The world in front of us has disappeared. What was once a tenaciously twisting climb through the Andes has been replaced with thick clouds. Trucks pop out randomly; our driver swerves unnervingly close to the cliff-face where white crosses stand in lieu of a barrier.
Ecuador is unlike any country I’ve ever been to. With a socialist government, American currency, some of the richest soil and longest growing season in the world, mainland Ecuador is often overlooked for the glowing Galapagos Islands.
Let me guess—you didn’t even know the Galapagos was a part of Ecuador, did you? That’s alright—I didn’t, either, until I was invited on a press trip with Copa Airlines to explore mainland Ecuador for a week.
Note: The majority of the following information was told to me by local guides as we travelled across Ecuador in a minivan. While I did my best to fact-check, I cannot guarantee the factual accuracy of pretty much any of this, beyond what I saw and experienced myself.
We begin our journey in Quito, a place known for inducing altitude sickness. Although we don’t spend much time exploring, I’m not enamored with this capital city. It feels built up, yet incredibly spread out, from the wealthy hills down to the people sitting on the side of the road selling fruit from used flour bags. As we drive, I spot nice cars and an abundance of Chevrolet trucks, but no flashy rims, just plain silver hubcaps.
We spend the night at the gorgeous boutique hotel Casa Gangotena. It feels weird to be living in luxury next to barred windows, locked gates and gang graffiti tags.
The next day, we travel to Mashpi, one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. Our van climbs through desert-like mountains and inactive volcanoes, peppered with shrubby vegetation and sparse wildflowers. Garbage lines the side of the road, along with tin fences and religious shrines.
Our guide, Santiago, talks openly about Ecuador’s education system. “Around here, there are still only a few high schools, so some kids have to walk 8 or 9 hours to school every day. They could take a bus, but it costs $1-3, and a bag of brown sugar is only 50 cents. So that’s a lot of brown sugar.”
Our minivan begins tearing down winding roads. I hold onto the handle with a mammoth grip and pop another Gravol. Clouds circle the mountains like floating halos as we make a succession of U-turns. We pass fields of sugar cane and small communities selling food from silver pots outside their homes. It reminds me of the Philippines, only with mountains instead of ocean views.
Although the roads are horrible, I wish I was on a motorbike, stopping where I want to take photos and soak in the stunning Andes.
But to be honest, two or three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to handle this drive. Even today, the scar tissue in my back knots with tension.
And then the road gets worse.
Now, it’s unpacked, all rocks and ruts, and the “scenic vista” has been smothered in pure white. Black shapes bubble behind thick clouds. We skirt down a thin dirt road between towering trees and elephant ear leaves.
We’ve arrived in the cloud forest.
After settling into our rooms – which go for roughly $1,200 Canadian per night – we take the Dragonfly cable car over the rainforest. We touch down and hike to a waterfall, which I promptly jump into.
The next day, we leave Mashpi and make the long, laborious journey to Cuenca. As we drive, Sebastian, our new tour guide, answers all of my annoying journalistic questions.
He tells me that Ecuador is very rich in recourses, but has suffered a history of corruption. The country’s main exports are:
“Oh,” I say, looking up from my notepad. “I didn’t know Ecuador had oil.”
He laughs. “That’s okay. There’s a saying about us: Ecuadorians sleep well between active volcanoes, and live poorly in a rich country.”
Finally, we arrive at Ingapirca, Inca and Cañaris ruins. It’s palpably cooler up here. We pass women wearing long polleras (skirts) made of velvet and ponchos made of sheep wool. On top of their heads, flat-brimmed white hats made of wool and cornstarch reveal their marital status: two pom-poms fill in for a wedding ring. Wear them in the front if you’re single and in the back if you’re married.
A local woman leads us through the ruins, explaining how the Cañaris worshiped the moon, women, and their 28-day cycles. Hundreds of years ago, they had queens—not kings. The Inca Sun Temple is significantly more preserved than the 1,000-year-old Moon Temple, but also younger; it’s only 500 years old. Every year, indigenous groups travel here to celebrate the solstice. On other days, they might participate in Communion. In Ecuador, this isn’t a conflict, it’s a commonality.
The mountains we wind around on the Pan-American highway look like volcanoes, because they were, once, millions of years ago. Today, terraced agriculture blankets the face of the mountains. The soil is rich in nutrients and minerals. “Everything can grow here,” Sebastian tells us. “You’ll always have something fresh and local to eat in Ecuador.”
“When the ground is dry and rain is needed, some farmers start fires, because they believe the smoke will bring the clouds. It’s hard to change the way they think, because sometimes it does end up raining after they start a fire.”
As we snake through mountainous farmland, we see two small fires blazing: one next to a river, the other next to peacefully grazing cows.
“Sometimes, they also burn down the forest to get more land to work,” Sebastian says.
The further up we climb, the more clouds overtake the road, until all we can see is white.
After a few more hours in the van, we all drop off to sleep, shifting back and forth at every turn. I think it’s just because we’re tired from getting up at 5 a.m., but Sebastian reminds me it’s also because of the altitude. We’re some 4,000 metres above sea level; higher than the summit of Mount Robson.
When I wake up, I learn that in Ecuador, it’s against the law to have a gun. There’s no hunting season, so there’s no excuse to have one. Farmers might make their own guns to ward off animals; guns, and everything else, can be found on the black market. But you’ll never see a gun store.
Minimum wage in Ecuador is $369 a month, the average is $500. Rent can be $1500 for a two-bedroom apartment in west Cuena, the expat area. You can find a nice three-bedroom house in the south-east for $450 per month.
Ecuadorians are devotedly Catholic, but also extremely superstitious. In houses, hotels and restaurants, a small agave plant purifies bad energy. In the market, traditional ladies perform cleansing ceremonies with fresh herbs.
Even Guinea pigs are used for more than just food. In the mountainous regions, people fill their houses with Guinea pigs for warmth. Ecuadorians believe that if a Guiana pig is quiet, your soul is good, but if they’re noisy, there’s something bad in you.
In Ecuador’s Amazon, there are still indigenous groups that hunt with blow darts. They no longer make shrunken heads out of the deceased, but they do with animal heads. When kids are 12 or 13, they’re left in the jungle. If they can survive and make it back, they become adults. If not…
I stare out at the misty landscape as Sebastian continues talking. I’m overwhelmed with car-sickness and the information that’s being dumped on me. It takes me awhile to comprehend the other emotion I’m feeling. I struggle to differentiate it from curiosity and wonder. And then I get it.
Despite spending almost an entire week cooped up in a van, I just fell in love with South America.
I can’t wait to go back.
Have you been to Ecuador? What did you think of it?
Where in South America should I go next?
Disclaimer: This experience was part of a press trip provided by Copa Airlines, Mintur, Mashpi Lodge, Casa Gangotena, Quito Turismo, SLT Ecuador, Tren del Ecuadour and Pro Ecuador Canada. All opinions are my own.
Planning a trip to Ecuador? Check out the Ecuador Tourism Board: https://ecuador.travel/