Breathtaking beauty in Ecuador’s own paradise

October 22, 2012, 04:14am

QUITO always seemed to me to be more of a stopover on the way to Ecuador’s Andean heights, Amazon forest, and the Galapagos, than a destination. Not so. This 9,000 ft high city, smack dab on the equator, has a spectacular setting of its own, surrounded by three glistening, glacier-topped volcanoes: Cotapaxi, Cayambe, and Antisana.

Before exploring Quito’s natural surroundings, though, we checked out the delights of the historic city. We headed to the Casa Gangotena, an oasis of genteel luxury facing Plaza San Francisco, the oldest of the three main squares of the colonial city, with its gleaming white eponymous church and monastery. Just a stone’s throw from our bedroom balcony sat the church’s lavish golden interior, thronged with singing worshippers, jostling with cassock-clad monks during services. At dawn, weather-beaten villagers from the mountains, laden with vegetables, hurried to the warren of narrow streets up the hillside to set up shop on the narrow pavements. Groups of uniformed school children and young people in brightly coloured national dress sauntered past, while mothers strode up the hill with babies tightly swaddled in blankets on their backs.

After breakfast we headed into the local markets and street stalls with Casa Gangotena’s enthusiastic young chef Andres. He devises the day’s menu after assessing the available produce, blending traditional Ecuadorian recipes with modern creations. The results are original and delectable, as we knew from dinner the previous night. We continued on past Quito’s varied colonial facades, rounding off the day at Casa Del Alabado Museum, with its very fine collection of pre-Colombian artifacts.

CLOUD FOREST: MASHPI LODGE AND BIRD HEAVEN
On our second day, a three hour drive took us into the cloud forest, a highland remnant of the great Chocó-Darien forest that once extended from Eastern Panama along the Pacific coast of Colombia to the Western slopes of Ecuador’s Andes. After descending over 5,000 feet from Quito, and traversing several ridge-top villages surrounded by clear cut fields, we entered the private drive to Mashpi Lodge, a brand new construction of glass and steel designed by Ecuadorian architect Alfredo Ribadeneria. Mashpi embodies the vision of Roque Sevilla, a former mayor of Quito, who acquired a 3,000 acre tract around a former sawmill to protect what was left of the primary forest from further logging and mining, and to establish a resource for scientific research together with an exclusive hotel for eco-tourists.

Donning the provided Wellington boots, we sallied forth into the forest. It was an effort to refocus our urban eyes on the subtle detail of the multi-tiered canopy, but gradually, with help from sharp-eyed guide Jose (who has lived most of his life in Mashpi village), we caught glimpses of toucans, tanagers, flycatchers, and parrots with our binoculars (a must – bring your own as they are not provided). Jose pointed out camouflaged lizards, iguanas, insects, and frogs and explained the medicinal properties of various plants and ferns. Going a bit further afield from the lodge to the undisturbed primary forest, majestic trees served as 100-plus foot high scaffolds for colonies of epiphytes, saprophytes (including a plethora of orchids), fungi, and creepers, within and upon which the birds, insects, amphibians, and even mammals live and feed. Best of all, an ingenious aerial bicycle (the first of several planned), enabled us to pedal at our leisure, ET-like, in the midst of the canopy, surrounded by Avatar-style creations of nature, and across a valley with sweeping views across the mist-covered hills. Forest paths lead to waterfalls, a bird watching tower, a soon to be opened chair lift linking the valley to the hilltop, and a butterfly house, its huge and colourful denizens bred on the spot by researchers.

Our single night at Mashpi Lodge did not do it justice. You need at least a couple of days to relax in the immaculate bedrooms, gazing through huge glass windows at the restless clouds and mist drifting through the forest; to spot birds from the roof terrace, and feast on exquisitely presented creations of Casa Gangotena-trained chef Daniel in the soaring glass-walled dining room, while keeping an eye on the humming birds feasting on sugar-water just outside.

