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The Andes AND the Amazon: A Week in Ecuador

Getting There

The moment I entered the Latin America terminal in Miami, I felt I'd left Gringolandia behind. Pretty much all the staff and the majority of passengers appeared to be Latino, Spanish was spoken far more than English, the food court choices included South American pastries and sandwiches and Swiss chocolate, but not pizza or Chinese. And at 5'7", I was in the tallest fifth of the people I saw.

Our flight aboard LAN was not only smooth, but pampering, actually including a hot meal, free wine, and individualized movies on a 4-hour flight. Surprisingly, the 767 jumbo jet was 2/3 empty. (On the way back, the plane was quite full).

Our flight aboard LAN was not only smooth, but pampering, actually including a hot meal, free wine, and individualized movies on a 4-hour flight. Surprisingly, the 767 jumbo jet was 2/3 empty. (On the way back, the plane was quite full).

Still, door to door (including an hour to get through immigration and another hour to wait for a couple on a different flight), it was a ten-hour day from the time we got into my dad's car until we were inside the Hotel Quito, a lovely old place with clean, modern bathrooms and 100% nonsmoking rooms. We were greeted at the door with glasses of fresh guayabana (soursop) juice while the staff distributed our bags from the bus directly to our rooms. It's probably a much nicer hotel than we'd have found on our own. Our only issue: like many independent hotels we've experienced in Latin America, our room had twin beds, even though we had requested "cama matrimonial" (double bed, literally, "marriage bed").

We are not on our own this time. We've booked a tour through Gate 1 Travel, with a much more adventurous itinerary than the typical package, but nothing like the extreme sports itineraries for the 20-something set. With an emphasis on ecotourism, we'll be touring the Old City this morning, then traveling to the big market at Otovalo (stopping at the Equator, of course), then to an itinerary that includes the Andes, the Amazon headwaters and rain forest, and even a day at a spa. The price including all lodging, all ground transportation, admissions, and many meals is only about $200 more than the best price we could get for airfare alone, and we don't have to spend our precious travel time locating hotels and researching activities. We did a trip like this in Morocco and it worked out very well-and we guessed that this particular package will attract people with similar interests and a low desire to complain.

There are 24 of us; three in their 20s, most in their 50s and 60s, and a few in between. The youngest is 22; the oldest that I know of is 79. We live scattered around the US (and two from Canada), with points of origin including India, Northern Ireland, Latvia, and Russia. Most of the group has traveled quite extensively around the world both on their own and in tours, quite a few far outdistancing the 35 countries I've been to outside the U.S. As an example, at least four have been to Vietnam and/or South Africa. This is somewhat smaller than most of Gate 1's tours in Ecuador, which run 30 to 40 people. From my perspective, 24 is a nicer number. And it's a very amenable group, full of people with positive attitude, nobody I actively dislike.

Quito and the Equator

The first day started with a huge and tasty breakfast buffet, followed by a guided walk through several of the Old City highlights. Alfredo, our tour leader, is very knowledgeable and helpful, and speaks four languages. He led us through the massive Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional that they don't call a cathedral, before continuing to the Plaza Grande (main square, also called Plaza Independencia). Plaza Grande includes the beautiful main cathedral, with its several domes-we didn't get to go inside-the archbishop's palace that was the dominant force in centuries past, the Jesuit Compañeros de Dios church with some parts dating to the 1500s (a mix of Moorish themes and a look that reminded me of the small, simple country church St. Francis built outside Assisi)-and other parts from 200 years later, when the Jesuits were allowed back in after being kicked out by the Spanish king for attempting to protect Indian rights. That at least is the story according to Alfredo.

Also on the square: the presidential palace, including two stone-faced guards armed with bamboo pikes topped with sharp metal spearpoints, the central public library (a beautiful old building with a stone façade and a gracious courtyard, and a small exhibit of old printing presses), and a number of other significant buildings. The Church of San Francisco (Saint Francis), where we ended the walking tour, is around the corner.

