Whistleblowers may head to Ecuador for political reasons, but this land of snow-capped mountains, dense rainforest and colourful festivals has a wealth of attractions to offer visitors. Sarah Marshall finds herself giddy with excitement on a trip to Quito, the highest capital in the world.
It seems I’ve arrived in Quito a day too late.
Had I been here 24 hours earlier, I’d have found the city’s undulating cobbled streets filled with plumes of exotic feathers and thick, woven rainbow-coloured flags.
After marching 600km from the Amazon rainforest and the high Andean plains, Ecuador’s indigenous communities had converged on the capital to protest passionately about land rights.
Their painted faces may have disappeared, but their sentiment lingers in every ancient stone crevice of this surprisingly progressive South American city which straddles the Equator.
Despite being one of the smallest countries in the continent, Ecuador is remarkably diverse in terms of both landscape and population.
It’s also no stranger to controversy. Thanks to the government’s liberalism - not to mention defiant anti-American leanings - it’s becoming a refuge for whistleblowers: both WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and NSA’s Edward Snowden have turned to the country for assistance.
But there are many more reasons to visit Ecuador than simply seeking political asylum.
Wildlife-rich jungles, snow-capped volcanoes and miles of unspoilt coastline can be reached within a matter of hours. But a highlight is a visit to Quito. Snaking through the Andes at an altitude of 2,800m above sea level, it’s the highest capital city in the world.
The introduction of a new airport earlier this year has made landing here a much easier and safer experience, and several new luxury hotel openings in the region mean there’s greater reason to stick around.
Gazing up at the gold-encrusted nave of the 17th century church of La Compania de Jesus (which took 160 years to build), I can appreciate why this was the first city in the world to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Given some of the crude artwork and overstuffed cherubs, it’s hardly Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel - but the sheer opulence is equally impressive.
My visit coincides with Holy Week, when devotees (known as Cucuruchos) in purple robes and tall cone hoods march solemnly through the streets in the pouring rain, some self-flagellating with thorns and poison ivy, others dragging heavy wooden crosses.
The procession ends in Plaza de Santo Domingo, the main square, where a flock of pigeons scores an appropriately grey streak across the sky. Bystanders look on, keeping warm with helpings of fanesca, a traditional Easter soup made with hard-boiled eggs, salt cod, milk and 12 types of bean, served in small plastic carrier bags.
It’s a hearty, calorie-packed meal, but at this altitude the body’s metabolism apparently speeds up, so I don’t feel quite so guilty about joining in.
As it turns out, being this high up has a number of advantages, most notably the variety of spectacular views.
The most popular viewpoint is the Virgen de Quito, which stands atop the 200m-high hill El Panecillo and overlooks the city below. From here, on a clear day, the sharp tip of volcano Cotopaxi appears to pierce the sky.
I do suffer pangs of vertigo, however, when I attempt to climb the bell towers of the neo-gothic cathedral, Basilica of the National Vow, towering 115m above ground. A narrow steel, rail-free ladder, hanging precariously from the side of one tower, is a step too far and I fail to make it to the top.
From every rooftop and high point, it’s clear that Quito is surrounded by natural beauty, and day trips out of town confirm this.
I set off on a two-hour drive to Otavalo, one of the best indigenous markets in South America, where Quechua people sell heavy ponchos and thick alpaca jumpers alongside racks of Panama hats - which in fact, I’m told, originate from Ecuador.
On my way, I stop off at Calderon, a small village famous for its ornaments made from hardened bread dough. Shops sell brooches in an eye-smarting array of colours, and even delicate miniature nativity scenes set inside matchboxes.
As we climb into the Andes, temperatures drop and evenings are spent sipping canelazo (made with cinnamon and firewater) in front of a roaring fire at traditional Spanish hacienda Pinsaqui, where military and political leader Simon Bolivar once stopped off for the night.
The region is populated by craftsmen, some of whom marched into Quito only days before. On the wall of one musician’s workshop hang paintings by Ecuador’s world-famous indigenous artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. The sad expressions of those depicted suggest suffering and injustice, but they also communicate proud defiance.
As I’m quickly learning, for a country so small, Ecuador has a lot to shout about.
Where to stay
Built on the site of an Inca temple, this former family mansion originally had just a handful of vast rooms and a couple of bathrooms. Now the carefully restored property, set in the historic Santo Domingo square, offers 32 rooms and is the most talked-about luxury boutique hotel in the city. The grand space is filled with native roses, one of Ecuador’s biggest exports. Head to the rooftop bar to admire views of Cotopaxi.
Bolivar Oe6-41 y Cuenca, Quito. Visit www.casagangotena.com
Hotel Patio Andaluz
Rooms are set around an elegant Escher-like courtyard in this upmarket hotel, which functioned as as a colonial home in the 16th century. Rooms are simple but well priced, and the breakfast, served in another courtyard space, is plentiful.
Gabriel Garcia Moreno N 652, Quito. Visit www.hotelpatioandaluz.com
Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui
Originally built in 1790, this traditional hacienda, where Simon Bolivar once famously rested, is still in the hands of the same Spanish family. Peacocks and hummingbirds visit the grounds, while roaring hearths keep cold mountain chills at bay.
Panamericana Norte, Otavalo. Visit www.haciendapinsaqui.com
What to see
La Capilla De Hombre
Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin communicated the plight of indigenous communities with his paintings and sculptures. His masterwork, The Chapel of Man, is on display at his former home, high up in the hills. Completed in 2002, three years after his death, it documents man’s cruelty to man and humanity’s potential greatness.
Lorenzo Chavez E18-143 y Mariano Calvache. Visit www.capilladelhombre.com
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
Altitude sickness permitting, it is possible to climb the perfectly symmetrical volcano Cotopaxi, which rises to 5897m. But even a gentle walk around the grounds of the national park, filled with lichens, wildflowers and 90 species of bird, is worthwhile. Visit during June and July for the best chance of a clear day.
La Mitad Del Mundo
A museum and monument mark the official line of the Equator. It’s a 20km journey to the north of Quito, and an essential tick-box visit for most tourists who come to cross from the world’s northern to the southern hemisphere. Modern GPS readings have actually revealed the site is slightly adrift from the true dividing line, but that’s done little to deter crowds.
San Antonio, Quito. Visit www.mitaddelmundo.com
Travel facts - Quito
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Rainbow Tours (www.rainbowtours.co.uk 020 7666 1260) which offers a 12-day ‘Ecuador Explorer’ private tour priced from £3,550 pp. Includes two nights at Hotel Patio Andaluz in Quito and an overnight stay at Hacienda Pinsaqui in Otavalo, as well as two nights at the Napo Wildlife Centre in the Amazon rainforest, two nights in the Cotapaxi National Park, two nights in Cuenca and a night in Ecuador’s second city, Guayaquil. Price includes return international flights with KLM, domestic flights and transfers, and accommodation throughout with breakfast, apart from at the Napo Wildlife Centre where accommodation is on full board basis.