Ecuador, a country known primarily for The Galapagos, has so much more to show off: the Andes, the Amazon, indigenous cultures, cuisine and traditions, rapids and waterfalls and birds and monkeys, and in Quito, the most well-preserved Spanish city in the world.
When Senior Video Producer Matt Paco got the assignment to travel to shoot the videos in Ecuador for Lonely Planet’s annual Best in Travel list, he contacted our Elsewhere by Lonely Planet local expert in Ecuador, María Augusta Ávila Maldonado.
María Augusta was the ideal person to act as fixer, location scout and logistician, her relationships and her passion for her country ensured the crew would get both an authentic and comprehensive shoot, filled with local personalities and one-of-a-kind experiences. With only five days to shoot, Matt and the crew set out to capture as much of what this country has to offer.
I recently caught up with Matt to find out more about this trip to Ecuador: what they did, where they went and to get his impressions from the breakneck tour. His short time there and the footage they shot are proof positive that Ecuador is more than worthy of its place in Best in Travel 2024.
Arrival in Quito
“First, let me say at the outset that traveling with the expertise of a local expert has changed the way I thought about booking travel myself. I was surprised, because as a producer with budget constraints, an amazing luxury hotel, let alone a Relais & Chateaux, wouldn’t have been my first pick, but María Augusta and her team knew better. Casa Gangotena had the ideal combination of being affordable, elegant and you can walk to all the sites,” Matt says. Located in Quito’s Old Town, Casa Gangotena is a perfect example of neoclassical architecture. It also boasts art-deco furnishings, a rooftop terrace and 270-degree views of the city and its surrounding volcanoes, an ideal home base from which to see everything. Quito’s Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site full of gilded 16th-century sanctuaries, atmospheric monasteries and palm-fringed plazas that draw a mesmerizing cross-section of Ecuadorian society
Day 1: Churches, squares and salsa
El Panecillo (the Little Loaf of Bread): the hill to the south of the Old Town. Topped with a 135 ft-tall aluminum mosaic statue of La Virgen de Quito (Virgin of Quito), with a crown of stars, angelic wings and a chained dragon, Loaf of Bread), at the summit of El Panecillo find breathtaking views of the city and the volcanoes that surround it.
Somos: A sublime Ecuadorian restaurant from chef and founder Alejandra Espinoza, who was born and grew up in Quito. She moved to France at 16 and trained there and the United States, before returning home to craft her global take on classic Ecuadorian dishes. Try her dumplings le Cuy (guinea pig dumplings with pine mushroom broth, sweet soy sauce, chili oil and cilantro), and take in the vibrant murals painted by Ecuador’s celebrated muralist, Apitatán.
Salsoteca Lavoe and a Chiva Party Bus: Nightlife in Quito means – music and dancing and a festive, raucous energy pulsate through the streets and at the club. Salsa the night away or watch the show. Either way, good times.
San Francisco Square: The crew caught a special performance of Ballet Folklórico Nacional Jacchigua (who usually perform at a theater) in Quito’s most beautiful cobblestone plaza with a mountainous backdrop of Volcán Pichincha and the glorious twin bell towers of Ecuador’s oldest church.
Day 2: Middle of the world (and spirits)
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús: Capped by green-and-gold domes, La Compañía de Jesús is Quito’s most ornate church and a standout among the baroque splendors of the Old Town. Check out the chiaroscuro-style series of paintings called the 16 Prophets by Nicolás Javier de Goribar and the large canvas Hell and Final Judgement from 1879. "What was really cool about La Compañía was being able go to the rooftop for amazing views of Quito and to see the church's interior dome up close," Matt says.
Mitad del Mundo: Straddling the equator – hence its name – Ecuador is one of the few places where travelers can take selfies of themselves with one foot in each hemisphere. You can also balance an egg on a nail and witness fluid drain clockwise – because of science. It’s all very cute, but none of it is accurate. Case in point: it’s in the wrong place. Modern GPS sets the record straight, placing the true equator several hundred feet north of the "Middle of the World." Myths and mistakes aside, it’s still a fun day out.
Casa Agave: This restaurant and distillery is focused on making and distributing Miske, a uniquely Ecuadorian spirit that is reminiscent of tequila or mezcal, though it is prepared by harvesting nectar from the Agave plant.
