Stepping Back in Time in Colonial Quito
Founded in 1534, Quito was the first city to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its Old Town seems in many ways to have changed little over the centuries. Walk the rough cobblestone streets and visit the numerous, beautifully restored colonial-era churches, monasteries, convents, private mansions, and public plazas -- you'll feel as if you've traveled back in time.
Straddling the Equator
The country isn't called Ecuador for nothing -- the Equator passes right through it. Don't miss the chance to have your photo taken with one foot in either hemisphere. There are several popular tourist attractions and marked spots where you can do this. My favorite is Quitsato Mitad del Mundo Monument (tel. 02/2363-042; www.quitsato.org), located just off the highway from Quito to Otavalo.
You'll see them roasting on spits at little stands along the highways, or on sidewalks in cities and towns. You'll also find them on the menus of some of Ecuador's fanciest restaurants. It's guinea pig to you and me. The skin is served crisp and crackling, and you'll have to work to get much meat from cuy. But when it's good, it's moist and flavorful.
Searching for the Fountain of Youth in Vilcabamba
The small and isolated village of Vilcabamba is said to have a disproportionately high number of centenarians. Most folks credit the clean water, air, and living. While it may not actually add years to your life, this is a great place to come for a quiet getaway with superb scenery. And whether or not there's any science behind it, a spa treatment or two at Hostería Izhcayluma (tel. 07/2640-095; www.izhcayluma.com) will definitely cure whatever's ailing you at the moment.
Starting Off Your Day with a Glass of Tree-Tomato Juice
Don't be put off by the name, or think that it tastes anything like a traditional tomato. A tree tomato (tomate de árbol or tamarillo) is a unique fruit served just about every which way in Ecuador. My favorite is the juice, although you'll also find tree tomatoes in salads; cooked into jam; or boiled, peeled, sweetened, and served as dessert.
Riding a Train Past the Devil's Nose
Earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions have wiped out most of the rail-line that used to connect Quito to Guayaquil. One remaining operational section is also one of the most spectacular, a white-knuckle ride of sharp switchbacks and hairpin turns down the side of a steep rock mountain affectionately known as the Devil's Nose.
Buying a Panama Hat
You shouldn't leave the country without buying one of these stylish straw wonders, which are made in Ecuador, not Panama. Cuenca is currently the primary center for production of Panama hats; Homero Ortega P. & Hijos (tel. 07/2809-000; www.homeroortega.com) is that city's top manufacturer. True aficionados might even head to the small towns of Montecristi or Jipijapa to find their special superfino headpiece.
Homebrewed liquor made from fermenting corn, potatoes, yuca, and just about anything else on hand, chicha is consumed by indigenous peoples throughout the Andean highlands as well as in the lowland forests of El Oriente. Most chicha is relatively mild, but if you drink enough of it you'll definitely feel its effects -- especially at high altitudes.
Visiting the Amazon Basin: While officially just tributaries of the great river, the lowland rainforest rivers of eastern Ecuador form an important part of the Amazon basin. This area is loaded with impressive wildlife, and it's home to traditional indigenous tribes. You'll get to interact with both on any trip here.
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