Ecuador – hidden gems close to Quito

Eco-Tours at San Jorge Eco-Lodges & Botanical Reserves – The Magic Hiking Circuit

Ecuador is a perfect destination for  eco-adventures. The bio-diversity, natural wonders, Incan culture and high quality of eco-tourism are a big attraction for active travelers, nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, botanists, biologist and nature photographers from all over the world. Just north of Quito is the equator (that fictitious line in the middle of the Earth).

I want to share my experience from a recent trip to Ecuador with a group of hikers and nature fans from Los Angeles area. We were booked on a 10-day eco-tour » The Magic Hiking Circuit of Ecuador«. The tour itinerary was interesting and exciting, promising great experiences. We took a flight from Los Angeles to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The view from the plane only moments before landing was spectacular. The city, elevation 2750 meters, is surrounded by towering volcanic peaks and pristine cloud forest.

On arrival to Quito Airport we were greeted by the manager of San Jorge Eco-Lodge & Botanical Reserve/Quito that is only 20 minutes from Quito airport, located in the Pichincha Foothills.  Our home for  next two nights was a beautiful 18th Century Hosteria, nestled in a rustic mountain setting in the foothills above Quito (3150 m). This old colonial Hosteria once owned by a past Ecuadorian president and a Jesuit Monastary has been converted into charming hotel that embodies the flavor and hospitality of a region long free from Spain . The rooms are cosy, spacious and clean. Several have stone fireplace and a balcony.  The dinning room, located in the restaurant building a short walk down from the rooms, has been beautifully restored and decorated by our host’s hand-painted murals. Our dinner on the first night was light and delicious. The table was beautifully set up with fresh flowers and colorful Ecuadorian textiles and napkins. The service that night and during our entire tour was excellent, gracious and professional.

I couldn’t wait to experience first hand the unique, quick changes of eco-systems (climate, vegetation and fauna) typical for this area. One can pass within 2 hour drive from Quito through 5 climate and vegetation zones:  from High Barren Plains ( 3500 – 5000 m) to Temperate Zone (2500 –  3500 m), Subtropical Zone (1100 – 2500 m), Foothills/Cloudforest  Zone (600 – 1200,) and Tropical/Rainforest Zone (600 – 1200 m). And, what’s even better, on a  tour »Magic Hiking Circuit of Ecuador«, one can hike and explore one zone after another in a company of a first class English speaking guide, Dr.Jorge Cruz, owner and director of San Jorge Eco-lodges & Reserves.

Dr. Cruz, ex pro-soccer player, veterinarian, self-thought painter and naturalist has acquired through years of hard  work and help of his family 4 large, beautiful properties and 3 lodges, each located in a different climate and vegetation zone. He wants to protect and preserve the land, virgin forest and jungle with the flora and fauna and show these hidden treasures to visitors who come to see, explore and enjoy it.  By hiring local people, he maintains old trails and built many new ones to make walking, hiking and exploring on all reserves, also in the deep rainforest jungle, comfortable and fun.  He, beautifully restored 2 lodges (San Jorge Quito and  San Jorge de Milpe Eco-lodge) and 3 years ago built a  new one (San Jorge de Tandayapa Ecolodge). All are located with highly scenic vistas. Due to high elevation of the lodges (1000 – 3150 m) there is no malaria risk. The options for exploring are numerous, a real delight for inquisitive, nature loving, adventures visitors.

On our tour of Quito we visited among other tourist attractions the Old Colonial Quito that has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The highlight was Ecuador’s most ornate church “La Compania” with gorgeous golden interior. Our lunch at the lovely, historic Heladeria San Augustine restaurant in Quito was a true culinary experience. I soon realized that Ecuadorians take tourism and hospitality very seriously.

Next day we  boarded a comfortable air-conditioned tourist motorcoach and headed northwest of Quito to San Jorge de Tandayapa Hummingbird Sanctuary & Eco-Lodge.  On the way, just outside the city of Quito,  we made a » must stop« for every tourist at the Mitad del Mundo to see the Ecuator Monument, where we were taking photos standing with one foot on the Northern and the other on the Southern hemisphere. The recently built San Jorge de Tandayapa Hummingbird Eco-Lodge, surrounded by pristine Cloud Forest was a big surprise. It is gorgeously located and stunningly designed, laid-back and quiet,  where as many as 500 bird species live. The orchid and hummingbird diversity here is absolutely great. There are many pristine hiking trails and observation deck. The open air dining room located in a bungallow above main lodge, is surrounded with bird feeders that attract large numbers of hummingbirds of different colors, shapes and sizes.  At mealtimes, we were busy watching and taking photos of these beautiful tiny birds while enjoying delicious 4-course meals in a restaurant »with the best view«. The staff served freshly squeezed juices at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The meals were prepared with fresh locally grown fruit, vegetables and herbs. They were light, healthy and beautifully presented.

