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Bienvenido a Ecuador

“Be gentle with the cars!”

It’s our first day in Quito and as we weave throughout the cars we find ourselves in Plaza de Grande, the main square of Ecuador’s capital (the second highest capital in the world at 2800 metres above sea level), with a marching band to signify the changing of the guards as Ecuador’s newly elected President waves from the balcony above.

We are staying in one of Quito’s original streets ‘La Rhonda’, overlooked by the “Apocalyptic” Virgin of Quito, and next door to a chocolate shop that uses the local cocoa beans (of course!) rather than exporting them to Mexico where the first chocolate was actually made using Ecuadorian cocoa.

I’m writing this as I sit on a steam train, escorted by fearless men on motorbikes who stop the intersecting traffic, leaving Quito (that is 50 kilometres long) across the Andes towards Guayaquil through the “Valley of Volcanoes”. Out my window, to the left, is Volcán Cotopaxi, the second highest volcano in the country at 5987m, not to mention the highest active volcano that last erupted in August 2015! Volcán Chimborazo is 6310 metres above sea level.

Ecuador is in the “middle of the world” and as we look up, the “cloud forest” (UNESCO protected for the pumas, jaguars and bears that live here which is also home to Ecuador’s most precious plant, the orchid) arches above us.

Have you ever balanced a raw egg on a nail head? Stand on the equator, like we did in Quito, and the unimaginable becomes imaginable. In fact Ecuador was once called Quito but the name of the country was changed to La Republica del Ecuador in 1830 (“ecuador” is the Spanish word for “equator”). You may have noticed that Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador share the same flag colours – all once the same country including the top of Peru and the northern tip of Brazil. As we learn about the art of “shrunken heads” and one of the 142 humming bird species flutters above our heads, we observe water draining directly downwards (rather than in a clockwise rotation as is in the southern hemisphere and an anti-clockwise direction for those in the northern hemisphere).

In Cayambe, one hour south of the Columbian border, roses (one of the biggest industries in Ecuador along with oil from the Amazon, bananas and shrimp) grow directly upwards towards the overhead sun and indulge in the 12 hours of sunlight no matter what the season, routinely rising at 6am and setting at 6pm.

Corn is “the crop of the Andes” – popcorn, roasted corn kernels and steamed corn – combined with quinoa and pork, goat and shrimp ceviche, plantain chips and “special” ice cream delivered by people acting as Cucuruchos, penitents who wear purple robes and cone-shaped hoods, hiding their faces, with two holes for the eyes and who march in the Semana Santa processions starting on Palm Sunday, willing to suffer for their sins

“People live from the land”. In Ecuador, avocadoes grow all year round and the country’s microclimates allow for a wide range of foods to be grown. Garlic and onions at the top of the mountain, potatoes further down and beans further down still. As we descend from the mountains towards sea level, the taller the people, the more colourful the animals and birds and the larger the fruits and vegetables.

On our heritage-listed transport to Otalavo, we wind through fields of beans (85% are exported to Columbia) and tree tomatoes – the juice is absolutely delicious! – and eucalypt forests that remind me of being back at home in Australia. Walking through a rainforest (3200 metres above sea level) of endemic plants and pockets of colour bursting in between the ferns (which are the first plants to regenerate after a volcanic eruption), we give the “Quina” tree (the national tree of Ecuador) a hug to generate good energy.

We continue to climb up to 3600 metres, munching on plantain chips, to visit the last ice merchant in Ecuador, Baltazar Ushca, who lives in Urbina and who climbs for four hours up Volcán Chimborazo to harvest the glacial ice, wrapping it in grass and carrying it back down using donkeys (an eight hour trek in total), and all without gloves! Although other mountains in the world are higher due to the earth’s elliptical shape, Mount Chimborazo is the closest point from our plant to space.

Waving to the children “hola”, as we roll through the Cotopaxi province past rows of broccoli (90 per cent is exported to Germany), we drink freshly squeezed strawberry juice and soak in the apple orchards and strawberry fields of Cevallos that we see from the open terrace of the train – the first time we have seen fruit orchards since leaving Quito high up in the Andes.

Quinoa has been grown for the last 4,000 years in the Andes, and as we leave the geographical centre of Riobamba the fields come alive in purples, reds and yellows. Quinoa harvest is June and July.

From eating roasted guinea pigs (yes, we tasted), to carving “dawa” in Colta, we continue our journey to Guamote (a remote mountain village in the heart of the Central Andes) alongside the rushing Ambrosi River lined either side by rice fields and children walking to school.

“Alli puncha” (“good morning” in Ecuador’s predominant language, Kichwa), is how we greet the kind and generous indigenous people wearing their beautiful hot pink and bright green traditional clothing at the Guamote Market – one of the most colourful markets I have ever been to and the last remaining indigenous market in the Andes.

After tasting salted fish and sweet sapote and bananas, we begin our vertiginous descent of 450 metres, zigzagging towards the coastal plains across the mystical Devil’s Nose pass where the majestic condor used to nest. The Guamote region is 95 per cent indigenous, has developed slower than other regions of Ecuador and is the second poorest region in the country, but in spite of 500 years of oppression following the Spanish conquerors entering Ecuador in the 16th Century, the indigenous culture is still strong and resilient.

We meander through the pineapple crops, rows of sugarcane and cocoa plants, sipping on a famous Ecuadorean drink of babaco, pineapple, strawberries and blackberries and on the outskirts of Naranjito we make 100 per cent cocoa chocolate using locally roasted cocoa beans.

For the second time in my life I attempt to milk a Brown Jersey and then devour the warm milk before savouring an Ecuadorean Chardonnay and local sea bass for lunch at Hacienda La Danesa.

As the train sways from side to side we approach Duran on the outskirts of Guayaquil, passing through rice paddy fields and cattle swimming through the paddocks. The steam train accidently gets hooked in a low lying cable and the driver works tirelessly to untangle the “old girl” free by tying the line back up with weed. The horn bellows to warn lazing dogs on the track to move as the kites and herrings circle above.

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