center of the world: enchanting ecuador

A Capital City

Many visitors to Ecuador are laser-focused on the Galápagos Islands, but don’t sleep on mainland Ecuador. The most popular destination is Quito, the capital city in the Andes that’s sandwiched in between a ring of volcanoes. With the best-preserved historic center in Latin America, the Old Town earns its spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t be surprised if it takes your breath away — literally and figuratively. That’s because Quito sits at an elevation of 9,350 feet, which can be an adjustment coming from sea level. But you’ll also inhale deeply at the beauty of the buildings, particularly a trio of churches: the oldest, San Francisco, which dates back to the 1530s; the ornate La Compañía, filled with a stunning amount of gold detailing; and the neo-Gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional, designed by a French architect but not lacking in local inspiration (look closely and you might notice the “gargoyles” are iguanas, pumas, and boobies).

To get a bird’s-eye view of the city, ascend with the TelefériQo Cable Car. From way up here — now you’re at 13,000 feet — you can take a horseback ride, go for a hike, grab a bite from a cafe, or swing in the clouds for a picture-perfect photo. When it’s clear, multiple volcanoes line up to wave hello.

The Center of It All

The equator passes through 13 countries, but Ecuador is particularly proud of this designation. (It is the basis of the country’s name, after all, and Quito also translates to “center of the world.”) To stand straddling the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, head north of Quito’s center to Mitad del Mundo, or the Middle of the World. You’ll find two main attractions here. The first is a large monument that sits on the spot where a 1730s European expedition pinpointed the equator. Modern GPS devices have told us they were a bit off, but that doesn’t stop visitors from lining up for an iconic photo. Nearby, the Intiñan Museum proclaims to truly be at the equator. Here, you can peek into life-size dioramas of indigenous communities throughout the country, as well as take part in a number of interactive demonstrations that show physics phenomena, like the Coriolis effect. If you can balance an egg on the head of a nail — supposedly easier at the equator — you’ll earn a signed certificate of your mastery.

Practicing Preservation

Just south of Quito but feeling a world away, the Bombolí Cloud Forest is a magical, ecologically complex place where orchids sprout around every corner and ferns grow to a giant size. A sweet Ecuadorian couple, Oswaldo and Marianita, came here more than 40 years ago with the sole goal of preserving the natural surroundings. Now, they host volunteers and visitors who are interested in learning more about the area they love so much. Oswaldo emphasizes the importance of observation and practical experience, saying he prefers to enjoy nature rather than study it. But there’s no doubt he’s a citizen scientist who intimately understands every square inch of his home. He’s fond of handing out seeds to visitors to plant while out on a walk — doing so helps them feel a part of it all, and he firmly believes that education is the key to stopping the destruction of habitats.

For her part, Marianita excels at using the organic ingredients from the land to make memorable meals. Don’t miss the marmalade in flavors like blackberry and chamburo, or the handmade caramel that’s painstakingly stirred by hand about 7,000 times per batch. (Oswaldo recalls a story where after triumphantly reaching 7,000 stirs, Marianita said it wasn’t done yet and he was dejected. Fortunately, three stirs later, she declared it perfect.)

Oswaldo’s life philosophy is that plants (and people) need just three things: agua, comida, amor. (Water, food, love.) All of those are in large supply on their lovely slice of land.

Sleep Well

There’s no shortage of places to stay in Quito, where you’ll find most of the major hotel chains and lots of independent boutiques. Outside the city, there are fun options like Casa Ilayaku, a villa set high atop a hill. Owner Marco has transformed his grandfather’s farmland into a modern sanctuary with panoramic views, an orchard for strolling, a restaurant with delicious dishes, and the omnipresent background buzz of birds chirping. Near Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes (and quite photogenic with a nearly perfectly symmetrical cone), Hacienda Hato Verde is part of an antique dairy farm. Today, the restored farmhouse sports plush bedding, cozy common areas, and an array of friendly animals.

Good Eats

Ecuadorians adore soup, and one of their favorites is locro de papa, a creamy potato stew that comes with avocado and cheese. Even their ceviche style is more soup-like than you’ll find in other countries — here, the shrimp-based specialty is eaten with a spoon and often served with plantains and popcorn. For a traditional drink, warm up with canelazo, a hot alcoholic beverage with flavors of cinnamon and orange.

If You Go

Intrepid travelers can get around Ecuador on their own, but it can be helpful to have a guide, particularly if you don’t speak fluent Spanish. I used local tour operator Galacruises Expeditions to arrange my mainland activities. Conveniently, the official currency is the U.S. dollar, but bring small bills — it can be hard to get change for anything above $20.

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