Coast through the hills and high-rise towns of the breathtakingly scenic Ecuadorian Andes
The Ecuadorian town of Otavalo lies in the north of the country, nestled between three stratospheric Andean volcanoes: Imbabura, Cotacachi and Mojanda.
While the region’s many peaks, lakes and waterfalls provide plenty of inspiration for hikers, it is Otavalo’s Saturday market that puts the town on the map. Every Saturday indigenous producers fill the streets with colourful stalls showcasing their artisanal wares and the area spilling out from Plaza de los Ponchos becomes the largest outdoor market in South America.
Otavaleños are particularly famed for their weaving skills, meaning a large proportion of the stalls are devoted to beautiful patterned blankets, cosy alpaca jumpers and various other brightly coloured fabrics. Other prominent items on sale at the overflowing market include: musical instruments, dream catchers, jewellery made from tagua nuts, fake shrunken heads, indigenous festival costumes, purses, leather goods, spices and Panama hats—which, despite their name, originate from Ecuador.
After stocking up on souvenirs head towards the green mountains of Volcano Mojanda to stay at the tranquil La Luna lodge, where locro de papa (Ecuadorian potato and cheese soup) is served with canelazo (a hot alcoholic blend of aguardiente, naranjillo juice, sugarcane and cinnamon that is very popular in the Andes) beside a roaring log fire.
At an elevation of 9,350ft above sea level, Quito is the second-highest capital city in the world. The long, thin urban plateau is flanked by the Pichincha volcanic cordillera, giving the city a dramatic relief of rising peaks.
One person who was especially fascinated by Quito’s vivid landscape was Oswaldo Guayasamín, Ecuador’s most celebrated artist. The talented painter and sculptor dedicated the majority of his work to human suffering, with a specific focus on violence against indigenous Latin Americans. But from his hilltop home he also produced a series of expressionist Quito landscapes, each conveying a different mood through his choice of colour.
Guayasamín’s powerful, evocative works are displayed in his purpose-built gallery La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man). The striking stone building stands next to his beautiful house, where tours are given explaining his development as an artist and his working methods. An interesting insight gleaned from the tour is that when crafting portraits Guayasamín would attempt to distil the timeless essence of the sitter’s spirit: the core characteristic present from birth until death.
In Spanish Ecuador means equator, and within Quito’s northern limits lies the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) exhibit. This kitschy attraction is located on a spot designated as the equatorial line by the French Geodesic Mission way back in 1736. Modern global positioning instruments show that Mitad del Mundo is actually situated around 240 metres away from the true equator but, astonishingly, a nearby pre-Inca (circa 800 AD) ruin site named Catequilla actually stands exactly on latitude zero.
At six ‘o’clock in the morning, when the fresh high-altitude air is especially crisp and the clouds have not yet fully formed, the snowy cone of Volcano Cotopaxi shines like a silver beacon.
The verdant valleys surrounding the punishing peak are home to fluffy llamas and delicate orchids, while fairytale-esque misty forests shelter ancient Inca pathways and gushing icy streams.
In the bucolic Cotopaxi National Park days are spent hiking to volcanic mountains, searching for secret waterfalls and cantering over the peaceful plains. The almost inevitable waterlogged boots and rain drenched hair is swiftly rectified by a fireside dinner of passionfruit chicken, local pale ale and freshly baked banana bread at Secret Garden Cotopaxi.
The secluded lodge offers private wooden cabins with log fires and also arranges tours to Volcano Cotopaxi’s dizzying 19,347ft summit. The gruelling six-hour trek begins at midnight, requires crampons, ice picks and aluminium ladders and is only completed by half of those who attempt it—due to debilitating altitude sickness and dangerous melting snow at dawn.
The Quilotoa Loop is a four-day, 18.6-mile, hike through dramatic Andean valleys, wild flower studded meadows and fertile farmland. Those who complete the odyssey are blessed with dazzling views of Quilotoa’s two-mile wide glistening turquoise volcanic caldera lake.
Trekkers spend the night in four different villages (Sigchos, Isinlivi, Chugchilan and Quilotoa) where hot dinners and packed lunches are provided along with somewhat rudimentary hand-drawn maps of each stage.
Getting lost is obligatory and almost always adds to the fun. There are phantom bridges, paths that lead to sheer cliff faces, paths that lead to people’s houses and paths that lead to nowhere at all.
The altitude (9,186ft at the lowest points, 12,84ft the highest) shortens breaths and muddles thoughts. The ascents make muscles ache, the descents nearly make joints brake. And the afternoon showers can dampen even the most picturesque of picnics.
In short: it’s an adventure.
The landscape, a patchwork of green meadows draped clumsily over jagged alpine terrain, provides the brain with stimulus lacking in the low oxygenated air—as do squinting farmers cracking jokes, colourfully clad children dancing in village squares and amicable traders playing songs on panpipes.
The circuitous route allows ramblers to graze on the slopes with llama and goat and soar above the clouds with Andean condor and white orchids. It pushes people outside of their comfort zone and rewards them with a spectacular picture book, faith in the kindness of strangers and four lifetime best night’s of rest.