Ecuador is an amazing country (about the size of Nevada) that proves the best things really do come in small packages. Its compact size means that in just a few hours you can be hiking on a snow-capped volcanic peak, exploring a rainforest with over 25,000 plant species and 1600 bird species or shopping for handicrafts in a colorful Inca highland market. And let’s not forget that Ecuador is the proud owner of the famous Galapagos Islands, which tops many a travel- bucket list.
Here are three suggestions for where to go:
1. The charming capital city of Quito
Perched 9,350 feet above sea level and circled by volcanoes, this cosmopolitan city offers spectacular views at every turn. The first city in the world to be declared a World Heritage Cultural Site by UNESCO in 1978, this cobblestoned, colonial capital is filled with picturesque plazas, ornate churches, palaces and private homes, some excellent new museums (over 40 in the Old Town alone) art galleries, antique stores and Michelin-caliber restaurants.
Sleep: Casa Gangotena, a newly-restored historic mansion, on the corner of historic Plaza San Francisco, in the heart of Old Town, makes a luxurious home-base for city explorations. Head to the rooftop terrace of this stunning, 31-suite, Art Nouveau (with lively contemporary accents) boutique hotel for panoramic city views. Count on the superbly trained staff to help plan a creative itinerary.
-The Dining Room
Head downstairs to Casa Gangotena’s beautifully appointed dining room to enjoy Chef Andrés Dávila’s inspired tweaks on traditional Andean cuisine. His cuy (guinea pig) is the best in town.
Don’t forget to make reservations at this popular hot-spot since the world has already discovered Chef Rafael Peréz Cambana’s incredible culinary skills, as he takes Ecuadorian food to a new ethereal level. Make things easy on yourself by ordering the chef’s nightly tasting menu (around $40) but ask him to please include one of his mouth-watering stone-crab preparations. Excellent wine list. www.zazuquito.com
You’ll find an equally talented young chef, Sebastián Villavicencio, manning the kitchen at Restaurante Coquus, once you locate this off-the-beaten-track treasure – even my taxi driver had to stop 3 times to ask for directions. Villavicencio refines classic Ecuadorian recipes by using only the finest local ingredients presented with innovative flair. Standouts from the tasting menu include: creamy corn soup with black chocolate, silken Ecuadorian foie gras terrine with cacao nibs, and flavorful cork-smoked frog legs dusted with chulpi-chocho powder. www.restaurantecoquus.com
2. Mashpi- a private cloud forest getaway
A two and a half hour drive from the bustling city of Quito brings you to the Mashpi Biodiversity Reserve, where you’ll be surrounded by acres of dense cloud forests filled with butterflies, birds and orchids. Sleep & Eat: Mashpi Lodge is still a few months away from the grand opening but they have already picked up a major design award. Constructed using the latest techniques in sustainable building and hydroelectric power the striking, minimalist eco-lodge provides a luxurious “home-base” for exploring the wonders of this 3,000-acre reserve.
The resort is perched on a plateau 3,116 ft. above sea-level on runway model-long recycled steel legs, wrapped in huge glass viewing windows with just enough wood to hold it all together. The contemporary 22 suites (three offer private Jacuzzi’s) designed by Diego Arteta, are strikingly simple yet cloud-comfy cozy. The dining room (surrounded by huge picture windows so you feel like you’re dining in the forest) will offer organic Ecuadorian cuisine using exotic ingredients from the rainforest such as naranjilla, papaya, plantains, palm heart, coffee, and chocolate. The bar will feature exotic cocktails and fine wines from Argentina and Chile).
After a guided trek with one of the naturalists, a visit to the butterfly house, climbing the observation tower for spectacular views or gliding through the tree tops on the aerial tram, guests can relax in Mashpi’s luxurious spa, which specializes in massages and treatments using earth, herbs and leaves gathered from the rainforest.
3. Stay in a centuries-old Highland hacienda
The best way to experience the culture and traditions of the Andes is by staying at one of the historic haciendas found in the Northern Highlands. One of the most prestigious is Hacienda Cusin, a painstakingly restored, 17th century estate located at the foot of the dormant Imbabura volcano, about 2 hours north of Quito. The uniquely decorated guest rooms (picture rustic, whitewashed walls, terracotta tiles, beamed ceilings, colorful Andean handicrafts and a cozy wood-burning fireplace) are spread throughout the antique-filled main house, and the newly-built-to-look-really-old, atmospheric El Monasterio. There are also a handful of charming private cottages scattered around the gorgeous garden setting.
Grab a pamphlet from the front desk for a fascinating self-guided walking tour of the property. Just a sampling of the Cusin’s activities include horseback riding, hiking the volcanoes, mountain biking, birding, and visits to a variety of craft villages, the condor preserve, or 1200-year- old pyramids.
A definite must-see is the popular Otavalo market (about a 15 minute cab ride for $5) where you’ll find a bustling craft market overflowing with stalls featuring quality handmade textiles, jewelry, paintings, pottery, clothing and Panama hats (they actually are made in Ecuador and exported to Panama). Mosey down a few blocks to the colorful farmers market, where the locals stock up on fresh produce, meat, spices, and flowers. Most Otavaleños wear traditional dress distinctive to their area, consisting of multi-hued embroidered blouses, strands of gold beaded necklaces and oversized black skirts for women, while men dress in white pants, blue ponchos, and wear their long hair braided under their black hats. So even if you’re not a shopper, the market is a photographer’s gold mine.
For more information or reservations contact:
Casa Gangotena www.casagangotena.com
Mashpi Lodge www.mashpilodge.com
Hacienda Cusin www.haciendacusin.com