Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Antisana, Tungurahua—the jaw-cracking, eye-chart names thunder from the map with the grandeur of the 6,000-meter, snow-capped volcanoes most of them are, staking out the spine of the Ecuadorian Andes, some of the world’s finest scenery. Indeed, no fewer than 11 such nevados may be seen on a clear day from the Latacunga valley south of the capital, Quito, half their height and blessed with an almost unchanging climate of perpetual spring. For the past decade my wife and I have annually visited Ecuador and found it as visual feast. It has the advantage of almost no tourism at all, beyond the usually serious groups going from the port of Guayaquil, the least-attractive place in the country, to the wildlife preserve in the Galápagos Islands 600 miles off its shores. Above all, Ecuador is peopled by an astonishingly friendly peasantry. Un-self-conscious in national costume, they go about their daily chores. By South American standards, there is a minimum of vendors, drug-dealers, hustlers, and petty thieves. It makes for sumptuous motoring.
Traveling by car is the best way to see the country. There is a single-track railroad which winds scenically north to south, but it’s a fairly tough ride, except perhaps for the occasional young backpacker (who all seem to gather, for some reason, at the inland spa called Baños, which means a “John” as well as a “bath”). Ecuador has oil in the interior, and gas is risibly inexpensive, one U.S. dollar recently buying four gallons and taxis in Quito starting at a few cents. Even so, bus drivers complain, and a recent strike that had the roads sprinkled with miguelitos (three-pronged nails guaranteed to sink into any tire) forced us to hold up in the north at a hacienda full of horses. We were not unduly incommoded. There are seven million people in Ecuador, almost every one of them on horseback; I was taken out, across reasonably rough country (involving jumping), by an 84-year-old Indian or a little girl of eight or a combination of the two.
Quite simply, Ecuador is superbly provincial. It is mainly an agricultural country getting on with its own business, untroubled by so many woes of the outside world. It lacks sophistication, and, as applies in most of South America, forget about high gastronomy. Even so, a north-to-south drive can involve staying at several handsome colonial properties, now restored as hotels, dating back to the 17th century. The northernmost of these, not far from the Colombian border (heavily policed), is Chorlavi, a fine hacienda with rooms and a pool. South of it (an hour from Quito) is the Cúsin hacienda, whose site by the San Pablo lake surpasses that of Cumberland and is far less inhabited; Cúsin, where Bolivar spent a night, was recently bought by an energetic Australian and his lovely Quiteña wife; its flagged stairs and passages are enhanced by ecclesiastical artifacts of quality, and the owners’ hospitality is such that you feel more of a country-house guest than a hotel client. Like everything in Ecuador, it is absurdly cheap.
An hour south of the capital, near Latacunga, the 17th-century property of the Marquis of La Cienega has now been converted into a hotel with 12 rooms. With its sunny patios, fountains, and pepper-tree walkway, this is an architectural gem but, at least on my last two visits, a gastronomical disaster. It boasts its own family chapel with a vast bell cast for the Virgin of the Rosary after seven eruptions of nearby Cotopaxi had spared the estate in the 18th century. Needless to say, at such places there are all the horses you want to ride.
Southwards stretches rolling Tyrolean countryside of great charm and scant population, most of the traffic hiving down for Rio Bamba (a boring place that belies its exotic name), Ambato, and eventually Cuenca, which is a fairly intact Spanish colonial town. The roads are reasonably good, notably the panamericana, though nothing like those in Chile or the Argentine; they are, however, poorly marked, when at all so, and frequently abruptly end. Local motoring maps are hopeless, and the few police in evidence are often as ignorant of road conditions as the nearest peasants who travel in slow buses. In the first half of 1983, 12 feet of rain fell near the village of Chunchi and buried alive some 200; more or less the whole hillside came down and is still being repaired so that you have to time your trip to get through at noon, when bulldozers clear a track. Baños, where a modest room with three beds cost us less than $10, leads to some spectacular gorge scenery at Puyo and on to the jungle proper.
All these towns have, of course, bustlingly authentic markets, thronged with Indians and derby-hatted matrons presiding over shiny vegetables, simmering pots, and doomed poultry. Few tourists and no pestering or pickpocketing. All the same, most of these markets are for viveres or daily living. We were recommended to visit Saquisili but found it an unattractive sprawl of a town offering mostly cheap factory goods and kitchen utensils. Unlike Peru, Ecuador does not really have a strong, tasteful folk art (except, perhaps, the market at Otavolo in the north, which specializes in cheap ponchos and woolens). At nearby Cotacachi you can pick up leather goods for a quarter of their Fifth Avenue prices, but Ecuador still sells mainly to itself, not to tourists, while local attempts at fine art, in the form of wood carvings or ornaments made of bread, struck me as indescribably ugly and un-Ecuadorian.
Twenty-five kilometers from Cuenca, beside the river at Paute, Ecuador’s only luxury resort opened in 1982. We were the first guests of the Hosteria Uzhupud, created around a ruined rum factory of some antiquity and offering tennis, swimming, racquetball, sauna, horses, chapel, and cock-fighting pit. The genial manager, quite the tallest Ecuadorian I have seen, showed us to a large double room costing $20 (without meals). On our last visit he had left and the place gone into decline, being for some reason overrun by a group of German schoolchildren.
