IT sits in a small corner in northern South America, 20,000km and multiple time zones away on the other side of the world, but Ecuador has a few things in common with Singapore, not least of which are a tropical climate (at sea level, anyway) and yes, the Equator, that imaginary line at latitude 0 degrees running around the centre of the planet.
In theory, it would be possible to dig a hole from Singapore through the earth's core and end up in Ecuador - although flying there would be a lot faster. Singapore's location just north of the Equator also means that unlike Ecuador, it isn't able to build tourist sites featuring Equator museums and monuments with lines on the ground marking the centre of the world. Instead, we will have to make do with the Merlion.
A trip to South America requires commitment and ideally a sense of adventure on the part of the traveller. While Ecuador probably isn't going to be the first country on the continent you visit, perhaps it ought to be. For a country that is roughly the size of New Zealand and home to about 14 million people, the sheer diversity on offer is impressive (admittedly the food isn't world class yet but it's improving all the time).
The tourist brochures claiming that Ecuador is actually four worlds in one are not entirely accurate - it actually feels like a whole lot more than that. In brief, the country can be divided into four regions: the Andes mountain range running north to south through the spine of the country, the Amazon rainforest to the west, the coastal strip bordering the Pacific Ocean and - 1,000km off the coast, the Galapagos Islands that famously helped spawn Darwin's theories on evolution.
While Singapore has just been labelled the most expensive city in the world to live in, it still lags behind in the World Heritage Site department. On the other hand, Quito and Cuenca are two colonial cities with that status (the Galapagos and Sangay National Park in central Ecuador are also World Heritage Sites). Both are located at high altitudes (Quito at 2,800m and Cuenca slightly lower) and were founded in the mid-16th century (pre-dated in ancient times by Inca societies), and feature well-preserved colonial-era buildings.
Cuenca in particular is popular among Westerners looking to relocate and retire in cities with comfortable climates, well-developed infrastructure, a low crime rate and an affordable cost of living. In 2000, the local currency the sucre was officially replaced by the US dollar, and with the current minimum wage at roughly US$330 a month, it's possible for two people to live comfortably in Ecuador on just US$1,500 per month, including rent.
It's difficult to imagine that Quito stretches for about 60km in one direction and is up to 15km wide, but it has a population of just 1.4 million. The capital city is ringed by volcanoes and the skyline is dominated by the twin church towers of the 19th-century Basilica de Voto Nacional. Cuenca, 440km south along the Andes, is an even more charming town, built at the confluence of four rivers and surrounded by mountains on all sides.
There were no roads or railway line to Cuenca until 1967 and as a consequence Cuenca is a particularly pedestrian-friendly town. The historic centre, spread over 15 square blocks, features a blend of Spanish colonial architecture and more recent buildings in the neo-classical style, built between the 1920s and 1940s. In those days, the thriving local economy was driven by just one industry: making Panama hats.
"Cuenca is a city of half a million people in the middle of the Andes but it feels like a little country village," says Juan Munoz, a guide who was greeted by several fellow Cuencanos during a walking tour of the old town. "The water quality is good, the people are friendly and the cost of living is not high. It's safe, clean and depending on your preference you can hike for 10 minutes or three days."
There is also a burgeoning food scene here, driven by young chefs who trained abroad and are now building a reputation at home with New Ecuadoran Cuisine. "To go to a country and not experience the food is not to go to a country," says Juan Carlos Solano, owner-chef at Tiestos, a popular sharing-plates restaurant in the city centre where ingredients are locally sourced and dishes are inspired by traditional recipes then given a modern twist and cooked on open fires in clay plates.
Volcanoes and cloud forests
Singapore may have Orchard Road but Ecuador has the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a name coined by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt in the early-19th century. Where there are hotels and shopping centres lining one, the other features a 325km-long valley between two parallel mountain ranges, with eight of Ecuador's 10 tallest summits on either side. Ecuador is home to over 70 volcanoes, the tallest of which is Cotopaxi (5,897m), located in a national park just a two-hour drive south of Quito.
The sight of Cotopaxi's perfect snow-covered cone will leave you breathless but if it doesn't, a climb up its steep slopes certainly will. You won't get to the top without proper climbing equipment but those in search of a decent physical challenge can walk straight uphill (from a carpark several hundred metres below) to a refuge at 4,800m. Even if you're in great physical shape however, the high altitudes in Ecuador can pose major problems so it's best to acclimatize properly.
Cotopaxi (or 'neck of the moon') is the most famous mountain in the country and attracts its fair share of visitors, but if you prefer to walk in solitude, then Antisana Ecological Reserve will do very nicely. Here, about 80km southeast of Quito, at altitudes of 1,400m and higher in the foothills of Antisana (5,753m), is a pristine and rarely-explored wilderness region.
The area is home to a unique variety of flora and fauna, including endangered and near-endangered species such as the mountain tapir and the white-fronted spider monkey. On the day I visited, three Andean condors rode the thermals above me in search of prey - with wingspans of up to 2.5m, the birds were a magnificent sight to behold.
Mashpi Cloud Forest Reserve
Birds of a feather pretty much flock together all over Mashpi Cloud Forest, a 3,000 acre private reserve deep in the Ecuadoran rainforest and notably rich in biodiversity about 110km or a three-hour drive from Quito. Here, some 400 species of birds can be found, including Ecuador's national bird - the hummingbird. At Mashpi, more than two dozen species of hummingbird inhabit the forest around the 1,200m level, making this patch of forest a haven for birds as well as the ornithology-inclined.
