I’d never really thought of going to Ecuador until I spoke to a friend of mine in The Explorers Club, Adele Hammond who had made several trips to this South American country perched on the continent’s northwestern shoulder. Having always thought of Ecuador in terms of the Galapagos Islands, Adele regaled me with stories of her horseback treks across the Ecuadorian Andes and as she verbally painted a vivid, panoramic landscape of lush Amazonian jungles, majestic Andean volcanic peaks, palm-fringed Pacific Ocean beaches, and world-heritage Spanish colonial architecture, I became intrigued with this small country which is frequently overlooked by travelers who flock to its more popular southerly neighbor, Peru.
She went on to tell me about her friend Sally Vergette, an English woman who had moved to Quito after leaving a career with major fashion houses in London and Paris to start an equestrian vacation company, Ride Andes. An extraordinary entrepreneur with an eye for detail who would match my wife Diane and me with horses whose temperament met our riding abilities. Driving her Jeep-like, four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi over washed out roads high up in the Ecuadorian Andes, strewn with almost boulder sized rocks, she never failed to impress me.
Adele assured us that Sally would pull together an amazing trek across Ecuador by horse, four wheel drive, foot and dugout canoe, which she ably did. She also recommended that we stay at the Cafe Cultura, a boutique hotel in Quito that at one time was the French Embassy’s cultural centre.
A stunningly beautiful building, I was surprised when chatting with Cafe Cultura’s owner, László Károlyi, that he is a fellow Hungarian whose grandparents had moved to Ecuador before the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
The historic district of Quito has the best-preserved Old Town in South America, unlike Lima, Peru, which demolished much of its Spanish colonial architecture; Quito in 1978 was made a UNESCO world heritage site. Sally pointed out that Ecuador has the finest and largest collection of Spanish Colonial-era haciendas in South America.
Ecuadorians weren’t caught up in burning down Spanish owned haciendas as other South Americans were during Simon Bolivar’s revolution against Spain’s colonial rule of Central and South America during the early 1800s. As a result Ecuador maintains a rich cultural heritage of haciendas that go back to the 1500s. During our trek across Ecuador Sally picked three separate haciendas for Diane and I to stay at, two of which were working ranches. Sally offers horseback tours across the country where riders stay at historic haciendas.
The Inca Empire stretched north into southern Ecuador and only lasted for approximately 90 years before the Spanish arrived so remnants of these great people are thin on the ground. Ecuador is rich in the archeological remains of pre-Inca First Nations.
Fascinated by the history of exploration I was delighted to visit the hut that German scientist Alexander von Humboldt used while recording the natural history of Ecuador during the early 1800s. Humboldt’s hut is high in the Andean mountains by the Antisana volcano. The Antisana volcano is closer to the Amazon rainforest than most of Ecuador’s volcanoes, therefore it receives more moisture resulting in snow and glaciers more so than found on other mountains. It was also here we had the good fortune of spotting three giant condor’s now almost hunted and poisoned to extinction.
Humboldt basically wandered around Antisana collecting plants, rocks, artifacts, and useful facts which explained many relationships between natural happenings (more than previous scientists) in astronomy, geology, biology, meteorology, oceanography, and geography. His time around Antisana probably contributed to his description of the correlation between the rise in altitude with a drop in temperature, as well as the changes in vegetation with both. He was also the first to write that volcanoes are frequently aligned as found in the Andes.
To round out our vacation to Ecuador we flew to the country’s eastern provinces, collectively known as Oriente, of which the northern half of this region has been devastated by oil exploration while the southern half has remained intact tropical rainforest. Preserved by the indigenous Achuar people, this tropical Eden’s rivers flow into the Amazon River. We stayed at the Kapawi Ecolodge where our stay was organized by Toronto’s G.A.P Adventures. The surrounding jungle was full of tropical birds and a family of monkeys moved about in the forest canopy above us. Pink River Dolphins swim in the nearby rivers. During the night we would venture out into the neighbouring river to spot caiman (a type of alligator) and during the day would swim in the river along with well-fed parana (guys, you don’t want to skinny-dip here).
As it turned out, Ecuador was far more diverse than I would have imagined. Rich in history, culture, topography and biodiversity it’s a country that is frequently overlooked by visitors to South America. A real shame since it has so much to offer.
All photos by Diane Frey – All Rights Reserved