After spending nearly a week cruising around the Galapagos Islands, we flew directly to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. At an elevation of over 9300 feet, well into the foothills of the Andes, we felt as though we were still on an airplane since they are pressurized to just about the same altitude! But by morning we had adjusted about as much as is possible for us, and had some time to explore the city.
With their usual flourish, the Spanish tore down what was an ancient Inca city and used its rubble to begin construction of what became Quito, all of this happening around 1535 to 1540. By then the first convent had been built and the city had become something of a focal point and ‘capital’ for the Spanish settlers.
As an important historical city, modern Quito got an early start at recognition, as it—along with Krakaw, Poland—were the first cities named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1978. Also of interest is that it lies just off the equator, thus the country’s name. And indeed it is well preserved and distinguished, as this photograph up the main thoroughfare toward the Basilica demonstrates.
If one looks up the same thoroughfare in the opposite direction, one gets a view of some of the barrios which cover its surrounding hillsides.
This particular hill is called El Panecillo and the monument atop it is of the Virgin Mary, but unique in that she has wings like an angel and seems to be dancing, instead of the usual static and immobile pose we are all accustomed to. Aware as we are of how much Spanish colonial splendor we have exposed you to in prior postings, we will spare you any more of Quito, lovely as it is.
The next day our group, on a decently comfortable bus, headed out through the Andes toward the Amazon Basin. First stop was at the village of Otavalo, only about seventy miles from Quito, and famous for its market. Often considered one of the best for native artifacts in all of South America, we found it almost blindingly colorful.
And speaking of blinding, can you find the young girl buried in the photo below?
We also had time for a hike back into the foothills to one of Ecuador’s most famous waterfalls, called Peguche. Beautiful in itself,
it is also the source for a wonderful aqueduct which follows the trail down the mountainside.
And here we first encountered Ecuadorian llamas, and a wonderful smiling llama herder as well.
When viewed from the front like this, it is easy to see the llamas as part of the camelid family.
In spite of the inevitable warning from our guide that our nightly lodgings would be pretty deplorable, and on the verge of collapse, they were without exception truly charming, beautiful and worthy of more nights than we had to spend at them. Here is our first night, perched on the fringe of the lake.
Early the next morning we were on the road for a day of driving through the Andes. While the mountain tops were reputedly still covered in snow even this close to the equator and in mid summer, they were mostly shrouded with clouds and invisible for most of the day. The jungle below, however, was wonderfully green and verdant, and when we were above looking down on the canopy, speckled with various colors.
Hidden away in a valley beneath the Andes, our hotel was bound by courtyards between the rooms filled with pools of hot steaming water, and a spa available with massage for those who chose it.
We loved sitting in one of those hot pools watching the sun go down behind the Andes with beers in our hands.
By the next mid day we were down and out of the Andes and finally looking out at the Amazon Basin. Now you will recall that the basin itself covers most of Brazil and a big piece of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, and is fed by hundreds of smaller rivers before forming the giant Amazon itself which flows out to the Atlantic and drains most of the continent east of the Andes. So the river we were on was not the Amazon proper but one of its many feeding tributaries. Ours was called the Napo, and was at least half a mile wide over the distance we traveled it.
Our transit was by canoe similar to what you see above, except when we spent a couple of hours floating in the current on rafts that had just been lashed together from balsa logs as seen at the top of this posting, or swimming next to them to cool down in the heat.
Our hotel was owned and run by a Swiss couple, and spread across a hillside where an island split the Napo.
The pool area was lovely and inviting,
and the view from our balcony of the river was spectacular.
The next day took us down the river for an hour or so by canoe and then deep into the jungle on a trail that was at least rugged. Overgrown and frequently requiring a guide to machete branches out of the way,
it required not only riding a zipline over one huge gully,
but also salsa dancing across a swaying suspension bridge over another.
We loved it!
Later we visited a butterfly preserve, a giant aviary-like structure enclosing perhaps an acre of land, and filled with innumerable flowering plants and twenty-two flavors of butterfly. They were everywhere, on everything, and when offered a piece of fruit, pandemonium resulted among the butterflies.
Most of the population comes from massive racks of cocoons where they mature,
and then finally emerge as butterflies.
It was simply a wonderful place to spend an afternoon.
Finally leaving the Napo and heading back towards Quito, we again rose up in the Andes and stopped to visit the Devil’s Cauldron, certainly one of the most spectacular waterfalls we have ever witnessed and as well, one of the hairiest staircases we have ever descended and then ascended.
It is all in a deep gorge, accessible only by the narrow suspension bridge visible in the background which, in turn, leads to a primitive trail scrapped into the side of the gorge, and then to the staircase. Our dear friend Susie M. recently sent us an article about the scariest staircases in the world. This one at the Devil’s Cauldron was near the top of the list.
Between the cauldron and Quito, only one night remained, at a remote hacienda across a long valley and near no town at all. It is still owned and managed by descendants of their grandfather, who emigrated from Colombia over a century ago. He literally walked across the two countries to find and buy the property, build the hacienda, and turn it into a productive ranch which it remains today with warm fireplaces inside and graceful grounds surrounding the buildings.
The final day, before we reached Quito again, we stopped for lunch at the Hacienda La Cienega, over four hundred years old, and now a boutique hotel and restaurant. The building itself, stately and grand,
sits among fountains and elegant grounds filled with ancient trees—and grazing horses,
and even includes an alpaca or two just for the color and contrast.
We loved our trip through Ecuador and, like Colombia, wished that we could have spent more time exploring it, particularly the Amazon Basin and the Andes. But Chile and Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay beckoned, and there was no alternative but to push on.