It may be the haven of choice for political whistleblowers, but in Ecuador Sarah Marshall discovers snow-capped mountains, rainforests and colourful festivals.
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 woven rainbow-coloured flags.
After marching 370 miles 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.
However, with wildlife-rich jungles, snow-capped volcanoes and miles of unspoilt coastline, it’s much more than a political safe haven. A highlight is undoubtedly 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), it’s easy to see 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. 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 650ft-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 380ft 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
Casa Gangotena: 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, it is the most talked-about luxury boutique hotel in the city. 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. www.hotelpatioandaluz.com
Hosteria Hacienda Puinsaqui: 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.
Quito travel information
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1260, www.rainbowtours.co.uk) which offers a 12-day Ecuador Explorer private tour priced from £3,550 per person, including 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 also includes return international flights with KLM, domestic flights and transfers. Accommodation is bed and breakfast except at Napo Wildlife Centre guests receive full board.