Remembering time in Ecuador

The news of the recent earthquake in Ecuador was especially sad and distressing for my wife and me. We recently spent two weeks there and carried home wonderful memories of the beautiful country.

Last fall Becky and I got a call from her brother Don and his wife Margie. They asked if we would we be interested in accompanying them on an adventure tour to Ecuador. They thought of us because they knew we enjoy vacations that involve physical activities. Our tour would be two weeks of hiking, biking, kayaking and snorkeling.

We signed up online for the “Galapagos and Otavalo Highlands Multisport Tour” through Recreational Equipment Inc. The company offers tours for all levels of physical activity from ocean cruises to rock climbing. Our tour was rated three on a scale of five for strenuous activities. During the initial registration, Becky and I were required to give information attesting to our regular exercise routines, our general fitness and our height and weight. It was clear this would not be a lounge-on-the-beach-reading vacation. We were excited.

Six months later, after all the paperwork and payments, we left for Quito, Ecuador. We arrived very early on a Sunday morning, a day early to acclimate ourselves to the altitude.

After some sleep, the four of us went out to explore the Old City. At 9,350 feet, Quito is the highest official capital city in the world. It is located on a river basin hemmed in between the slopes of a volcano and the hills of the Andes Mountains resulting in a long, narrow city with over two million inhabitants.

We took a leisurely walk through an open-air market as well as a few of the city’s small parks. Sunday is the day when families come to relax and enjoy the public spaces: children running and climbing, men playing bocce ball and women chatting together.

We made our way to the Historic Old Center. Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest and best preserved cities in the Americas. Spanish conquistadors founded it in 1534 on the ruins of an ancient Incan settlement. The centerpiece of the Old Town is the Basilica of the National Vow, the largest Neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas.

Becky and I never tire of visiting churches and cathedrals when we travel. Pillars sweeping eyes upward toward beautiful domes, the rainbow light streaming through stained glass, echoes of quiet footsteps on the stone floors, worshipers seated or kneeling here and there in the sanctuary never fails to fill either of us with a profound awe. Quito’s basilica inspired the same reverential wonder. For a small fee we clambered up and around the towers and even climbed a ladder onto the roof. As the afternoon wound down we worked our way back to our hotel.

Early the next morning the nine adventurers on our tour gathered in the hotel lobby to meet each other as well as our guide, Tomas, who welcomed us to Ecuador. Soon our luggage was loaded on the bus, and we were off.

We headed north to the Andean highlands city of Otavalo stopping at a small village to sample some of the many kinds of fruit Ecuador has to offer. Just up the road we again pulled over. We found ourselves at an obelisk in the middle of a large circle bisected by a line which designated the equator. (Ecuador is the Spanish form of “equator”). It was an opportunity to stand in both hemispheres at the same time. What fun.

A short while later Tomas led us to a small restaurant where we were offered cuy, or as it is known in the U.S., guinea pig. Andean people have used guinea pigs as a source of protein for centuries, but Becky remembered Belle, the pet her girls had as kids, so she declined. Those who tried it thought it a bit chewy. All agreed it did not taste like chicken.

Regional marketplaces where people gather to trade and socialize have played an important part in Indian culture for centuries, and Otavalo is one of the most well-known. We wandered aisle after crowded, narrow aisle, the vast array of vegetables, meats and handmade objects a pleasure for the senses, and just as pleasurable was the opportunity to observe the local people going about their day.

Our group headed to Peguche Falls, a pretty waterfall about 10,000 feet in elevation just outside Otavalo. We climbed up and down narrow paths, over rocks and along edges of a deep ravine cut by the falls. It was only four miles but quite rugged.

Afterwards we adventurers wondered if Tomas was testing us, seeing just what sort of hikers we might be. After a stop at a weaver’s shop and a lesson in natural dyes, we drove back to our lodgings, the Hacienda Pinsaqui, a beautiful and spacious colonial estate established in 1790. Over the centuries its many guests have included the liberator of Ecuador, General Simon Bolivar.

Our next hike was around Laguna Cuicocha, a crater lake (10,600 feet) surrounded by the rim of the Cotacachi volcano. Ecuador has 31 active volcanos with the most recent eruption in 2015. We hiked the rim, about 11,300 feet, while Tomas and our local guide pointed out the birds and the flowers we were seeing. Hiking tours in all Ecuadorian National Parks are required to have an official guide from a local tribe accompany the group. Our guide explained things in Spanish while Tomas translated for us. We ate lunch while overlooking the beautiful lake and watching the air for the elusive condors.

To my mind at least, the wettest hike we did was the most beautiful. We began at 13,000 feet in the cloud forest leaving from the Guango Lodge Hummingbird Reserve. Indiana has one species of hummingbirds; Ecuador, one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world, has 14. Just as beautiful as the birds were the orchids which were all around us on our hikes. About 4,000 species of orchids have been identified in the country.

We hiked in the mist and rain along the river that runs through the reserve, and near the end as we were coming down a path, someone spotted a toucan so we all ran back up the steep hill to see it. It kept itself well hidden, but we managed a glimpse and some rather vague telephoto shots. We rode the bus to our rooms at a warm and inviting hot springs resort and spa. It was a relaxing way to end another busy day.