Then back on the bus, through some of Quito's real-people neighborhoods, and an hour north to Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (City of the Middle of the World), a touristy little theme park celebrating the Equator (recently named by Smarter Travel as one of the 10 most overrated travel destinations, along with Times Square and the Blarney Stone). Some of the locals claim the true spot is a few hundred meters away-separated by an impenetrable wall and, apparently a great deal of bitterness-but Alfredo said this is the actual equator. Anyway, it's a place to take goofy photos with a foot in each hemisphere. There are a few exhibit pavilions there, including a hall of giant bugs, a rather dull exhibit in the French pavilion on the history of measuring the Equator, and a very nice collection in the Spanish pavilion of work by Oswaldo Guayasamin, a major Ecuadorean contemporary artist.

A church and an Inca sundial-both straddling the Equator-a modern solar clock, and a bunch of small shops and restaurants round out the complex. We had a very nice lunch at Puerta Del Sol, and even got to see a large turtle hanging out on the restaurant patio.

Close by, we visited a paila heladeria: an ice cream shop that makes its product by hand, spinning tropical fruit juice in a copper bowl set inside a larger bowl filled with ice water, while forming a dam in the inner bowl with a large wooden spoon held in the other hand. No dairy, no water and for most of the flavors, no sugar. It was fascinating to watch, and delicious to taste. I had a cone of mango and fig, and Dina had coconut (my favorite of all we tried, with big chunks of very fresh coconut meat) and guyabana.

The High Andes

From there, a 6000-foot descent during a three-hour bus ride through the stunning scenery of the Andes highlands: arid in some places, lush in others, depending on whether the volcanoes were sucking water to or away from the slope. As in Guatemala, many of these steep hillsides are under cultivation. We even passed through the center of Ecuador's rose growing district, in tawdry greenhouses covered by cheap plastic, walled off from view (we could only see the tops, even from bus height). Alfredo told us that all the roses are grown without pesticides, child labor, or exploitive practices, and that the walls are to prevent wind damage; however, his positive report contradicts information I've heard elsewhere.

Our next hotel is the exquisite Cabañas Del Lago, which is just what it says: cabins of the lake. We are in the nicest log cabin I've ever seen, spotlessly maintained, with good plumbing, a fireplace for heat-which might be a problem if the fire died down on a cold night, but our evening was quite warm-and a comfortable king bed. The lakeside resort is also beautifully landscaped, and situated in a magnificent valley surrounded by looming mountains; if someone asked me to design a resort, it might look a whole lot like this one. The multiple-course dinner was well-prepared, although the staff was very rigid about which dessert and soup went with which entrée. We chose among four packages on the bus and Alfredo had called in our order several hours in advance, which I understand, because it meant very little food would be wasted-but it seems to me it would be just as easy to choose your soup and dessert separately. As it was, I traded my fruit and yogurt parfait with one of the Russians, who was unhappy with her chocolate mousse-and we were both a lot happier. Beautifully situated under some mountains and on the shores of a lake, it's kind of what I'd expected to find at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala (and probably could have found, if we had gone to an isolated resort instead of a hotel in one of the villages).

Our second full day began with a tour of a school that Gate 1, the tour company, supports financially. We found out that schooling is required only through 9th grade (and the 9th graders looked very young). Currently, the options for high school are some distance in either direction, but there is some talk of building a high school locally.

Then a short drive to Otovalo, famous for its Saturday textile market at the aptly named Plaza de Ponchos. Our visit was on a Tuesday, but there were still plenty of vendors (and a rather small number of shoppers exploring them). We found beautiful, very affordable blankets, sweaters, rugs, tapestries, and scarves-and a gorgeous solid brown alpaca poncho that I would have loved to buy if only I could have foreseen some occasions to wear it. Fabrics here include sheep wool and cotton as well as alpaca, and many of the work uses bright colors and vivid patterns-like the highland landscape, very reminiscent of Guatemala.

