It had been two and a half years since I completed the adventure of a lifetime navigating the formidable Andes Mountain range by horse, traversing its rugged and desolate terrain from Argentina into Chile. I yearned for remote wilderness once again, to be nestled amongst the majestic mountain range of craggy peaks and snow capped summits, to gallop with abandon across grassy foot hills, to meander torturously through furrowed, stony land, to return to a life of simplicity, to retreat off grid where the only communication that mattered was the unspoken trust between horse and rider.
Ecuador has long been synonymous with The Galapagos Islands, a paradise of enchantment and one of the most renowned destinations in the world to offer a unique natural experience, a showcase of evolution. However, Ecuador is more than just its marine utopia, this compact country is bursting with a spectacular array of awe and wonder, a patchwork quilt of lush verdant Amazonian Rainforest, quintessential colonial towns and cities, cultural indigenous quechua villages and of course the rugged, craggy majestic heights of the Andean peaks. My adventure would take me into the remote Andes under the watchful gaze of the idyllic snow-capped summit of Cotopaxi, riding through lush valleys, across grassy plains and lava flows and into the wilderness beneath the graceful soar of the Condor.
24 HOURS IN QUITO.
I’m not a big fan of cities……usually when I travel I chose to leave pretty much as soon as I’ve entered, however I’m glad I spent some time in Quito before heading into the wilderness……aside from the practicalities of acclimatising to high altitude, Quito is a hidden jewel. Few cities in the world have as dramatic a setting as the Ecuadorian capital, cupped between towering Andean peaks and hemmed in by the snow-capped pinnacles of two active volcanoes, Quito is certainly the most beautiful capital of South America. So I hired a local guide, Richard, who used to be a Jesuit monk, and asked him to showcase Quito! Despite the fact that there are many cities in the world through which the Equator runs, Quito has become famous for it. The Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the Earth) Monument perfectly demonstrates the city of two hemispheres and despite some disagreements on the authenticity of its exact location, draws thousands of visitors each year to be photographed straddling the imaginary line that divides the world. I decided to visit the Museo de Sitio Intinan located a short distance from the monument. Home of the “true” equator and also centre for the promotion of many aspects of Ecuador’s culture, it’s an attraction that’s both educational and entertaining with fun interactive activities and exhibitions to demonstrate a number of events that occur only at the equator…..I challenge you to try and walk a straight line on the equator, just try!!!
By far the best way to appreciate Quito’s dramatic setting and mountainous landscape is from above. The TelefériQo is one of the highest gondola lifts in the world reaching 4,000m above sea level. It runs from the edge of the city centre up the east side of Pichincha Volcano. At the summit there’s a viewing platform, cafes and handicraft stalls. There is also a few mountain trails if you fancy hiking up a dormant volcano….. Pichincha is not actually accessible from the Cruz Loma platform. You can certainly feel the altitude, after a few steps of exploring the platform and a short easy hike I could definitely feel my lungs squeezing for air. That’s the thing about altitude, you never know how it’s going to affect you, you may just be slightly breathless or you may experience full blown altitude sickness, there is no way of preparing and I saw some pretty ill people trying to get off that platform as quickly as possible! The views were stunning, Quito stretched like a sprawling sea beneath us…..hugging close to each crevice and canyon, peak and pinnacle. In places it looked almost as if somebody just stretched the mountains apart, the space in between flooded with the trappings of city living, a slight haze of cloud descending over the majestic mountains added a slight sense of mystery and eeriness.
Best time to visit is in the morning, however it was just after midday when we arrived and it wasn’t too crowded…..although it tends to be less cloudier in the morning. Also don’t be surprised about the differences in ticket prices…….tickets for us “gringos” are more expensive than for locals and Ecuadorian nationals!
With over 200 Churches, Convents and Monasteries clustered in the Old Town and with a former Jesuit Monk as my guide, it was inevitable that we visited some of the religious buildings including the Notre Dame inspired Basilica del Voto Nacional and the most beautiful church in South America, the Compania de Jesus, shimmering with 23 caret leaf gold that was used to guild the building, it is the utmost expression of Baroque style in Ecuador. Despite the beautiful architecture and grand façades of these buildings, my favourite story about the Churches and Convents of Quito is of course, one of scandal……..according to legend (and Richard, my former Jesuit monk turned tour guide), during refurbishments and renovations of the overwhelmingly grandiose Iglesia de San Francisco, a number of secret underground tunnels littered with condoms were found connecting the home of the Franciscan Brothers with those of the female convents in the area………….myth or truth it’s anyone’s guess!
Fun Fact : Traffic in Quito is pretty intense despite traffic calming methods….the “pico y placa” law was enforced in May 2010 as an attempt to reduce the amount of cars on the roads by limiting the times at which certain cars can drive. Between 7:00 and 9:30 in the morning and 4:30 and 7:00 in the evening cars with license plates ending in certain digits are banished from the road. Each day is designated two unlucky digits and although many Ecuadorians complain about this restrictive law, it does appear to be working and also levels of pollutants and carbon emissions have reduced as a result.