It was hard to say »good-buy« to this lovely lodge after 3 days of hiking, exploring and taking photos in this sanctuary away from crowds and busy life. We hiked down the hill to the road where the motor-coach was waiting for us to take us to our next destination, San Jorge de Milpe Orchid & Bird Reseve & Eco-Lodge  in the Tropical Rainforest. We arrived to the entrance of the reserve in about 1 hour where we left the bus and our luggage and walked for 20 minutes on a trail through dense tropical forest until we reached the lodge. There are  many beautiful exotic flowers and plants along the trail and around the lodge, like in a botanic garden, just better. The lovely Milpe Lodge (built in 2007) is standing on a bluff, overlooking gorgeous rainforest valley. This area is considered a paradise for many bird species, hundreds of colorful butterflies and over 300 species of orchids. The sunsets here can be spectacular. We were watching the sun set with our cameras ready from a beautiful wooden veranda next to our rooms. It was fun to relax in hammocks on veranda after hiking expeditions and gather here at the bar for a glass of vine or cocktail  before dinner. It cannot get any better.

During our hiking expeditions at Tandayapa Hummingbird Sanctuary  and in Milpe Orchid Reserve I got this wonderful feeling of walking through a fantasy land, a natural paradise like in 3D movies. We were surrounded by plants with gigantic leaves and toll trees reaching high up for the light. Many exotic plants with beautiful flowers, we so carefully grow in pots at home, were growing wild all around us, just much bigger and nicer. Swimming in the pools under the waterfalls in the jungle was almost surreal, a lot of fun. The night walks in the jungle with wild voices added a touch of magic.

We returned to San Jorge Eco-Lodge/ Quito after a few days. There, we hiked the narrow Last Incan’s Emperor’s Trail which crosses San Jorge/ Quito botanical reserve. We learned about the history of the trail that was forged by the Ancient Civilizations of Ecuador through the highlands of the Andes and was connecting this nothern part of Quito with the coastal interior regions.  It was used for several thousand years as a land connection and for trading highland Andes products with exotic subtropical products. San Jorge Eco-Lodge and Botanical Reserve now has biking, horseback riding, hiking and bird watching expeditions along this ancient road. The panorama views of the tall volcanic peaks, the flora (over 250 varieties of Andes medicinal plants)  and the capital city spreading over valleys and hills far below us made hiking at such a high elevation rewarding.

We also visited world famous Otavalo Indian Market and had a bus tour of Cotopaxi Volcano National Park south of Quito. On the way we passed several volcanoes and mountains and learned a lot about local animals, farming/cattle, history and traditional living in Ecuador. Rain and clouds prevented us from seeing the world’s highest active volcano Cotopaxi (5,887 meters). On the last day of our tour Dr. Cruz opened for us his beautiful residential part of San Jorge hacienda for a farewell happy hour, and arranged for us an amazing Folkloric Dance Show we watched after our farewell dinner.

I have never returned from a trip so excited and happy. Just about everything on this trip surpassed my expectations. The booking and pre-trip arrangements made with Cheryl Korowotny, their Director of International Marketing & Sales with office in USA, went very smoothly. Our host Dr. Cruz and his staff treated us like best friends not like tourists that come and go. The nature walks and jungle treks led by Dr. Cruz and his guides were easy to moderate, well paced, giving us enough time to observe vegetation, birds, wildlife and take photos. Dr. Cruz is an outstanding  English speaking guide. He has an impressive knowledge of ornithology, medicinal plants, wildlife as well as geology, history and other related fields. He shares it with enthusiasm and a great sense of humor. Dr. Cruz and his staff are delivering a high quality, sophisticated eco-tourism with a lot of respect for the nature and the visitors who come to learn, explore and enjoy it. I thought the cost of the trip was very reasonable and  would highly recommend it to everyone.

We extended our trip with a 5-day cruise of The Galapagos Islands, a truly unique wildlife sanctuary with rare and endemic wildlife species, where creatures have little concern for the presence of humans. Each day brings new adventure as you enjoy these up close encounters with wildlife that is only possible on Galapagos Islands.  It was another awesome experience not to be missed when visiting Ecuador.

Can’t wait to go back!  Next on my travel list: “ AMAZON JUNGLE ADVENTURE” in Ecuador. Where else?

For information on San Jorge’s Eco-Tour packages and reservations visit: http://www.eco-lodgesanjorge.com/sanjorge_hiking_tours.php, select The Magic Hiking Circuit; contact Cheryl Korowotny, (877) 565-2596 Toll Free,  Mention promo code “BESTECO”.

Search and compare prices on Cheap Flights to Quito at www.bt-store.com.

Photos by Dr. Jorge Cruz, Ana Cadez , J. Whitman

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