Andean attractions

by Victoria James

When you’re tired from trekking around Quito’s Old Town, there are plenty of distractions to be found just a short drive from the Ecuadorean capital. Here are five of the best:

Otavalo

With 7,000 traders, mostly Indian women from across Ecuador and neighboring Peru, Otavalo is the largest market in South America. Particularly lovely are the bright, woven tablecloths, bags and embroidered shirts. Knitted finger puppets of Andean animals are the cutest choice — a bargain at two for a dollar.

If souvenirs aren’t your scene, the colorful fruit and produce market is worth a look.

Hacienda Pinsaqui

A 5-km drive north of Otavalo, the beautiful Hacienda Pinsaqui, built in 1790, was a regular stopover for Simon Bolivar, the hero of the struggle for South American independence. These days the luxurious suite he stayed in, and others, are available for $99 a night.

If you’re just passing through, drop in for lunch — perhaps the national dish of churritos (fried pork) — and a stroll through the hacienda’s elegant gardens. (They have hammocks for the lazy or those who’ve overeaten.)

Volcan Guagua

Not the highest volcano in the region — that honor belongs to Volcan Cotopaxi — the 4,781-meter Volcan Guagua sits high in the spectacular Andean countryside. You can rent a four-wheel drive vehicle and drive to a refuge at the base of the summit trail, from where it’s a one-hour walk to the top, or take a bus to the nearest village, Lloa. From Lloa, it’s a grueling 5- or 6-hour hike to the refuge (at 4,550 meters).

History buffs may thrill to learn that Alexander von Humboldt, the great German naturalist, visited Guagua on May 26, 1802, to study the smoke vents.

Papallacta

This charming hot-spring is patronized mostly by Ecuadoreans. Locals from nearby towns and villages use its inexpensive public baths; the wealthy from Quito frequent the spa complex, which has just undergone an extensive makeover.

Be sure to tire yourself out first with a hike up the valley behind the springs — it’s an excellent place to spot typical Andean flora and fauna.

The equator

Frankly cheesey, wherever you stop. But taking a photo of yourself straddling the equatorial line that gives Equador its name is nonetheless a touristy must-do.

What’s so special about the equator in Equador? (It runs around the world, after all.) In 1736, the International Geodesic Expedition to fix the precise latitude of the equator came to Ecuador to make its definitive measurements.