On the northwest edge of South America, nestled between the coca capitals of Colombia and Peru, is the easy going nation of Ecuador. As the name implies, Ecuador straddles the equator. Its capital, Quito, is about one degree south of the equator, and yet, it is hardly the steamy tropical place one might naturally imagine at this latitude. On the contrary, at about 10,000 feet in elevation, Quito has a year-round spring-like climate and can be quite chilly at night.
The spine of the Andes mountains runs north-south and essentially bisects the country. They also define much of its character. Narrow, white-knuckle roads carved into steep mountain sides, combine with high elevations to make the simplest of journeys an adventure. Dramatic weather changes are common and can produce sudden storms that wash out roads with torrents of rock and mud.
This immensely rugged terrain is home to indigenous peoples descended from the ancient Inca, people who still speak Quechua and maintain many of their traditional ways. They produce exquisite woven goods of vivid color and design, are farmers, herdsmen and craftsmen. As in much of Latin America, they’ve blended introduced Christianity with more deeply rooted cultural traditions resulting in a dramatic, often bloody, iconography.
I found people in Ecuador to be very generous and eager to share whatever they had with visitors. One day I stopped to watch a crew building a trail up a steep slope for villagers in the valley to get to the highway and connect with buses. When the crew took a break, one of the workers produced a jug of local corn liquor and began pouring shots for everyone, including me. It was only about 10:00 am but I graciously accepted.
In Baños, I was fascinated by a man working taffy by throwing against a wall and stretching it out. He noticed me watching and removed a large chunk and offered it to me. I experienced many such instances of kindness and generosity in Ecuador.
Ecuador is more widely known to travelers as the country of the Galapagos, the group of islands made famous by Charles Darwin. That will have to be another trip as the Ecuadorean Andes and the indigenous cultures living there have kept me plenty busy. After all, there aren’t many places in the world where you can journey from snow-covered volcanoes to the steamy jungles of the Amazon or golden Pacific Ocean beaches in a matter of hours.