I’d always been interested in the plants of South America, many of which grow in our gardens and conservatories, so I couldn’t resist a trip to Ecuador to see its flora and habitats. Close to the equator, but 2800m above sea level, the climate of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, feels Mediterranean. Nearby there are dry plateaux and volcanic cones, but as you descend the slopes of the Andes, you quickly find tropical forests.
Modern routes have made remote regions accessible for tourists, so over just a few days you can see the baroque architecture of Unesco World Heritage listed Quito old town, buy hand-crafted garments in a traditional regional market and stay at an eco-reserve. For a plant-mad gardener like me, this region was fascinating. I hope the following experiences will give you a taste of the highlights of my trip.
Relax on the roof terrace of Casa Gangotena
Sip a cocktail as you gaze out over the cupola of the Church of the Compania de Jesus, towards the volcanic peaks in the distance. I stayed several nights in Casa Gangotena, a luxury hotel that faces onto the Plaza San Francisco in the heart of Quito’s historic old town. Originally a family home, it excels in good service, fine dining and comfortable rooms. Optional guest activities include visiting a 17th century convent and tasting Ecuadorian hot chocolate with cheese, a traditional local combination.
Visit the church and convent of San Francisco
A must-see for anyone visiting Quito, this is just one of the treasures that has earned the city UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The enclosure contains a magnificent church, bedecked in baroque gold leaf, a brewery where you can taste some of Ecuador’s craft beers and a bell tower, with panoramic views of the city.
Explore the Botanical Garden of Quito
Any traveller who is interested in Ecuador’s flora should visit Quito’s botanical garden. Measured by square kilometre, Ecuador is the most biodiverse country in the planet, which means there’s a lot to learn! My trip to the botanical garden gave me a valuable insight into ecosystems as varied as the cloud forest and the high-altitude paramo. For sheer colour impact, the orchid houses are hard to beat, showing hundreds of orchid species out of a record-breaking 4000 found in the country.
Visit Miguel Andrago’s weaving workshop
Learn how artisanal weavers process natural yarn from alpacas, sheep and cotton plants. This family-run workshop demonstrates how natural fibres are processed into fine yarns for woven and knitted products. You can see the natural materials used to make colourful dyes and how teasels combed through raw wool prepare it for the spinning wheel.
Immerse yourself in roses at Hacienda la Compania de Jesus
This neoclassical house is owned by a family who produce roses for the floristry trade in the UK. My trip to their home included a traditional lunch of corn, sweet potato, avocado and plantain, followed by a walk through lush gardens to the rose nursery. The blooms are prized for uniformity and straight stems, so are carefully graded before being packed incredibly tightly into narrow cardboard boxes.
Take part in a Tayta Gundo Kaya Wasi musical workshop
I was bowled over by my visit to the home of a traditional musician and craftsman, who makes pipes from bamboo and rattles from seeds. During a musical demonstration, I found myself on percussion while he played pipe music! This community project teaches music to children, giving them skills to enable them to support themselves for a future living and working in their native region.
Wake up in the cloud forest at Mashpi Lodge
Located in a biodiversity hotspot called the Choco forest, Mashpi Lodge accommodates a mixture of biologists and tourists, all eager to explore a habitat that is teeming with life. There are few things more exciting than arriving in your hotel room, to discover that one whole wall is a glass window onto the cloud forest. If you rise before dawn you can listen to the haunting sound of the forest waking up from one of the lodge terraces as the light gradually increases. The Mashpi experience is coupled with great gourmet meals, some of which can be taken while trekking in the field!
Learn how to conserve tropical butterflies
A short walk from your lodging at Mashpi Lodge takes you to the Life Centre butterfly farm and research station where you can eat breakfast while watching rare tropical birds feeding. Here butterfly cocoons hang in cabinets, to be released on hatching into a protected zone. These creatures are beautiful and it’s a real treat to be within feet them.
Get close to hummingbirds
There are 130 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador, with 22 of these found at Mashpi. Seeking sugar for energy, these beautiful birds can be summoned for observation and photography at a feeding station close to your lodging. Watching them flit about is a magical experience, as you hear their wings rapidly beating and gaze at their brilliant feathers. I was surprised to see how diverse these birds were, some with long tails, others with knife-like beaks and some tiny, while fiercely territorial.
Take a night trek to meet tree frogs
There are plenty of guided daytime treks to take at Mashpi, giving you the chance to ride over the forest canopy on the ‘Sky Bike’ or the ‘Dragonfly’ cable car. These rides give you the best view of the forest’s bromeliads and orchids. You can cool off in waterfalls or walk through clear streams, too. But the most exciting treks must be the night time ones, which give you a better opportunity to see snakes, spiders and frogs. The scientists stationed at Mashpi are constantly monitoring these creatures, in fact they have discovered, and named, a new frog species – the Mashpi torrenteer frog.
“On a trip to Ecuador you’re guaranteed to see stunning scenery and a huge diversity of plants and animals, many of which are rare or even endangered. The chance to visit magnificent architecture and local craft cooperatives was the icing on the cake for me, leaving me keen to return for a longer visit another time.”