At the fruit market two blocks up, we bought the most delicious mango of my life; it tasted almost like it was blended with almonds and egg fruit. They were 4 for a dollar, but we couldn't use four. Our single fruit set us back all of 40 cents. This is the first time we actually managed to visit a mango-growing country during mango season. Mango has been among our favorite fruits since at least 1980, when we were deeply disappointed to discover that mangos weren't in season during our first tropical visit (to Jamaica). And eating a perfectly ripe, fresh mango is reason enough to venture into the Southern Hemisphere during North American winter!

The next stop was lovely Cataractas Peguche, a towering forest of eucalyptus set along the ancient Inca Trail. At the park entrance, a large sign calls attention to the work of hundreds of indigenous people enslaved by the Spaniards centuries ago, who toiled here. Then there's an ancient ringfort that was used by the Quichua for meetings, rituals, and probably defense, with a sun-axis grid set into the floor in stone (the same pattern as the Mitad Del Mundo sundial). About ten minutes along a cobblestone viaduct took us to a very beautiful series of waterfalls, and two bridges and an observation tower from which to see them. The tower path was an actual hiking trail that felt really good after the cobblestones: a steep 200 yards or so that made me aware of the altitude.

The Ecuadorian highlands are largely volcanic (including 26 that are considered active and monitored by satellite every few minutes) and very scenic. In some places, they rise straight up from the road. Many of the steep hillsides are tilled: various types of corn, potatoes, beans, and vegetables, primarily. A sense of the incredible biodiversity of this small country: 23 different species of corn, and 600 of potatoes.

Another very short drive to Cotacachi, a town known for its leather crafts. The main plaza has a cute oversized pastel sculpture of three musicians (three separate statues forming a unified piece)-and a few dozen stalls in the market, most of which feature hand-made belts and purses sold by their makers a bit cheaper than in the United States. Vendors in both Cotacachi and Otovalo will bargain, but only 10 to 20 percent. The storefronts are filled with very high-end leather goods such as jackets and large handbags; I wasn't clear if these were locally made. In any case, they were beautiful both visually and texturally, with very affordable prices by US or European standards.

In Cotacachi, we were also thrilled to discover Bhakti, a vegan restaurant with good food, generous portions, low prices, a clean and friendly atmosphere, and staff that made us feel very welcome: at the corner of 10 de Agosto and Tarqui Streets, catty-corner from the music statues, facebook.com/bhaktivegan, baktivegan.blogspot.com, open for breakfast and lunch. Such a treat to be able to order the $3.50 daily special and not worry about meat. This day, it was a large bowl of pumpkin soup, a generous plate of bean-thread noodles with vegetables, a lettuce and tomato salad, and cold clove-cinnamon tea. Unfortunately, we didn't have time-or room-to try the almond cake with fig jam or the quinoa coffee.

But we did visit another restaurant, La Marquesa, and listen to about 20 minutes of traditional Andean music: three musicians on various panpipes, wooden flute, guitar, and a bandolin, which is kind of a cross between a lute and a guitar. I love this fast-paced music, and it was nice to hear the real thing, since much of what we hear piped into the streets and plazas are USA or UK oldies such as "Yesterday" rendered on Andean instruments. Because we bought a CD, no one asked us to buy any food.

When we arrived at the bus, some of our group had befriended an elderly woman sitting on a park bench, who wanted to meet all of us and hugged us goodbye. Until we came along, there had been no common language, but it didn't matter.

Into the Jungle

Then another three-hour drive through the mountains, cresting at the Continental Divide at over 13,000 feet (with a stunning photo break at the top of the pass), dropping down to 11,000, passing through several different weather systems before arriving at dusk at Termas Papallacta, a hotsprings resort in the high jungle (there are three different jungle ecosystems, classified by altitude: high, middle, and low). So far, it seemed much more like highlands than rainforest, though it didn't take long the following morning to hike from altiplano into rainforest. In any case, it's lovely. There's a series of open thermal pools just outside the rooms, and we splurged on a spa treatment that included much larger thermal pools, followed by a wet-sauna with eucalyptus vapor, and then a deep-tissue upper-body massage. Booking through the tour company and therefore probably paying a markup, we still only paid $45 per person.

