Pamela Wade finds charming people passionate about their country.

It's a species thing. Horses don't like pigs: never have, never will. Even I knew that, so I was surprised to see the dismayed man at the market in Zumbahua, stretched between his appalled horse, which had retreated the length of its reins in one hand, and an unconcerned porker snorting on the end of its rope in the other.

I'd only been in Ecuador a few days but I'd already discovered that it would be the people who would make the biggest impression on me.

I wasn't expecting that this would necessarily be a positive thing, after working through the handy Essential Spanish course that LAN includes in its entertainment programme. I was still over the Pacific when I learned how to say "I love you" then, at the other extreme, "Somebody call the police."

It's guaranteed to unnerve anyone, especially a newcomer to this nation of 14 million souls which sits astride the equator.


Fortunately for my peace of mind, I had World Journeys looking after me as I explored Ecuador in a small, guided group, so the first people to impress me were the locals who showed us around.

In Quito there was Julio, who knew everyone from the street kids selling lollies to the priest greeting visitors at the door of La Merced. This royal-icing church filled with gold and roses is sumptuous inside, but I remember the roof most as I found myself sitting on its sun-warmed glazed tiles, gazing across the city's terracotta roofs towards slumbering volcano Pichincha, and the winged Virgin Mary opposite as Julio shared some of his vast knowledge.

Then there was stout, motherly Cecilia, who barked at an over-dramatic bank guard flourishing his machine gun as we passed on the street, "Don't point that thing at me."

I remember her for the food, especially the ceviche class we went to in a beautiful Spanish colonial hotel where we mixed salsa and ate tangy raw shrimps marinated in lime juice, and talked seriously about the best hot sauce and coffee and whether it was Peru or Ecuador who really invented the pisco sour (no prizes for guessing).

In ancient, charming Cuenca, Carlos was keen for us to know that the Panama hat originated there. He took us to a factory where hand-woven hats were bleached and pressed, bound and hemmed; and to a repair shop where treasured hats hung on the walls while an old man fussily restored them with mallet and mould.

Letitia was, frankly, a bit scary when she welcomed us to the lively port city of Guayaquil by inspecting us closely and instructing me to hide the gold chain around my neck.

"You'll lose that," she warned - and she was right, though it wasn't in her city, or even her country. It was snatched in Santiago a day later, while I was wandering the streets. Sadly, in the shock of the moment, I was quite unable to recall the Spanish I'd learned on the plane.

But in Guayaquil, Letitia kept us safe as she showed us this old but constantly regenerating city, full of public artworks and gardens that were buzzing with people and animals, including the city's symbol: large iguanas with jauntily-striped tails.

Though it was startling to see these unrestrained monster lizards squabbling among themselves beside the cathedral, it was even more unexpected to see cowboys in ponchos cantering beside the tracks as a train took us south from Quito into the highlands.

"Train" is a staid term for the distinctive Chiva Express, yellow and red with a huge cow-catcher in front, but even so it played second fiddle to the human scenery en route.

A cast of thousands waved as we roared and tooted through the suburbs and small towns, and countryside in between that was almost as busy with people tending animals and crops. Small children watched from rooftops, women washing clothes in tubs behind their houses paused as we went by, workmen rested on their shovels and barking dogs loped along the tracks.

Suddenly the cowboys appeared and we stopped to visit Gabriel Espinosa at his family hacienda, La Allegria. He wore Andean fox fur chaps as he showed us around, feeding us fava beans and humitas before demonstrating the skills of the chagra, the highland cowboy, in lassoing bulls using enormously long ropes.

Proud and passionate, Gabriel took us along the Panamerican Highway through the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Andean volcanoes are even more spectacular than they sound, soaring snow-capped above the surrounding high plains, and to see one of the world's highest, Cotopaxi, with the moonlight glistening on its symmetrical peak was simply magical.

It was the finishing touch to an evening spent in the company of vivacious Mignon Plaza, grand-daughter of a President of Ecuador, daughter of a bull-fighter and a woman of many accomplishments, including singing, dancing and cookery.

We ate in an Inca-built dining room and slept in rooms with crackling fires in the bedroom and the bathroom where hand-painted cherubs looked down over the claw-footed bath.

It was the sort of luxury that little Hugo and Miriam would never dream of; though they looked happy, neatly dressed and enjoying their freedom as they played unsupervised outside their village.

A child waits patiently amid the hustle and bustle of market day. Photo / Pamela Wade
A child waits patiently amid the hustle and bustle of market day. Photo / Pamela Wade

Children were everywhere the day we went to Zumbahua market. Some shyly clutched their mothers' voluminous skirts, some were babies tucked into embroidered shawls, others were big enough to help turn the sizzling hot corn tortillas, put bunches of little red bananas into bags, or even take a turn on the shoe-shine stall.

The market was bustling: a row of older men operated treadle Singer sewing machines, doing repairs; a smooth-talking salesman pounced on anyone pausing to look at his piles of fedora hats; men bent double under huge sacks of llama fleeces picked their way through the crowds. Sheep, donkeys and chickens all added to the colour and noise; and so, to one horse's horror, did pigs. I'm guessing that man had a long walk home.

Getting there: LAN Airlines flies six days a week from Auckland to Santiago with onward connections to Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador: phone 0800 451 373.

Getting around: World Journeys offers several packages covering the best of Ecuador. Phone 0800 117 311.

Pamela Wade was a guest of World Journeys.