Verdant, flowering shrubs lined the path as my husband, Peter, and I strolled under Ecuador’s evening sky.
Our friend Nik pointed to the upside-down moon overhead. “The moon looks different down here,” he said. We looked up and saw a Cheshire-cat smile staring down. Instead of facing sideways, this moon looked like a white canoe all set to paddle to the end of the Milky Way. It was a drunken moon—exotic and disconcerting at the same time.
During a recent trip to Ecuador, I crossed the equator for the first time, and it rocked my world. My inner compass kept pointing the wrong way as we crisscrossed the imaginary line that encircles the globe. North seemed this way when in fact it was that way, and east and west kept doing the tango in my brain. Thin air likely contributed to the problem. In the region of Ecuador my husband and I visited—the Highland Andes—altitudes range from 8000-10,000 feet. The dizzying altitude can be quite a shock to the system for those of us who live at sea level.
Then there was the earthquake. One morning in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, Peter and I sat calmly drinking coffee when the fifth-floor apartment we were renting started to sway and shake. “It’s an earthquake,” Peter said. I looked out the window at a tall building across the street and could see its windows shaking. By that time, I was shaking too, but not from the earthquake, which ended after just a few seconds.
In spite of the earthquake, the thin air, and the disoriented feeling I got from being in the Southern Hemisphere, I felt at home in Ecuador, a small country rich in resources, where diverse ethnic groups live in harmony. In fact, this convergence of cultures is what makes Ecuador a perfect destination for anyone who wants to see what life is like south of the border. From historic haciendas to cozy market towns, Ecuador is easy to get to know—and fall in love with.
Quito, Ecuador’s capital, sits in a stunning setting tucked in among the Ecuadorian Andes, a rugged mountain range populated by a number of volcanoes, some of which are still active. During our late October visit, snowcapped volcanoes peeked through the clouds everywhere we turned, providing a majestic backdrop for the emerald-green hills and valleys that undulated in every direction. Peter and I agreed that the landscape in this region of Ecuador is among the prettiest we’ve seen.
The lush scenery is due largely to Ecuador’s amazing climate. The guidebooks say it’s always spring in Ecuador’s highlands with average highs near 80°F and lows at night around 55°F. Mornings begin with a warm sun and a brilliant blue sky; then in the afternoon winds blow in from the west, bringing clouds from the Pacific 150 miles away. Locals joke that you can see all four seasons in one day.
Set in a valley, the busy capital city bustles with people and traffic. Like other modern cities, Quito offers sleek shopping malls, green city parks, beautiful boulevards, and tall office buildings. But its Colonial heritage, especially in the historic area, sets this city apart. In fact, Quito was named a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978, due primarily to its treasures of Colonial architecture and art.
Our first night in Quito, Peter and I stayed in New Town, a newer section of the city, at a boutique hotel called Café Cultura, a lovely lodging with Old-World décor, fireplaces, and piped-in classical music. Twenty years ago, Laszlo Karolyi, an architect and interior designer, transformed a historic residence into a property with 26 unique rooms. Since then Café Cultura has attracted travelers from around the world who love its authentic vibe. Our cozy room on the second floor featured soft, comfy beds, antique furniture, and a vase of stunning roses, whose sweet scent permeated the room. In the morning breakfast smells wafting from downstairs awakened us, and after dressing, we joined Laszlo for a delicious breakfast followed by a quick tour of Quito’s historic center. There we visited centuries-old churches including the Iglesia de la Compañia. “Built to look like heaven,” according to our friend Nik, the church boasts seven tons of dazzling gold leaf, which shimmers from its ornately decorated interior.
Overlooking a wide stone square nearby, the Iglesia and Convento de San Francisco appear to be a formidable fortress. Within the white-washed structure, tidy gardens and patios create a calm oasis. A cloister houses the San Francisco Museum with a collection of religious art and artifacts, including statues from the 18th century, many of which feature glass eyes characteristic of the period. I liked the peaceful ambience in the convent, especially compared to the busy city outside.
While you can spend days learning about Quito’s history and walking the streets of Old Town, our time was limited so Peter and I zoomed back to New Town, said goodbye to Laszlo, and did a little exploring on our own. Inside a modern shopping mall we found a huge grocery store and picked up some food for dinner in the apartment Peter and I rented through vrbo.com for a couple nights. When traveling, we always try to sample local meats and cheeses, and we discovered a lovely Parma-style ham and buttery cheese from a local hacienda—perfect on crusty bread with avocado slices, olives, and of course a bottle of red wine from Argentina.
MIDDLE OF THE EARTH
The next morning—after surviving the earthquake, we walked to El Ejido Park in the center of the city where a craft market and the promise of shopping beckoned. There colorful blankets, sweaters, backpacks, paintings, and ceramics exploded from booths, and I wanted to buy them all. I ended up choosing a multi-colored jacket made of alpaca wool—super warm—and a wall hanging featuring earth tones and geometric shapes. I knew we would visit more markets, so I gathered ideas for future purchases. As you might imagine, prices are very affordable, and it’s easy to go overboard.
