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Wide World Blog: Quito, ECUADOR

Ecuador: Land of Many Wonders
Blog by Julie Hunt

My first trip to South America was to the remarkable country of Ecuador, which offers a remarkable assortment of natural wonders, remnants of Incan and Mayan civilizations, the largest weekly market in South America, and charming colonial towns and haciendas.

We started our journey in Quito, Ecuador’s capital and largest city, and headed directly to our charming Andean style hostel, La Casa Sol, which served as the home base for our entire trip. Quito is high in the Andes mountains at an altitude of about 9,300 feet, so the first few days were spent getting acclimated to the altitude, visiting local markets (Parque el Ejido), the main town square (Centro Historica), a beautiful basilica (La Basilica del Voto Nacional), and a few first-class museums (Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador; Guayasamin’s Capilla del Hombre). We also took a day trip to Mitad del Mundo, where my 11-year-old daughter got a kick out of straddling the equator, with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern.

Next stop was Cuenca, a beautiful 16th century city in the Andes about a 45 minute flight (or 20 hour bus ride) south from Quito. I loved Cuenca from the minute I landed, spending hours the first day walking around the old town and along the river, shopping in the open air markets, and visiting the excellent Museo del Banco Central.

Behind the museum are the ruins of Pumapungo, featuring gardens recreated from Incan times. The people of Ecuador descend from the native Indians, the Incas, and the Spanish. Many of the people on the streets stiill wear the native hair and clothing styles they have worn for centuries.

While in Cuenca I stayed at the Mansion Alcazar, a remarkably luxurious colonial mansion in the center of the old part of the city that featured a delicious restaurant with floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking a flower and hummingbird-filled garden. At dinner that evening I discovered what turned out to be my favoriate Ecuadoran dish, a cheese soup with chunks of potato and avocado.

The next morning I hired a local tour guide, Diego, and driver, Marco, to take me to Ingapirca, a settlement along the Inca trail with ruins of the Incan Temple of the Sun and the Canari Temple of the Moon (pre-Incan). The native Indians lived in the area currently known as Ecuador before being invaded by the Incas from Peru, who reigned for only about 80 years. Soon after, in the 16th century, the Spanish explorers arrived and claimed the area for Spain.

The next day Diego took us on several nature and bird-watching hikes, comparing vegetation and wildlife at the various altitudes of the Andes. We started at the top, at 14,000 feet, where the climate is dry and cold and the ground somewhat rocky. I was lucky enough to see a gorgeous plant that blooms for a few days just once in its lifetime, after 5 years of growth.

Next we visited forests a few thousand feet lower, where the forests were lush and mossy, reminding me a bit of the Washington rain forests. We spent a few hours hiking a bird watching, and then continued down to a lower elevation for more hiking and birdwalking along a river and marshy area.

Along the way we passed through many small villages and the Ecuadoran countryside, observing hogs and guina pigs roasting on spits on the side of the road, a group of villagers following a horse-drawn carriage in a funeral procession on a dusty mountain road, local people scrubbing their laundry in the rivers, donkeys laden with bundles of sticks, and colorfully-dressed children leading oxen through the fields.We topped of the day with a visit to one of Ecuador’s many Panama hat factories. “Panama” hats originated and continue to be made in Ecuador; their origin was mistakenly attributed to Panama when Teddy Roosevelt wore won while visiting the construction of the canal.

Spending two days with an Ecuadoran guide greatly enhanced my experience of this beautiful country, providing knowledge of the wildlife and vegetation of the area and a much deeper understanding and insight into the culture and history of the country.The time I spent in the delightful and educational company of Diego and Marco will never be forgotten – I may never see them again, but they felt like true friends after our hours together.

On to the next part of the journey – the Amazon rain forest! I flew back and spent the night in Quito, before flying out to Coca, the gateway to he rain forest.  After a 30 minute flight out of the Andes, we landed in Coca, which sits on the edge of the Napo river, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon river.  We next rode for 2 hours in a motorized canoe, making several stops along the way for local people to jump out and scramble up the river bank and into the forest. After two hours we switched to a 6 person dugout canoe, paddled by our two native guides – one Spanish and one from the local Quichua rain forest tribe – for our trip to the Napo Wildlife Center.

We paddled for two hours through the lush, humid, tropical, thick growth of the forest, stopping several times to watch monkeys swinging through the trees, tropical birds, huge spiders, and lizards.

Finally our lodge came into site, and from far off I could see my daughter standing at the edge of the dock, watching for our canoe. I was thrilled to see Zoe, who had spent the previous few 4 days in the rain forest at the Sani Lodge. I was also pretty happy to see one of the lodge’s many outstanding employees, who greeted us with a tray of cold tropical fruit juice.

Zoe took me to our cabin, which featured wood floors and walls and a thatched roof. The accomodations were very luxurious by rain forest standards – we had lights, hot running water, and even a king-sized bed!

After a few hours of resting and exploring the camp, the guests all met in the main lodge/dining room for an orientation and excellent dinner. After dinner we returned to our cabin; in our absence someone had hung the mosquito netting around our bed, completely bug-proofing our sleeping area. (Side note – after all of the precautions, e.g., buying and wearing special mosquito repellant clothing, taking anti-malarial drugs, etc., as it turned out, we didn’t see a single mosquito on the whole trip.)

We were awakened for breakfast at 5 am the next day and were in the canoe by 5:30 for our trip across the lake, through the forest, and up 10 flights of stairs to a wood platform in the canopy of the rain forest. We spent several hours there with our native guide spotting dozens of exotic birds, apes, and monkeys living in the canopy. We made heavy use of our binoculars and the telescope.  It was difficult to capture photos of the wildlife, but I get a shot through the telescope of one of the many beautiful birds we saw.

After another hike, a great lunch, and a short nap, we took another 2 hour hike through the forest, with our guide explaining the uses of the various trees, plants, vines, etc. that had been used for thousands of years by the local tribes.  Along the way we encountered dozens of varieties of frogs, ants, spiders, and other rain forest creatures

After a day of grueling hikes in >100 degree humid heat, we were all feeling a bit dehydrated and exhausted, so we were quite happy to head back to the lodge for dinner. But wait, now it was time for the night-time cayman hunt. So, it was back to the canoes, where we paddled around under a full moon, spotting the glowing eyes of the dozens of cayman alligators living in the river.

At 5 am the next morning we were off again, this time to the parrot lick. Parrots, parakeets, and many other exotic birds are unable to digest the toxic seeds found in the fruit they live on, so the remedy is a visit several times a day to the natural licks in the forest, where they lick the clay to obtain the minerals they need to detoxify the seeds. The first lick we saw was full of birds for about half an hour, flapping and squacking around. Then, with a huge outcry, they all flew off in a split second after apparently sensing one of their many predators, who make the rounds of the licks each day, looking for easy prey.

More hiking through the forest that afternoon led us to a very rare sighting of an adorable pygmy marmoset, the smallest monkey in the world.

That afternoon we spent time in the native village, where we were treated to a presentation and demonstration of the tools, cookware, and traditions of the local people, who had used the same methods for thousands of years up until the 19070s, when their way of life was changed significantly by the arrival of the oil companies. Zoe and I then each participated in a blessing ritual performed by tribal chief, who chanted and drew all of the evil spirits from our bodies. It may have been put on just for the benefit of the tourists, but I figured it couldn’t hurt and was all too happy to participate!

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