — attracted our attention.
“No, we didn’t see the Galapagos Islands,” we told friends after returning last summer. “Instead we drove along the Avenue of Volcanoes, stayed in haciendas and wound up in Cuenca, a 500-year-old city so attractive and intriguing we talked about moving there someday.” Well, probably not, but when you are there it does seem like a strong retirement option.
Ecuador means “equator” in Spanish and because the equator cuts through Ecuador the country has no seasons. Every day has the same 12 hours of daylight: essentially the sun rises at 6:15 a.m. and sets at 6:15 p.m., so a day is a day is a day — all year long. Straddling the equator means the sun is closer here than in places north or south, so you need sunscreen.
Speaking of splitting the earth into northern and southern hemispheres, half an hour outside Ecuador’s capital of Quito is where the planet’s latitude is exactly zero degrees zero minutes. I stood there with one foot in each hemisphere. Even weirder, when you’re standing in the Northern Hemisphere and pour water down a drain, it will circle clockwise. Now hop over to the Southern Hemisphere, pour the same amount of water and it circles counterclockwise while heading to the drain. It’s a bit spooky, but clearly makes the scientific point.
As you look at a globe, Ecuador sits high on South America’s left shoulder, with two-thirds the land mass of California and just half the Golden State’s population. Ecuador gained its independence from Spain in the 1820s and now considers itself a presidential constitutional republic. The country’s young and progressive president is University of Illinois–educated Rafael Correa, who according to Raul, our young and knowledgeable guide, hopes to make his nation into the “Switzerland of Latin America.” Traveling in a van with a guide as we did, you can see some possible progress toward that goal. The highways in Ecuador are excellent: wide and smooth, with well-engineered on- and off-ramps, drainage and lighting.
As for its economy, Ecuador relies on income from the sale of petroleum, bananas, seafood, tourism and roses — in that order. The good news for visitors is that Ecuador’s national currency is the American dollar, so there’s no fussing over currency conversion rates.
The not-so-good news is that Quito, Ecuador’s capital with a population of 2 million plus, sits at 9,350 feet elevation, so it can require a bit of “altitude adjustment.” Also, the city itself is hilly and prone to earthquakes, so it’s no surprise its formal name is San Francisco de Quito.
If you plan to stay in Quito, make reservations in the Colonial Old Town section. That’s where you’ll find the lively Plaza Grande (completed in 1580), the stately government palace and the incredible La Compania de Jesus Church. We’re not church people, but La Compania, with its colorful art, high vaulted ceilings and an interior covered completely in gold leaf, kept us captive for an afternoon.
Our first night’s headquarters was Hotel Patio Andaluz and it was ideal: friendly, accommodating and close to everything previously mentioned. Remember, in 1978, UNESCO declared Quito’s Old Town to be a World Cultural Heritage Site. There are lots of things to see nearby, not the least of which is the majestic Virgin of the Americas statue.
Actually, you can’t miss her: look south and there she is, standing atop a hill, 150 feet tall and made of 7,000 pieces of aluminum and making you think, Statue of Liberty. It’s worth a trip up the hill to see the view from inside the statue; locals claim she’s the only Madonna in the world to sport a pair of wings. (As a graffiti-phobe, I also appreciated a small bilingual sign reading, “Thank you for displaying your education by not writing on the walls.” Surrounding walls were all graffiti-free.)
Now, about that Avenue of the Volcanoes. The designation emanated from Alexander von Humboldt, a German explorer who in 1802 climbed the Chimborazo volcano (20,702 feet). After traveling three hours out of Quito on a misty, overcast day, we were satisfied (and thoroughly winded) just hiking at 13,500 feet at nearby Cotopaxi (topping out at 19,350 feet, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes).
Other volcanoes on the avenue, which is actually the famed Pan American Highway, are Antisana (18,860 feet), Illiniza (17,281 feet) and Ruminahui (15,460 feet), each in its own way welcoming to hikers, rock climbers and experienced mountain climbers.
After that first day focused on volcanoes, we spent the next focused on the markets, as in open-air. We were still in Cotopaxi Province, it was still overcast and misty and these were the Saquisili Markets, which only take place on Thursdays. That’s when vendors come down from the highlands to interact with buyers from the valley floor. Fortunately, the day of our visit was a Thursday.