After two days in Quito running hither and thither to capture all of these incredible experiences, people and sites, Matt shared some takeaways that travelers to the city might find useful. “Quito is a very walkable city, and I wish I had more time to just be a tourist. Driving is easier than I thought it would be, and that’s great, because Quito is so huge.”
Day 3: The Andes adventure
Now comes the outdoor, adventure and indigenous culture, the crew drove about 90 minutes outside of Quito to check in to Hacienda El Porvenir: Owned by local outfit Tierra del Volcán, this thatch-roofed property is a 22-room hotel, restaurant and working ranch on the slopes of Rumiñahui Volcano near Cotopaxi National Park.
The property is a century old, with interconnected dwellings steeped in sustainability, growing their own vegetables and producing their own milk and cheese. Surrounded by four volcanoes, it’s an ideal location from which to explore the area’s natural beauty and take part in the area's multiple adventures. When guests are ready to go to sleep – even in the summer it gets really cold at night – they’ll find their rooms have wood-burning furnaces and hot water bottles to stay toasty warm in bed.
On this day, Matt and the crew were busy filming across multiple locations in and around Cotopaxi, including Chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys) atop their mounts, riding and roping, downhill biking in Cotopaxi National Park, and the stunning 80 m-high Condor Machay waterfall.
“Ecuador is a land of waterfalls,” Matt says. “They were so beautiful and I wish we had more time to see them.”
The day wrapped at Las Rutas de los Volcanes, a small restaurant where the crew ate and filmed Ecuador’s famous soup locro de papas (Ecuadorian potato and cheese soup). “They serve it on fire. It’s really cool and visual.”
After dinner, the crew returned to Hacienda El Porvenir to shoot Chagras musicians play guitar by the fire, right before calling it a night after an action-packed day.
Day 4: Ranching, roping and birding
The day began with a 5:45 am call time to interview Tierra del Volcán’s owner, Jorje Perez as well as his wife and partner, Maria José Andrade, to talk about their commitment to responsible tourism, sustainability and to share their love for Ecuador and give us a sense of what it’s like to call this incredible place home and the joy of sharing it with others.
Then it was time for some action, spending time with the ranch staff, who literally showed the crew the ropes (okay, roping techniques). At the ranch you can milk the cows, move the horses and the llamas.
Before lunch and departing Porvenir, the crew followed the Chagras as they raced their horses along the slopes of the Rumiñahui Volcano.
In the afternoon, they drove over three hours to Cabañas San Isidro, about two hours southwest of Quito. Once a cattle ranch, this 3700-acre nature reserve enjoys a spectacular setting with first-class bird-watching; co-owner Mitch Lysinger is one of the top birders in South America. (He holds the Guinness world record for seeing the most birds in one day.)
. After shooting the cloud forest environs, birds and monkeys. “At sunset the hummingbirds come, and they’re feeding as you’re eating your dinner, “ Matt says.
Day 5: Tena and beyond
After a morning filming birdwatching (more exciting than it sounds) and interviewing Mitch, the team decamped about an hour south to Tena for some rafting with Andres Charpentier from Small World Adventures. The Lonely Planet crew got their safety briefing and hopped onto the rafts to capture the adrenaline of the rapids. If you plan to go, one of the most popular trips is to the upper Río Napo (called Jatunyacu locally, which means ‘big water’ in Kichwa), where rafters can tackle a fun 25km stretch of Class III+ white water, suitable for all levels.
The penultimate stop was Puerto Misahuallí to see Comunidad Shiripuno: A couple of kilometers downriver from town (arriving by canoe) is this Shiripuno community tourism project Run mostly by the women of the village, there you can see traditional dance, guayusa tea preparation and chocolate-making demonstrations. “It was so special to me. One of the Kichwa women painted my face to ward off evil spirits – it was so moving to be with her and just to be there.
On the last night in Ecuador, the crew stayed at the Palma Polo Club, mostly because it was near to the airport. Like everything in Ecuador, it turned out to be amazing. “You can watch people play polo from your room, and the rooms are huge,” Matt says. “If you want to do something totally different, it’s pretty cool."
Summing up the entire trip, Matt says, "Ecuador is all about the unexpected. I can't wait to go back."