By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021
Ecuador packs a staggering variety of geography into a small area – the whole country is slightly bigger than Colorado. In one-day trips from the centrally located capital of Quito, a traveler can visit volcanoes, cloud forests, indigenous villages high in the mountains, and hot springs.
Quito sits at 9,000 feet elevation but its location, right on the equator, makes for a springlike climate year-round, with warm days, cool nights, and periodic rain clouds rolling in from the Andes. My first foray beyond the city took me northwest, on a winding road that curved down lower on the mountain slopes to Mindo, a small town set in a cloud forest paradise. Mindo was famous for birdwatching, butterflies, and chocolate tasting, as well as opportunities for “adventure sports” like ziplining, hiking, and river running. I signed on for a one-day action-packed trip that tried to cover as many of those bases as possible.
Our group, consisting of three women visitors, two male guides and one driver, departed the city early in the morning, zooming without pause past the Mitad del Mundo monument and tourist trap that marked the equator. It took the better part of two hours to cover the twisting mountain road to Mindo. First thing, we boarded a rickety looking tarabita (cable car) spanning a deep, green canyon. Once across, the two guides led us on a hike (more like a jog) down this steep muddy trail to the bottom of the canyon. Fortunately, walking sticks were available for the taking at the start of the hike; otherwise my knees would have never survived the steep downhill trek. As it was, I lagged at the rear by the time we reached the canyon bottom. There, we briefly looked at a couple of minor waterfalls, snapped a picture, then turned around to head back up.
No time to dip into the clear water below the falls. “Quickly, quickly,” urged the guides, “we have a lot on the schedule today.” I did better than the other two women on the uphill portion of the hike. The Australian had just flown in to Quito the day before and was not acclimatized. And the woman from Argentina, a smoker, gasped for breath on the steep return climb.
The trip description was perhaps purposely vague about what all was included, but it turned out all the activities except the cost of lunch were included in one $60 price, a screaming deal. Once safely back across the canyon on the tarabita, off we went to the zipline. The Australian begged off, but the Argentine woman and I both opted for the shorter course, which consisted of three ziplines, connected by a couple short but steep climbs. Fun it was, but not really necessary to my enjoyment of the Mindo experience. Seen one zipline, seen them all.
The next stop was a butterfly farm, where we strolled through a covered garden full of the photogenic, iridescent blue morphos and other colorful residents. Finally, stomach growling, I gratefully followed the guides into a simple restaurant. We all sat together at a picnic bench and were served the set plate almuerzo – potato soup, chicken, rice, lentils, salad, tamarind juice, and fresh fruit for dessert – all for $3.00. Finally, we ran back to the van in a downpour and drove to a chocolate farm. There, under a metal roof while the rain drummed down, we received instruction about how chocolate is made, including (of course) an opportunity to taste several varieties. I purchased locally made bars of 50% chocolate, for myself and for friends back home. Altogether they crammed a lot into one day – we didn’t get back to Quito until after dark – and I thought I’d like to someday return to stay in Mindo for a more leisurely visit of a few days. The day trip was at least a good introduction to some of the possibilities in the cloud forest north of the city.
The next day trip I joined was a jaunt to Otavalo, an indigenous village northeast of the city. There was only one other person on this trip with me – Robert, a Canadian guy who seemed to have a mental checklist upon which he was ticking off the boxes of must-sees. A bird rescue center was the first stop. There, the guide pointed out owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, and condors as we walked past their cages. Robert lagged behind, shooting video of the bird and repeating a pithy version of what the guide just said – “This is the grey hawk, found from Columbia to Chile, hunts at night.”
Next we went to the home of an ancient woman who fed us lunch before giving a demonstration of spinning, dyeing, and weaving alpaca fur. I felt pressured to purchase something after her demo, but fortunately found a tablecloth on her shelves that matched the colors in my living room, so I parted with $25 to buy it.
