Touched by the Spirit of the Andes, Ecuador

Spirit of the Andes – from Quito to Cuenca along the Avenue of the Volcanoes

Like all good trips, this one is already becoming a blur and it’s barely over. We seem to have compressed so much into a short space of time it’s untrue. But such is the magic of Ecuador.

I could write a chronological blog of the itinerary so far, but I think that captured impressions are perhaps more powerful. If you would like to read the day-by-day programme, please view it here

Taita Chimborazo - Spirit of the Andes

Taita Chimborazo - Spirit of the Andes

So, yes, impressions:

A mesmerising dance takes place every day in the Andes between the volcanic peaks that puncture the mountains that run longitudinally through the country and the clouds that form, dissipate, swirl, puff, embrace, smother and dance around them. The physics of this are elemental, and somewhat prosaic. But the overall effect, as one travels through the mountain ranges is anything but humdrum. It’s stunning, and constantly stimulates the eye to reappraise and look again.

Ticking the volcano list:

El Altar's crown of peaks at dusk

El Altar's crown of peaks at dusk

Like birdwatchers with their list of species, it seems that we travellers through the Andes have a similar list, only ours are the evocative names of the volcanoes that we pass or can spy in the distance as we travel from Quito to Cuenca in the south.
This journey is dominated by three peaks: Cotopaxi, Tunguruhua and Chimborazo. Each different, each imposing. But there are also the co-stars, like El Altar, the Illinizas or Carihuairazo, and then the cameos by the likes of Sangay and Antisana. There is a certain excitement associated with spotting these (mainly) snow-capped peaks, and anticipation at turning a bend in the road to meet a prospect of one, glimpsed through the hills and clouds.

Unfinished houses:
I wish more of them were finished, but it’s part of the growth of the country, part of the hope in better times, in changes to come. Aesthetically, it’s not that pleasing, but you can’t take hope away from the people of the Andes.

Fields and fields, lines and lines of crops chequerboard the Andean countryside. It’s like a giant chessboard, with checks separated by groves of eucalyptus trees. These squares even march up near-vertical hillsides, such is the peasants’ love of rectangles and squares and rhomboids.

Like the clouds of the high mountains, water is everywhere in the atmosphere here. When we descended to the roaring waterfall of the Pailon del Diablo – the Devil’s Cauldron – swirling masses of water vapour billowed out of the rocky bottom of the pool, rose up and caressed our faces. Winds were whipped up by the very force of the water crashing down. But these winds could be seen, devised. Millions of charged water droplets that make the perceived visible.

On the way to Chimborazo

On the way to Chimborazo

Another V, Verticality:
Perhaps too literal a word for one’s experience of this phenomenon, but it goes a great way to explain why Ecuador is so special. Take today: we began at 3,000-odd metres, half-way between the high Andes and the Amazon, descended into the cloudforests around the town of Banos to around 1,500 metres – a sub-tropical land of forests, orchids, butterflies and hummingbirds – and then climbed up higher and higher through the last of the towns and villages around the base of the mighty Chimborazo Volcano and up to the haunting páramo beyond, right up to 4,000 metres. From there, we wound down to the city of Riobamba, back at around 2,300 metres. Such diversity in short distances… Such contrasts in such short spaces of time. Everything changes with each kilometre, here in the Tropics, right on the Equator, all orchestrated by the verticality of the Andes as they rise up from the Pacific on one side, the Amazon on the other.


Making friends in Palacio Real, near Riobamba

Making friends in Palacio Real, near Riobamba

The Mother Superior at the Museo de las Conceptas in Riobamba had a kindly way, ambling around the grounds of the cloistered convent in her white habit. Having distributed the nuns’ special herbal tea to us all, she blessed us and wished us well on our way…
The owner of the well-run café-restaurant at the foot of the Pailon del Diablo waterfalls was called Wilfrido. We asked him what he thought was the spirit of the Andes, and he communicated his love for his small corner of this country like few people I’ve met.
The woman who led us through the fields of Palacio Real, near Riobamba, was called Trinidad. She showed us all the community’s vegetable patches and described the uses the local people put to all the plants. She spoke Spanish in staccato bursts, since her mother-tongue is Quichua. She had a beautiful, flashing smile. She laughed when she told us that her husband hadn’t approved of her getting involved in the community tourism project, but that one of her sons had told her to ignore him. She seemed pleased with her decision, and I am too.

Art and Athens:

Cuenca Cathedral and petals

Cuenca Cathedral and petals

Cuenca, known as the Athens of the Andes, is Ecuador’s third-largest city, and its most pleasant by far. We wandered the streets today and I was overcome with its charms. Rivers criss-cross the urban heart, while green mountains cup it on three sides. We spent the day among modern art museums, cultural centres, convents, flower markets, churches, cobbled streets, antique shops, viewpoints, Panama hat makers, and the banks of the river Tomebamba. There are few more enjoyable cities to explore by foot than Cuenca, by my reckoning, and I am left with a longing to return to explore more.

A Rush of Blood to the Senses:
That’s what the spirit of the Andes feels like. From Quito to Cuenca is a quite a way, along the winding roads of this, the world’s longest mountain chain. The days are undoubtedly long. But I can’t help feeling my senses are more acute after our four days of travel – the blurry gauze of routine has been cleaned (if momentarily) from my eyes and from my head and from my heart, to reveal a more sensitive me, a man I used to know not that long ago, who has returned to surprise me with the gift of life.

View the Spirit of the Andes itineraries here:

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2 Responses to Touched by the Spirit of the Andes, Ecuador

  1. Paulina says:

    Can wait to feel it myself!!!

  2. JP says:

    It sounds like an incredible journey, all the colours, contrast, encounters, just a few elements to mentioning of what I am impressed already. I am dying to go back on this journey.
    Love the volcano watching, like the birders with their list, you got to tick yours!
    Great impressions!!!!

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