Ecuador was described by one of its lively citizens, Mignon Plaza, as “The bump on the Equator.” As its name suggests, it sits squarely on the imaginary line, and the “bump” refers to its high altitude.
“Bumps” would be even more accurate as the tiny country has about 78 volcanoes, many of which are currently uncoiling and hissing. What makes the scenery so special is that no matter where you are, you’ll see the pointy peaks, often topped with snow. There is a particularly picturesque drive through the “Avenue of Volcanoes” just south of Quito.
People rave about the Galapagos Islands, and they’re Ecuador’s main attraction, but I opted to spend my week in the Central Sierra instead, exploring the national parks, the spectacular Spanish Colonial architecture of Quito and Cuenca and photographing the local Indians in their villages and markets.
It is a way of life that’s fast disappearing. Farmers and weavers in colourful skirts and shawls, lace blouses, braids and bowler hats can still be seen in these parts, although the younger ones have switched to jeans and T-shirts and they could be from anywhere in Latin America.
Here, the ladies in their twenties and above still adhere to their tribal dress codes, pinpointing the villages they come from. It’s a deliciously different world from the one I’m familiar with; the sight of Andean folks herding their llamas in quinoa fields and raising dozens of guinea pigs in their living room.
Quito, the capital city, sprawls north to south in a valley between mountains. Standing next to The Virgin of Quito at the summit of El Panecillo Hill, you’ll have sweeping views of the entire city and the surrounding volcanoes. Five hundred years ago, Quito was important to the Spanish as valuable quinine was sourced from local plants. Important foundations were laid there, and the older part of the city has remained unchanged for centuries. It didn’t take us long to succumb to its charms.
Colonial Quito’s Basilica is styled after Notre Dame and instead of gargoyles, it has leaping pumas, tortoises and monkeys jutting from the walls. La Ronda is the most atmospheric street, full of gardenia filled balconies, live music and a shop that set us up for chocolate-tasting for the rest of our trip (Republica del Cacao’s Rose Petals was the outright winner)
Quito’s architectural jewels, the buildings at Independence Square, the church of San Francisco and La Compania de Jesus are beautifully lit at night, and a constellation of tiny lights from the homes on the hills beyond, creates a magical effect. The well-preserved architecture won Quito the very first World Heritage City status. Further north, the modern part of the city is a sprawl of malls, highways and neighbourhoods. Reina Victoria in the Santa Maria area comes to life at night as its bars and restaurants get packed.
Facts to check
Stay at: Top end — Casa Gangotena; Affordable style La Casona De La Ronda.
See: Museo Fundacion Guyasamin, set up by the lauded artist Oswaldo Guyasamin, Church of San Francisco, Museo de Alabado — Architecturally beautiful space filled with a private collection of ancient ceramics.
Best time to go: May to Dec (Mainland) Jan to April (Galapagos Is.)
Quito is at 9000 feet height and some people can be uncomfortable at first.
Currency: US dollar