It offers the highland culture of the Andes blended with a touch of Spanish flair. Its eastern region dives deep into the rain forest - the mysterious Amazon. And 600 miles off its coast lies an ecosystem like none other - the Galapagos. This is a photo journal of our November 12-December 1, 2012, trip to Ecuador...one country, three worlds.
We're standing in the middle of the world -- the true "Middle Earth" -- six inches apart but literally in separate hemispheres. We on the equator in Ecuador (the country's name comes from the Spanish word for "equator").
In the 1700s King Louis XV of France sent a team of geographers to this region to determine once and for all the shape of the Earth -- whether the Earth was broader at its midsection than at the poles.
Along the way, the scientists – for the first time – marked the path of the equator, and two centuries later, a grand monument was built along that line.
Impressive, yes...but unfortunately, wrong. We know today, thanks to GPS, that the scientists and monument builders were off, not by much, maybe a few hundred yards.
The actual equatorial line is here -- around the corner, about 250 yards away. It runs through a small privately-owned ethnic museum.
...understated compared to its more grandiose neighbor that towers majestically, if erroneously, over the distant tree tops
Our tour leader Patricio shows us the path of the true equatorial line.
Here, an egg stands readily on the top of a nail head
And Jeanne finds it much easier to strike her flamingo pose.
Beyond being a site of uncommon phenomena, the "real" equatorial museum is more a tribute to the cultures and people of Ecuador than to a line on a globe.
...although some of the native people it commemorates gave us pause (until Jeanne realized that at least some of the local Amazonians must share the same taste in coiffeur).
The museum featured a demonstration of the art of Andean weaving.
The people of Ecuador have long recognized that living along the middle of the Earth was something special. A dozen miles south of the equatorial line, hemmed in by volcanic peaks, the ancients built a city. It is the oldest capital in South America. Today we call it Quito.
Six hundred years ago, this was the capital of the northern Inca empire. It was in Quito that the last uncontested emperor of the Incas lived, ruled...and died.
Today virtually nothing of the great Inca city remains.
When the conquistadors appeared on the surrounding hillsides in 1534, the Incas, rather than surrender, burned their city to the ground...
...and legend says, stripped it of its gold and hid the treasure somewhere in the Andean mountains. (The Inca gold sun mask is only one of the treasures on display at the Museo del Banco Central.)
The Spanish rebuilt Quito and placed a harsh but enduring footprint on the land, its people, and its architecture. (The Basilica del Voto Nacional, or simply ‘the Basilica,’.stands on a steep hill and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.)
Today the jewel of the city is its Centro Histórico – its “old town.” At its heart, the palm-fringed Plaza Grande.
At the center of the Plaza Grande is the Monument to Independence, symbolizing the triumph of the Republic over the Spanish in 1809.
On one side of the plaza is the Palacio del Gobierno where the President of Ecuador carries out his business...
...the doorways to the official chambers are marked by very official – and humorless – ceremonial guards...
Their unchanging expressions could "out-stoic" even those of Buckingham Palace.
Nevertheless, the women in our group were compelled to pose around these humorless guards.
Built centuries ago by indigenous artisans and laborers, Quito's old town is dominated by churches, convents and monasteries. One seems to be on every corner
The original Basilica of La Merced on this site was largely destroyed in the earthquake of 1660, and the foundations of the present building were not laid until 1701. The tower was completed in 1736, and the church was dedicated in 1747.
Located around the corner from the Plaza Grande, the El Sagrario Church is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Quito.
Construction of the La Compañía (La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús -- or in English: the Church of the Society of Jesus) began in 1605. It took 160 years to build.
While the Incas may have hidden their gold, the Spanish Catholics went to great lengths to showcase theirs'. The interiors of their cathedrals gleam with a dazzling display of gold leaf. Seven tons of gold supposedly ended up on the ceiling, walls and altars of La Compañía, "Quito's Sistine Chapel."
The centerpiece of Quito's cathedrals is the Iglesia San Francisco, the oldest colonial structure in the city and the largest religious complex in South America.
The Iglesia San Francisco was founded on the site of an Inca royal palace within weeks of the Spanish takeover of the city in 1534.
Today children play amid the pigeons in a courtyard where once the Inca's children played among golden statues.
Today, Quito's Old Town is a bustling maze of narrow streets, lively plazas, and restored colonial architecture.
It is a place where the closer you look, the more you find.
Take, for example, La Ronda, one of Quito's picturesque side streets. Also called Calle Juan de Dios Morales, La Ronda was nicknamed for the serenades (rondas) that once were an evening ritual along the street.
Inside a tiny cubbyhole workshop, we found Huberto Santacruz. His father was a famous concert pianist – one of Ecuador's best.
Huberto is an accomplished musician himself. But he has a different musical passion -- bringing old pianos and organs back to life.
He still performs...