Finally, we were taken down to the market and turned loose. I was disappointed to find that Wednesday was not a prime market day. About half of the booths were staffed with bored-looking locals, who called out half-heartedly to me to look at their sweaters, leather goods, and jewelry. They had the exact same products as the mercado I had walked through in Quito, and their prices were same. I guessed that all of the goods came from the same factory, probably somewhere in Peru. Nevertheless, I bought a couple little things, earrings and a gourd and a belt, mostly out of pity for the poor vendors, who didn’t have much hope of making rent that day from the handful of tourists wandering through the marketplace. When I got back to the van, there was Robert filming the rug he bought, while narrating, “This is a rug made of cotton, the dye is made from berries, I paid twenty dollars for it.” I wondered who back home in Edmonton he could strongarm into watching what was developing into a spectacularly boring video.
I did not return from the day trip to Otavalo, wishing to spend more time there. If I had gone on market day, and perhaps not with a tour guide but on my own, it might have seemed livelier and more authentic. The sole highlight of the Otavalo trip for me was the chance to study and photograph a condor close up at the bird rescue center.
On another day, I boarded another van with yet another motley group of travelers – there were six of us from the USA, Chile and Switzerland – for a day trip to visit some volcanoes. After a quick stop for breakfast at a dairy farm south of Quito, we made a beeline for Cotapaxi National Park. It took a long time to actually reach the base of 13,000 foot Cotapaxi Volcano after we sighted it on the horizon. Snow topped, belching smoke, the volcano up close looked dangerous. We were told it last erupted less than four years earlier, closing the national park for a year while ash rained down as far away as Quito. The group took a leisurely walk around a lake near the volcano, where spring flowers bloomed and strange looking birds flitted near the water. The visit to Cotapaxi was mellow, but overlain with a slight thrill of knowing that, if this obviously still active volcano decided to erupt again, anything within 100 miles would be flattened. The guide told us that lava flowing from its peak moved at 35 miles per hour – faster than we could run, or even drive on the rocky, rough dirt access road.
Continuing on to the south, we exited the Pan-American Highway and drove up the side of a mountain to the lofty height of 14,000 feet to visit another volcano – not an active one this time, but one long dead. The extinct Quilotoa volcano, filled with blue-green sulphur water, looked other-worldly floating in the rarified air. It seemed a million miles away from the 21st century up there, yet little Inca ladies in their black bowler hats pulled smart phones out of the folds of their long skirts. Teenagers walking on the street dressed normally in jeans and down jackets. You could just tell that they desperately wanted to get out of the hinterlands and dreamed of moving to the big city of Quito.
We had a nearly inedible lunch at someone’s house in the village of Quilotoa. For once I wished I was a vegetarian, as was the couple from California, because the mystery meat (mutton?) they served the rest of us was too tough to eat. It didn’t go to waste, though. The guide collected all the uneaten meat at the end of the lunch (I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t eat it). Then, on the way back down the mountain, we pulled to the shoulder in several places where stray dogs lurked, and gave each of them a bone to chew on. The whole trip to both volcanoes made for an extremely long day – about 14 hours – but it was worth it to experience the remote volcanoes that formed the backbone of the Andes.
The last trip I took from Quito was by far the least demanding. No death marches down a canyon, no poor indigenes begging for money, no smoking volcanoes threatening to erupt. Another active volcano, called Antisana, was involved, but we didn’t bother stopping to look at it. Instead, our small group drove directly to Papallacta Hot Springs Resort. The hot springs, heated by the volcano, emptied into a dozen pools scattered around the beautifully landscaped grounds of the resort. A small restaurant offered sustenance. Individual steam rooms provided opportunity to breathe in the heat.
I missed most of what the guide said on the one-hour ride up to the resort. By this time tired of listening to various guides’ renditions of Ecuadorian history and geography, I had chosen to listen to music instead. But once set loose for a lovely six hour stay at the resort, I soaked in volcano-heated water until my skin pruned. Since it was a Monday, the resort was not crowded. In fact, our group of ten people was the only people there for most of the afternoon. It was the most relaxed day of my entire two weeks in Quito, a perfect ending to the time spent in this spectacular compact country high in the mountains at the middle of the world.