E.D. Mathew discovers that this tiny country packs a marvellous array of wonders

Sandwiched between Peru and Colombia and eternally caressed by the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador may be small in size, but it packs a marvellous array of wonders. A four-hour flight from Miami, U.S., will take you to Quito (pronounced Kito), the charming capital city of this tiny South American country of 15 million people. Surrounded by seven sacred hills, all of them majestic and for most part of the year snow-capped, Quito straddles a narrow stretch of valleys and undulating hills amid the Andean mountain range. At over 2,800 mt above sea level, it is the world’s second highest capital and enjoys cool weather throughout the year.

The historic centre of Quito, or old town, with its cobblestone streets and quaint squares, is the best preserved and least altered in the whole of Latin America. The city is awash with magnificent churches, monuments, colonial buildings and statues. The interiors of the temples and monasteries are, in fact, priceless museums with sculptures bathed in gold, full of history and tradition.

Walk into La Compañia de Jesus Church (Church of the Society of Jesus), a dazzling specimen of Spanish Baroque architecture, and its sheer splendour and beauty will render you speechless. As you stand soaked in the shimmering light reflected by the gold-leaf covered sculptures and figurines, the intricate handiwork of the architects and sculptors will enthral you. Starting in 1605, the construction of the church took 160 years. Visitors to the church are allowed to pray for three wishes, which, according to legend, will come true. So before you leave Quito’s most ornate church, do not forget to ask for your three wishes.

Another must-see religious complex is the San Francisco church and monastery, comprising seven cloisters and an art museum with unique work. After a round of the magnificent churches, chapels and museums, proceed to the nearby Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) to give a little rest to your legs. Many people sit on the concrete benches, enjoy the cool breeze and soak in the ambience. Musicians at street corners sing their hearts out, women in traditional attire sell vegetables and cooked meat, children practise their soccer skills, and youngsters roam around eating empanada (puffed pastry) and ice cream. This is the heart of the old town.

In the evening, head towards the mountain cliff of El Panecillo, the seat of La Virgen Alada (Winged Virgin), a giant statue overlooking the city. Close to it is Pim’s, one of Quito’s trendy restaurants, where you can try Ecuadorian cuisine while taking in the panoramic view of the brightly-lit city beneath you.

Ecuadorian cuisine is unique, and most of the dishes come with avocado, corn and fried plantains as accompaniments. If you are a culinary adventurer, try cuy, which is roasted guinea pig (it tastes almost like mutton). And while at the restaurant, don’t forget to say buen provecho (bon appétit / enjoy the meal) to diners at the tables you pass by, even if you don’t know them. That is a common practice among the friendly people of Ecuador, who unhesitatingly exchange greetings, even with strangers, at any time of the day or night.

A tour of Quito cannot be complete without riding the teleferiQo, the sky tram that takes passengers for a 2.5-km ride to the top of Pichincha Volcano. The reward, in addition to the exhilarating ride, is a breathtaking view of Quito’s mountainous scenery from a height of over 4,000 mt. An hour-and-a-half drive from Quito is the Otavalo market, one of South America’s largest, where traders, mostly women, sell a variety of handicrafts, clothes and other items. From trinkets to wood carvings, wall-hangings to hammocks, you can bargain for anything and often buy the items at half the price initially quoted.

Before you leave Quito, don’t forget to visit Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), some 40 km from the city, where a tall structure marks the line through which the Equator passes. Many tourists flock the area and take photos with their legs in the southern and northern hemisphere at the same time. Despite confusion over the exact line of the Equator, with two other nearby sites claiming the exclusive title, you can boast to your children and grandchildren that you have seen the middle of the world!

Much of the eastern half of Ecuador is covered by the Amazon forest containing some of the world’s most bio-diverse ecosystems and home to thousands of indigenous people who have lived there for millennia. The other half is replete with picturesque cities and towns amidst the valleys of the Andean mountains and on the Pacific coast.

Salinas, the westernmost coastal city, is one among them. It is a paradise for water-sport enthusiasts. During the high season, many tourists make a beeline for this port city for surfing, yachting, parasailing, jet-skiing and even whale watching.

Drive north from Salinas for about an hour-and-a-half, you reach the small beach town of Montanita where, surprisingly, the spirit of Woodstock is very much alive and kicking. Skimpily-clad women and bare-chested men in shorts and worn-out sandals roam the narrow streets divided by mud roads. The streets are lined with numerous cocktail joints. Bob Marley paraphernalia is everywhere for sale.

As dusk falls, groups of men and women, from various parts of the world, pour into the streets with their guitars and drums, and what follows is a hearty, carefree gig with many of them dancing late into the night. Beer bottles pass hands. Occasionally the smell of marijuana wafts in the air. Yet another group of kindred spirits dance around a bonfire on the beach. “Got some stuff on you, man?” a grimy-looking guy, braids and all, asks me. It’s nirvana place, on the Pacific coast.

The story of Ecuador is incomplete without mentioning Galapagos Islands, 1,000 km from the mainland, featuring amazing animal and plant species, and very well protected by the government. But Galapagos, made famous by Charles Darwin, is a full expedition that will last at least a week, and deserves its own chapter.