Our first stop was the “large animal market,” which you could hear taking place half a mile before arriving on the dusty scene. Big pink hogs were the most vocal of the bunch. They seemed to know the truck they were being roped into was heading straight for the slaughterhouse and their repeated chalk-on-a-blackboard screams let everyone within earshot know they were not happy about their fate. Meanwhile, fat cows, being sold for $200, were going silently and obediently to new homes. So were furry llamas, locally often the prized pets of teenage farm girls. The crowded market scene was dank and muddy, smelling of wet animal hair and barnyards.
Next, at a small animal market, live chickens were stuffed motionless in black crates, rabbits were sold by the dozens and squealing baby guinea pigs, whose meat goes into a traditional dish in Ecuador, went for $5 a basketful. After trudging through a sprawling vegetable and fruit market (lots of papayas and bananas), we came to the general market and I bought (with no thought of bargaining) a soft leather beige apron for a dollar. In hindsight I should have bought a dozen.
Suffering a mild case of market burnout, we headed on down the Avenue of the Volcanoes to Riobamba, the insome- places quaint capital of Chimborazo Province and, more important, the home of Abraspungo Hotel. Now this is a very pleasant accommodation: cozy adobe casitas, a quaint bar staffed by friendly señoritas and a high-spirited restaurant that served seafood pasta not to be forgotten. In a word: memorable.
The Ecuadorian Andes seemed to grow on us — even (or especially) if the next day called for a ride on “The Most Difficult Railway in the World.” Here’s that story: in 1901, Ecuador’s railroads were in their heyday; trains smoothly connected Guayaquil (the country’s largest city) and Quito and Cuenca (its oldest city). But time and weather have taken their toll. Almost all that remains of the line today is a treacherous 6.25-mile zigzag between the villages Alusi and Sibambe.
The railway was built in 1902 by Jamaican laborers and rebuilt by Ecuadorean workers in 1993. “Way back in 1895,” a conductor proudly told me, “3,000 tons of steel were shipped from London around Cape Horn to build this line.” The highlight of our 90-minute ride was traversing Narizdel Diablo, the Devil’s Nose, a humongous slab of granite requiring numerous switchbacks that caused the antique train to often reverse course and expose riders to 500-meter vertical drop-offs and views of workers laboring in the patchwork of fields rising up from the Chanchan River. It was exhilarating and conjured images of the country’s early days.
We welcomed the calm and quaintness of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city and arguably its most beautiful. With more than 400,000 residents, Cuenca is not small, but to us it felt intimate. The River Tomebamba divides the city with shaded parks on both shores. We sensed a colonial legacy to Cuenca with its modern buildings offset by cobblestone streets and adobe walls. We also spotted a university, several bookstores and lots of streetside cafes. It’s no secret that Cuenca has an expatriate population (Americans, Canadians and Europeans) of over 8,000 who even have their own magazine, Cuenca Expats.
This intriguing city also has its own airport, zoo, golf course(s), sporting traditions and numerous museums and cathedrals. And if you fancy a luxury hotel, they don’t come more luxurious than Mansion Alcazar on Calle Bolivar. With a full-service spa, lovely gardens and a gourmet restaurant named Casa Alonso, this exquisite compound is a challenge to best. Our stay in Cuenca ended too soon.
It was a long drive north to the gritty port city of Guayaquil (population 2.5 million), and the temperature rose as the altitude fell. Up until this last day, our adventure was at high elevations, but we were now headed to the Guayaquil Airport at sea level to fly back to Quito for the return trip home. Along the way were endless rows of halffinished houses interspersed with auto repair shops, bus stops and abandoned nondescript buildings. Ecuador isn’t all sunshine and engaging adventures. It has its dark and economically depressed sides. However, Guayaquil’s Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport is as clean and up-to-date as any in America. That was our last impression. Ecuador has much to offer today’s traveler who is looking for adventure in a unique and yet complex country.
IF YOU GO:
EAT AND DRINK
Calle Mejia 543
Calle Bolivar 12-55
Gran Columbia 9-41
Hotel Patio Andaluz
Garcia Moreno N6-52
Hotel Plaza Grande
San Pablo de Lago
Hotel Santa Lucia
Antonio Borrero 844
Calle Bolivar 12-55
Km 3.5 Via Riobamba
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Ecuador“.