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Ecuador: Small Wonder

 Take the highest mountains outside of Asia, add English meadows, Alpine cows, and Amazonian rain forest, and mix with the Spanish and Incan cultures, and you get some idea of the extraordinary assets of the tiny country called Ecuador. Which is, says Ondine Cohane, one of Latin America’s best kept secrets

I used to ride as a child, and it’s always a happy moment when I find a well-trained horse instead of a somewhat broken trail animal. Even so, I have asked a lot of my slight gray mare on these high sierras. Her flanks still heave from the effort of climbing to more than twelve thousand feet in the thin, oxygen-depleted air. But now I’ve dismounted and am sitting in a wildflower-strewn meadow, looking out into a broad valley as she grazes contentedly. Behind me, a tent has been set up for lunch, with chilled wine already on the table. A makeshift grill throws up plumes of smoke. It’s a crazy amalgam of a landscape, with the gentle greens of the English countryside, the tall saplings of the Pacific Northwest, the high lush meadows full of Holsteins seemingly plucked from the Alps. But the odd combination of the occasional palm tree and a volcano gives a clue to where we really are. This is Ecuadorian “gaucho” country. Indian children ride bareback in bright ponchos on stocky ponies. For a day or two, I am having my Wild West experience Latin American style.

Ecuador is blessed with one of the most compelling travel destinations—the Galápagos Islands—and with proximity to another, Machu Picchu, in next-door Peru. The presence of such attractions means that while Ecuador receives a huge number of visitors, most come on pre-arranged tours and tend to do little more than stop for the night in Quito, the capital. That’s a great pity, because the mainland’s draws are considerable, unexpected, and astonishingly diverse. This tiny country about the size of Nevada manages to combine many of Latin America’s best aspects—a vibrant colonial capital, a choice of haciendas in the Andes as retreats, rare biodiversity in the rain forest, and indigenous markets and towns.

The topography never bores. At 9,300 feet, Quito clings to a narrow valley just below Pichincha Volcano. A string of volcanoes—the world’s highest mountains, outside of Asia—follows the midline of Ecuador, some snowcapped, others a lush green. A succession of mostly undeveloped beaches runs along the Pacific coast. Sierra highlands home to pastureland and herds of horses and cattle seem to be from another universe entirely. And the Oriente, a swath of Amazonian tropical rain forest, remains little explored and full of rare birds, orchids, and indigenous communities. Ecuador is one of Latin America’s best-kept secrets.

My husband and I arrive in Quito at midnight on a Saturday in desperate need of dinner. Our driver recommends Vista Hermosa, which is just around the corner from our hotel, on the top floor of a posh residential building complete with a uniformed elevator man. The restaurant’s balcony provides 360-degree views over Quito, and, ghostly white in the distance, I can see the statue of the capital’s madonna standing sentry on Panecillo Hill. Inside, couples dance to a spirited mariachi band. We order bowls of one of the country’s most popular dishes, locro (a hearty potato soup with cheese, corn, and avocado), while next to us a group of thirtysomething locals tuck into heaping plates washed down with tequila shots. After the band finishes to whistles and cheers, our fellow diners play ’60s Latin music on the jukebox. We sit there until well past two.

by Ondine Cohane

Complete Article: Conde Nast Traveler

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