Striking out west towards Ecuador’s Pacific coast may depend on the rental of a four-wheel drive vehicle. Towns like Quevedo, set in banana fields, are really no more than route centers, run-down conglomerations of characterless stores redolent of Graham Greene at his worst. The coast beyond is mostly dirty and sad, though at Bahia, an otherwise desolate spot on the south side of an inlet, a small hotel (the Herradura) had unexpectedly exceptional food, perhaps due to the Americans and Japanese coming in from their shrimp farms along the estuary. The interior decorator, who must have studied Dada, had gone in heavily for Victorian ironmongery painted dull black. Navigating the corridors to our room at night and being clouted by some old sewing machine or flat iron, I found myself longing for radar. I suspect the same Olde Iron hand to have done the decor, too, at the pleasant Rumpibamba hotel at Salcedo in the center of the island, where we found a group of cheerful Brits comfortably quartered as they sold arms to Ecuador. There were, in fact, more English about than expected—they can’t get into the Argentine, don’t forget—and dart boards were common in bars.
North of scruffy Quevedo lies Santo Domingo, another road hub, this one an easy and lovely mountain drive from the capital. It has become something of a tourist trap thanks to the nearby settlement of Colorado Indians, who paste their hair and faces with red mud. I did not find their enclave especially edifying nor their chief, when I met him, sober. There is a similar isolated group of Cayapa Indians in the north, but of the nearest hotel or lodging to them the excellent South American Handbook cautions, “We have been warned of sexual attacks by the owner.” Caveat emptor.
A few minutes out of Santo Domingo, a now elderly Ecuadorian, Sefior Tinalandia, married to an equally elderly and delightfully eccentric white Russian aristo, owns a vast property either side of a trout stream. The inconspicuous roadside restaurant, or mess shack, of his name hardly commends itself, but an overnight stay in one of the log cabins high up on idyllic tropical parkland behind is well worth the price of admission. This is grandiose, isolated Andean country, and on it the owner had created an astonishing 18-hole golf course, whose hazards include his horses bathing in lily ponds. “For whom?” I asked him. “For myself,” he replied gruffly. However, Tinalandia is booked solid most weekends, our cabin having been occupied every Sunday for the past 20 years by a dentist from the capital.
But Quito is the pearl. Sprawling across the equator in a magnificent setting, unsullied by suburbs, it is divided between the intact colonial Quito annually whitewashed and belonging to the Indians and the modern part with its shopping malls or centros commerciales common to most South American cities. There are none of the slums that so disfigure Lima or Caracas.
Old Quito is a grouping of superb baroque churches and convents, rivaling the best of Mexican churrigueresque. On the central Plaza de la Independeneia stand the National Palace and Cathedral where Marshal Sucre, architect of Ecuadorian independence, is entombed. But the two principal places of worship are the 16th-century San Francisco, on the square of that name, and the Jesuit Compañia around the corner, begun in 1605. Both are marvels of colonial baroque, all red and gold; the latter, with its fantastic Legarda altar, is one of the finest such colonial examples in South America.
No one can say the faith is dying in Ecuador. There are 86 churches in Quito alone, and those we visited were invariably full. We could hardly squeeze into the Compañia just after the Pope had been shot. Indeed, to see many of these polychrome interiors, we must have averaged a dozen masses a day and had our hands wrung by neighbors till we could feel them no more. In the Compañia, in particular, I saw Indian mothers not merely rubbing but scrubbing their infants’ faces against a polished log crucifix until they bawled. On either side of the central nave are shrines to saints visited by entire Indian families at a time—including their cats and dogs. (Overheard in front of one: “I burnt a big candle to you last week and you didn’t grant my wish, so I’m not buying another for you now.”) These shrines perform the role of miracle worker, adviser, and confidant at once. Even so, I was surprised, standing at the entrance to the Compañia one noon, to see a businessman step in with briefcase, sign himself, tug up his trousers, and kneel; he then dragged himself laboriously all the way up the nave to the main altar, complete with case. This was no mendicant indio triste but a collar-and-tie type, an Ecuadorian yuppie, possibly a banker, performing lunch-hour penance.
Nor should the cloisters around these churches be missed, either. Step off the busy streets of old Quito into La Merced or San Augustin and you are in another world, one of incredible quiet. “Teach us to sit still,” as T.S. Eliot had it. These places do. San Augustin contains the Chapter Hall of independence and one superbly gilded hallway leading to it.
Quito is well provided with hotels, all within 10 minutes of the airport (though a new strip is being constructed farther off). We chose the Intercontinental with its view over the lovely Guápolo sanctuary (closed to visitors) and long Cumbaya valley northward to the Gayambe volcano. To hear the cracked, 17th-century bells of the Guápolo while the Set Decorator of the universe responds to the changing hues of sunset on the snow with some finishing touches to the sky is a rare experience, indeed.
The Intercontinental, too, has a rooftop Techo del Mundo restaurant from which all this can be seen, though its food is not up to much. One does not go to Ecuador to eat, excepting king-size steaks (there are no meatless days as in Peru). Michelin would scatter few flowers around Quito, where, frankly, the best tables are often in the hands of foreigners. The restaurant of the Chalet Suisse, a hotel run by a French Swiss, has been notoriously reliable in our opinion, while an English couple, Rosemary and Peter Bailey, presently offer quite the most sophisticated menus in town at Bailey’s, which is in fact their own house. Most of these restaurants are quite small, and there is no sidewalk cafe life in Quito—you have to go to Buenos Aires for that. Ecuador has few specialties. Its seafood, sent up from Guayaquil, is excellent. Llapingachos are mashed potatoes fried with egg and breadcrumbs around a center of melted cheese. Sopa de pata is not, as some tourists seem to think, potato soup but paw soup (viz. pig’s trotter). Steaks and eggs abound, frequently in combination. Hot toasted corn—mats—is served, unpopped, with aperitifs. Remarkably inexpensive Chilean wines form the staple of most wine lists. It is not a great gastronomy. It is great countryside. We settle for that.