NEXT UP were the Galapagos Islands, a 90 minute flight West from Quito. I had expected an abundance of terrestrial and aquatic life. In fact, the islands are generally sparsely vegetated and the renowned birds, fish, and cetaceans are concentrated into colonies. Four naturalists were on hand on our yacht, La Pinta, to be our guides. Meeting us at the airport they bussed us to the highlands (1,800 feet) of Isla Santa Cruz, one of the four larger islands, where dozens of the famous Galapagos giant tortoises were crawling along briskly, grabbing clumps of grass with their toothless mouths, and making their way to watering holes to stock up with gallons of water. These 500-pound creatures have a leisurely 150-year life span (the male takes 45 years to reach sexual maturity), with several islands having their own unique species.

As we were ferried out from Puerto Arroya to La Pinta, the 48-passenger yacht that was to be our home for the next four nights, we wondered how we would cope with a laid-on four-day cruise program. As it turned out, impeccable planning and execution by the crew liberated us to concentrate on this extraordinary archipelago. Yes, you do sacrifice spontaneity and the ability to flexibly respond to weather conditions (why not wait till the sun comes out in the afternoon to go snorkeling?), but we happily fell into the daily rhythm of zodiac trips to snorkel and stroll ashore followed by evening briefings, punctuated by three generous meals.

We stopped at three of the islands – Santa Cruz, Santiago, and Genovesa – taking in small satellite islands Isla Eden, Sombrero Chino, and Isla Bartolomé. The recent volcanic history is manifest in the spectacular lava fields of Sullivan Bay on Santiago. There, lava flows within the last century have oozed around older reddish cinder cones, congealing into patterns that would inspire a weaver – fabric-like matrices of twine, chains of popped bubbles, and hollow tubes snaking across the landscape for hundreds of yards, crisscrossed by fissures revealing a spectrum of rust colours below the stark, black lava surface.

The sun was rising as we gingerly steamed over a mere 7.5 meters of water and crossed the southern lip of a submerged caldera into Isla Genovesa’s Darwin Bay, anchoring right below the crater wall. Here, it was the astonishing bird life that came to the fore. Landing on a bleached coral sand beach, we finally had the classic Galapagos experience, almost tripping over fearless chicks of the fluffy red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, and frigate birds. Overhead, returning with a gullet-full of fish to feed their offspring, adult boobies and long-tailed tropicbirds (trailing white tails as long as kite streamers) ran the gauntlet of the kleptomaniac frigate birds who survive by shaking loose the fisher-birds’ catch in mid-air.

Inevitably, a four-night cruise cannot cover the full richness of the islands. Our Northern Galapagos itinerary more than satisfied our geological and ornithological expectations (though we missed the albatross colony on Española), but fell short on the cetaceans and fish. If you’re going all that way, it’s worth spending at least a full week to take in some of the Eastern islands and, with a couple more days, the volcanically active Western islands as well.

Though the Ecuadorian government stringently regulates ship-based tourism, unchecked land development has seen the population rise to 25,000. It’s not the uninhabited archipelago Darwin’s HMS Beagle navigated in 1835, but it’s still eminently worth a visit – just don’t leave it too long.

NEED TO KNOW
When to go: Cool, dry season is June to December, but expect mist and chilly, potentially choppy waters.

Wet season is January to May, with hot sunny mornings and afternoon deluges with calm seas.

High season: Mid-December-January, June-August.

Fewest tourists and best deals: April and September.

Travel: Heathrow to Quito on KLM/Delta takes about 17 hours including one stop, departing in the morning and arriving in the evening of same day with seven hours time change.

An 10-day tour of Ecuador & Galapagos with Metropolitan Touring (www.metropolitantouring.com) is priced from £3,300 per person including two nights in Quito Old Town staying at Casa Gangotena (www.casagangotena.com) on a B&B basis with private city tour, two night/three day fully inclusive rainforest programme at Mashpi Lodge (www.mashpilodge.com), five day/four night fully inclusive Galapagos Islands cruise onboard Yacht La Pinta (www.lapintagalapagoscruise.com) and one night B&B at The Finch Bay Eco Hotel (www.finchbayhotel.com).

Price includes transfers between the properties and domestic flights between Quito and Galapagos.

International flights from London to Quito with Iberia start from £700 return.

In Quito, Oliver stayed at Casa Gangotena: casagangotena.com

The cloud forest stay was at Mashpi Lodge: mashpilodge.com/en

The Galapagos cruise was on La Pinta: lapintagalapagoscruise.com

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