This is the first in a two-part series about visiting Ecuador.
South America was conjoined with Africa as part of the supercontinent Pangaea until approximately 225 million years ago.
After the continents drifted apart, South America had the largest latitudinal expanse, extending from the Sub-Antarctic region to the Tropical Zone and boasting the 4,350-mile-long Andes Mountain Range. This astonishing continent has been divided into 12 countries, but none is more filled with history, culture, biodiversity, and outdoor adventure than Ecuador.
Ecuador straddles the equator and is bordered by Columbia on the north, Peru to the south and east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. The country also lays claim to the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles west of the mainland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. Ecuador’s four geographical regions contain 25,000 plant, 1,650 bird, and 6,000 butterfly species, and Cotapaxi, the world’s highest active volcano at 19,357 feet. The country has the distinction of being deemed “magadiverse” by UNESCO, one of only 17 places worldwide.
Ecuador was called the Viceroyalty of Peru under Spain but was liberated from Spain in 1822; six years later it became the Republic of Ecuador, the Incan word for equator.
Bartolomé Ruiz de Estrada, Pizarro’s pilot on his second voyage, is believed to have been the first European in Ecuador. Francisco Pizarro arrived shortly thereafter, in 1532, with 180 additional conquistadors. Once subdued, the indigenous people were enslaved, and by the 18th century, Africans were being imported as a labor force.
This history accounts for the extreme cultural diversity, with the major ethnicities being Mestizo, Amerindian, Spanish, and Afro-Ecuadorian. Today, although the official language is Spanish, 40 percent of the population speaks the Incan language Quichua and many speak English. Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar, and the country is home to a fair-sized population of American retirees.
The flight to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, takes six hours from New York City and provides stunning views of the Andes including Chimborazo Volcano, the highest in the hemisphere at 20,565 feet. The city is nestled in a valley surrounded by these spectacular mountains and the landing between them and in the midst of the city is something you will never forget.
At 9,600 feet, Quito is the second highest capital in the world, and the architectural history of the city is unique since the Spanish erected their religious buildings atop Incan temple sites. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and in 2011 it was designated an “American Cultural Capital” because it has the largest and best preserved historic center in Latin America. To best understand the complex beauty of this city built in the foothills of the Andes, one should begin with a viewpoint. There are several options.
Quito’s Teleferico is an amazing aerial tram that ascends to the top of Cruz Loma, from 9,680 feet to 13,284 feet, in 10 minutes. At the top visitors get views of the 14 peaks of the Avenue of the Volcanoes and a panorama of the city. Services are available at the summit.
El Panecillo, La Virgen de Quito on Panecillo Hill was constructed in 1975. The 135-foot sculpture is comprised of 7,400 aluminum, bronze, and iron panels and depicts a winged Virgin Mary defeating a dragon. A chapel in the base holds daily services at 8am and the surrounding paved porch is an outstanding viewing spot.
City tours begin in Independence Square amidst the neoclassical Carondelet, Presidential Palace, the 1565 Cathedral of Plaza de la Independencia, the Archbishop’s Palace, City Hall and the 1906 Heroes Monument. Visitors may tour the first floor of the Carondelet to view the décor.
San Francisco was constructed from 1536 until 1605 and is one of the largest religious complexes in the hemisphere. It consists of a temple, chapels, a convent, and a museum. Highlights of a visit to the church are the rope belt of St. Francis around the entrance window, the transept, and the altarpieces. The museum’s collection exceeds 4000 objects and features works from the Escuela Quiteña, the Quito School of Art and Architecture. Highlights include life-sized statues of the apostles adorned with gilt and glass eyes.
The market beneath the cathedral is the best in town. It features regional crafts and artifacts. The shop contains a historic tunnel, in which wares are displayed, that connected the monastery and the convent.
The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, the 1671 Casa del Alabado, is beautifully conceived and carried out. The 5000 objects on display date from 4000 BC to 1587 and are housed in a 17th century colonial building with adobe walls. The collection was amassed by two families and is representative of the Incan cosmological belief that there were three worlds: energy, materials, and spirituality, lower, middle, and upper earth. The artworks are singular.
The Church of the Society of Jesus was constructed between 1605- 1765 and designed after the Jesuit Church in Rome. If you only have time for one site in the city this must be it! The Baroque church is adorned with the greatest amount of gold leaf of any church in the world, and it will take your breath away. The entire edifice is a highlight, but be certain to see the main dome with a mirrored center and Goribar’s 18th-century portraits of the 16 prophets.
Ecuador’s most important artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, was a native of Quito. His “indigenous expressionism” reflects his view of human suffering and pain as an outgrowth of the violence in the 20th century. The 2002 Capilla del Hombre, the Chapel of Man, is a complex that honors and memorializes Guayasamin through displays of his art and educational programming. Gems of the collection are “The Mutilated,” a work comprised of more than one million pieces that can be arranged in 2,250,000 combinations, and “The Avignon Pieta.”
Guayasamin died on March 10, 1999, and his ashes are buried in a clay pot, replicating the burial of the ancient people, beneath a tree on the property.
Archeological excavations reveal that there were agricultural areas in the Amazon area of Ecuador as early as 9000 BC, and by 2000 BC agriculture flourished throughout the country. With a history of food stretching back thousands of years, it is no surprise that Ecuador is a gourmet’s delight. Each region brings something special to the table; the combination of flavors is unique and the numerous restaurants each have a special twist on the traditional foods. Spearheading the effort to create new recipes and document old ones are the chefs of the Universidad de las Américas. They have published an outstanding cookbook filled with historic and cultural information.
Accommodations are abundant in and around Quito for all budgets. Visitors should select their lodging based on location and services. A great choice for me was the NU House Hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of La Mariscal, the entertainment district. The area, nicknamed “La Zona,” was lively at night and was within close proximity to sites and attractions during the day.
We have only scratched Ecuador’s surface and in part two we follow the sun to the middle of the world. In the meantime ponder these facts about the country.
Ecuador is as close to paradise as most of us will get. The temperature averages from 55 degrees at night to 70 degrees in the daytime every day of the year, there are no hurricanes or tornadoes, there are many sunny days during the rainy season, and fruits, vegetables, and flowers grow year round.
The prices for food and accommodations are very reasonable, with the average cost of a gourmet meal for two with wine and dessert at $30.