DID YOU KNOW that Panama hats actually come from Ecuador? And, as I learned on my visit to Otovalo Indian market in Ecuador’s north, the less light that shines through when you hold one up to the sun, the finer the weave and the more the price rises.
Bargaining at the market is a must: the Otovalo Indians are known for their business acumen. So, if you want a photo of them in their colourful costumes, you’ll have to buy something. Still, at only $15 (£9) for a silken-soft alpaca sweater, it’s often a bargain.
Ecuador spreads from the central high Andes to the low Amazon jungle or Oriente in the west (not forgetting the amazing Galapagos Islands, see http://www.galapagos.co.uk). The variety of terrain is matched by a dozen different tribes, ranging from the naked Huaorani (meaning ‘people’) of the Oriente to the trilby-hatted highlanders of Otovalo.
The capital Quito is among the world’s highest at 9,000ft. Those with a liking for Spanish colonial architecture will enjoy the old town – now a Unesco World heritage site. The main cathedral draws crowds, but many lesser churches and monasteries are more interesting.
El Panecillo (the little bread loaf) is a hill with postcard views of the old town, topped by a huge statue of La Virgen de Quito stomping a chained dragon on the globe. The Bible (Revelations 12) will let you in on what this sight is all about.
Like many a Latin American city, Quito has a reputation for violence but I saw little to worry me. Tourist police were much in evidence, but sensible precautions never go amiss anywhere.
Parque El Ejido is the city’s largest park, dotted with couples and snack vendors, it’s a pleasant place to see a slice of Quito life. There’s plenty of pick-up footie and volleyball as well as a game unique to Ecuador played with golf ball-sized steel marbles.
The city is surrounded by volcanoes. In the south lies the snow-capped, 22,000ft high Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. Its lowlands provide a home for wild horses as well as many species of bird life.
For somewhere different to spend a few nights, check out one of the old haçiendas (www.hacienda-ecuador.com). The last word in luxury during Spanish colonial times, many now cater to the new aristocracy: tourists.
Fantastic architecture, history, beautiful furniture, charming hosts and friendly staff all combine to make a memorable experience. The lovely Haçienda Chillo-Jijón makes an idyllic base for exploring the Quito area while staying away from the bustle of the city.
Five things to do:
Sample Ecuadorian cuisine. Try lucro, a delicious potato soup with with avocado. I did at several different restaurants; each had its own variation, each was delicious.
Lunch at the Haçienda San Agustin, built on the ruins of an Inca palace at the foot of Cotopaxi. Enjoy a photo-op with the haçienda’s own llama herd. www.hacienda-ecuador.com
Straddle the equator at Mitad Del Mundo. The museum is worth a visit for an overview of Ecuador’s many tribes. There’s a large park with folk entertainment. Nearby is the art gallery and fine restaurant of El Crater with great views over an extinct volcano. www.mitaddelmundo.com
Go for a ride in the Andes. Many haçiendas offer horseback tours with Spanish-style or Western saddles and English tack is usually available. Spanish saddles are safer for the steep terrain and more comfortable on longer rides.
Take the exclusive Expreso Metropolitan Touring for a spectacular train-ride from the Andean highlands to the Pacific coast, zigzagging all the way down the Devil’s Nose. www.metropolitan-touring.com