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Latin America Investment News on Viva Tropical

Ecuador Packs a Big Punch for Its Small Size

Article Summary:

A small country about the size of Arizona, with a culturally and ethnically diverse population of approximately 15 million people, Ecuador is large in quality and variety.

Photo Credit: New Jersey Hills

Original Article Text From New Jersey Hills:

TRAVEL: Ecuador: Small but spectacular

Ecuador gained its independence from Spain in 1822, and, under the leadership of Simon Bolivar, formed with Venezuela and Columbia, Gran Columbia. It separated from the confederation in 1830 and became the Republic of Ecuador, the Incan word for equator, which the country straddles.

A small country about the size of Arizona, with a culturally and ethnically diverse population of approximately 15 million people, Ecuador is large in the quality and variety it has to offer: a vast area of lush Amazon jungle, home to exotic wildlife and indigenous people; towering, startlingly beautiful Andean Mountains; spirited, fun-filled resorts; the pristine beaches, mangrove reserves, and fishing villages of its Pacific Coast. And, 600 miles offshore, Ecuador’s most famous attraction, the unique, very special Galapagos Islands.

The capital of Ecuador, Quito, nestles contentedly 9,000 feet above sea level, flanked by majestic mountains and is one of the most beautiful settings of any capital in the world.

The air is thin, the skies are blue, and the weather pleasantly spring-like year ‘round. With a population of about 1.5 million people, Quito is part thriving modern city, and part reviving colonial showpiece.

The Old Town, Quito’s historic heart, was designated by UNESCO in 1978 as a World Heritage Site, a place of human and cultural history so special it has to be preserved for the benefit of humanity.

Cobbled streets, scores of ancient plazas, manor houses, churches and public buildings dating back to Spanish colonial times have been lovingly and authentically restored and maintained.

Quito offers plenty to keep the curious visitor busy for days. Must-do experiences in the Old Town are to visit the Plaza de la Independencia, the Plaza and Monastery of San Francisco, and, my favorite, the absolutely breathtaking La Campania de Jesus, a baroque masterpiece adorned with more gold and gold leaf than any other church in the world.

A terrific experience north of what is known as New Town is visiting the Museo Guayasamin, which houses the most complete collection of Ecuador’s world famous painter, the indigenous, wonderful Oswaldo Guayasamin.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the north end of the Parque El Ejido turns into Quito’s largest crafts market and sidewalk art show. You will be pleased to learn that since September 2000, all paper currency in Ecuador is U.S. dollars. So bring your American money in small denominations and be prepared to negotiate, with a smile.
Side Trips

No trip to Ecuador would be complete without a visit to Otavalo and its world famous market, the largest in Latin America.

Otavalo was a market from before the Incas arrived, trading local products for goods brought up from the jungle lowlands. The market is open daily but Saturday is especially exciting, with people from more than 70 villages bringing their crafts, animals and produce for a day of serious barter and exchange.

The market’s winding, makeshift passageways are a bustling, colorful labyrinth of countless displays of clothing, paintings, wonderful embroidered goods, leather products, and wood carvings. It’s an exciting experience.

The vendors are garbed in the traditional attire worn on normal workdays, not just trotted out for the tourists. The people are friendly, the quality of the products high, and the prices, after some good-natured haggling, very reasonable.

Among the several day trips from Quito worth considering is a hike or mountain-bike ride at Cotopaxi National Park. The centerpiece of the park is the stunning, cone-shaped, snowcapped Cotopaxi, the second highest peak in Ecuador and perhaps the tallest active volcano in the world.

Or, visit the Hacienda El Porquenia, a hostel and working ranch. Dress up like Ecuadorean cowboys, called chagras, with chaps, ponchos and traditional felt hats, and horseback-ride up the slope of Volcano Ruminahui, in the shadow of the looming Cotopaxi, full of grace and menace. Great people, great fun!
Where to Stay

There is a wide range of accommodations in Quito. Among the high-end favorite hotels is the JW Marriott. It has an imposing atrium-covered lobby, spacious, well-appointed rooms with city or, preferred, volcano views. Although a large hotel, because of the exceptionally friendly, attentive, accommodating staff, it had for me the special feel of a small, family-run country inn.

