Roger St Pierre explores fascinating Ecuador

EcuadorIt was bizarre. There we were, almost directly on the line of the Equator, sat in the opulent salon of a stately hacienda, huddled round a blazing log fire and sipping mugs of hot chocolate to ward off the chill evening air.

But, then, we were at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet in the heart of the majestic Andes. Close by stood the only mountain on the centre-line of our planet that has a snowbound summit all year round. It seemed to me as odd as it would be to come across penguins in the Sahara!

Welcome to Ecuador’s stunningly beautiful ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’ where there’s no spring, summer, autumn, winter but only wet season and dry season.

Our arrival in the capital city of Quito could not have been more spectacular as the plane threaded its way past towering peaks, banked steeply and landed at the airport, which is set in a narrow valley right in the city suburbs.

The view of this fascinating metropolis, clinging precipitously to its steep hillsides was as breathtaking as the thin mountain air that had me gasping for breath and feeling dizzy.

I was lucky. It took me just a day to acclimatise where others suffer ongoing altitude sickness.

Quito was full of pleasant surprises. I already knew that it had become the first ever UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its extensive and painstakingly restored Spanish Colonial old town, but I wasn’t expecting it to have such a thoroughly modern side to its nature. Chic boutiques, plush shopping plazas, trendy bars, hip nightclubs, gourmet restaurants and quality hotels are present in abundance.

There’s an air of growing affluence, with a burgeoning middle class. It’s true some of the trucks are wrecks but most of the cars snared in the endless flow of traffic seemed fairly new.

It might seem an odd observation to make but in a land where art and artists are held in high esteem, I was impressed most of all by the quality of packaging design, even for the most everyday items.

Crime rates are low, the people are friendly and English is widely understood while the banknotes used are US dollars.

You’ll be walking up and down a succession of dizzyingly steep, narrow, die-straight streets, so it makes sense to kick off with an easygoing first day, for which the delightful Hotel Patio Andaluz – luxurious traditionalism set around a glassed-over central courtyard – makes a perfect base.

Start your city tour next day with one of the jewels of South American Baroque architecture – the magnificent La Compañía Jesuit church, whose intricately carved altars are covered in gold leaf.

Set within the meticulously restored Casa del Alabado, which dates back to 1671, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art pays testament to Ecuador’s millennia old human history.

Skills that have been handed down through the ages can be witnessed at the Escuela Taller (‘Workshop School’) run by he Quito School of Art in an old hospital.

Set right on the main square, the appropriately named Hotel Plaza Grande looks across to the presidential palace. It’s Quito’s fanciest boutique hotel. Ecuador is the world’s second largest source of prawns and in the Grande’s elegant restaurant they come big, fat and succulent, marinated in lime juice and served as a ceviche – the vegetarian version of which is based on succulent palm hearts.

Seafood specialities are also the gastronomic cornerstone at La Nuestra, in the heart of modern Quito’s business district, but the best of the several dishes on the ceviche theme that I enjoyed was at La Choza in the La Floresta district.

Take time to visit the Botanical Gardens, whose hot-houses boast 500 varieties of orchid,

Most UK visitors spend a couple of days in the capital then high-tail it for the Galapagos Islands. I headed instead for the Mindo cloud forest, renowned for its butterflies and hummingbirds. Just north of the Equator, the crater of the dormant Pululahua volcano is regarded by the locals as ‘the navel of the earth’. Close by, visit the El Pahuma private nature reserve. From there I took a bumpy back road to Bellavista, a delightful reserve and lodge straddling a narrow ridge deep in the forest, with accommodation in brick and wood outbuildings, with thatched roofs and a plethora of feeders for the hundreds of hummingbirds.

At the Equator itself, the lie was given to Stephen Fry’s assertion on ‘QI’ that the direction in which the water flows down a plug-hole is not determined by which hemisphere you happen to be in – or perhaps they made it happen by mirrors.

At least, this and other physics demonstrations were light relief from the display of genuine shrunken heads from Ecuador’s portion of Amazonia.

Lunch was taken with the gracious owner in the spacious antiques-filled manor house at the amazing La Compañía flower farm, one of the world’s largest producers of cut roses.

Then it was out to the Hacienda Zuleta – where this story began – to ride horses and visit the condor sanctuary, where I saw seven of these magnificenr birds riding the thermals in the wild, before spending a night in Spanish Colonial splendour, dining magnificently before relaxing at the fireside and learning more about the current owner’s forebears and their colourful role in Ecuador’s history.

Otavalo’s street market, the largest in South America offered all manner of high-quality souvenirs, from Panama hats – actually an Ecuadorian invention – to ponchos, alpaca knitwear and rugs, Indian jewellery and myriad handicrafts.

My final night was spent 10,000 feet up at the Papallacta Thermal Springs Resort, just two hours’ drove from beckoning Quito. Infinitely varied scenery, a rich colonial heritage, great cuisine, quality accommodation and a warm welcome – Ecuador has it all.

For more info go to www.visitecuador.com.ec