Ecuador has a much more relaxed, quiet vibe than in Colombia. Unlike the scattered tribes of the Tayrona and Muisca, Ecuador was a part of the Inca empire and tribes like the Cañari were highly developed by the time the Spanish arrived. As a result we saw far more indigenous people on the streets, their lined faces, stout frames and traditional clothing marking them out from Europeans and Mestizos.
The Inca invaded Ecuador shortly before the arrival of the Spanish, conquering some tribes while subjugating others (like the Cañari) via diplomacy. Quito became a second capital of the Inca Empire and was the birthplace of the emperor Huayna Capac. When the Conquistadors invaded Ecuador, the Inca city was razed to the ground to prevent its capture; the Spanish simply built their own city over the ruins. The general leading the Inca resistance was a colourful figure; he had a captured traitor’s bones broken and ‘removed’ before stretching him out and using him as a drum skin…
The old colonial centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and we spent a full day exploring the numerous old churches and colonial buildings. The architecture here is a strange blend of Spanish, Moorish and Indigenous styles, and the city is famous for its unique form of religious art. More recent are the hauntingly evocative paintings of Guayasamín, copies of which were on display everywhere in Quito.
In one of the extravagantly decorated churches we found the tomb of General Sucre, Simón Bolívar’s chosen successor and the man who freed Ecuador from Imperial rule. A quiet, devoted family man, Sucre was reluctant to enter the realm of politics, much to Bolívar’s exasperation. Whilst en route to his family in Quito, he was assassinated on the orders of those opposed to a united Latin America. A few metres away from his modest resting place we found the tomb of General Flores, first President of Ecuador and the man rumoured to have ordered Sucre’s murder.
After lunch we climbed a hill (surprisingly difficult in Quito – 2850m above sea level) to the massive Gothic cathedral that looms over the city centre. Built in the early 20th century, it’s walls are protected not by gargoyles, but by stone turtles, anteaters and monkeys. Wandering on, we explored a nearby park and an old Inca road, now lined by eateries and craft shops.
Our hostel ‘Secret Garden’ was a lovely Gringo hotspot with a rooftop bar that was packed until the early hours. We spent our evening chatting with an Irish couple who were travelling in the opposite direction, taking down ‘must-see’ destinations over several of the national ‘Pilsener’ beers.
The following day we ascended one of the mountains outside Quito vía Teleférico (cable car). Disembarking at the summit, we looked down on the vast city below us, which filled the wide valley between the mountain ranges. The wind was freezing, and walking at this altitude (4050m) left us light-headed and dizzy. This mountainous area is home to the Polylepis or ‘Paper Tree’, named for their paper-thin layers of bark. In the distance we could just make out the greatest peaks of the Ecuadorean Andes, although Cotopaxi (5900m) was hidden by clouds.
On the way down the mountain we chatted to a local grandad and his two US-born grandkids, who were visiting for a tour of the country. We then hopped on the coach to Mindo, two hours away along a winding mountain road.