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DESTINATION: ECUADOR

Hiking Hacienda to Hacienda

Andes trekkers pass snowcapped volcanoes, verdant valleys and Incan ruins on their way to centuries-old, and surprisingly grand, farming estates

October 08, 2000|CINDY ROSS | Cindy Ross is a writer specializing in outdoor treks. She lives in New Ringgold, Pa

QUITO, Ecuador — The women stood in a cobblestone plaza wearing traditional Andean village attire--elaborately embroidered blouses, pleated skirts, rope sandals and woven wool shawls in the brightest reds and magentas.

They had traveled more than an hour on rundown diesel buses to the capital, toting buckets of home-cooked food in hopes of earning a few sucres. Some of the women ladled spoonfuls of stew made from potatoes, corn and beans grown on steep mountain slopes to the north. Others had brought bouquets of roses, sold for the equivalent of 40 cents a dozen.

They had come to Quito from Ecuador's highlands, a region of remote, snowcapped volcanoes, lush emerald valleys and cool cloud forests--and my destination for a nine-day hiking trip in January.

Almost every other tourist who comes to Quito visits the Galapagos Islands, off the western coast. But it was the highlands--in particular, the centuries-old haciendas there--that captured my interest. Nestled in a double row of mountains (part of the Andes) running north-south, these former farming estates have been converted into gracious country inns with all the amenities of fine hotels--modern bathrooms, fireplaces crackling with fragrant eucalyptus in rooms, beds turned down and electric blankets turned on while travelers relax for dinner. (There's no central heating.)

I've always wanted to visit the Andes. After hearing about a tour offered by Mountain Travel-Sobek of El Cerrito, Calif., I decided to leave my family behind and sign up solo, a present to myself.

I joined nine other travelers--all Americans in their 20s to their 60s--plus two English-speaking Ecuadorean guides. Our itinerary called for hiking four to eight miles most days in elevations of about 9,000 to 12,500 feet. After a night in one of the grand and surprisingly comfortable haciendas, a van would transport us to another area for more hiking.

The Andes is the longest mountain range in the world, running 4,500 miles through South America, from Venezuela in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. In Ecuador, peaks nearing 20,000 feet are surrounded by tiny fertile farms that cover the earth in a patchwork of colors.

After hours of flying to Quito and one night at a hotel in the capital, I had traveled by van with my group 45 minutes south to our first hiking destination: the Pasochoa Forest Reserve, named after an extinct volcano with a caldera rising more than 2 1/2 miles into the sky.

It was an easy-to-moderate hike at elevations of 8,000 to 12,000 feet. We strolled through indigenous communities on cobblestone roads toward one of the last undisturbed Andean cloud forests, on the flanks of Pasochoa.

On the road, highlands women often passed us, some leading round-faced children on donkeys, some hunched over with huge bundles of sticks on their backs. These women were captivating, their long, dark hair worn in a single braid; their heads covered in wool hats pulled low, just above dark eyes; their necks wrapped in as many as 30 strands of gold or red beads.

Our walk skirted Pasochoa, whose crater is home to about 100 species of birds. The foliage was thick along the muddy trail, with brilliant flowers and plants growing on top of one another.

The humidity, the wild vegetation and the melodious bird songs created a jungle ambience, but at this elevation the temperature was around 60 degrees, making long pants and jackets a necessity.

After the hike, we drove about 30 miles south to 400-year-old Hosteria La Cienega. Its long, broad carriage road lined with towering eucalyptus trees pulled me in, an invitation to the calm that lay ahead. Through the intricate ironwork door and past the well-manicured courtyard gardens awaited our rooms--double occupancy for most in the group, single for me.

Dinner was a few minutes' drive away at another hacienda, San Agustin de Callo, a colonial farmhouse whose chapel and dining room have perfectly carved stone walls, remnants of 15th century Incan structures that once stood on this site. In the dining room, lighted only by candelabra, our group shared a delicious Ecuadorean meal of passion fruit and a potato-and-cheese soup, locros de papas.

Hosteria La Cienega and San Agustin de Callo sit in the shadow of the great Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world (19,347 feet) and the heart of Ecuador's most-visited national park. Cotopaxi National Park is blessed with clear days--more than anywhere else in the Ecuadorean Andes, according to some guides. The climb to the volcano's steaming caldera is easy by mountaineering standards, so the summit is popular. Our group remained on its lower flanks, however, at a not-too-shabby 12,500 feet, catching views of its symmetrical snow-covered cone.

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