One tourist attraction we felt compelled to visit was called Mitad del Mundo or the Middle of the World, which is located about 20 miles north of Quito right on the equator. It turns out the name Quito originated from an Indian word that means “middle of the earth.” What makes Ecuador unique is that it’s the only country in the world where the equator passes through mountains. On the rest of the earth’s surface, the equator crosses desert, jungle, or ocean. This explains why a French expedition arrived in Ecuador in the 18th century to measure the exact location of the equator. Their story of intrigue and adventure is detailed in a recent book called The Measure of the Earth by Larrie D. Ferreiro.
All I wanted to do was take a picture of my feet, one on each side of the equator, which I did. But there was plenty more to keep Peter and me busy at the attraction. Our visit coincided with a fabulous folk dance presentation in a large outdoor square. Dancers from Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and other South American countries shared their folklore and fancy foot moves to the haunting rhythms of thrumming drums and Spanish guitar. After the show, Peter and I enjoyed our first Ecuadorian beer—delicious—and then climbed the equatorial monument for views of the surrounding countryside. Afterwards we descended through the center of the monument, where a museum showcases Ecuador’s diverse populations: Quichua natives who inhabit the Highlands, the Amazon tribes in the thick jungles to the east, fishermen from Spain who settled on the coast, and escaped slaves who created a close-knit community in the north. For such a little country, Ecuador has deep roots—and a fascinating history.
Cowboy culture is huge in Ecuador, and I planned our visit to include some adventures on horseback. The first hacienda we visited, La Alegria, sits about an hour south of Quito near the Valley of the Volcanoes. Cotapaxi, the largest volcano is still active, but luckily La Alegria wasn’t too close by. After the earthquake, a volcano eruption didn’t seem so far fetched! Thankfully, Cotapaxi kept quiet during our visit, allowing Peter and me to relish two idyllic days at La Alegria.
I could tell La Alegria was run by horse devotees when I looked on their website and clicked on a tab called “Meet our Horses.” Photos and descriptions introduce you to Hormiga, Manchas, Dante, Whisky, Edgar, Bayo, Congo, Carretero, Moro, Poodle Pony, Cuchitiengue, Gavalan, Spartacus, Caramelo, and Fandango. Adjectives like elegant, dreamy, independent, handsome, swift, and agile describe these noble beasts. One is even compared to Frank Sinatra for his charisma and elegance. I knew immediately I had to meet these horses—and the owner who so clearly loves his steeds.
Gabriel Espinosa—also known as El Patron—has raised three daughters at his family home with his wife, Pati. Now they welcome their grandchildren for visits, as well as horse enthusiasts who want to do some serious riding. Specializing in multi-day horseback rides, La Alegria offers an all-inclusive rate and designs packages to meet clients’ needs. Gabriel shared photos of some of the groups they’ve hosted. Folks from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. have discovered this lovely hacienda and fallen under its magical spell.
Peter and I certainly did. Hacienda La Alegria—both the lodgings and the surrounding countryside—seems almost like a movie set. Everywhere you look, jaw-dropping scenery meets your gaze—from snow-capped volcanoes whose peaks jut up through a halo of clouds to terraced fields with neat rows of potatoes and beans. White roses grow wild by the side of the road, and calla lilies sprout like weeds. Ecuador is one of the most biologically diverse countries on earth with amazing flora and fauna, much of it found nowhere else in the world. Its ecosystems range from the paramo, or high-altitude grasslands, to the lush, dense jungles of the Amazon basin.
While Peter and I didn’t have time for a long horse trek, Gabriel told us about some of his offerings including an 11-day volcano ride that loops around the south side of Cotapaxi through the Cotapaxi National Park. There’s also a nine-day Avenue of the Volcanoes ride. I’m not sure I can handle that many days in the saddle, but I would like to return some day to experience the two-day Cloud Preserve ride, which takes you up into the clouds, where forests bathed in constant fog reveal a unique ecosystem characterized by moss, ferns, and rare orchids. It sounds like a dreamy world that I hope one day to see.
We did enjoy a couple of fabulous, shorter rides while staying at La Alegria. The first day Mauricio, Gabriel’s cousin, and Rodriguez, the foreman at La Alegria, led us on a three-hour ride through pastoral landscape and along old cobblestone roads. We passed small farms and little towns and simple homesteads where chickens, pigs, and dogs seemed to outnumber people. While poverty is an issue in Ecuador, I got the feeling that the local people are fairly content with their simple lifestyle. And it’s easy to understand why when you live in paradise! In fact, Ecuador’s amazing weather and scenery—along with its extremely low cost of living—are attracting expats from all over the world. I must admit moving to Ecuador crossed my mind more than once during our visit.
Gabriel accompanied us on our second ride the next morning. Dressed in his woolen poncho and hat, he seemed reminiscent of another time, yet his stylish sunglasses and cell phone were 21st-century reminders of his connection to the real world. In fact, running a large hacienda is hard work. Besides the agri-tourism component, La Alegria also has 200 head of cows and produces 1200 liters of milk 365 days a year.
But Gabriel feels passionate about his work. “Our goal is to give lifetime experiences to our guests. We want to share our people and teach about the local culture,” he said. “Our people are our best asset.” Indeed, the people whose paths Peter and I crossed during our visit to Ecuador were genuinely kind and welcoming. And after all, that’s what traveling is really about, isn’t it? Connecting with others and finding out that underneath their ponchos, cowboy hats, and sunglasses, people are people everywhere you go. The warmth of friendship combined with cultural understanding can break down barriers and create a better world for us all to live in.
Next month: Part Two of the Ecuadorian adventure.