We got up early on Day 3, as did several others in our group, to hike the beautiful nature trail. It was a bit tricky to find the trailhead, but once we did, we walked past a large commercial organic garden with all the plants labeled in both Spanish and English, then a white cross all by itself on the hillside, which led us to a path through cow pastures, and then after about fifteen minutes, we were in the high rain forest-not nearly as dense as some rainforests I've experienced elsewhere, but definitely tropical and lush. Much of the trail runs along a river with several series of powerful waterfalls-not a great height drop but strong currents, powerful eddies, and very photographable. At the river crossover point at the top of the trail, I was amused to see a few stone or possibly concrete couches, painted orange and white.

After breakfast, it was back on the bus for the long and extremely scenic drive to the Amazon region. Oddly enough, Ecuador's oil industry is centered here in the rainforest, not on the coast. It was very odd to see large pipelines and industrial plants coming up from the jungle to these steep mountains. The mountains changed slowly from the tilled fields of the altiplano to a furry tree called suro (the forest is called surales) and finally to a much flatter landscape with typical rainforest vegetation, a particularly ugly humanscape of cinderblock houses with corrugated tin roofs (very common throughout Latin America), and a few banana or plantain trees at almost every house. However, those are in the real-people towns. The four resorts we stayed at, both in the highlands and down here in the jungle, have been gorgeously landscaped.

During the drive, Alfredo regaled us with stories of his six months living among the Huaorani, who have only come into contact with modern life in the last few decades, and whose traditions include living naked and making chicha, an alcoholic beverage using local plants mixed with human saliva. He's a very knowledgeable guide who freelances for several different companies on trips not only throughout Ecudaor but also in Peru and Bolivia (he's adding Colombia this year), and has led expeditions for National Geographic and the BBC. At 37, he's been doing this for 13 years, is only home for about 40 nights per year (noncontiguous), and-not surprising given his travel schedule-is divorced.

Getting there involved a bus ride of nearly four hours, going east and down from 11,000 to 1100 feet, then a short boat ride (under ten minutes) down the Napo River, which eventually feeds into the Amazon after joining another tributary. After lunch, we went back in the boats to visit a Quichua home, where we were shown a more sanitary way to make chichi, mixing cooked yucca and grated raw sweet potato. We were greeted at the dockside by some of the village children, who gave us small pinwheels woven from palm leaves (in under a minute) or flowers. Then we walked through a grove of cacao, bamboo, and palm trees to Carmela's house. Living quarters were on the second floor, because the area floods. The main room (kitchen and living room, and also space for guests to sleep) was a large but simple platform, with a firepit in the kitchen area: a square wooden box maybe four feet on each side, with the wall separated from the fire by layers of sand and stone. The kitchen also had a few shelves, and the rest of the room was bare except for benches along the wall, for the benefit of the visitors. The roof was thatched with palm leaves, and the wood for construction was mostly chonta palm-as hard as steel-or bamboo. Young palms of a different species provide edible palm hearts, and as those trees mature they produce the fiber for making Panama hats and thatching roofs.

A cacao pod was passed around to sample, and I was surprised to discover that the cocoa beans are surrounded by a sweet, sticky, fruity pulp; perhaps this is how the idea of sweetening chocolate came about.

Just outside Carmela's house (with the next tour group already waiting to enter), we got a blowgun lesson. Darts made of chonta palm are sharpened and made jagged with a set of pirhanna (piraña in Spanish-pih-rahn-ya) teeth and then dipped in curare, a powerful paralytic made from a local vine-then loaded into a chonta tube six feet or longer. A surprisingly moderate out-breath for a target about 40 feet away sends the dart on its way-fast; many in our group were able to hit the target even after the briefest of lessons (no curare for us, of course). In the hands of a skilled user, the darts can achieve quite a bit of height and distance.

