Kate Whitehead

Award-winning Hong Kong-based journalist

Lost in Ecuador

Straddling the equator between Columbia and Peru, Ecuador may be the smallest Andean country but it’s packed with startling landscapes and exciting things to see and do.

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In Quito, the government has worked hard to look after the UNESCO-protected historic centre and the cobblestone streets, plazas and occasional glimpse of the stone statue of Madonna on the hill make a stroll through the city a joy. And beyond the capital, past the Avenue of Volcanoes, lies a country rich in history and natural beauty. There are Inca treasures, vibrant cities and a wealth of birds and wildlife in the mountains, rainforest and coastal areas.

Casa GanGotena

Casa GThe most interesting corner of Quito for the visitor to explore is the historic centre and Casa Gangotena is positioned right in the heart of this colonial neighbourhood. With its narrow, cobblestone streets and magnificent churches, this is by far the prettiest part of the city and the gilt Jesuit church of La Compania, a Franciscan monastery that is partly open to the public and the Museo de la Ciudad are all a short stroll away.

Directly in front of the hotel is the Plaza San Francisco, a large public square that is buzzing with activity throughout the day. This is where wealthy families once built their homes and the Casa Gangotena is housed in one such stately home. A four- year renovation costing US$10 million transformed the 1920s Renaissance-inspired mansion into a boutique hotel that opened three years ago.

The 31-room hotel still has the mansion’s original architectural features, such as the high hand-painted ceilings, but now there are marble bathrooms and high-end fittings and fixtures. With so few rooms, it’s possible to imagine you are staying in the home of a wealthy Ecuadorian. Outside is a delightful courtyard garden filled with flowers and

beside the restaurant, which serves up traditional favourites and plays heavily on soups and stews that are a staple of the local diet, is a quiet wood-panelled library.

With its long history – the hotel stands on a site that has been occupied since the days of the Incas – and understated opulence, this is the Peninsula Hotel of Quito. Oozing charm and style, it is hands down the best place to stay in the capital. www.casagangotena.com

Mashpi Lodge

The two-and-a-half-hour drive to Mashpi Lodge from Quito is a pleasure in itself. There’s the thrill of crossing the equator and then climbing the mountain pass skirting volcanoes and through lush jungle to reach the hotel that is permanently shrouded in mist.

Mashpi Lodge is all about being close to nature and the hotel is designed to maximise that experience with plenty of glass set within a steel framework. This is one of the richest areas in the world in terms of biodiversity and there are lots of activities laid on to get guests into the great outdoors from treks through the forest to visits to see scores of hummingbirds. As comfortable as the 22 guest rooms are and as tempting as it is to just sit on the terrace and stare into the lush jungle, this isn’t a place to be lazy. It’s worth getting up at dawn to see the hundreds of moths and butterflies that have gathered on the terrace overnight or putting wellies and waterproofs on and tramping through the jungle to a waterfall. The absolute highlight is a ride in a pedal- powered Sky Bike that takes you through the top of the forest canopy, 60 metres above the ground.

All that pedalling and walking works up a healthy appetite and the restaurant doesn’t disappoint. Breakfast includes plenty of fresh fruits, juices and smoothies. And lunch and dinner choices are innovative takes on traditional Ecuadorian cuisine served in a glass-walled dining room that is the centrepiece of the hotel. www.mashpilodge.com

Finch Bay Eco Hotel

Eco HotelLocated on the south side of Santa Cruz Island, this tranquil retreat set back from the beach is named after Darwin’s finches and while there are plenty of the small birds on the property, you’re just as likely to see a pelican or a heron by the pool. There are just 21 garden view rooms and six ocean view suites, making this a truly boutique property. The rooms are simple. All have air-con and a hammock on the terrace overlooking the mangroves.

The staff is excellent and the hotel’s charismatic manager Xavier Burbano de Lara is quick to suggest activities, though he’s also sensitive to the fact that some people may want to recuperate from a long journey or just chill. But bang in the heart of paradise, it would be a shame not to get out and see some of it. A short kayak ride from the hotel takes you to a sheltered bay where blue-footed boobies nest in the cliff, iguanas bake on the rocks and sea lions bask on a wooden pier.

So close to the sea, it’s no wonder the seafood is excellent – if the tuna sesame with teriyaki is on the menu it’s an absolute must-order. And it’s not without reason

that the hotel has ‘eco’ in its name. It is the only hotel in the area to desalinate its own water; it replenishes the mangrove forest that surrounds the property and was named the World’s Leading Green Hotel in the World Travel Awards in 2014. www.finchbayhotel.com

Termas De Papallacta Spa & Resort

Imagine waking up at dawn, a little breathless from the high altitude, stepping out of your hotel room and walking just ten feet before you immerse yourself in a natural hot spring. This is what you get to do at Termas de Papallacta and the no-fuss hydrotherapy is the perfect cure for jet lag – and plenty of other niggling complaints.

