40 / CHRONICLESnLetter FromnEcuadornby Geoffrey WagnernThe Middle of the WorldnChimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Antisana,nTungurahua — the jaw-cracking,neye-chart names thunder from the mapnwith the grandeur of the 6,000-meter,nsnow-capped volcanoes most of themnare, staking out the spine of the EcuadoriannAndes, some of the world’s finestnscenery. Indeed, no fewer than 11 suchnnevados may be seen on a clear day fromnthe Latacunga valley south of the capital,nQuito, half their height and blessed withnan almost unchanging climate of perpetualnspring. For the past decade my wifenand I have annually visited Ecuador andnfound it as visual feast. It has the advantagenof almost no tourism at all, beyondnthe usually serious groups going fromnthe port of Guayaquil, the least-attractivenplace in the country, to the wildlifenpreserve in the Galapagos Islands 600nmiles off its shores. Above all, Ecuador isnpeopled by an astonishingly friendlynpeasantry. Un-self-conscious in nationalncostume, they go about their dailynchores. By South American standards,nthere is a minimum of vendors, drugdealers,nhustlers, and petty thieves. Itnmakes for sumptuous motoring.nTraveling by car is the best way to seenthe country. There is a single-track railroadnwhich winds scenically north tonsouth, but it’s a fairly tough ride, exceptnperhaps for the occasional young backpackern(who all seem to gather, for somenreason, at the inland spa called Banos,nwhich means a “John” as well as an”bath”). Ecuador has oil in the interior,nand gas is risibly inexpensive, one U.S.ndollar recently buying four gallons andntaxis in Quito starting at a few cents.nEven so, bus drivers complain, and anrecent strike that had the roads sprinklednwith miguelitos (three-pronged nailsnguaranteed to sink into any tire) forcednus to hold up in the north at a haciendanCORRESPONDENCEnfull of horses. We were not undulynincommoded. There are seven millionnpeople in Ecuador, almost every one ofnthem on horseback; I was taken out,nacross reasonably rough country (involvingnjumping), by an 84-year-old Indiannor a little girl of eight or a combination ofnthe two.nQuite simply, Ecuador is superblynprovincial. It is mainly an agriculturalncountry getting on with its own business,nuntroubled by so many woes of thenoutside world. It lacks sophistication,nand, as applies in most of South America,nforget about high gastronomy. Evennso, a north-to-south drive can involvenstaying at several handsome colonialnproperties, now restored as hotels, datingnback to the 17th century. The northernmostnof these, not far from the Colombiannborder (heavily policed), is Chorlavi, anfine hacienda with rooms and a pool.nSouth of it (an hour from Quito) is thenCiisin hacienda, whose site by the SannPablo lake surpasses that of Cumberlandnand is far less inhabited; Ciisin, wherenBolivar spent a night, was recentlynbought by an energetic Australian andnhis lovely Quitena wife; its flagged stairsnand passages are enhanced by ecclesiasticalnartifacts of quality, and the owners’nhospitality is such that you feel more of ancountry-house guest than a hotel client.nLike everything in Ecuador, it is absurdlyncheap.nAn hour south of the capital, nearnLatacunga, the 17th-century property ofnthe Marquis of La Cienega has nownbeen converted into a hotel with 12nrooms. With its sunny patios, fountains,nand pepper-tree walkway, this is an architecturalngem but, at least on my last twonvisits, a gastronomical disaster. It boastsnits own family chapel with a vast bell castnfor the Virgin of the Rosary after sevenneruptions of nearby Cotopaxi had sparednthe estate in the 18th century. Needlessnto say, at such places there are all thenhorses you want to ride.nSouthwards stretches rolling Tyroleanncountryside of great charm and scantnpopulation, most of the traffic hivingnnndown for Rio Bamba (a boring place thatnbelies its exotic name), Ambato, andneventually Cuenca, which is a fairlynintact Spanish colonial town. The roadsnare reasonably good, notably the panamericana,nthough nothing like those innChile or the Argentine; they are, however,npoorly marked, when at all so, andnfrequently abruptly end. Local motoringnmaps are hopeless, and the few police innevidence are often as ignorant of roadnconditions as the nearest peasants whontravel in slow buses. In the first half ofn1983, 12 feet of rain fell near the villagenof Chunchi and buried alive some 200;nmore or less the whole hillside camendown and is still being repaired so thatnyou have to time your trip to get throughnat noon, when bulldozers clear a track.nBanos, where a modest room with threenbeds cost us less than $10, leads to somenspectacular gorge scenery at Puyo andnon to the jungle proper.nAll these towns have, of course, bustlinglynauthentic markets, thronged withnIndians and derby-hatted matrons presidingnover shiny vegetables, simmeringnpots, and doomed poultry. Few touristsnand no pestering or pickpocketing. Allnthe same, most of these markets are fornviveres or daily living. We were recommendednto visit Saquisili but found it annunattractive sprawl of a town offeringnmostly cheap factory goods and kitchennutensils. Unlike Peru, Ecuador does notnreally have a strong, tasteful folk artn(except, perhaps, the market at Otavolonin the north, which specializes in cheapnponchos and woolens). At nearby Cotacachinyou can pick up leather goods for anquarter of their Fifth Avenue prices, butnEcuador still sells mainly to itself, not tontourists, while local attempts at fine art,nin the form of wood carvings or ornamentsnmade of bread, struck me asnindescribably ugly and un-Ecuadorian.nTwenty-five kilometers from Cuenca,nbeside the river at Paute, Ecuador’s onlynluxury resort opened in 1982. We werenthe first guests of the Hosteria Uzhupud,ncreated around a ruined rum factory ofnsome antiquity and offering tennis.n