ECUADOR A Nice Slice of South America Small, Overlooked Nation Surprises Visitors with Its Rich Diversity

Article excerpt

Byline: Judy Wells, Times-Union staff writer

QUITO, Ecuador -- We danced across the equator, one foot in the Northern Hemisphere, the other in the Southern. Along the Avenue of the Lakes we saw the greenhouses of the rose industry, bought a Panama hat, tasted a few of the 30 commercially marketed varieties of 400 native potatoes and slept in a 300-year-old hacienda that hosted Simon Bolivar. The islands of the Galapagos beckoned so we missed the Amazon to the east and Avenue of the Volcanoes to the south.

If you haven't pinpointed the locale as the northern Highlands of Ecuador, you're in the majority. For a small country, Ecuador has a big identity problem.

Panama is credited with Ecuador's most famous product, the creamy white, finely woven hats made only here that can range in quality from $10 tourist specials to $3,500 superfino masterpieces of the weaver's art. The country's biggest export is oil, but Venezuela and the Middle East get the publicity. It is the largest exporter of bananas in the world, but we never think of Ecuador as a member of the Banana Republics. Its coffee is prized and shrimp farms are burgeoning, but its newest and most lucrative product is roses. Financing is pouring in from Americans, Russians, Dutch and Colombians for this cash crop of the Andes.

Geographically, we think of the Andes in Peru and the Amazon in Brazil. Actually, the Andes run vertically through the middle of Ecuador, one of three nations to share the Amazon. The equator crosses it horizontally.

Historically, Ecuador gets short shrift, too. The Incans were Peruvian, right? Not quite. Atahualpa, the Incan emperor who ran afoul of Pizarro and his Spanish Conquistadors, was Ecuadorian. Quito, Ecuador's capital, was the northern capital of the Incan empire and the second largest Spanish colonial city in America. Note: To Ecuadorians, they live in America; we come from North America.

Little wonder even the well-traveled fail to realize that the fabled Galapagos Islands, muse of Charles Darwin's evolution theories, are Ecuadorian, straddling the equator 596 miles off its Pacific Coast.

Visitors are pleasantly surprised by the small country's geographic, historic, cultural and economic diversity, by its hospitable and gentle people and by its amazing array of species in the plant, animal and insect worlds. For a one-country synopsis of South America, go to Colorado-size Ecuador.

Capital setting

The place to start is Quito, which, when traveling north or south, never seems to end. The airport, once as outlying as any in the world, is now in the northern end of downtown. Old Quito is in the south, the city's commercial center in the middle. All are surrounded by mountains and volcanos. On a clear day, rare thanks to polluting trucks and cars, the snow-capped tops of volcanos Cotopaxi (18,997 feet), Pichincha (15,820 feet) to the west, Imbabura (15,210 feet) and Antisana (19,001) can be seen. Cayambe (19,107 feet) Corazon and Pasochoa are also nearby. At 20,702 feet, Chimborazo is the world's highest volcano.

For a city in the midst of a population boom (from less than 300,000 in the 1950s to more than 1.5 million now), Quito is remarkably clean. Credit a clean-up program begun eight or so years ago, said Sylvia Moncayo, director of sales and promotion for Metropolitan Touring, the country's oldest and largest tour provider. "The people went along," she said. "We may be poor but we don't have to be dirty."

Nor are they dull. Truly remarkable cathedrals and monuments emerge when the zealousness of Spanish Catholicism is combined with the exuberance of indigenous culture and the gold of the Incan Empire. Overlooking it all is the winged Virgin of Quito atop Panecillo (Bread) Hill.

You can skim the highlights in a half-day's walking tour of old Quito. On Sundays, the juxtaposition of the colonial past with the capitalistic hustle-bustle of the present makes it particularly memorable. …