After boating back to the village, we stopped at two more craft shops to watch pottery making (all by hand but smooth and symmetrical enough to have been done on potter's wheels) and balsa wood carving, before walking to our resort hotel, the Casa Del Suizo. I don't see anything Swiss about it despite the name, but like every other hotel we've been booked into, it's quite nice. Our room has two queen beds, a porch with a hammock, a ceiling fan, and a nice separation from the toilet and shower, making it feel more like a suite than a room.

The local beer, Pilsener, goes down really nicely on a hot day after a couple of hours in long pants and mudboots. It's similar to Mexican beers like Corona and Tecate-hoppy but light.

Day 4 began with a two-hour guided hike in a 127-acre nature preserve owned by the hotel and located a short boat ride away. Our guides, Ambrosio and David, described the medicinal properties and other uses (e.g., construction, industry) of a dozen or so plants and trees, including the armored ceiba (kapok) tree used for cotton, balsa, walking palm, a plant blood-red leaf tips used to treat blood disorders-like so many medicinal plants around the world, its appearance gives a clue to its uses-and another plant that is extremely good to treat insect bites, but toxic if you apply it on your skin when you don't need it. Those who wanted got to taste lemon-flavored ants, examine a worm poop the size of a hamster, and smell an almond-scented centipede. We began the hike in moderate rain, which tapered off as we neared the lookout at the top of the trail, and everyone appreciated those mudboots today.

Following the hike, we rafted down the river on primitive rafts: just balsa logs roped together, and a couple of extra nylon ropes to hold onto for the rough places. It was very relaxing and great fun. We all got soaked, and some went swimming in the designated parts. It's not a good idea to swim without guidance, as hidden underwater eddies can pull a person underwater for several kilometers at a time. Alfredo told us that a woman on Holland's championship swim team had been killed that way.

In the afternoon, the choices were a zipline and obstacle course, an animal rehabilitation center, or a butterfly farm; we chose the animal rehab, about 20 minutes away: down to the junction with the Arajuno River, and then back up that warmer, lighter river. Our guide was Fia, a young woman from Switzerland who is interning there as part of an environmental engineering program. She walked us around large cages with various species of monkeys, macaws, parrots, other birds, peccaries, an agouti, and even a jaguarondi and a magnificent ocelot high up in a tree. Each animal had a rescue story; many had been pets that were abandoned; some had been injured. When possible, they release the animals back into the wild, but in some cases that either isn't practical or doesn't work out and the animals return voluntarily.

One pleasant surprise: bugs really haven't been a problem even down here in the Amazon region, although it's hot and humid and rains in the mornings.

A Taller Waterfall than Niagara

The fifth day was mostly a travel day, beginning our ascent back into the highlands. Our first real stop was a stunner: Pailon del Diablo, a magnificent series of waterfalls forming a mighty 265-foot tower-far higher than 165-foot Niagara Falls. The falls are visible from an overlook in the village, but you can't get a sense from there of how big and powerful they really are. It's an easy paved hike of 20 minutes or so down to the canyon bottom (past a series of little Spanish-language homilies of the sort you find in fortune cookies or herbal tea boxes, e.g., "the most important rule is to set a good example") and up the short distance to the "balconies"-stone terraces for close-up viewing (expect to get a bit wet), and then across a hanging bridge with a good view of the gorge. Admission $1.50 for adults, 75 cents for children. The place is very popular with tourists (about 80 percent of whom are in-country, and the remaining 20 percent from all over the world) and bills itself as "Ecuador's premier tourist attraction" (an absurd claim in the face of Mitad Del Mundo and Cotopaxi, both widely known and much closer to Quito-to say nothing of the Galapagos).

When you get back up the stairs to the park entrance, make a right and go to the last restaurant on the left. A couple of friendly and accommodating señoras make astonishingly good empanadas, with such choices as avocado, cheese, chicken, and bananas with chocolate sauce. They make their own dough from scratch, and each is made to order with your choice of fillings. The empanadas are a good size, too.

Baños Region

From there, a quick drive into the town of Baños-a brightly colored paradise for extreme sports tourists and lovers of spa services. Plenty of handicrafts and cafes here, too. And it's one of the only Ecuadorian small towns we saw that had a real individual identity outside of its market specialty. The town has a number of interesting buildings, including the church-like city hall, and at least two very pretty plazas: one in front of that city hall, and the other in front of a church. Note: not to be confused with the other town called Baños, on the Pacific coast.

