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.
Country Walkers provides interaction with local people for its clients, so we stopped briefly in a highland school classroom filled with maybe a dozen 6-year-olds. The children, including one boy with a greased-up Elvis hairstyle, greeted us with bright smiles.
The maestro had the children sing two songs for us, and then he surprised us by asking if we would perform a song in exchange. Among our motley crew of semi-retired engineers and pharmaceutical salesman was a young forester from Eureka, Calif., who stepped forward for a solo. Kameron Crocker barreled out "America the Beautiful" Ray Charles style.
When he finished, the second-grade class of the Luis Wandemberg School north of Quito burst into applause. Their inquisitive eyes took in almost every detail of the middle-aged Americans standing in front of them festooned in hiking gear.
We all had the option of only hiking in the morning and after lunch jumping into a van with the luggage and heading to the next hacienda — an option I admit to choosing more than once.
Luckily I did not miss the surprise interaction we had on another morning when we were walking halfway down the rural mountainside and ran into native Indians dressed in heavy woolen clothes celebrating a baptism in the church below.
They distributed cups for a local alcoholic drink — something called "steeped from cactus" — and they motioned for us to join in the dance. They had an accordion player, a guitarist and a fiddler among their group. We exchanged smiles, accepted the drink and some among us, such as Dianne Fotiades, danced.
When the trip ended her husband, George Fotiades, said he most remembered "the proud and simple people, the earth being their living, who have pride in their customs, especially the colors of their dress.
I remember their warmth and the special feeling of being welcomed into their baptism celebration with no fear or wariness of us, rather an embrace to share their simple fun."
The last day of the trip the group stayed in the Hotel Patio Andaluz, the first boutique hotel to open in Quito's Old Town. The hotel is rich in colonial detail and comfort. Just two minutes away is Quito's Plaza Independencia and nearby that the church of La Compania de Jesus, perhaps the finest church in all of Latin America.
Joan and Roger Organ are active travelers in their 60s from Pagosa Springs, Colo.
"This was a really great vacation with amazing, spectacular scenery and beautiful people," Joan said. "The overriding memory is of feeling like Gulliver in Lilliput on many occasions and also of wanting to very much go back."
WHEN YOU GO
Country Walkers has organized walking/hiking trips worldwide for 33 years: www.countrywalkers.com.
To get there, check out Spirit Airlines, LAN or American out of Miami and Continental out of Houston.
To extend travel in Ecuador to Cuenca or the Galapagos: www.travelecuador.com.
Stuart Wasserman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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