On a clear day the flight into or out of Quito, Ecuador, is stunning with snow-capped volcanoes surrounding the capital.
Ecuador has a string of 14 volcanoes that rise 15,000 feet or more, and among these mountains are hidden verdant valleys that offer a rich natural experience intertwined with history and culture.
I recently joined a Country Walkers hiking tour that started in the highlands just north of Quito. We were a group of avid American and Canadian hikers thrown together in an escorted hiking tour in the Andes of Ecuador. We walked six to 11 miles a day and then relaxed and recuperated in historic haciendas at night.
Our first lunch was set outdoors near Cayambe, a volcano that is 18,996 feet tall.
There, along a creek, I noticed a woman walking toward me tending two milk cows. She was dressed in wool clothing in a style that dates from centuries ago.
The first night we stayed in the Hacienda Zuleta, owned by a political family that produced two former presidents of Ecuador - first in 1902 and then in 1948. The oldest part of the hacienda is filled with antique furniture and a big fireplace, and all the rooms are modern and comfortable.
The hacienda is a working farm with its own dairy and egg production, so all of our food was fresh. Mornings started out with sumptuous breakfasts and exotic fruits and juices.
After breakfast we laced up our boots and set out to hike to Cubilche Volcano. The distance was about six miles, and the terrain was moderate to challenging with a (2,425-foot elevation gain and loss.
That afternoon there was an optional walk to the Condor Project — a four-mile hike that was described as easy to moderate. But instead of hiking to the Condor area we rode horses past pre-Inca Indian mounds of the Caranqui people, who were an agrarian-based culture and the original inhabitants of the Zuleta Valley from 800 until the arrival of the Incas in the late 1400s.
We saw two caged recuperating condors — the birds with the largest wingspan in the world — but we didn't see any flying free. That evening, in the last rays of sunlight, we could see off in the distance the volcano peak we had hiked that day.
Farther north we stayed in Cusin Hacienda, owned by a British teacher who married into the Philip Morris family. Each hacienda has a garden area, and at Cusin these gardens are large.
Generally we stayed two nights in each place. Our last stay was at the Hacienda Pinsaqui, located near a craft town called Otavalo. The hacienda was built alongside the old Pan American Highway — the one traversed by Simon Bolivar, who led the freedom fight from Spanish rule in the early 1800s.
These hikes were challenging, and people moved at their own pace. One guide always walked in the rear, and each guide had binoculars to help identify birds and a book to help with botany. They knew the names of all the beautiful flowers we passed along the way.
"It was invigorating," said Bill Parker, a retired college professor from Mississippi, "with all the sights of colors, landscapes, people, livestock, clean air, beautiful sky and rugged mountains. And it was joyful interacting with happy people despite a simple and difficult life."
In addition to the great physical exercise, we had some cultural interactions with the native people.