"Ladies and gentlemen, a volcano has exploded 50 miles from Quito and there is ash in the air. We are returning to Houston.” It was 10pm, and we were just an hour from Quito.
The next day we tried again; it was touch and go until we were 50 minutes away, then they announced that we would be able to land. Hurrah!
At least the flight had been comfortable, and the time had passed quickly. It was a different story in November 1992, when I had flown to Quito for the first time. My late husband, Paul Morrison, and I were flying Viasa, an airline that has long since bitten the dust. It was real no-frills flying without in-flight entertainment.
Furthermore, despite the fact we were planning to travel for six months, we were travelling light. So light that we had no books with us, just the torn-out chapters for Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela from the travellers’ bible – the South American Handbook. A few hours in, we were bored.
Paul and I started talking about how nice it would be to have a travel magazine to read. And what we would want in that magazine. For something to do, we borrowed a pen from the crew and jotted our ideas down on a sickbag.
We immediately decided our dream magazine would have to be called Wanderlust. Eventually one of us said to the other: “We could do this...!” So, we bought a notebook in Quito and started scheming in earnest. The rest, as they say, is history.
16 years later, Quito stayed tantalisingly hidden below thick cloud, presumably much of it ash, until the last minute. Finally, the second-highest capital city in the world spread out below us. Taking a taxi to my hotel in the heart of the Old Town I soon remembered just how gorgeous Quito is. With the largest and best-preserved historical centre of any Latin American city, it truly deserves its World Heritage site status.
Back in 1992, much of the Old Town was considered potentially dangerous. Indeed the South American Handbook described Calle La Ronda – a famous street in this district – as ‘a notorious area for pickpockets and bag slashers’.
However, the quarter is being given a scrub-up: old buildings are being restored, with Calle La Ronda enjoying the most radical facelift of all. Within an hour of landing I was strolling along the street, browsing new shops and enjoying the welcoming hospitality of a family-run café.
A training centre for disadvantaged youngsters, which teaches traditional crafts and trades. Many of the students go on to work on restoration projects around the city. I met two ex-students working at the San Francisco Church and Monastery, Quito’s largest building, where a massive revamp is underway. It is on this spot that Inca king, Huayna Capac, is believed to have had his palace. It’s certainly a magnificent spot, with Pichincha volcano sat behind.
But the Incas only arrived in Ecuador from Peru in the 15th century; plenty of other civilisations were already living here. In fact, the name Quito comes from the Quitu people who inhabited this area much earlier.
More is now being learned about this group thanks to an archaeological dig taking place at a spot called La Florida, on a suburban street overlooking the airport. So far, four tombs have been excavated, each with several bodies buried in upright foetal positions.
Dr Holguer Jara – the inspiration behind the dig and highly respected professor – showed me around the site and the small but excellent museum on the verge of opening its doors to the public. Many more remains are believed to be buried here, and there are plans to buy the properties on either side, and to build a bridge over the excavated tombs.
In Tulipe village, west of Quito, I met up with Dr Jara again. Here, the remnants of a ceremonial centre belonging to the Yumba people have been found. The Yumba were traders, working between the highlands and coast; a network of their ancient sunken trails can still be seen. They built their homes on small mounds; once Dr Jara had pointed out a telltale mound I started to see them everywhere.
Next we walked down to some ceremonial pools that had been buried under vegetation until 1979. Two were rectangular, two semi-circles, another polygonal (believed to represent a jaguar) – all were geometrically perfect.
A ten-minute walk away was another, much larger pool, only discovered in 2001. When the sun rises on the winter equinox, the rays follow the ramp into the pool; local shamans believe the pool represents a womb, and in turn Mother Earth.
I asked Dr Jara what had happened to this civilisation. In 1660, Pichincha had a major eruption, he said – all flora and fauna, including the people, would have been lost.
There are many volcanoes in Ecuador, but the one that really captures visitors’ imaginations is Cotopaxi, 75km south of Quito. Ecuador’s second-highest peak, it looks like a child’s drawing, snow-capped cone and all. When you can see it, that is! On this visit, despite it being early August – supposedly the sunniest, driest time of year – Cotopaxi insisted on staying hidden behind heavy cloud.
For all its beauty, this is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, and there is increasing concern that a major eruption is imminent. Land is cheap in areas where lava is likely to flow, including suburbs of Quito; it seems thousands of people still feel the risk is worth it.
I asked Cesar Morabowen, owner of Hato Verde, a small hacienda not far from the south face of the caldera, if he is scared of an eruption. “No, no, I’ve grown up with it.” His family home was built at the end of the 19th century, after a huge eruption in 1877. Today it is a dairy farm, and also hosts visitors. Although only a kilometre from the Pan American Highway, you could be in a different world – and another time.
Historical colonial properties have been turned into tourist accommodation throughout the highlands. Hato Verde is relatively small, and the guests eat the sumptuous but family-style food together. As the banter and wine flowed, we could hear a fierce storm rage outside.
