Whistleblowers may head to Ecuador for political reasons, but this land of snow-capped mountains, dense rainforest and colourful festivals has a wealth of attractions to offer visitors. Sarah Marshall finds herself giddy with excitement on a trip to Quito, the highest capital in the world.
Despite being one of the smallest countries in the continent, Ecuador is remarkably diverse in terms of both landscape and population.
It’s also no stranger to controversy. Thanks to the government’s liberalism - not to mention defiant anti-American leanings - it’s becoming a refuge for whistleblowers: both WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and NSA’s Edward Snowden have turned to the country for assistance.
But there are many more reasons to visit Ecuador than simply seeking political asylum.
Wildlife-rich jungles, snow-capped volcanoes and miles of unspoilt coastline can be reached within a matter of hours. But a highlight is a visit to Quito. Snaking through the Andes at an altitude of 2,800m above sea level, it’s the highest capital city in the world.
Gazing up at the gold-encrusted nave of the 17th century church of La Compania de Jesus, which took 160 years to build, I can appreciate why this was the first city in the world to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
My visit coincides with Holy Week, when devotees, known as Cucuruchos, in purple robes and tall cone hoods march solemnly through the streets in the pouring rain, some self-flagellating with thorns and poison ivy, others dragging heavy wooden crosses.
The procession ends in Plaza de Santo Domingo, the main square, where a flock of pigeons scores an appropriately grey streak across the sky. Bystanders look on, keeping warm with helpings of fanesca, a traditional Easter soup made with hard-boiled eggs, salt cod, milk and 12 types of bean, served in small plastic carrier bags.
It’s a hearty, calorie-packed meal, but at this altitude the body’s metabolism apparently speeds up, so I don’t feel quite so guilty about joining in.
From every rooftop and high point, it’s clear that Quito is surrounded by natural beauty, and day trips out of town confirm this.
I set off on a two-hour drive to Otavalo, one of the best indigenous markets in South America, where Quechua people sell heavy ponchos and thick alpaca jumpers alongside racks of Panama hats - which in fact, I’m told, originate from Ecuador.
On my way, I stop off at Calderon, a small village famous for its ornaments made from hardened bread dough.
As we climb into the Andes, temperatures drop and evenings are spent sipping canelazo, made with cinnamon and firewater, in front of a roaring fire at traditional Spanish hacienda Pinsaqui, where military and political leader Simon Bolivar once stopped off for the night.
The region is populated by craftsmen, some of whom marched into Quito only days before. On the wall of one musician’s workshop hang paintings by Ecuador’s world-famous indigenous artist Oswaldo Guayasamin
As I’m quickly learning, for a country so small, Ecuador has a lot to shout about.