Ecuador is one of the world’s last sleeper hits. Think of Ecuador and what comes to mind? If walking trees, shaman ghosts, and the dance of the blue-footed boobies didn’t soar to the top, then your expectations aren’t set high enough.
Before going, mine weren’t either. But traveling without preconceptions made for a huge payoff and Ecuador surprised me differently than most other destinations. Even more so as my trip followed on the heels of the April earthquake. When many travelers were canceling their trips, I was booking my flight.
My itinerary would take me to the cloud forest to track newly keyed frog species, inside restored haciendas to learn how Andean culture is thriving, and beyond to the remote volcanic islands of the Galápagos for a stay at the islands’ most innovative safari lodge yet.
To some it may sound nuts, disruptive even, to visit just weeks after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit. But Ecuador needs travelers. Here’s why I went, and why you should, too.
Beauty begets conservation
Sky Cycling | Trees That Walk | Transparent Jungle Dwellers
The scoop: A sustainably-minded property, tucked deep in Ecuador’s Chocó jungle has done what seems so obvious, but is so hard to achieve: wed beauty with conservation. All soaring glass and right angles, outfitted in a minimalist take on nouveau art deco (nubby tweed orange recliners, slim semi-circular settees in powder pink, built-in floor-to-ceiling wooden blinds), Mashpi Lodge is visually and intellectually challenging the idea of an “eco-lodge.”
The good stuff: I spend two days in knee-high wellies and a poncho crisscrossing the jungle on foot, using Jurassic leaves as umbrellas. I peer straight through the wings of crystal butterflies and marvel at the blue organs beating beneath the skin of a transparent frog. I stand silently above the tree canopy and watch the clouds engulf Mashpi Lodge in seconds. I see more of the 900 species of birds that dwell in the Chocó than I can recount. I cycle across the sky ET-style on Mashpi’s one-of-a-kind suspension-wire sky bike, and wade through waterfall streams in the pitch black searching for bioluminescent fungi, crawling trees (trees that actually walk across the landscape on exposed toothpick-like roots), and fluorescent snakes. I trail on the heels of resident researcher Carlos Morochz, who recently identified a new species of tree frog aptly named Mashpi Torrenteer, checking every leaf underbelly hoping to catch a glimpse of one—I do.
Beyond the initial awe of waking to a private hummingbird dance outside the glass walls of my bedroom, dawn birding sessions on the rooftop, and hot tub soaks after jungle treks, I quickly recognize Mashpi is serious about advancing knowledge of Ecuador’s cloud forest. This is the stuff of National Geographic. (In fact, shortly after my visit a contributor follows in my wake. Proof.)
A movement to preserve Andean culture and revive hacienda life
Shaman Flora | Ghost Stories | Landscape With Deep History
The scoop: Travel the switchback road through fecund valleys from Mashpi to Hacienda Zuleta. As you climb into the Andes, the air shifts from humid and heavy to crisp and thin, the sky clears from slate grey to piercing blue, and the temperature settles to that of an early autumn day.
Zuleta, a working hacienda, feels unchanged from decades ago—cattle bellow in the whitewashed barns, herders gallop in thoroughbreds down cedar-lined lanes at sunrise, meals are served family-style from overflowing pots. However, beyond the pastoral charm, Hacienda Zuleta is leading the way in a vital contemporary movement to preserve Andean culture and sustain hacienda life with discerning travelers in mind.
The good stuff: On arrival I am hugged and invited into the sitting room for a cup of tea and a charcuterie board laden with heady cheeses produced on property. (Ecuador isn’t known for dairy delicacies. Zuleta is singlehandedly changing this.) A massive hearth is roaring and guests perch fireside on low-slung stools, the wood glossy and dipped from decades of use. We chat: I’m a weary traveler, welcomed to the estate as an old friend would be.
I feel this throughout my stay—from dinners with the gregarious owner, the living descendant of the Plaza-Lasso family, who has run the hacienda since 1898 and who regales us with a whirlwind of ghost stories and kin histories that rival even the most complex family trees (I’m talking 100 Years of Solitude-level entwinements), to my in-room fire stoking and the hot-water bottle warming my bed each night after a day of trail riding and trekking.
What I’m most drawn to is the liberating feeling that the hacienda complex, including the dairy, organic gardens, stables, pastures, village at the bottom of the lane where shops sell traditional Andean embroidery, and expansive surrounding acres, are free to roam. Following two days of navigating thick jungle that will swallow any novice goer, the ability to walk high into the Andes at will is that much more enticing.
I spend my days on horseback cutting through mountain passes and around pyramids dating back to 700 A.D. to the see the condors at the Andean Condor Huasi Project—a project working to protect the at-risk Andean condor population. One afternoon the community president takes me on foot to visit with a local man who has archived Andean antiques, including the delicately embroidered vests of his great-great-grandfather. What I enjoy most is shucking lava beans on his porch and watching the sun set over the Andes’ snowy peaks.
As we foot it cross country back to Zuleta, we stop every few paces to pluck plants, crushing them between our fingers and sniffing their aroma. I learn which branches, wild flowers, and leaves are used by shaman to make teas for vision quests and pastes for healing—practices that are thousands of years old.
On the final evening we do as Hacienda Zuleta’s residents have done for decades: gather around a huge bonfire in the courtyard, wrapped in blankets, sipping warm spiked ciders and exchanging stories.
A design-minded take
South America’s Finest Toquilla | A “World’s Best” Restored Mansion
The scoop: Traveling in and out of Ecuador guarantees a stop in the country’s capital, Quito. Aside from the Unesco World Heritage site listing of the colonial city center, Quito is often sorely overlooked. It’s worth a stay. It’s filled with photogenic streets that climb toward El Panecillo and open into squares housing ornate churches. Among the rambling lanes there are surprise treats including a hat maker who hand tailors the finest toquillas (aka Panama hats) in South America.
The good stuff: I arrive in Quito at night and taxi through the sometimes steep and winding streets of the colonial city to Casa Gangotena. This impeccably restored mansion has earned its spot on Travel + Leisure’s much-coveted World’s Best Hotels List for 2016. Clicking across the marble floors I admire the family portraits and grand spiral staircase, but what I really want to get to is the rooftop. The colonial city is most beautiful lit up and sparkling at night and I’ve been told an ideal vantage point for photography.
What I didn’t know before arriving is that dinner at Casa Gangotena would be the best meal during my time in Ecuador. The young master chef has embraced local ingredients including yuka, plantains, and corn and elevated them to fine dining with wine pairings sourced from across South America.
The next morning I drive to the top of El Panecillo to gaze over the entire city and wander through the various squares, but my focus for the day is on securing a handmade toquilla. The naming of the “Panama hat” is jokingly (or not so jokingly) one of Ecuador’s greatest national regrets. When I step in the hat maker’s shop, hidden on the corner of San Francisco Square, the first thing I’m told is, “don’t call it a Panama hat.” Noted. I learn how to tell the quality of a hat by holding it up to the sunlight and measuring how tight and consistent the weave is. The finest hats are so finely constructed, the weave so carefully plaited, it can be rolled and slid through a napkin ring without any harm done. I opt for the entry-level model—I’ll need it in the Galápagos!
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