Ecuador – at the Centre of the Earth:
While South American wines, in general, are well known, it is to Argentina and Chile that we turn when looking at the so-called ‘New World’ wines. Ecuador is not really known for wine, but that is not to say their wine is bad. The small batch production and high costs of shipping mean that most wines are kept and drunk locally, something of a shame as they could certainly hold their own on the world stage. I visited the Chaupi Estancia Winery, a 40-minute drive from Quito, in the small town of Yaruqui.
The Chaupi Estancia Winery is a small organic winery covering 7 hectares and producing a range of wines dependent on the harvests. They have 7 main grape varieties, including Palamina, Cabernet Fran, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and others, which allow then to create quality blended wines. They have won international awards and are recognised as Quito’s wine, but sadly you are unlikely to be able to taste it unless you visit Quito.
It is worth travelling for one hour North through the Andes mountains to visit the Otavalo region, moving across the Andes from one plateau to another. The views are spectacular as you move through the mountains, looking at the spiralling mass of the city and airport behind you and the amazing green fields and lush plantations in front of you, heading down to the Otavalo plateau. The roads are very well maintained and the only danger I could see is that very few drivers use their headlights. It’s a cultural thing!
On the way, we stopped in the town of Cayambe, famous in Ecuador for producing ‘Bizcochos’, a rich buttery biscuit, ideal for eating alongside a coffee or for dunking in chocolate or jam. We watched a small bakery produce some of these great tasting biscuits, and locals buying them warm in open bags.
Ecuador has 5 main exports, oil, bananas, shrimp, coco and roses. It was surprising to learn that Ecuador is the second largest rose producer in the world, and I was lucky enough to visit the La Compania rose plantation, just up from Cayambe, to see the whole process.
The location of the plateau, at the foot of a volcano, makes the whole valley green and fertile, which historically has been used for livestock farming. As markets change, rose plantations have taken over large areas. The proximity to the equator keeps the sun high in the sky, and offers sun all year round, allowing for two rose harvests, of very straight-stemmed roses each year. La Compania produces about 17 million roses a year, and is a big employer of local people, making up for the shrinking livestock farming in the region. There are over 200 rose plantations in Ecuador
Completing the short drive on to Otavalo, we arrive at the Plaza de Ponchos excited to find the Craft Market is in full swing…but then I learn the market is on every day, the traders having used their stalls for generations as if they were shops. A cornucopia of local produce, the market is full of stalls selling traditional rugs, tapestries, ponchos, clothing, as well as delicately embroidered blouses, dresses, scarves and placemats. And, there are stalls selling ornate hand carved wooden items, toys, mats and handcrafted jewellery made from the Tagua nut, known as vegetable ivory.
To the North of the Plaza de Ponchos is a covered food and produce market, again full of locals buying and selling fresh farm produce and sharing meals made in large open canteens or grills. It is much more earthy than the San Francisco market of central Quito but is full of colour and noise from the chatter of people haggling or sharing talk over a meal.
The equator is just north of Quito, and a visit to the Middle of the World Monument is almost obligatory. At this point, you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere. The monument is well laid out, with a display centre running up the middle of it, which you can climb to the top for an even more impressive view. It is surrounded by restaurants serving traditional Ecuadorian food, shops and working displays of local crafts.
Chocolate has a long history in Ecuador and was once used as a currency by the Incas, such was the value placed on its flavour and ‘magical effects’. This value comes from processing the raw coco beans, and there and many shops and displays that will take you through the process of changing the wet white beans into luxury chocolate that we know today. The chocolate production display area is immersive and well worth stopping to see.
A more recent examination by the Geodesic Mission of the area reveals that the ‘true’ equator is about 200m to one side, and there is an exhibition centre placed there with all sorts of fun things you can do at the exact equator line. However, to only be out by 200m is a real achievement for a recorded site that is thousands of years old.
There are so many things to do and see in and around Quito that a week just isn’t enough. On this short trip, I just had time to touch on a region, where, once you are tired of sightseeing a simple 45-minute internal flight will take you to the unspoilt west coast for sunbathing on the beach. Quito is one spot I need to come back to.
I travelled as a guest of Quito Tourism