Roger St. Pierre explores fascinating Ecuador, perched high on the Equator
It was bizarre. There we were, almost directly on the line of the Equator, sat in the opulent salon of a stately hacienda, huddled round a blazing log fire and sipping mugs of hot chocolate to ward off the chill evening air.
But, then, we were at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet in the heart of the majestic Andes. Close by stood the only mountain on the centre-line of our planet that has a snowbound summit all year round. It seemed to me as odd as it would be to come across penguins in the Sahara!
Welcome to Ecuador's stunningly beautiful 'Avenue of the Volcanoes' where there's no spring, summer, autumn, winter but only wet season and dry season.
Our arrival in the capital city of Quito could not have been more spectacular as the plane threaded its way past towering peaks, banked steeply and landed at the airport, which is set in a narrow valley right in the city suburbs. The view of this fascinating metropolis, clinging precipitously to its steep hillsides, was as breathtaking as the thin mountain air that had me gasping for breath and feeling dizzy.
I was lucky. It took me just a day to acclimatise where others suffer ongoing altitude sickness.
Quito was full of pleasant surprises. I already knew that it had become the first ever UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its extensive and painstakingly restored Spanish Colonial old town, but I wasn't expecting it to have such a thoroughly modern side to its nature. Chic boutiques, plush shopping plazas, trendy bars, hip nightclubs, gourmet restaurants and quality hotels are present in abundance.
There's an air of growing affluence, with a burgeoning middle class. It's true some of the trucks are wrecks but most of the cars snared in the endless flow of traffic seemed fairly new.
It might seem an odd observation to make but in a land where art and artists are held in high esteem, I was impressed most of all by the quality of packaging design, even for the most everyday items.
Crime rates are low, the people are friendly and English is widely understood, while the banknotes used are US dollars - though Ecuadorian coins are also still in circulation.
I would be walking up and down a succession of dizzyingly steep, narrow, die-straight streets, so it made sense to kick off with an easygoing first day, for which the delightful Hotel Patio Andaluz - luxurious traditionalism set around a glassed-over central courtyard - made a perfect base.
My guided city tour next day started with one of the jewels of South American Baroque architecture - the magnificent La Compañía Jesuit church, whose intricately carved altars are covered in OTT gold leaf.
Set within the meticulously restored Casa del Alabado, which dates back to 1671, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art pays testament to Ecuador's millennia old human history.
Skills that have been handed down through the ages had me enthralled at the Escuela Taller ('Workshop School') run by the Quito School of Art, in an old hospital.
Set right on the main square, the appropriately named Hotel Plaza Grande looks across to the presidential palace. It's Quito's fanciest boutique hotel.
I knew I'd eat well. Ecuador is the world's second largest source of prawns and in the Grande's elegant restaurant they come big, fat and succulent, marinated in lime juice and served as a ceviche - the vegetarian version of which is based on succulent palm hearts.
Seafood specialities are also the gastronomic cornerstone at La Nuestra, in the heart of modern Quito's business district, but the best of the several dishes on the ceviche theme that I enjoyed was at La Choza in the La Floresta district.
If you have the time, it is also well worth visiting Quito's Botanical Gardens, whose hothouses boast 500 glorious varieties of orchid, but most visitors spend only a couple of days in the capital and then high-tail it for the Galapagos Islands. I headed instead for the Mindo cloud forest, renowned for its butterflies and hummingbirds. Just north of the Equator, the crater of the dormant Pululahua volcano is regarded by the locals as 'the navel of the earth'. Close by, I visited the El Pahuma private nature reserve. From there I took a bumpy back road to Bellavista, a delightful reserve and lodge straddling a narrow ridge deep in the forest, with accommodation in brick and wood outbuildings, with thatched roofs and a plethora of feeders for the hundreds of tiny hummingbirds.
At the Equator itself, the lie was given to Stephen Fry's assertion on 'QI' that the direction in which the water flows down a plughole is not determined by which hemisphere you happen to be in - or perhaps they made it happen by mirrors. At least, this and other physics demonstrations gave me light relief from the display of genuine shrunken heads that had been collected from remote tribes from Ecuador's portion of Amazonia.
Lunch was taken with the gracious owner in the spacious antiques-filled manor house at the amazing La Compañía flower farm, one of the world's largest producers of cut roses where a late morning shower left in its wake an almost overpoweringly intoxicating smell of rose blooms.
Then it was out to the Hacienda Zuleta - where this story began - to ride horses and visit the condor sanctuary, where I saw seven of these magnificent birds riding the thermals in the wild, before spending a night in Spanish Colonial splendour, dining magnificently before relaxing at the fireside and learning more about the current owner's forebears and their colourful role in Ecuador's history.
Next day, nearby Otavalo's street market, the largest in all South America, offered all manner of high-quality souvenirs, from Panama hats - actually an Ecuadorian invention - to ponchos, cossetingly soft alpaca knitwear, colourful rugs, delicate Indian jewellery and myriad handicrafts.
My final night was spent 10,000 feet up in the Andes, at the Papallacta Thermal Springs Resort, just two hours' drove from beckoning Quito.
Infinitely varied scenery, a rich colonial heritage, great cuisine, quality accommodation and a warm welcome - Ecuador has it all.
Roger St. Pierre travelled to Ecuador with Journey Latin America (0208 747 8315), who specialise in tailor-made holidays and group tours throughout South and Central America.
A 10-night stay in Ecuador visiting Quito, Mindo cloud forest, Hacienda Zuleta near Otavalo and the Papallacta thermal springs starts from £2,319 per person. This price includes flights from Heathrow via Madrid, private transfers in Ecuador, mid-range accommodation and most meals.
For more information on Quito, go to quito.com.ec.
* This 'Factbox' is not sponsored. I commission journalists to write travel articles and supply a factbox because I think it is useful information.