Leaving Quito behind, I head for the mountains, which serve as both the backbone and the backdrop of the Andean culture. It’s hard to overstate the influence of these peaks upon the people here, who project personality traits on them and speak of them as if they were family members, using the Quechuan words for mother (mama), father (tayta), elder (rucu), and child (guagua) before the volcanoes’ names. The locals have tucked their tiny towns into the folds of the skirts of these temperamental mountains.
Florencia, my guide, asks our driver, David, to take us to Otavalo, a town with a world-famous open-air market and which serves as the administrative center for the indigenous people. Otavalo sits in the shadow of the Imbabura volcano.
The market is buzzing with activity. I pick through hand-woven wool sweaters and intricately embroidered linens. I smell the fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables that fill the stalls. I hear the braying of goats and sheep, but I’m surprised by the squeals of guinea pigs. I ask Florencia about them, and I am told that because of their high protein content, they are staples of the Andean diet.
The highlands are full of mystery and legend. I walk over to a man who has some beautiful oil paintings. In broken Spanish, he tells me about the legends depicted in his pictures. Next to him is a huddle of alpacas. I peer into the hazel-colored eyes of one, and I’m struck by the thought that it understands this place far better than I ever will.
Next, we travel to Hacienda La Compañía, whose history dates back to before 1660. The hacienda’s owners cultivate roses, among other endeavors.
I tour their rose farm and encounter giant blooms sitting atop perfectly straight stalks that are six feet tall. Florencia explains that the Ecuadorian sun sits perfectly in the center of the sky, like a lightbulb on a ceiling, so the roses grow straight up, never needing to bend in search of sunlight. This variety is bred specifically for the Russian market, which pays a pretty penny for the roses.
I’m still thinking about the giant roses when we arrive at Parque Cóndor. The condor (whose name is derived from the Quechuan word kuntur) is a vulture with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. I don’t usually think of vultures as majestic, but in flight, condors are majestic and incomparable. It’s no small wonder that the native peoples associated it with Inti Raimi, their sun god.
We soon arrive at Hacienda Pinsaquí, where Hector, the manager, is waiting for us. He greets each guest personally and provides a tour of this exceptional hacienda, where I find the best of both worlds. The bucolic setting, with its rustic gardens and ancient buildings, transports me to a place where time is measured by sunrises and sunsets or the phases of the moon. Yet, if I want, I can walk out of my room and connect to the world via Wi-Fi.
Instead, I stroll through the gardens and walk to the stables. Afterward, I retire to my room and snack on fruit and herbal tea, which Teresita brings me. It’s chilly, and I pull the covers over me and nestle into the bed. Soon, Teresita returns carrying two hot-water bottles for me -- they are for keeping my feet warm. She lights the woodstove, says good night, and turns out the light. Through the large windows, I can see the garden shimmering in the silvery glow of the Andean moon. Before nodding off to sleep, I decide I’ll meet the dawn on horseback, riding on the hills flanking Imbabura.
Later the next morning, we say goodbye to our gracious host and head back to Quito. But on the way, we stop in Cotacachi. Named after the volcano that overlooks it, this lovely little town produces excellent leather goods and sells them at very reasonable prices. While here, I hear about a nearby island that’s inhabited by giant guinea pigs -- a definite must-see. So David drives us to the base of the Cotacachi volcano. From there, a short but steep ride up ends at a mirador (scenic overlook) at the edge of a large crater lake that’s as still and as blue as the midnight sky and just as cold. It’s achingly beautiful. Cuicocha, island of the guinea pig (cui is the local word for guinea pig), sits in the middle of the lake. To protect the guinea pigs, the island is now off limits to everyone except forest rangers.
We continue on our journey and reach the outskirts of Quito. There, we visit the Museo de Sitio Intiñan (intiñan is the Quechuan word for middle of the earth). The museum is more like a park, with its exhibits showcasing the various cultures of Ecuador. I’m intrigued by the exhibit of the funeral rites of the Quitus, who were buried in clay pots instead of in coffins. The exhibit of the tsantsas (shrunken heads), a now-extinct custom of the Jivaro, a people of the Ecuadorian rain forest, is creepy but fascinating.
The next morning, I head out on my own and take the Quito Teleférico, a cable-car system, to a lookout station on Rucu Pichincha, where the elevation exceeds 13,000 feet. The air is light and chilly. The little shops sell té de coca, a tea made with dried coca leaves. Used for thousands of years to help with the effects of elevation, it tastes a bit like green tea, only with a hint of licorice.
I join a group that’s paired with a friendly and knowledgeable guide and make the two-hour hike to Rucu Pichincha’s crater. The experience of standing on a “living” mountain is humbling. Rucu Pichincha is an inactive volcano, but I have a slight moment of panic when I realize that I have no idea if inactive and extinct are interchangeable terms. As I head back to the lookout, I take in a stunning view of Quito.
I then return to Quito, where I want to experience the Ciclopaseo (cycle path). Every Sunday, from nine a.m. to three p.m., nearly 15 miles of city streets are closed to all but bicycle traffic. I rent a bike and ride over to the Hotel Plaza Grande in the Plaza de la Independencia. Sitting kitty-corner to the Presidential Palace, the Plaza Grande has transformed itself from a majestic turn-of-the-century structure into an opulent boutique hotel. In its café, I linger over each bite of my meal while listening to romantic music performed by a roving yet unobtrusive trio of skilled guitarists and tenors.
The music continues to play in my head as I make my way to the airport to board my flight to Guayaquil.