Upscale Markets. Way, Way Up.

From mansion elegance to street vendor chic, the great buys in Ecuador may only be exceeded by the breathtaking environs.
[Map: Hacienda Cusin and Hosteria la Cienega in Ecuador]
Map: Hacienda Cusin and Hosteria la Cienega in Ecuador
By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Haciendas and Indian crafts markets. It sounded like a good way for two women to see Ecuador.

We had it all figured out. We would fly to the capital, Quito, drive a couple of hours north and spend a week traveling south through the Andes, taking in as many of the country's indigenous markets as we could. If we planned it right, we could hit one every day of the week. Along the way, we'd stay at converted haciendas -- historic estates that now offer paying guests a taste of the high life, literally and figuratively.

During our week in the mountains, Adele and I knew we'd find great crafts and luxury trappings at bargain prices. What we didn't expect was how quickly our focus would become blurred by everything else Ecuador's Sierra region has to offer. Quito, our jumping-off point, distracted us immediately with its historic architecture and vibrant urban scene. The stunning beauty of Cotopaxi National Park drew us away from the markets and onto hiking trails and horses. The preserved colonial city of Cuenca instantly won our hearts, and we spent two days exploring its cobbled streets. And throughout the week, we caught tantalizing glimpses of an indigenous culture rich in tradition and rituals.

Let's just say we got a lot more than we bargained for.

* * *

For such a small country (about the size of Colorado), Ecuador is remarkably diverse. Tucked between Colombia and Peru on South America's west coast, it's probably best known as the gateway to the Galapagos Islands. But it has three other ecosystems: the Amazon, the Pacific coast and the Andes, or Sierra, each with its own distinct climate, terrain and culture.

It was the Andes that captured our attention. Running half the length of the country, the mountains are home to a dramatic avenue of volcanoes (including Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world), deep valleys, lakes and farmland, not to mention the grand old haciendas we hoped to stay in.

The haciendas, also called hosterias, were established during the country's Spanish colonization, when they were awarded as land grants by the king. As the estates flourished, their wealthy owners incorporated ornate tile work, terra cotta roofs, archways, verandas, murals and central courtyards into their designs. After the land reforms of the 1960s many of the haciendas were broken up, refurbished and turned into inns, some with spas and activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking. Popular with Ecuadorans, they're just beginning to be discovered by Americans.

We were psyched, but the trip presented a few challenges. Getting around seemed problematic, since the country has no comprehensive train system, and neither of us relished driving the mountain roads. We solved that one by hiring cars and drivers through our innkeepers. It would be pricey, but we'd save so much on market finds . . . .

I also spent way too much time trying to match up haciendas with markets, many of which are open only one or two days a week. Turns out Ecuador has so many shop ops there's no need to be compulsive about it. The stuff practically finds you.

We were a little worried about communicating. English isn't spoken widely, and neither of us speaks Spanish, but we tried. Oh, did we try. Maybe it was my rapidly atrophying brain, maybe it was the altitude, but I moronically kept defaulting to French, and Adele to Italian; interestingly, while French didn't work at all, Italian was easily understood. Adele became our official trip interpreter.

The Trail of Wares

Tip No. 1 for the Andes-bound: Heed the altitude warnings. Quito is the second-highest capital in the world at 9,200 feet, and we had even greater elevations in store. Getting out of bed that first morning and walking five feet to the bathroom, I found I'd turned into a senior citizen overnight, wheezing with the exertion of putting one foot in front of the other. And that was with medication.

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