Chimbacalle station in southern Quito is not usually busy at 8am on a Friday. Most Ecuadorians are at work and this old railyard is reserved for tourists who want to make the 90-minute journey up through some dormant volcanoes to Tambillo.
However, this is no ordinary Friday. I am here on a date of huge significance for Quiteños, as it was on this day in 1534 that the capital of Ecuador, nestled high up in the Andes mountains, was founded. The platform is at bursting point with numerous locals, some dressed very smartly, waiting to take “the party train”.
I should have guessed that this journey would be animated, as the week leading up to la fundacion de Quito has been packed with revelry. Bedecked in its colours of purple and red, Quito has crackled with activity. Fireworks, concerts, even chivas – party buses illuminated by fairy lights that meander through the streets, crammed full of locals swaying to music and drinking alcohol. You wouldn’t get away with it in Edinburgh. This is the week of Fiestas de Quito and it climaxes on 6 December.
There’s not a seat to be found as the train clambers out of the city. Music starts to play and the locals sing. These are traditional tunes celebrating Quito. The people next to me break open a thermos that is filled with something potent. Canelazo, they call it, a hot, sweet, steaming beverage made of sugar cane, cinnamon, water and alcohol. I don’t normally drink at this hour, but it feels rude not to.
Locals are on the streets waving at the train. The music gets louder. The singing gets louder. Soon the passengers are playing a card game called 40 – as they always do on this day – and before we know it, we are up in the highlands, drinking in the incredible scenery that wouldn’t look out of place in Scotland until we pull into Tambillo, where the festivities are taken up a notch.
The village square is filled with local schoolchildren in traditional dress. They start up the band and dance gleefully for an hour, encouraging the crowd to join in. I don’t understand all the words, but it is clear they are singing about Quito. After this the train heads back to the city and the journey becomes almost hedonistic as three devils – spirits that are free to play until Christmas Eve – prance through the trains, scaring kids and goading adults. Back at Chimbacalle, I disembark feeling slightly drunk and questioning whether I’ve ever had a ride like it.
This is my last day in Quito, a fitting end to a stay in a city like no other I’ve visited. At just under 3,000 metres and with a population just shy of three million people, it’s one of highest major settlements in the world. Due to being squeezed between several mountains, all 65 kilometres of it snake through the valleys. A month before my visit, there was civil unrest in response to political reforms, but during my stay there was no sign of danger. Just warmth, intrigue and lots of things to see and do.
You can’t go directly to Ecuador from the UK, but Air France fly to Quito via Paris on a swanky Dreamliner and it’s a seamless journey. I have the luxury of business class, and it’s worth it – individual seats that turn into comfy beds and a menu that puts some restaurants to shame. Despite concerns of altitude sickness, I arrive refreshed and ready for my maiden foray into South America.
My first days in Ecuador are not spent in Quito but 100km north of the city. Rather than split up my time there, I decide to head straight to Mashpi Lodge (www.mashpilodge.com) deep in the jungle. It’s not quite the Amazon – technically I’m in the cloud forest – but Mashpi is an ecolodge that supports the local economy and preserves the enormous number of species that you can only find in this country. The majority of employees are indigenous and the lodge, despite its remote location, is five-star and endorsed by National Geographic.
Birds are Mashpi’s thing. A cable car nips through the canopy, allowing me to see all manner of winged creatures. Big butterflies are soon dwarfed by tanagers, parrots and toucans. After a fine feed, it’s time for an evening walk. Frogs are common in this part of the world and I see plenty of them, as well as small serpents and a baby tarantula. Go deeper into the trees and goodness knows what else lurks.
The following morning I rise early to go to an area famed for its hummingbirds. These creatures are tiny yet vibrant with their sharp colours and distinctive noise due to their rapid wing rotations. Not many places marry the luxury of this lodge with the natural beauty of its surroundings.
Then it’s back to Quito for three more days of city life. The old town was the first, along with Krakow in Poland, to be awarded Unesco world heritage status in 1978. The buildings are of colonial style from the Spanish occupation and there are also some Moorish features. The best examples in the old town can be found at Plaza de la Independencia, although my highlights are the Basilica de Voto National – the biggest neo-Gothic example in South America – and La Compania de Jesus church, with an interior smothered in gold leaf which depicts the religious communities that make Quito what it is.
Plonked in the middle of Quito is a hill called El Panecillo with a statue of the Virgin Mary at the summit. The views are breathtaking, only bettered by the cable car that mounts the western mountainsides of the city. At 4,000m, surrounded by the Pichinca region’s volcanoes, words don’t really do the vistas justice. This place is all about the optics. You get so many great sights, be they on the chic street of La Ronda, in the squares, from various churches or from up high.
Ecuador, as the name suggests, is on the equator and you can stand in the middle of the earth in Quito. One of the quirkier activities you can try is to balance an egg on the head of a nail. It is supposed to be straightforward because of the gravitational forces at work, but I was, erm, left with egg on my face.
Boutique hotels are sprouting up in Quito, and my lodgings, Hotel Carlota, come recommended for their location and comfort. I always endorse seeking out a guide, and here you won’t find a more knowledgeable one when it comes to their city than David Pinto.
The food is glorious – my must-try meal is piculo encodado at El Esmereldas Restaurante (www.elesmeraldas.com), a saucy fish dish made of 40 secret ingredients. It has the hallmarks of a Thai red curry. Don’t forget chocolate too – Pacari is the Quito-based brand and it is a lavish, award-winning, organic product.
Just like my train ride, you’ll get something exhilarating and refreshing by visiting Quito. Grab your ticket and jump on board.
- Mashpi Lodge (www.mashpilodge.com) rates for the Wayra (double) room start from $1,340 and the Yaku Suite from $1,624. The price includes meals, soft drinks, lectures, lodging, bilingual tour guide transport from Quito to the lodge, use of poncho and boots.
- Hotel Carlota (www.carlota.ec) rates run from $215 to $550 per night
- Air France. Book Oh Lala Deals! by 21 January. Prices start from £504 including taxes and charges return from Edinburgh to Quito. Business prices start from £1,434, www.airfrance.co.uk