Baños was also where we tried jugo de caña-sugar cane juice, made in front of our eyes. This delicious beverage has a subtle honey flavor and is not overly sweet. Some of the vendors still use manual juicers that look like heavy industrial equipment. Ours used a powerful electric juicer.

And finally, another 40 minutes drive through the mountains, over some very narrow and precarious roads, to get to our hotel: Hacienda Manteles. The grounds are beautiful, the garden is organic, the furniture is antique, the emphasis is on ecotourism, the staff is very helpful, and the food is wonderful. On top of that, we lucked out and got assigned a palatial room (roughly 20 x 30 feet for the main bedroom/sunken living room combination, plus a spa-style Jacuzzi tub, king bed, and a massive picture window with a view of the volcano and several other mountains in the two adjacent national parks. The typical rooms here are nice enough, but nothing like this-nicer than the Ritz-Carlton I stayed in in San Francisco or the Fairmont in Chicago. Tonight, the volcano is quiet, but we've been treated to an extended fireworks display in a nearby village a few miles away. The owner (a former federal cabinet minister) happened to share our table for dinner, and we discussed some possibilities for solarizing the property, which is his family's old hacienda.

Saturday is market day in the village of Pelilleo, so Alfredo added an unscheduled stop to see this busy produce market. What makes it particularly interesting is that the vendors and shoppers come from many different indigenous communities, making for wide diversity of clothing and facial features (though not so much diversity in what was offered). I did see a few unusual items, including giant beans several feet long and about two or three inches across. We bought an avocado for 25 cents, and tried to buy a single mango, but found most of the mango vendors were wholesaling entire cases. So we spent a dollar on a small basket of five mangos and gave three of them away to people in our group.

Cotopaxi

A little farther on, magnificent snow-capped Chimborazo, the highest volcano in the world and Ecuador's highest mountain at 20,561 feet (6,267 meters), can be seen in the distance.

Almost as tall at 19,347 (5,897 meters), Cotopaxi is about another hour's drive. We caught it on a beautiful sunny day, with the peak poking through cloud cover about two thirds of the way up. We were told that climbing it takes two days just to get acclimated and several more for the climbing expedition. And on our flat hike around the lake bed at the base, I could believe it: I found myself amazingly short-winded, just walking slowly on the flat trail with views of not only Cotopaxi but two other volcanoes as well.
From Cotopaxi, it's only a few miles back to Quito, mostly on highway once you finally get off the narrow, curvy park road.

Quito on Our Own

Back in Quito, we took a walk through the section of New Town where our hotel is: a clean and quiet residential neighborhood with a few restaurants, bakeries, and groceries. What amazed me is that after walking about three-quarters of a mile, we had only come to the second intersection on our map; this city is quite vast.

Cotopaxi was the end of the official tour, but we had a full day in Quito to explore on our own. After a leisurely and wonderful breakfast-the hotel Quito does a terrific buffet, and their restaurant has great views of the city and the mountains (especially from the corner table we grabbed that has views on three sides)-we started by walking behind the hotel (turning right out the door and right on the first street) to visit the neighborhood of Guápulo-a quiet residential area down a steep cliff from the hotel. Almost immediately, we encountered a scenic overlook that gave great views of the beautiful neighborhood church, several valleys and mountains, and even Cayambe, another snow-covered volcano. Passing the same overlook toward evening, we discovered it's also a popular make-out spot.

From there, either several flights of stairs or a mile-long ramble down the twisty, hilly streets led to the church, hundreds of feet below. We chose the street route, passing a mix of houses of all economic classes from mansion to hovel, as well as an organic grocery, a café, and an art school.

