Latitude zero: Ecuador
PUBLISHED: 17:01 07 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:39 20 February 2013
It's the smallest country in Latin America but has a huge amount to offer. Karen Bowerman travelled to Ecuador, to experience its volcanic landscape, colonial cities and crater lakes - all at latitude zero
Its the smallest country in Latin America but has a huge amount to offer. Karen Bowerman travelled to Ecuador, to experience its volcanic landscape, colonial cities and crater lakes all at latitude zero
It soars overhead, swoops behind a ridge and disappears, the mountain caracara, with red bill, black breast and impressive wingspan.
We were lucky to spot that, my guide, Jorge, says. For a few moments we stare into the vast, white sky but the bird of prey has gone.
We resume hiking through the Ecuadorean Andes. Above us is Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. At 5,897 metres its snow capped summit slips in and out of the mist. Jorges hacienda with its terracotta walls and thatched roof lies close to its foothills.
Dictating Ecuadors diverse ecosystem
The Andes run North to South through the centre of Ecuador. They dictate, by way of their altitude, the countrys diverse ecosystem. To the West theres the Pacific coast, to the East Amazonian jungle. And with Ecuador about the size of the UK you can drive easily in between.
But dont race around too much. Give yourself time to take in the countrys natural beauty and the friendliness of its people.
Mingle with the locals
Driveat a leisurely pacethrough the Lower Andes patchwork fields and women with bright shawls, leg warmers and sturdy shoes will look up from the dark, mineral-rich soil and wave.
Pick through chunky ponchos at stalls round the turquoise crater lake at Quilotoa and see the delight on the faces of the girls who made them. Buy an ice cream (a delicious mix of frozen milk and fruit juice) at the small town of Salcedo - before long children will approach to say hello and watch and laugh as the ice melts all lopsided on its stick.
The Centre of the World
If youre looking for a more typical tourist trail, it has to include the centre of the world - Mitad del Mundo - from which Ecuador got its name. Straddle the equatorial line with a foot in both hemispheres then worry afterwards that there are actually two - one marked out in the 18th century, the other by modern day GPS.
Haggle with traders at Otavalo market
From there take in Cuenca with its striking colonial architecture, haggle at Otavalos indigenous market (a perfect place for souvenirs) and head to Banos famous for its thermal springs. The town, wedged between the foot of Tungurahua volcano and a deep ravine, is still small and unspoilt.
The colonial capital, Quito
Quito, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is also a must-see. Gaze at the tonnes of gold leaf spread over the interior of La Compania Church or stand quietly in a corner of Carmen Alto Convent as hidden nuns sell communion wafers through a small turnstile in the wall.
Catch the city at festival time and youll be spoilt for colour, drama, and llamas - you might even find yourself joining in the street games. I was blindfolded and encouraged to smash the last piata to create a shower of Ecuadorian chocolates. I saved one for a cup of coca tea, said to help with altitude sickness, for here youre 3000 metres above sea level.
Ecuador may be the second smallest country in South America but its certainly all here: altitude, latitude, jungle, volcanoes, cloud forest and coast - all within easy reach of each other. And all under the arch of the warm equatorial sun.
BA & American Airlines fly direct from London Heathrow to Quito. KLM flies direct from London City.
Numerous tour operators offer packages to Ecuador, ranging from budget to exclusive: see www.lata.org/memberslist for details
Information on Ecuador: Ecuador Tourism office in UK: www.ecuador.travel/en/
Information on Quito: Quito tourism office: www.quito.com.ec
Hotels in Quito
Caf Cultura www.cafecultura.com: boutique hotel in centre of Quito
Hacienda Rumiloma www.haciendarumiloma.com (in the hills 5 minutes above Quito) offers luxurious eclectic/bohemian-style suites and an Irish/Ecuadorian pub!
Haciendas near Cotopaxi:
Hacienda el Porvenir, (Jorges place) in the foothills of Ruminahui Volcano www.tierradelvolcan.com. Offers trekking/horse riding/zip lining activities
Hacienda San Agustin de Callo: www.incahacienda.com on site of former Inca palace walls with fabulous views of Cotopaxi. (Offers horse riding, trekking and mountain biking)
Hotel near Banos:
Luna Runtun Spa www.lunaruntun.com Spa and hotel in Sangay National Park overlooking Banos. Hotel has individual chalet style rooms & private thermal pools