Located in the corner of historic Plaza San Francisco, Casa Gangotena (casagangotena.com) is a restored mansion that was converted two years ago into a stunning 31-room boutique hotel. The location on the plaza is unmatched.

A two-hour drive from Quito is the Hacienda Zuleta (zuleta.com), an exquisite property that has been in the same family for several hundred years, one of Ecuador’s most prestigious and was once the home of two popular Ecuadorean presidents.

Covering more than 5,000 acres in a lush valley between snowy Andean peaks, Zuleta is a working dairy and horse farm; the property includes a cheese factory, an organic garden , trout ponds, an excavation site of pre-Incan ruins, hiking and horseback riding trails, and a rehabilitation center for injured Andean condors, an endangered species.

The women of the local community produce and sell embroidery pieces of amazing quality. The incredibly beautiful, classic colonial hacienda was completed in 1691. It has 15 elegant antique- filled guestrooms, complete with beehive fireplaces.

Using only locally grown or raised products, served family-style with the congenial owner in attendance, the meals are excellent and the conversation fascinating.

Train Cruise
The Ecuadorean government has invested $28 million in the restoration of the country’s railroad system. A brand new, exciting experience is the Tren Crucero or Train Cruise.

What is being offered is a four-day, three night all-inclusive luxury train excursion from Quito to Guayaquil (and the reverse), 283 miles from mountain highlands through cloud forests, grasslands, the tropics, to the Pacific coast.

The journey includes what is known as the Devil’s Nose, a stretch that winds through some spectacular scenery and then provides a white-knuckle adventure as the train zigs and zags up a solid rock face, with tight switchbacks, hairpin turns, and sheer drop-offs.

Passengers leave the train daily for interesting excursions, for example, to visit colorful indigenous markets, and for top-notch lunches, elaborate dinners and for overnight stays at three lovely haciendas.

The train consists of a wonderfully restored 20th century steam locomotive and four new, carefully restored vintage carriages. It can accommodate 54 passengers.

The introductory cost for the all-inclusive Tren Crucero experience is a bargain at $990.

Galapagos Islands
Ecuador’s prime attraction, on everyone’s bucket list, is the Galapagos Islands, about 600 miles west of the mainland, consisting of 13 big islands, 6 small ones and more than 40 islets. Only five of the islands are populated, with Isabela the biggest, Santa Cruz the most populated. Every island is unique and alluring.

The Galapagos are the ultimate natural zoo. The animals are beautiful, unusual, often endemic, and most are fearless of humans, because large predators failed to evolve in this isolated place. Here you don’t view the wildlife at a distance through binoculars. You can sunbathe with sea lions, snorkel with penguins, walk right up close for a photo of a prehistoric-looking iguana sunning itself on the rocks.

Believe me, a visit here is one of the world’s most unforgettable travel experiences.

Virtually all visitors to Galapagos come by plane on flights that originate in Quito and connect through Guayaquil. A majority of the visitors will have signed up to cruise the islands on one of the over 100 tourist ships that ply the area’s seas.

For bookings, there are excellent, very reputable companies to check out that offer 5-, 6- or 8-day trips. These include Linblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com) and Metropolitan Touring (www.metropolitan-touring.com). I selected Klein Tours (www.kleintours.com) and sailed on the well-appointed, 110 passenger Galapagos Legend. All aspects of the cruise were terrific, top-notch.

Island Hopping
An increasingly popular alternative to visiting Galapagos from a cruise ship is what is called island hopping.

The idea is to visit four or five of the islands up close, your priorities, at your own pace. You can hike, kayak, snorkel, sunbathe, just sit and watch the blue-footed booby do its crazy two step mating dance.

The thinking is to stay at a couple of different hotels, even camp-out overnight, if so inclined, and to interact with the locals and develop an understanding of their life and culture.

There are several companies that specialize in shaping such island hopping experiences. One is ROW Adventures (www.rowadventures.com).

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