QUITO, Ecuador -- On a Thursday, we flew from Boston to Quito. Friday evening, we followed a parade of costumed native dancers and flower-covered jalopies along the Pan-American Highway. Saturday, our noisy local bus pulled up to the livestock market in Otavalo just as a woman was dragging two roped and squealing pigs across the highway. Sunday, we took a bus to Mitad del Mundo, ''the middle of the world," a low-key attraction where the latitude is marked in zeroes and you can straddle a line marking the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
And we still had five days to go.
Though friends seemed mystified that we would visit Ecuador for a mere eight days, we proved it is not all that difficult to pack plenty of adventure into a week, including visits to markets of all sorts, jaw-dropping bus rides, a high-altitude hike, a soak in thermal baths, and 36 hours in the bustling capital, Quito.
There is no time difference between Eastern Standard Time and mainland Ecuador, which keeps jet lag to a minimum. We ventured mostly north of Quito, staying in or near the Highlands (7,000 to 10,000 feet up), meaning no malaria worries, and a lovely climate of warm days and cool nights. Because this Andean country is on the equator, there are no seasons other than dry (July through October) and rainy, and days are always evenly split into 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.
We had come for the baptism of my boyfriend's nephew in Tabacundo, a small town in flower-plantation country about an hour north of Quito along the Pan-American Highway. There is lodging in nearby Cayambe, or farther north in the more-frequented Otavalo, home to the country's largest Indian craft market.
It helped that Wessel had been to Ecuador twice before and speaks serviceable Spanish. About the only thing in English was the money -- since 2000, Ecuador has used the US dollar -- making it easy to keep track of the little bit we spent. It's best to have plenty of $1 bills, as even a $5 bill will frustrate an Ecuadorian merchant.
Many tour services operate out of Quito, with Metropolitan Touring being the most popular. If you prefer independent travel, it is easy to get around on the multitude of inexpensive private bus services, especially along the Pan-American and other main roads. You do not even need to know where the stops are -- just stand on the side of the road anywhere and flag one down. If the drivers' daredevil moves, such as passing other buses over solid yellow lines in the mountains, cannot keep you entertained, the festive music piped through speakers and vendors hawking soft drinks, plantain chips, hard candy, and fruit will.
All the guidebooks recommend the big Saturday market in Otavalo, about a two-hour ride from Quito. The trip there is breathtaking, with the arid Andes towering on each side and the snow-capped peak of the dormant Cayambe volcano, the country's third-highest mountain at 19,000 feet, often visible. Even at its most touristy, Otavalo is a treat. The Otavaleos, with their distinctive loom weavings, have become the most prosperous and well-known Indian group in the country.
At the main market in Poncho Plaza, you will find textiles, figurines, artwork, and just about anything appealing to tourists, along with housewares and food. About a quarter-mile away is the locals' market, where you will find more housewares and food, but few tourists. Vendors walk the streets selling everything from fruit and mops to towels and TV rabbit ears.
Most fascinating was the animal market, a sensory overload of four-legged sounds, smells, and sights. Set on a large field along the highway, it starts before sunrise and is over by noon. Indians bring one or two animals -- pigs, chickens, goats, cows, horses -- to sell or trade. Buyers and sellers mill about, bartering and chatting, animals in tow. Women often wrap their chickens in a blanket on their backs, the way they carry their children. To the side, food vendors make biscuits from scratch and roast whole pigs. We appeared to be the only foreigners at the market until about 10 a.m., when a few others trickled in.
The next day's adventure was a trip to Mitad del Mundo, a popular attraction. The monument is a 30-meter tower topped by a metal globe, but what visitors care about is the much photographed broad yellow stripe marking the equator. The park also hosts entertainers and houses craft shops, restaurants, and even small museums.
We took a taxi to nearby Reserva Geobotanica Pululahua, which holds the largest volcanic crater in South America. Guidebooks put it at 2-3 miles across and 1,300 feet deep. A road leads to one side of its mouth and, if the frequent mist and clouds don't interfere, you can see the fertile bottom that is now used for farming.
We returned to the clouds the following day, staying 15,000 feet up in a mountain refuge next to Volcn Cayambe. Having spent a few days above 10,000 feet, we were not hampered by the altitude -- but we felt it. We had a ride to the refuge, about 17 miles from the town of Cayambe, but the steep dirt ''road" up became impassable in the final rocky, rutted, hair-raising mile. (Rides can be arranged from town or outfitters can be contracted in Quito.) We had planned to hike back down the next day, having been told the distance was not so great. But as we drove up, up, up, I obsessed over how we were going to walk down, down, down.
