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(2013 - Fall Issue)


The passenger to my right makes the sign of the cross. And for good reason.

As our American Airlines pilot manoeuvres the aircraft around towering Andes Mountain peaks to make a late-night descent through thick, low-lying clouds over Quito, Ecuador, pitch-black darkness suddenly gives way to ribbons of city lights that seem uncomfortably close. I quietly offer up a little prayer myself and breathe a sigh of relief when the aircraft reaches the terminal. As we disembark, I notice a poster reminding us that Quito is 2,800 metres above sea level and to walk slowly.

South America is the new frontier for travellers seeking culture and nature. In fact, National Geographic Traveler named Quito one of the top destinations to visit in 2013. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Quito’s historic centre with its many museums, countless churches and numerous historic sites is located in the centre of the world at latitude 0, making it a very unique place on Earth.

Examine a globe and you’ll see the equator runs through only 14 countries in the world, Ecuador being one of them. While most other equatorial countries consist primarily of tropical rainforests, the difference here lies mainly in the altitude. Ecuador’s mountainous terrain keeps temperatures within a very comfortable range year-round—just one excuse for its popularity among North American retirees.

Affordability is another reason why snowbirds love this country. One can still enjoy a tasty, hot lunch here for about $2.

Quito’s Priceless Treasures

Ecuador’s beautiful cities are yet another draw.

Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church (1605–1785), in Old Town, is one of the richest in Latin America. Reminiscent of the Church of Gesu in Rome, it is estimated seven tons of gold were used in its construction. Everything is covered with gold leaf. It is the utmost expression of Baroque style, however due to damage from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over the centuries, eclectic styles within make it an interesting study in architecture.

Built between 1535–1605 and occupied for more than two centuries by Franciscans, the Convento de San Francisco gave the capital of Ecuador its proper name: San Francisco de Quito. Within the complex, a museum houses paintings and sculptures from the 17th century, an 18th-century Gregorian book (breviario) and an eerie wood carving of St. Peter with a real skull and teeth. The museum also portrays the Passion of Christ as it was conveyed during colonial times in an effort to convince people to convert to Christianity, a faith religiously followed by most Ecuadorians today.

On the lighter side, Quito provides visitors an opportunity to participate in experiments only possible at the Intiñan Solar Museum. Under Paola’s guidance, we witness the Coriolis effect in the Northern and Southern hemispheres only a few metres apart, feel the loss of balance as we walk along the equator line, balance an egg on a nail head (a feat that’s only possible on the equator), and challenge her declaration that we are weaker on the equator. Paola’s comment that we weigh one kilogram less on the equator has us scrambling to the line to experience instant weight loss!

Cuenca Highlights

Often referred to as the Athens of Ecuador, modern-day Cuenca dates back to the 1500s. Declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, the streets of this charming city, as in Quito, resemble a chessboard—a perfect square with the main plaza in the middle.

In addition to the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures and El Sagragrio (Old Cathedral), a visit to the Homero Ortega factory—makers of the world-famous Panama hat—is definitely one you shouldn’t miss.

Dating as far back as 1560 BC, the straw hat carries deep ancestral roots in Ecuador. When Spaniards arrived centuries ago, they observed natives covered their heads with a strange woven article resembling “vampire wings.” In 1630 Francisco Delgado persuaded the natives to convert them into brimless hats or toquillas. The construction of the Panama Canal produced a large demand for these straw hats; the lightness and freshness of the fibre made them an indispensable element of the workers’ attire to protect them from the sun. It was Homero Ortega who introduced the hat to the world.

It takes one to two days to make a cheaper version of the hat, however, just the selection process of the proper reed for more expensive ones can take up to a month. How could I resist such a treasure? Plunking down $110, I join the ranks of Johnny Depp and other celebrities as a proud owner of an authentic Panama hat by Homero Ortega.

Diverse Ecosystems

Beyond the cities, a variety of adventures and excursions await in one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.

Hot springs are located in Baños, Papallacta and San Vincente, yet each is very different. In Baños, people socialize at bars and restaurants, hang-glide, mountain bike or climb, go whitewater rafting and hike, however Papallacta, located near Quito at an altitude of 3,300 metres, is where they go to relax. Although the distance from Quito is only 65 kilometres, it is a scenic two-hour road trip across two valleys.

Termas Papallacta was the first of many natural spas developed in the area. Lodgings are comfortable, meals (included) are excellent and the reasonably priced treatments (not included) at the spa are second to none. The resort is built in the caldera of the volcano, which once was the highest and strongest in the country. Pool temperatures range between 39 and 41 C—the smaller the pool, the hotter the water. Adjacent to the hotel, Parque Nacional Cayambe is popular for hiking, fishing and birdwatching (particularly condor spotting). In the Papallacta area alone, 169 bird species have been sighted.

Another otherworldly experience awaits us at the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve, located at 1,200 metres in a cloud forest in the Pichincha province, a 2.5-hour drive from Quito. Following a shake, rattle and roll trip up the mountainside, we come upon Mashpi Lodge, a stark, industrial-style building standing in sharp contrast to the surrounding lushness. At 6:20 a.m. on a misty morning, we gather on a terrace to observe wildlife. Cloud forests typically receive 2,000 millimetres of rain per year, so it is quite magical when clouds dissipate to provide a rare glimpse of the valley below. It lasts only minutes and then all is shrouded in a dense fog once again, which limits our ability to spot birds. Sensing our disappointment, Jose, our hotel tour guide, extends his hand holding a moth between his index finger and thumb. Out of nowhere a spotted mossback tanager swoops down and grabs it.

This is a birder’s paradise and scientists are certain new species are there to be discovered. Carlos Morochz Andrade, Mashpi’s enthusiastic biologist-in-residence, has identified 325 species of birds and believes that number could soar as high as 500. Birds he has identified include the long-wattled umbrella bird, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, and red-headed, club-winged and golden-winged manakins, to name a few. He has also installed 17 cameras throughout the reserve and captured images of the banded ground-cuckoo, the tinamou, wood quails, white-throated quails, paca, opossum, coati, kinkajoo, maragay, ocelot, puma and more.

Another excursion takes us to Ingapirca, situated 3,180 metres above sea level near Cuenca. Predating the Machu Picchu site in Peru, this Inca fortress was excavated in the early 20th century by Max Uhle, the Father of Archaeology in Ecuador. Originally created by the Canaris to protect the city of Cuenca, the site was later developed by the Inca and consists of rooms, storage pits, ceremonial baths and a road that is part of the original Inca Trail. Descendants of the pre-Inca people still live in the area, however the Incas have disappeared. Visitors can stay or dine at the nearby Posada Ingapirca.

Travel Planner

We flew Air Canada to Miami where we connected onto American Airlines to Quito. In February 2013, a new airport opened 18 kilometres east of Quito.

Summer is high season while winter is the rainy season. Alejandro Jacome (guidestinations.com) was our very knowledgeable guide.

For more information on Ecuador, visit en.ecuador.travel.

Recommended hotels:

Hotel Santa Lucia, Cuenca: santaluciahotel.com

Mashpi Lodge: mashpilodge.com

Patio Andaluz, Quito: hotelpatioandaluz.com

Royal Decameron, Santa Elena: decameron.com

Termas Papallacta: termaspapallacta.com

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