Jet-lagged with my head swimming with information and after experiencing literally four seasons in one day (intense heat in the morning, hailstones when we got to the old town!), my whistle stop tour of Quito came to an end and Richard and I parted ways after an action packed, fun filled, laugh a minute day as I returned to my cute little boutique hotel, Café Cultura for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. Very easy to experience the best that Quito has to offer in less than 24hrs!
INTO THE WILD.
At 7.45am the following morning Sally, the owner of Ride Andes who also guides many of the trails, along with the one other rider, collected me from my hotel and so the expedition began. An incredibly inspirational and amazing woman, Sally’s life in Ecuador couldn’t be any further from her previous career…….”if my friends in Paris could see me know they’d be so shocked!” she would often say with a smile, and yes charging around the Ecuadorian Andes free as a bird atop a magnificent steed is quite the contrast to a poised and polished buyer for many of Paris’s luxury and fashion houses!! It is a classic dream come true story, however it took a lot of grit and determination for Sally to set up her horse trekking business in what is a notoriously macho and male dominated activity in South American countries……horses are for men. Success comes to those who keep chinking away and soon her vision of working alongside the local horsemen, creating employment opportunities for the community and exploring and establishing the best and most interesting routes to pioneer on horseback were realised…….not only in the Ecuadorian Andes but also along the Uruguayan Coast, Across the Andes and more recently exploring the Brazilian Pantanal!
The drive southbound towards the town of Machachi was incredibly scenic, truly dramatic and at times slightly terrifying as we rattled along snaking around sheer rock faces and traversing the dark abyss of seemingly bottomless gorges until we arrived at the Hosteria Papa Gayo from whence our Andean Adventure commenced.
Horse-riding in the Ecuadorian Andes is like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale, showcasing a patchwork of small villages, gurgling brooks, cobbled Inca highways and partially washed out sandy tracks, the wide open expanses of the paramo and the tamer farmers pastoral lands all under the watchful gaze of a ring of hills and volcanoes…….Ilinizas, Corazon, Ruminahui, Antisana and the magnificent snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi, a splendid dash of brilliant white against a cloudless bright blue sky. We picked our way carefully through the rugged foothills of the mountains, a steady serpentine climbing through the forest as the smell of pine and eucalyptus followed us higher above the clouds, a thunderstorm brewing beneath us as we galloped along at 4,100m above sea level. Edging closer to the Cotopaxi National Park we roamed across rustic Hacienda’s, carefully avoiding the fighting bulls that dominated the landscape, on occasion wild horses edged closer, nostrils flared, curiously sniffing our scent on the breeze, tails held high in anticipation of flight. Following the gentle curves of glacial streams we entered Cotopaxi National Park through the Northern gate after 4 days in the saddle and spent the following 2 days exploring the foothills of Ruminahui and spotting condors in flight accompanied by Wilma, our Chagra (local cowboy) before setting off on a mammoth 7 hours trek back over the mountains towards Sally’s farm on our 7th and final day of riding.
Due to the high level of physicality it takes to perform at high altitude we rotated horses often to ensure each was awarded adequate rest periods. I rode four different horses over the seven days, El Hiero, Cyrillo, Capule and Tostado, each one was amazing and their levels of fitness never ceased to amaze me. Sally’s horses are impeccably well-schooled and a pleasure to ride, tackling each and every obstacle in their path with valour and passion. As always I speak about these wonderful animals in more detail in their own dedicated section over at “Meet the Horses.”
Our nights were spent in a wonderful array of cosy Haciendas and Inns……Hosteria Papa Gayo, Hacienda San Francisco, El Porvenir and Hacienda los Mortinos, where roaring fires always welcomed us in from a days riding in the ever changing elements of the Andes, amazing views and vistas the perfect backdrop to enjoy a piping hot mug of Coca Tea, and the ever present snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi peaking between the clouds……..ice crystals twinkling in the early dawn light and winking a silent goodnight as the sun sank beneath the horizon.
Apart from fantastic riding country and remarkable valiant horses, the food was one of the highlights of the trip for me. All the food we ate was produced locally and was literally from soil to plate. Most rural Ecuadorians feed their families with the produce of their own farms and many do not use fertilisers or pesticides…..primarily, animal manure is used by the traditional farmers. Whilst riding through the pastoral lands I noticed cultivation and ploughing was done by hand and also pigs are used. Pigs are ideal ploughs, rooting up weeds and turning over the ground, while they manure it at the same time……ingenious. The result is fresh, natural food that you can actually taste! Every morning we would wake up to freshly squeezed juice, usually tree tomato…….the fruit was literally plucked from a tree in the orchard as we ordered. Before dinner every evening I would see the kitchen staff in the garden fetching carrots, potatoes, avocados and various other fruits and vegetables for our meals, simply delicious!!!
My second foray into the Kingdom of the Andes Mountains certainly did not disappoint, once again I escaped into the wild and rugged expanse of rippled beauty and once again I emerged refreshed and revived and ready to explore more of what Ecuador had to offer…………
“The mountains are my bones, the rivers my veins.
The forests are my thoughts and the stars are my dreams.
The ocean is my heart; its pounding is my pulse.
The songs of the Earth write the music of my soul.”