The refuge, Ruales-Oleas-Berge, is basic but nice. The common are walled with windows affording spectacular views of the volcano. We were high enough to see snow and blue-tinted glaciers. Guests, who pay $15 a night, can use a kitchen equipped with running water, a gas stove, pots, and dishes. There's no heat, but the bright equatorial sun warms the interior during the day. At night, you bundle up and hop in your sleeping bag. Dim lights, powered by a generator, are turned on for a few hours in the evening. There's one sleeping room with about 45 bunk beds and a unisex bathroom with flush toilets. We shared the space with Americans on guided treks to Cayambe's summit.
We took only a short hike, for which we hired a local guide. As it turned out, we would have been fine on our own. The climbing, partly in snow, was moderate, but my breathing was labored and I had to rest frequently to avoid dizziness. The view of glaciers, crevasses, and snow-covered peaks more than made up for any discomfort. Only in the evening did Wessel feel the altitude, losing his appetite and suffering a pounding headache. As night fell, the wind howled and the temperature dropped below freezing.
The morning was sunny and slowly warming, and hiking down was another adventure. The view across the valley was stupendous, but no vehicle passed our way for hours. By the time we flagged down a truck (which turned out to be a rural taxi service), we had walked 12 dusty, exhausting miles.
The following day, being barely able to use our legs, we decided hot springs seemed just the thing for our aching muscles. So we took a side trip to the Termas de Papallacta, an oasis in the mountains with hot thermal springs.
Refreshed, we returned to tour Quito, a city of 1.5 million that many tourists only pass through on the way to the Galapagos Islands. The city is divided into New Town and Old Town. The nice hotels are in New Town; the interesting life is in Old Town, known for its 16th-century Spanish colonial art and architecture, sprawling plazas, and narrow cobbled streets.
To celebrate 25 years of the old city's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito leaders are on a campaign to clean up the somewhat faded area. Buildings and sidewalks are being scrubbed and locator signs and maps installed. Guidebooks warn that Old Town is unsafe at night, though city leaders say that has changed. We stayed without problems.
A daylong tour with Metropolitan Touring took us on a drive up Panecillo Hill for a panoramic view of the city and a climb up its landmark statue, La Virgen de Quito, as well as to Old Town.
In the upscale hilltop neighborhood of Bellavista, we visited The Chapel of Man, a stunning new museum that houses the work of Oswaldo Guayasamn (1919-99), Ecuador's most famous contemporary artist. The large brick building with a copper dome sits between the artist's house and Guayasamn Foundation, a modern and colonial art museum.
In New Town, Folklore Olga Fisch is a museum and store started by the late Olga Fisch, an artist and designer credited with bringing Indian art to the public. Ask a clerk to take you through the impressive private museum upstairs. Downstairs, the sprawling store, sells fine Ecuadorian art and crafts. After shopping, venture behind the store into newly opened El Galpon. This restaurant, beautifully decorated with pieces from Folklore, is unusual for its tasty ''new Ecuadorian cuisine."
In Old Town, visit the nonprofit Sinchi Sacha Foundation store for its huge collection of Indian art and crafts. Proceeds assist indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Next door, in beautiful Plaza de San Francisco, is an indoor and outdoor cafe that serves espresso , homemade soups, sandwiches, and an outstanding view of centuries-old Quito.
Diane Daniel can be reached at email@example.com.
How to get there
Lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Quito available at press time started at $754 on Continental Airlines, connecting through Houston.
What to do
Colonial Quito tour
A four-hour tour, $19-$25 a person.
The Chapel of Man
At Mariano Calvache and Lorenzo Chavez Esquina, Bellavista, Quito
A stunning new museum with paintings by Oswaldo Guayasamn. Admission $3.
Sinchi Sacha Foundation Gift Shop
Reina Victoria 1780 and La Nina
San Francisco Plaza, Quito
Crafts from the Ecuadorian Amazon. Folklore Olga Fisch
Ave. Colon E10
A fine arts and crafts shop and musuem. Mitad del Mundo
Village of San Antonio
Stand on the equator. Viewing platform, planetarium, museum, shops, restaurants. $.50-$1 entrance fee.
From Cayambe, hire a driver to take you there (about $20). $15 a night, includes use of kitchen; bring a sleeping bag.
Where to stay
Amazonas and Patria, Quito
The biggest and most popular hotel with tourists. Doubles start around $140.
Hotel San Francisco de Quito
Sucre 217 and Guayaquil, Old Town
A budget hotel with clean rooms and hot showers. Doubles: $22 with breakfast.
Where to eat
El Galpon Restaurant
Av. Colon E10-53; 254-0209
New Ecuadoran cuisine. $6.50-$15