Ecuador’s Andes Mountains
by Candyce H. Stapen
Instead of frigate birds, tortoises, and blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos, we came to explore Ecuador’s Andes, a different, but equally alluring landscape of mountains, towering volcanoes, and glassy lakes.
We took it as a good omen that just as we headed out of Quito for Imbabura Province in the north the sky cleared to reveal the slopes of Cotopaxi, at 19,348 feet, the world's highest active volcano. Looming to Quito's south, Cotopaxi, backed by the cerulean blue sky, hung like a clear promise, contrasting sharply with the concrete and cinder block city
Pushing north along the Pan-American Highway, our van wound through valleys whose brownish yellow hills were feathered with alga ropo trees, their flat tops flared like open hands. Further on we saw that the mountain slopes had been tilled into neat patches of yellow and green, creating a garden that rose to the gods.
Driving here it was easy to realize why Ecuador's indigenas (indigenous peoples) worshipped mountains. Their powerful presence defined these high Andean plains, a place the early explorers called the "Avenue of the Volcanoes."
We were headed toward the fluted ridges and peaks of Cotacachi, considered by locals to be a female, fertile volcano, and her imposing mountain mate Imbabura. We stayed at Hacienda Cusin in the hamlet of San Pablo de lago, a 17th century former plantation now situated on 10 acres.
As soon as we passed the old stone walls, crossed the flower laden courtyards, and knocked on the huge wooden door, we felt part of the long-ago landed gentry. The eclectic furnishings, a combination of medieval tapestries, Spanish religious paintings, fireplaces, dim candelabras, hallways with handcarved benches strewn with old saddles, and beds warmed with blankets woven from llama wool reminded us of the diversity of cultures that have settled this spectacular countryside.
Bolivar, the hotel's friendly, mostly mastiff named for General Simon Bolivar, who once slumbered here, willingly accompanied anyone on walks, but you had to heed the hotel's caution: "You are responsible to pay the owner for any chickens that he kills." It was that kind of setting.
On our horseback ride through the Otavalo valley, we past native women carrying huge bushels of sticks on their backs while herding sheep, and men whose poles prodded their free stepping bulls to keep the pace. Following the river, the group cantered across fields that stretched to the mountains, the heels of the swift Spanish horses kicking up soft clouds of dust.
After hiking, horseback riding, and bargaining at local markets, our hacienda’s comforts proved most welcome, especially the cook Blanca's cookies served with hot chocolate.