Discovering Ecuador's Hidden Gems

Athough a tiny country, a similar size to the American state of Wyoming, Ecuador has been described as a ‘mini South America’ due to it encompassing all the exotic features offered from this fantastic continent. A country brimming with micro climates, 1,600 bird species and more than 17,000 species of plant, Ecuador is the most bio-diverse region per square feet in the world. While many know Ecuador as the entry point for visiting the Galapagos Islands’ incredible wildlife landscape, described by Darwin as an alternative planet during his five week stay, there is plenty on the main land to captivate you, as I discovered on a recent trip.


The Dizzying Heights of Quito

Once I had adapted to the head-spinning altitude of the world’s second highest capital city, I set off for a scenic tour of Quito starting at the Virgin Mary statue placed on top of the hill El Panecillo. Perched above the city, 3,016 metres above sea level, the views stretching out in front of you are stunning; a beautiful and exciting way to view the city you are about to explore.

The sights continued to fascinate and inspire me as I explored this historic city visiting the San Francisco Cathedral, where daily masses are held every hour on the hour, the beautiful courtyard of the neighbouring convent and the Plaza Grande hotel, the city’s first luxury hotel.

Walking up and down the streets of Quito, I worked up quite an appetite. Desperate to satisfy my sweet tooth craving with some of Ecuador’s famous chocolate I paid a visit to the Khipus Chocolate shop. This little gem, slightly hidden and down one of the city’s oldest streets the narrow La Ronda, is a must for all chocolate and coffee lovers. A charming and friendly establishment, you can sample chunks of the many varieties of chocolate before you buy; a brilliant way to make the most of your fastening metabolism due to the high altitude. I enjoyed a rich coffee made with beans from the Galapagos Islands while marvelling at the huge and exotic array of tasty treats, from passion fruit chocolate to giant empanadas.
Every Monday, while a lot of the museums close, you can view the weekly changing of the guard at 11am at the Plaza Grande. The ceremony is attended by either the President or Vice President of Ecuador, watching from the balcony of the Presidential Palace the guards’ band parade around the Plaza. Each week a group of school children are selected to sing the National Anthem and a second national song of Ecuador. Joining the crowds of people cheering and watching the ceremony is a wonderful authentic experience of Ecuadorian community.

The Journey into the Cloud Forest

After exploring the delights of Quito I left city life behind, the cobblestone streets and the maze of colonial buildings, for the cloud forest. Although I was charmed by Quito I was excited to arrive at the cloud forest and see for myself this bio-diverse region. During the five hour journey we had two pit stops; one at a small bakery where our guide bought a selection of pastries, the other at the Tulipe Archaeological Site.
A group of eight stone pools of various shapes, while this site is shrouded in mystery with its exact uses and history unknown it has dispelled a couple of myths about the Yumbo people. The symmetrical alignment with the equator and the astronomical significance of the positioning of the pools indicates the Yumbo people were more advanced than previously thought. A fascinating look into this little known society, who lived between 800 and 1660 AD in the mountains surrounding Quito,  the Intreptation Centre educates visitors on what is known about the Yumbo people.
I had been warned the journey from Quito to the cloud forest reserve was a bumpy one. However it was only really the last 45 minutes I spent skipping over a multitude of pot holes through the growing trees, driving slowly through shallow creeks and poking my head out of the car window to photograph small waterfalls before arriving at my destination. 

A Luxury Cocoon in the Clouds

Whatever discomfort occurred during the bumpy ride was quickly dispelled with my arrival at the Masphi Lodge. The friendly staff welcomed me with a thick fruit cocktail instantly taking care of my bags and introducing me to their modern oasis-in-the-forest. Describing themselves as a ‘luxury cocoon in the clouds’, the lodge’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows enables you to see the forest which engulfs the lodge, creating a natural atmosphere of calming tranquillity.

Unsurprisingly, in a region with an average precipitation of 6000 millimetres per year, it was raining when I arrived. Thankfully the lodge is equipped with ponchos, wellies and walking sticks for guests to borrow; kitted out and prepared for a metres worth of rain, I set off with my guide Sebastian to explore the forest. Coming from the buzz and bustle of Quito, I was very aware of the sense of serenity I felt walking along the trails. With no need to rush and hurry, we took our time to examine the giant umbrella leaves, stems of walking trees, miniature orchids and trickling streams. The forest’s huge number of bird species, over 200, was evident with toucans, quetzales, hummingbirds and cuckoos sitting on the branches watching us trek through the jungle.

The most spectacular experience for me was the night walk. After dark the forest becomes alive as the tarantulas crawl out their holes, tiny frogs leap from leaf to leaf and snakes meander through the branches. Just before we headed back to the lodge for the evening, Sebastian told me to turn off my flashlight and close my eyes. “Listen!” he said. I stood and heard around me the volume of the forest; all the creatures chattering, murmuring, buzzing, croaking and hissing. It’s when you hear all these different sounds of the creatures that it really hits home how many different animals, birds and insects call this forest home.

You can see some examples of our holidays in Ecuador here.

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