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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