“Vamos, amigos, vamos!” Means it’s time to go, but we don’t want to. We are transfixed by a wisp of cloud draped over Mount Chimborazo, all pure white on crystalline blue skies, its flanks descending into rich green farmland.
We’ve been in Ecuador just three days and already this dance has played out numerous times. Not that Diego, our guide, is hurrying us. Just as often he stares at the view as well, smiling, hands on head. Diego is as frequently overcome by his country’s beauty as we are.
Right now, though, there’s an extra incentive to leave. For half an hour we’ve been transfixed by Baltazar Ushca – better known as the Last Ice Merchant – who, for half a century, has harvested the glacial ice of Chimborazo. Ushca’s lined face speaks of a different time when a small army would ascend the mountain and collect ice for sale at the bustling city markets. But now the 70-year-old is the last of his kind. His stories are fascinating, but behind us a waiting train blows its whistle. Vamos, amigos! It really is time to go.
Throughout the morning we’ve been heading deep into Chimborazo province, intimidating altitudes tamed by the diesel power of Tren Crucero (the Cruise Train) a flat-faced locomotive hauling us in easy luxury from the provincial capital Rio Bamba to Ushca’s hometown of Urbina, 3,600m above sea level.
It’s understandable that this last remaining ice merchant is found in Ecuador. The country’s geographical diversity is astounding, vertiginous mountains butting up against farmland and alpine cities. The capital, Quito, is the second-highest in the world after Bolivia’s La Paz.
Diego Jaramillo is a microcosm of modern Ecuador. He’s fiercely proud of his heritage, but welcomes foreigners and displays an expert’s understanding of the West. Over a typically generous lunch of fried empanadas and whole trout, he’ll talk about Ecuadorian history in one breath, and the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society album the next. He represents both the past and the future – and why Ecuador is such an easy place to visit.
Ecuador’s Andean mountain spine, cutting across the equator, is blistered with volcanoes, many of which are still active. Cotopaxi, the highest at almost 6,000m, is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. As a reminder, it churns out clouds of ash for the duration of our visit. It’s easy to imagine God’s hands shaping this terrain even as you walk upon it.
Quito itself is like an ant farm with the top sliced off, a modern city of some 2.6 million people going about their daily lives among towering peaks and gaping ravines. As we flew in, a gap in the mountains revealed the lights of a spectacular city that runs long and narrow, north to south. The north is primarily office buildings, but travel south and the architecture winds back to colonial times, paved streets turning to cobblestones. Old Quito, like so many South American cities, is defined by its centuries-old churches, including the 400-year-old (construction began in 1605, but wasn’t completed until 1765) Church of the Society of Jesus with its gold-leaf interior – but is dominated by the monumental neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional on its northern side, and El Panecillo hill with its giant monument of a winged Madonna to the south. The two local icons face each other across the old city, keeping watch over Plaza Grande and its surrounding religious and civic buildings – including the presidential Carondelet Palace – the epicentre of Ecuadorian power.
Diego shows us the history right in front of our eyes: ancient Incan foundations repurposed for Spanish churches and storehouses. By day, Old Quito bustles with locals and tourists, but by night it is overcome with the gentle romance of the lights laid upon its flanks. We imbibe the romance from Vista Hermosa, a popular restaurant on the city’s eastern hills, and later via the sumptuous grandeur of Hotel Plaza Grande, right next door to Carondelet Palace.
It is an easy four-hour journey from Quito to the village of Ahuano in the Amazon basin. The views change completely – from desolate 4,000m mountain passes to precipitous cloud forests with crowds of hummingbirds, and then to the Amazon Basin with its lush vegetation along the Napo River, a major tributary of one of the world’s longest waterways.
We spend the next three days zooming along the Napo in longboats, exploring the jungle on foot and getting an idea of village life with the indigenous Quechua people. We relax at night over guanabana (soursop) juice and margaritas. After dark, the river is not seen but heard, its almighty torrent sounding like the meditative drum of rain on an open field. It’s a unique bliss.
Of course, Ecuador doesn’t end there. Back over the Andes to the west, more than 900km beyond the coast, sit the inimitable Galapagos Islands, the ultimate destination on our itinerary.
This volcanic archipelago is a place that resets the relationship between man and nature. Lola, our guide on the islands, instructs us to maintain a two-metre distance between ourselves and the unique fauna we’re about to encounter. At first, this might feel like it’s for the benefit of a snap-happy Australian tourist, but we soon realise it’s the animals who want to get close.
Lola explains that the many species endemic to the islands are ecologically naive, having lost the defensive instincts they need when encountering new predators. It’s a paradigm-shifting moment when a Nazca booby or an iguana or a sea lion approaches, looking you up and down. They display no fear, simply curiosity, and it drives home the profound impact that humankind has had on the world. The windswept geography does the rest. Cloud formations blow in off the ocean, gathering on the silent volcanoes that over millions of years have pushed up from the ocean floor. From our ship moored in Sullivan Bay we look at Isla Santiago, in the middle of the archipelago. Under the moonlight it’s little more than a giant void on the near horizon. No lights, no noise, just darkness. That’s how alone you are in the Galapagos.
We fly back to Quito the following day, to be met by a grinning Diego at the gate. “How was it, my friends?” he asks. It was magic, Diego.
We wander out onto the verge of Quito’s ultra-modern international airport and breathe in the crisp smell of the city at dusk. Lights flicker in the apartment buildings across the valley. It’s a startling final reminder of Ecuador’s breadth of beauty – from the stark isolation of the Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, to the meditative bliss of the Amazon, to the bustle of cities perched high in the Andes.
Vamos, amigos! Come, it’s time to go to Ecuador!