The church is well-worth the walk: a beautiful white edifice with a large dome and a couple of small ones, and a traditional Spanish Colonial-style façade-and plenty of art inside. We (Dina and I, and two friends from the tour) got there in time to observe the last fifteen minutes or so of a crowded Sunday Mass, and hear some upbeat hymns with definite Ecuadorian traditional music flavor. And because there was a mass ending, a taxi was waiting at the taxi stand at the front of the church, and we were able to ride all the way to Carolina Park for $2.30. A good 20 minute ride for 75 cents apiece, with tip.

The massive park is the front yard of Quito, and on this sunny Sunday it was filled with soccer players, bicycle riders, walkers, families with children, pedal boaters.as well as a lovely little farmers market featuring fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, honey, and the like. The Botanical Gardens are there as well, but looking through the fence, it didn't seem worth the price, especially since the park itself is not only free but also a fantastic place to people-watch.

From there, we walked a few blocks to the Brown Line tram to the Casa Cultural stop, in Ejido park just outside the Old City. The National Theater is here, as well as an artisan craft market featuring mostly items we'd seen elsewhere in the country (at somewhat higher prices than we'd gotten used to). But our goal was the National Museum, which has several stunning collections, including extraordinary riches in pre-Columbian gold and pottery, as well as a terrific exhibit of 16th- and 17th-century maps.

And then we took the tram back, walked a few blocks to the hotel, and packed up our bags for the long journey home.

General Impressions

In some ways, Ecuador is really easy for US residents to visit. American dollars are the official currency (though Ecuadorian equivalents exist for most coins).the entire country is on US Eastern Time (which happens to be my own timezone).Quito, most tourist attractions, and every resort we visited are nearly litter-free, and smoking seems to be very, very rare-both quite different from anywhere else we've visited in Latin America. The vehicle fleet is also much newer on the whole, and it was a rarity to see buses and trucks belching massive clouds of black smoke (though there was one area with a lot of 20- to 40-year-old cars). There's good highway infrastructure; those roads that are paved are constructed with high standards and have almost no potholes. Not so good on Internet, which was spotty everywhere in our trip where it was supposedly offered, and in one case, didn't exist.

The country is known for its biodiversity, and certainly we saw evidence of that in the plant kingdom. I was quite surprised, though, about how few wildlife sightings we had outside of the animal rehabilitation center, even on our river trips: several monkeys, an occasional egret or hawk, and of course squirrels and pigeons. Nothing like Costa Rica or even the Everglades, where we've seen hundreds of exotic birds and dozens of monkeys all along the rivers. Of course, we didn't make it to the Galapagos-but we did go deep into the rain forest.

Ecuadorian Spanish is on the whole quite rapid, with wide variation in regional accents; understanding took more work here than in some other countries, but I usually got the sense of what was being said. And like every other Latin American country we've visited, Ecuadorians were very tolerant of our far-from-perfect Spanish, happy that we made the effort.

Tourism is a major industry here, and the industry is developing rapidly. It doesn't dominate the economy but it's clearly a rising sector, and with the right marketing, will probably start attracting far greater numbers of tourists from the U.S. and Europe. I'm glad to have seen it when it hasn't yet gone through that process.

Eco-consciousness is strong. Recycle bins show up in all sorts of out-of-the-way places, litter is not a big problem, much marketing includes an eco-component, and even big industrial facilities are designed to blend much better into the landscape than they might. And everywhere, in big cities, small towns, and attractions in the middle of nowhere, are signs reminding people to take care of the earth, protect the water, and dispose of garbage properly. Both in the high Andes and the rainforests, the landscape is magnificent. The humanscape varies a lot from tawdry and depressing to charming to just plain beautiful, particularly in the towns and cities that use a lot of colors in their buildings.

Finally, altitude can be an issue. Walking or hiking at 13,000 feet, or even at 9,000, is a different experience to a body accustomed to heights of zero to 3000 feet. I found going uphill even tiny distances was stressful on my body, and sometimes downhill as well. Flat was fine everywhere except Cotopaxi, where I had to go about a quarter of my normal quick pace.

Shel Horowitz is the Editor of Global Travel Review. His eighth book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, shows businesses how to be both green and profitable.


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