I have but a hazy memory of my first visit to Andean Ecuador’s mysterious, cloud-forest-shaded eastern flank. Well it was 1982, the Falklands crisis hadn’t happened yet, and back-packing through Latin America was still a trail-blazing affair. I do remember embarking on a rickety bus, my pack perched on the roof, to travel along very bumpy road between mist-shrouded cliffs heading down, down from the Andean highlands towards the Amazon jungle to end my journey in dozy Misahualli: a shambolic river port way off the as-yet-undeveloped tourist radar.
Little did I know then that I’d be back 36 years later travelling the same route under my own steam, in an all-mod-cons car purring along a newly paved road, with much the same destinations in view. In some ways, the experience turns out to be similar: not much has changed along this route: range after range of remote, craggy mountains offer refuge to just a few settlements and seemingly inaccessible farmsteads clinging to the near-vertical, bottle-green hillsides. The old feeling of isolation and the anticipation of adventure is very much present. Although there’s still very little traffic, the vital difference can, however, be summed up in one word: asphalt.
Ecuador is a tiny country, so you’d think it would be easy to get to know most of it easily and in a short time. But the geography is tortuous, and, once you head away from the main sights along the Avenue of Volcanoes and the northern lakes circuit, in a very short while you’re gratified to discover a different, sluggishly-paced world of little-changing custom and tradition. A voyage of discovery of just over a week on empty roads with your own hire car, exploring a region only recently opened up with the coming to fruition of the government’s ambitious policy to expand and pave the road network, this is a wonderful opportunity offered by Journey Latin America in collaboration with our partners in Ecuador. With GPS, Wifi, copious tip-laden notes and pre-booked accommodation, you travel with security and peace of mind, exhilarated by the knowledge that you have the freedom of the road at the fingertips on your wheel.
Instead of taking the main four-lane highway south from Quito I head uphill out of the volcanic basin in which the capital city lies to the tangled, knotty, cloud forest which characterises the chilly highlands over 3,000m. Mist swirls in veils across the road, the traffic fades to a trickle, birds of prey hover above. But it’s only an hour’s drive to my first stop, the Termas de Papallacta, a delightful hot springs resort where I plunge into one of a number of well-maintained steaming pools of soothing mineral waters, followed by a nutritious lunch and an hour’s walk where my guide discovers the tiniest of orchids hiding shyly under huge waxy leaves. Invigorated, it’s on down to San Isidro, still cloud forest but more lush, to stay at isolated Cabañas San Isidro, a congenial birding lodge with amazing views yawning down towards the Amazon. With a decking area replete with bird feeders you could spend a day mesmerised by the fluttering of hummingbird wings, but there’s so much more – forest walks among giant vine-stifled trees, a swim in a gorgeous heated pool with sunset jungle vistas, and even cookery lessons, all which spice up a day of wildlife-watching expeditions. I find myself in congenial and unexpected company: it’s here I meet the Minister of Culture for Quito, who’d turned off down the lodge’s lumpy, rocky drive on a whim, and who tells me it is his dream to win a Hay Literary Festival for his capital (I myself live in Hay-on-Wye).
After a couple of nights here I continue my lonely road down to Amazonia proper, the cold-resistant foliage relenting in the face of a wall of humidity and mutating into a juicy, tropical rainforest. First port of call is Santa Rita, a small town specialising in cocoa production, and the source for the Pacari chocolate sold by your local Waitrose. I am to meet my guide for the cocoa tour at a roundabout: what could possibly go wrong? I’ve been told to look out for a lad in a black and white T shirt, however on arrival it seems the whole of Newcastle United’s fan base is lingering there – but not Eric, my guide. Well, it transpires he is waiting at the wrong roundabout, but we soon happily meet up for the interesting community tour of the cocoa production process.
Driving on past the busy river port of Tena I continue to upmarket Hamadryade Lodge, a French-inspired haven of peace and good taste. It’s small – just a handful of spacious cottages with forest views set in exuberant gardens – so I soon get to know the knowledgeable and helpful staff who help me choose from a menu of activities including white-water river rafting (Ecuador’s best rafting opportunities are just down the road), jungle hikes, visits to local indigenous communities, canoe trips on a wildlife rich lagoon and a visit to an animal rescue centre). But there’s still time to enjoy the pool and relax with a cocktail in the cosy bar. For me one of the best experiences is a revisit to Misahualli, just a few kilometres’ drive away, where I discover that the town has changed not one jot since my first visit – I reckon I could still identify the bar where drink-fuelled naughtiness may or may not have occurred. Virtually vehicle free, with simple one-storey houses crouching beside a quiet river beach and wild monkeys running riot in the main square, it’s like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at his most realistically magical.
From here it’s a visit to an ethnobotanical gardens managed by a welcoming Californian guy with a shaggy beard big enough to accommodate a thousand hummingbirds; a pre-booked riverside lunch and then a slow drive back up to the Andes proper, a spectacularly beautiful mountain road scarred by a myriad of tumbling waterfalls. This leads to the pleasant spa resort town Baños, which has grown magnificently since my 1980s visit, and now offers a range of gravity-defying adventure activities you can have a go at (I didn’t). The drive back north now re-engages with the famous Avenue of Volcanoes – it’s weird to see traffic again - but not for long, as I enter the Cotopaxi National Park to visit the snow-line of Ecuador’s most iconic volcano, Cotopaxi, at 5,879m an impossibly symmetrical snow-mantled cone. To my good fortune it’s drenched in icy sunshine, and I manage to negotiate a tricky road to park within touching distance of the ice (well, not exactly, it’s an hour’s gruelling climb in rarefied air to get to the fringes of the snow at 4,800m – the views from the car parking area are just as good).
Following a night at a charming rustic lodge just outside the park, I take a little used country road back to Quito, the original artery before the main highway south was built. The tranquil cobbled road undulates between dairy farms and dark forests, cattle and cowboys are more frequent companions than other cars and there’s a bucolic delight around every corner. Then Quito’s chaotic traffic suddenly shows up, to say the least a bit of a shock to the system…
There are daily flights to Guayaquil and Quito with KLM via Amsterdam.
Flying to most major cities in Latin America and offering a choice of 17 UK departure airports, KLM are one of our preferred partners. See the map for their comprehensive flight network.
Destinations in Latin America served by KLM
Holiday to Ecuadorian Andes:
Follow in Claire's footsteps on our 10-day Self-drive Andes: Back road of the Andes holiday.