The following day Cesar and I rode out on horses after breakfast, past fields of broccoli and huge greenhouses full of roses, Ecuador’s booming export. Everyone we passed, from small children to elderly women in ethnic dress, greeted us politely with “¡buenos dias!”
As we passed farm gates, dogs rushed out barking at us. It was a relief as we left them behind, and rode through eucalypt woods. We reached a huge rock, taller than us on our horses; it had been spewed out by Cotopaxi. It brought home the mighty power of the volcano.
From here we could have carried on riding to Cotopaxi itself, but my time was short so we swapped to a car. As the track climbed to Cara Sur (south face), blasts of rain, hail and snow hit the windscreen; heavy cloud, like dry ice, swirled out of deep ravines.
Soon grassland turned into high páramo, the ground covered with alpine flowers of all colours – pinks, lilacs, reds, blues and yellows – before the track finished at a mountaineers’ refuge, set at 4,000m. There was a tantalising glimpse of a soaring condor before I tore myself away and headed back past Quito to the northern highlands.
The travellers’ mecca Otavalo had made a massive impact on my first visit, not least because I was fascinated by the Otavelenos themselves. It was a relief to enter the town and see some of them still wear their traditional dress: the men in white calf-length trousers and blue ponchos, with a plait or ponytail down their back; the women in embroidered white blouses, long black skirts and gold necklaces.
Overlooking the Plaza de Ponchos, famous for its craft market, is the office of Runa Tupari, an agency that works with indigenous communities to offer cultural tours, activities and homestays. I was excited to experience the locals’ way, and was informed that the family would do nothing special for me – I would see authentic everyday life.
I arrived at Santa Barbara village at dusk, the sound of frogs and clucking hens greeting me. Walking onto a small plot of land, my designated family came out of their home to welcome me, their faces beaming. To my surprise, my room was a simple but tasteful ‘lodge’ with three beds, a fireplace and a pristine bathroom, including Western-style loo. Hot water was available for the next half hour or so.
Once I’d freshened up, I was beckoned into the main house for dinner, and met the family properly. Ernesto was typical of male Otavelenos, with a distinctive long braid. Wife Digna was busy cooking, with the help of her three daughters.
Ernesto sometimes plays in a band called Twparik; his group’s CD made a nice soundtrack as we tucked into the hearty meal. First up was tree tomato juice and a plate of fresh toasted corn, then a wholesome barley soup. This was followed by chicken (fried egg for veggies), potatoes with a relish made of squash seeds, and a green vegetable that was a cross between spinach and watercress.
The family spoke Quichua to each other but switched to simple Spanish for me. “This is all typical Andean,” said Digna. “We have no French fries here!”
She sat at the head of the table. I recalled someone from Runa Tupari saying, “It’s the women who manage the homestays. It’s a big change for them as they never used to have the confidence to speak to outsiders. Now they are equals with the men.”
Digna explained that she is now president of her community, which consists of 48 families and 240 people. Four of those families now take in visitors. “At first it was very strange to see a tourist here. We have had workshops on how to interchange with them.”
However, it isn’t just tourism that they are being offered workshops on. With concern that traditional crafts are being lost, classes on everything from embroidery to sandal-making were being held that week.
It was early to bed, my room wonderfully cosy thanks to the logs in the fireplace. All too soon, I heard a radio come on, and a rooster crowing. I squinted at my watch: 4am. I lingered in bed till 6ish, when I poked my head out of the door to views of Imbabura in one direction, and the craggier Cotacachi, known as ‘Mama’, in the other.
Seeing I was up, Digna grabbed a basket and we headed out along sunken paths, generations-old, to a local spring to pick the cress-like plant we had eaten the previous night. Afterwards, I was ready for breakfast – quinoa, the ancient grain of the Incas, served with brown sugar and cinnamon, followed by omelette and bread with homemade preserves.
There was certainly no rest for the wicked. The family were doing some planting that morning, and an area of ground had already been prepared with guinea pig droppings. We made furrows and planted cabbage, broccoli, courgettes, carrots and cauliflower.
We did a spot of weeding and fed the weeds to nine guinea pigs inhabiting a small shed. Not surprisingly (given they were destined for the plate), they were rather timid.
One of the girls brought out elevenses of bananas, bread and homemade lemonade. A former European guest had sent Digna a selection of seeds so, taking advantage of me being there, she asked me about the resulting plants and how she could cook them. She selected rhubarb, radishes, leeks and chives, and we planted those, too. (If you visit next year and get offered rhubarb crumble, blame me!)
Before I headed back to Quito I had to make one final stop in Otavalo. It was in the garden of the lovely Ali Shungu hotel that our schemes for a travel magazine really took shape. Sixteen years later, despite a ‘For Sale’ sign outside, the hotel looked no different. There was the room where Paul and I spent several days; here was our favourite table in the restaurant.
I sat in the garden, looking out to Volcán Imbabura, the cloud clearing enough to give me a view almost to its peak, and raised a toast to 15 years and 100 issues of Wanderlust.
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