OTAVALO, Ecuador —A pint-sized dish of cevichocho, served on the street in Otavalo, sparked one of those ah-hah moments so unexpected it caught me unawares.
By the time we the three of us parked near the town's famous craft market, lunch time had come and gone. Heading down the block we passed a group of teenagers in school uniforms crowded around a food stall, gulping down what looked like fast-food. And whatever it was in those bowls unidentified juicy bits it made my mouth water.
"Do you really want to try it?" said Aguilar, raising his eyebrows. A veteran guide, he knew tourists were squeamish about street food. And in Ecuador, cevichocho was the street version of a Big Mac. "If you're sure," he said doubtfully.
Deftly piling chopped red and yellow tomatoes, toasted popcorn, red onions, white lupine beans and cilantro in the bowl, he filled it full. Then he sprinkled lime over the mix, doused it with extra juice from the tomatoes and topped it with bits of sliced chicken. And handed it over.
I hesitated, took a bite, and it was.... heavenly! No wonder those kids look so healthy, I said to myself. They're snacking on vegetables.
"What did I tell you," said Steve, my husband, grabbing a photo. "Ecuador isn't anything like Kansas."
Ask me about the European "discovery" and settlement of North America and I can quote chapter and verse. But ask about Ecuador's cultural heritage or colonial history and I'm lost. To my shame, I know more about Turkey than Ecuador.
Where then, in this country on the Equator, would a traveler find links to the past? Living links, too, not museum exhibits. We started in Quito, the capital as you will because this is where most flights arrive. And Quito is old, founded in 1534, just 42 years after Columbus "discovered" America. Perched at 9,000 feet elevation on a hill between the east and west ranges of the Andes Mountains, it lies at the foot of Guagua Pichincha, 15,820-feet high and one of Ecuador's 30 active volcanoes.
Twenty years ago, when I was here before, blowing through town on a two-day stopover, the city, tired and dirty, was lingering on life support. Ecuador's currency, the sucre, was nearly worthless. Since then the patient has recovered. On March 13, 2002, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar, stabilizing the economy. Today the heart of the old city has been scrubbed and painted, its buildings restored or comically hidden behind convincing facades.
Abundant lighting illuminates the cobblestone streets at night, trash vanishes in a twinkling, and public squares sport benches, grass and flowers. Purse snatching in the old quarter disappeared overnight when the streets were converted to pedestrian traffic only from dusk to dawn. Looking down out of my hotel room after dinner, I could see and hear couples and families walking past.
As for history, we found it in Independence Square, where old men and visitors sit in the sun at the foot of Liberty besting the snarling Spanish lion. It lives in Quito's monumental, painted, gold-swathed churches and monasteries, where on the Sunday I was there the pews were packed and late comers stood in the side aisles under dark paintings of tortured saints.
But Quito was only the beginning. When I first put Ecuador on my wish-list, it was the historic haciendas I wanted to visit. Originally land grants, these vast ranches boast illustrious family pedigrees and long traditions. Surely, I thought, the pioneers who tamed Ecuador's frontiers faced the same challenges as their North American counterparts farmers, ranchers and plantation owners did.
When a friend recommended EQ Touring, a Quito and Miami-based travel outfit specializing in Ecuador, we asked for an individual trip to the haciendas near Quito, traveling on scenic country roads. Curious about Ecuador's dramatic geography on the equator but up in the clouds I wanted to get close to some of those ice-clad volcanoes and 13,000-foot farm fields.
The final itinerary included hacienda reservations, a car and two top-notch guides (Cynthia Cabezas in Quito and Paul Aguilar for the rest of the trip). It also included a visit to Cotopaxi Volcano national park where you can drive to the end of the road (the climbers start here, at 15,320 feet) for a close-up look at Cotopaxi's icy, 19,460-foot summit. Our last day was saved for Otavalo.
And were the haciendas historic? Yes, but forward-looking. Both Le Cusin, founded in 1602 by Jesuits, and Hacienda Pinsaqui, founded in 1790 and still owned by the original family, felt and looked like the 18th century white-walled, red-tiled-roof colonial compounds typical of Spanish colonies. Surrounded with flowering vines and far from noise and traffic, they'll send you back to another century.
But Le Cusin's present owner is an American who restored the buildings and updated guest rooms and cottages, adding comfort while preserving the colonial feel. The wood-paneled living room and dining hall are reminiscent of a hunting lodge, and since they serve good food, encourage long evenings. The result is a loyal cadre of guests who wintering over annually, settling into spacious rooms with fireplaces and staying busy dining on good meals, riding horses, hiking, sketching, studying Spanish and taking day trips to Otavalo.
Pinsaqui Hacienda, where we stopped for a bowl of locro (cream of potato soup garnished with cheese and avocado slices), is still owned and managed by an 8th generation family member. Could he be the person whose photo, displayed on the wall, shows him posing with his horse inside this elegant old mansion? Guests enjoying acres of lawns and spectacular views of Imbabura Volcano may find approaching cars a rude intrusion. But the presence of 30 redecorated family-sized suites, fine cuisine and guided horseback riding is the evidence that guests are welcome.
Zuleta Hacienda, originally a Jesuit property, made news in the 20th century when new owners, the Plaza-Lasso family, progenitor of two presidents of Ecuador, turned the 4,000-acre ranch into a working dairy farm and cheese creamery.