Perched on a high Andean valley, 67 kilometres outside Quito, many people stop off at the resort on the way to the Amazon jungle. The thermal springs are the focus and the 32 guest cabins are positioned around the pools, each with a table and chairs outside so you can rest between dips. The thatched cabins are simply decorated and ll have a heater – it can get chilly up in the mountains – and a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. But do you really need to go to the bother of running a Jacuzzi bath when the hot springs are right on your doorstep? And as this area is for resort guests only, it doesn’t get crowded – unlike the public baths nearby which are packed on weekends.

The spa offers the usual menu of treatments, plus a few you’d only find in Ecuador. Worth trying just for the novelty value is the chocolate body wrap. You are covered from head to foot in real chocolate – I can vouch for that, I tasted it – and then wrapped and left to relax before the chocolate is blasted off you with a thermal

jet. Ecuador is South America’s largest chocolate producer and this is a fun way of making the most of it. www.termaspapallacta.com

Hacienda Rumiloma

Four kilometres outside Quito, this delightful hacienda overlooking the capital oozes rustic charm. You can’t beat the location on the side of Pichincha Volcano surrounded by 100 acres of primary and secondary Andean forest. It makes for great hiking and the owners Amber and Oswaldo Freire are happy to point out a trail for an early morning trek, you can even arrange to have breakfast served at a lookout point.

The hacienda has been in Oswaldo’s family for generation and that longstanding relationship with the property translates in so many positive ways, from the owner’s commitment to working closely with the local community, employing local staff to replanting native trees and being committed to sustainable tourism.

The guest rooms are like cosy apartments, each filled with colonial art, antiques and collectibles. The ornate hanging, antique desk and wood stove all add to the sense of rural homeliness as do the handcrafted abode and stone walls. All have a sitting room, large bedroom, bathroom (some with copper tubs, others with claw-footed baths) and either a terrace or outdoor garden. The restaurant serves international and Ecuadorian-style fusion cuisine and draws not only hotel guests, but locals, tourists and embassy staff. And if you fancy a drink before you settle down to your meal there’s the ‘Poor Fockers’, an Irish-Ecuadorian pub on the ground floor with a welcoming large fireplace. www.rumiloma.com

Boutique Hôtel Cafe Cultura

Boutique Hotel Cafe Cultura is housed in a beautiful old colonial mansion in the heart of downtown Quito, in the Mariscal neighbourhood. Sixty years ago, it was home to one of the capital’s wealthiest families, after which it became the French Cultural Centre and then, following a four- year renovation, it was transformed into a 26-room hotel.

It might be in the heart of Quito, but Café Cultura feels more like a retreat than a city hotel. There are hummingbirds in the secluded garden and every evening welcoming log fires are lit in three large stone fireplaces, inviting you to sink back into one of the deep leather armchairs and relax. The lighting is soft with plenty of candles. This is a hotel out to seduce and it does it not by being flashy, but with its eclectic, often whimsical, touches.

Local artists have been invited to paint frescoes throughout the property. On the walls and ceilings you will be surprised by unexpected murals, delightful and often fanciful attention to detail. The rooms are each individually designed and decorated and vary considerably in size, but most have a separate lounge or sitting area and all are filled with generous vases of Ecuadorian roses. www.cafecultura.com

Rincon de Puembo 

Its proximity to Quito airport makes this a popular choice with visitors arriving late or catching an early flight out, but there’s more than convenience to recommend this property. Located in Puembo village, this is not your cookie-cutter hotel. The main guest wing has been designed to look like La Rambla, the cobblestone street in the old quarter of Quito complete with a fountain

in the middle. The 18 guest rooms are split over two levels of this make-believe quaint street, some with small balconies and each one individually designed.

There are two restaurants. Las Cupulas is the more formal and has a domed ceiling that is hand-painted with murals in the style of the popular Quito artist Gonzalo Endara Crow. El Grill Bar and Restaurant is for more casual al fresco dining amid the gardens and water fountains and overlooking the heated outdoor pool. There’s not much going on in Puembo village so little reason to wander out, but there’s plenty to keep you amused in the hotel. For those in need of relaxation, there’s a sauna and Jacuzzi; for the energetic, there are football, basketball and volleyball courts and a children’s area with an inflatable castle, which keeps the little ones happy. www.rincondepuembo.com

 

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About author

Kate Whitehead

Kate Whitehead is a Hongkonger and has made the city her home since she was eight. She got her first degree (BA English Lit) from Warwick University and her postgrad (MA English Lit) from Sussex University. She was on staff at the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post and was the editor of Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery.

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