The thickly-forested area - once part of a logging concession - is now a model for conservation. Land that had previously been cleared by loggers is occupied by Mashpi Lodge, a luxury eco-hotel from which excursions to the forest can be made. Mashpi is often shrouded in cloud and it is also one of the wettest regions in Ecuador, but a stay here is destined to be a major highlight of any visit.
"There are many reasons to preserve places like this," says Sebastian Vizcarra, a nature guide at Mashpi. "Besides the beauty and the biodiversity, many of the plants can be used to make medicines for human diseases - and local people also depend on the forest for clean water." Vizcarra pauses long enough to pick up a scary-looking millipede from the forest floor. "Eat this creature and you will die," he says.
"Everything here is in perfect balance - that's why the trees here are so huge," says Vizcarra. "We need to preserve places like this or we will disappear as a species. When people come to Mashpi, I try to bring them back to what we are - a part of nature. We tend to forget that."
The writer's fuss-free and fully-guided trip to Ecuador was organized by Gentian Trails (www.gentiantrails.com)
THE PANAMA CONNNECTION
IN 1904, a project to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via a 77 km-long ship canal was still being built in the Isthmus of Panama when visiting US President Theodore Roosevelt - a keen hat wearer - took a liking to the straw hat commonly worn by workers to protect themselves from the searing heat. He was photographed wearing one and the fate of a popular misnomer - the boxes in which the hats were sent from factories in Cuenca were marked "Panama" - was sealed.
A genuine Panama hat is woven from a palm-like plant called the toquilla palm, found in abundance in the swamps around Ecuador's central coast and identifiable by fan-shaped leaves at the end of a long stalk. Depending on quality, involving the tightness of the weave - a single hat can take months to produce and cost between US$20 and US$2,000 or higher.
At the very top end, superfinos (because they can hold water or be rolled up and passed through a wedding ring) can command prices of US$10,000 and more. An ordinary straw hat is already expensive by Ecuadoran standards (sombreros Shaman, the wool hats favoured by native Indians and worn daily, are far more affordable) and it's no surprise therefore that there are many hat repair shops scattered around Cuenca.
At the industry's peak in the mid-20th century, the hats - known locally as sombreros de paja toquilla - were the principal export item of Ecuador. Of the 300,000 or so inhabitants in the Cuenca region during the first half of the 20th century, roughly 250,000 were involved in making Panama hats. Nowadays, the industry has dipped while other arts and crafts - such as jewellery-making - still feature prominently in this heritage city.
Typically, the plants are cut into pliable strips when still young and transformed into the raw material for weaving. The first stage of weaving is done in villages and then the hats are transported to factories in Cuenca where the finishing touches - trimming, dyeing and blocking (there are some 52 shapes available) - are applied.
There are just five companies - multi-generation family-run businesses - making Panama hats in Cuenca. In the past, a company might have made 10 million hats a year but these days that number is nearer one million. In recent years, however, the market has picked up, thanks apparently to the phenomenon of global warming.
THE Galapagos Islands were founded in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, bishop of Panama, whose ship was becalmed and diverted by the Humboldt Current to this archipelago of 19 volcanic isles about 1,000km off the west coast of Ecuador. The bishop wasn't all that impressed but 300 years later, Charles Darwin arrived on the survey vessel HMS Beagle and stayed long enough to develop a little theory about evolution that made him famous.
The Galapagos themselves evolved into a famed tourist destination, home to a fabulous variety of endemic wildlife, including the giant tortoises that are synonymous with the islands. The carapace on one species of giant tortoise resembles a type of riding saddle - known in Spanish as galapago.
The islands were opened to tourism in 1969 and designated a World Heritage Site in 1978. Visits to the islands are both tightly regulated and relatively expensive - the irony is that ordinary Ecuadorans cannot afford to come here. Visitor arrivals currently number around 200,000 per year and most itineraries involve small cruise ships that hop among islands, many of which will yield an interesting variety of birdlife such as frigates, penguins, pelicans and blue-footed boobies as well as large colonies of sea lions.
A typical island visit takes an hour or two and is restricted to one or two groups at a time. As a result, the wildlife is incredibly nonchalant about human incursions into their personal spaces and it will be possible to get up close and personal with the bird or mammal of your choice.
It is also possible to plan a land-bound stay, most likely on the main island of Santa Cruz, where the roads are blissfully free of traffic, save the odd giant tortoise or two (there are about 4,000 of one particular species on the island and perhaps 25,000 in total). Only a handful of islands are inhabited, and hotels and guest houses are also available on San Cristobal and Isabella.
NAPO WILDLIFE CENTRE
FROM my elevated perch atop a tower in the middle of the tropical rainforest, there is a 360-degree view of the pristine natural beauty surrounding the Napo Wildlife Centre, a remote eco-lodge tucked away in the Ecuadoran Amazon. Getting here requires a short plane ride to Coca, an oil town on the eastern fringe of the country at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers, followed by a three-hour journey downriver by motorized canoe and another 90-minute paddle by canoe along a narrow creek.
It's worth the effort. The wildlife centre is located 77km from Coca along the banks of a small lake. From here, visitors explore the surrounding area, by canoe and also on Wellington boot-covered feet. The centre is located within Yasuni National Park, a million-hectare tract with biodiversity that is among the richest on earth.
In recent years the area has attracted the attention of conservationists because it also happens to be home to a significant proportion of Ecuador's oil reserves - reserves that have already been committed by the government and are now being tapped by international oil companies. Yasuni's plight is a complex one and it won't be easily resolved, but here in the primary forest, surrounded by 30-metre-high trees and with the sights and sounds of woolly monkeys, golden tamarinds, giant otters and multiple species of birds fresh in my memory, the only conceivable thought is that this place must be preserved.