Iglesia, Cotacachi, Ecuador

Iglesia, Cotacachi, Ecuador

When people say, “Oh, you must come and visit us,” I always warn them, “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.” Because I am likelier than most people to show up. So when friends took a one-year sabbatical to study language in Quito, Ecuador, I warned, but they insisted that they really wanted me to come. So one sunny December, I found myself heading south of the Equator to visit the country named for the Equator, Ecuador. I had long been interested in Ecuador, but found that it exceeded my expectations—I fell in love with the place.

Quito’s climate is perfect. The combination of a spot on the equator and an altitude of 9,000 feet means that the temperature is about 70 degrees year ‘round. Quito is an odd, wonderful city that is in some ways growing too fast, yet in other ways moving at a leisurely pace. Quito Coloniale, the old part of the city, is a beautifully-preserved quarter of narrow streets, glorious cathedrals, government offices, elegant restaurants, and most of Quito’s hustlers, since they know this is where the tourists are likely to be (so watch your wallet).

Though I liked Quito, it was outside the city that I found the greatest delight. Heading north, riding with the locals in a rickety, old bus, we moved from lush greenery to the sparse scrub of the Andean Highlands. Almost everywhere along the narrow, winding mountain roads, we had views of the surrounding countryside and, in the distance, a row of snow-capped volcanoes. (Most of the mountains in Ecuador are volcanoes, and most of the volcanoes in Ecuador are active.)

Heading into the Andean Highlands

Heading into the Andean Highlands

On the far side of the dry highlands, we descended (though not as much as we had ascended—these were high mountain valleys) into verdant farm land. Within a few hours, we had reached Otavalo. This wonderful town, heart of the region traditionally occupied by the Otavalan Indians, is the site of a vast market where you can buy spectacular crafts, from beautiful blankets and sweaters to Panama hats (all of which are, by the way, made in Ecuador) to jewelry.

Market in Otavalo

Market in Otavalo

We spent a few days near the foot of the volcano Imbabura, visiting villages, each of which features a different craft: Otavalo for weaving, San Antonio de Ibarra for wood carving and painting, Cotacachi for leatherwork. Each town was more charming than the previous one. The populace is multi-ethnic, but the Otavalaños outnumber the Hispanics and Africans who share this region with them. (Ecuador has the highest indigenous Indian population of any country in South America.) Otavalaños are easily identified: the women wear long, black skirts, embroidered white blouses, and layers of golden necklaces and coral-colored bracelets, while the men wear white pants, blue serapes, and Panama hats. Men and women wear their spectacularly luxuriant, black hair quite long, usually in great braids down their backs.

A totally different adventure was taking a bus over the Andes, through the cloud forest (llamas, lush greenery, sheer cliffs, and long, slender waterfalls), and down the other side to the Rio Napo in the Amazon basin.

Bank of the Rio Napo in the Amazon rainforest.

Bank of the Rio Napo in the Amazon rainforest.

Paradise! I was almost delirious with joy. From the flower-drenched cabaña we had on the river, to touring in a dug-out canoe, to the monkeys and macaws, to the splendid beaches and smiling children, also in dugouts, who waved as we passed, the wonder and richness were almost overwhelming. I learned how to fire blow darts and how Quichua Indians make pottery, and actually saw leaf-cutter ants cutting and carrying leaves. Tidal waves of greenery surrounded us. We saw heliconias and cacao growing wild, phosphorescent plants and plants that cringe when touched, spectacular butterflies (including a Morpho, which is so vividly blue that it seems impossible) and masses of caterpillars. Even the giant bugs (like the 6-inch, armored grasshopper that the locals call “jumps the mountain”) were fascinating. Wonderful.

In Ecuador, Chinese food and pizza are widely available, but dining on local delicacies is more fun. Ecuador has abundant seafood and beef, bananas and avocados, potatoes and peanuts, and delightful, strange fruits like guanabana, cheramoya, and a few things for which I never learned the name (including one peculiar “fruit” that our guide showed us in the rainforest—a long pod full of large seeds surrounded by a moist, cottony substance that tastes like a cross between banana and jasmine—a favorite of the monkeys, we were told).

The entire visit was a delight (well, except for the sandflies on one beach in the Amazon, where we stopped for a picnic—next time, I’ll wear bug repellant). Ecuador was splendid, possessing that combination of history, culture, nature, and good food that are truly the formula for my perfect holiday.

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Filed under Culture, Food, Geography, Travel

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