Tuesday, November 21st 2017.

Destinations

Anja De Haen
ECUADOR AMA LA VIDA!

 

By Anja De Haen, Head of MICE BeLux, BCD Travel Groups Department

 

The new image for Ecuador, recently launched by the country’s Ministry of Tourism to support the current slogan “Ecuador, La Vida en Estado Puro”, speaks for itself. The country does love life! At least, this is what we concluded after our recent trip to Quito in order to attend MITM Americas.

 

Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador


 

It was the second time in sixteen years that MITM Americas (http://www.mitmamericas.com/) was held in the Ecuadorian capital and it was again a real success. Seventy exhibitors from North, Central and South America and as many buyers from seventeen countries from all over the world realized more than 2,500 appointments in only a day and a half! It is estimated that these contacts, over the next coming years, will generate an income for Ecuador of about 17 Million US Dollars – all related to incentives, congresses, conferences and events.

EcuadorBut before leaving, we had to conquer the difficult question: “To Go or Not To Go?” On September 30th, four days before our scheduled departure, Ecuador had suddenly become a hot news topic. A state of emergency had been declared after President Rafael Correa had accused the opposition and security forces of a coup attempt – causing the Belgian Federal Public Service to advise against all non-essential travel to Ecuador. On October 2nd however, we all received an official letter of Mrs. Luz Elena Coloma, General Manager of Quito Turismo, stating that peace had returned to the city and that the Municipality of Quito guaranteed the safety of all participants of MITM. So… we decided to take the plunge! And as you may have read on BBT Online’s FaceBook page, all went well. At a certain moment, we really even did ask ourselves why we ever had hesitated to go!

Our KLM night flight from Amsterdam to Quito, via Bonaire and Guayaquil, took a rather long fifteen and a half hours. Fortunately, the MD-11 with its very modern and comfortable 3-3-3 seating in economy, including personal entertainment systems, the good quality of the catering and the friendliness of the staff widely compensated our ever-lasting voyage!  (http://www.klm.com/)

Arriving by plane at Mariscal Sucre International Airport (http://www.quiport.com/) definitely is something different! The airport is one of the highest in the world, situated at 2850 meters above sea level, surrounded by mountains and located right in the middle of the city – allowing us a peek into some of the apartments close-by!  Unfortunately, due to its location, the airport cannot be expanded anymore to receive larger aircraft or to increase air traffic. Its location also signifies a feeling of insecurity and constant danger for the tens of thousands of people who live in the area. That’s why a new airport is being built about 18 km to the east of the city. Construction on this monumental work began in January of 2006 and is scheduled to be ready in November 2011. One has to take into consideration however that the opening of the new airport has been rescheduled a few times already. Welcome to the culture of mañana!

A short transfer brought us to the Hilton Colón (http://www1.hilton.com/en_US/hi/hotel/QUIHIHF-Hilton-Colon-Quito-hotel/index.do), the official MITM Americas hotel. It is conveniently located, in between the historical centre and the business district and within walking distance of the Barrio of La Mariscal, the hottest spot in town. The lay-out of the hotel is not really logical and it’s a pity the bar tenders do not speak English; but apart from that, nothing but good to mention about this comfortable four-star business hotel.

After a quick shower and an even quicker bite, we decided to hit the road to go and discover La Mitad del Mundo (http://www.mitaddelmundo.com/) – the place where the hemispheres meet…

 

Ecuador Ecuador

 

The “Middle of the World”, located about 15 km north of the city, is one of Quito’s premiere attractions and commemorates the French Geodesic Mission to the Equator in the 18th century.  For almost 20 years, La Mitad del Mundo has stood here, marking the exact location of the equatorial line as calculated by Charles Marie de La Condamine and his fellow expedition members. Visitors to this site can experience the thrill of standing with both feet in a different hemisphere (a must…). Other attractions include some museums and a small village lined with souvenir shops and cafés serving local food and excellent fresh juices. 

EcuadorBut then, reality hit! Modern GPS technology recently proved that Mitad del Mundo and its focal point, the pyramidal monument, do not lie on the Equator at all! According to Quito’s tourism industry, the real line is located a good 250 meters away, marked by the Museo Inti-Nan – described by Lonely Planet as “being next door, and  supposedly on the site of the real equator”.  At this museum, visitors can take part in a variety of equator-related experiments (balancing eggs on nails, watching water going straight down a plug hole, etc …) We definitely had a lot of fun, but at the same time we did ask ourselves how much smoke and mirrors were involved again, as we learned that this line is not the true line of the equator either! Next time, we will bring our own GPS!

In the evening, we decided to explore the Barrio of La Mariscal (http://www.lamariscal.com/), also referred to as “Quito’s Cosmopolitan Face”. Young Quiteños simply call it “La Zona”, a nickname that evokes the area’s red light-tinged past, but today stands for Quito’s premier quarter for fun, accommodation and hospitality. Boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, contemporary bars and trendy nightclubs have opened their doors and turned the area into a dynamic and entertaining district for both foreigners and locals alike. Definitely worth checking out are the Nü House Boutique Hotel (http://www.nuhousehotels.com/) and Restaurant La Boca del Lobo (http://www.labocadellobo.com.ec/).

 

EcuadorThe following day marked the official opening of MITM Americas. Press, exhibitors and buyers started off with a sumptuous breakfast buffet – perfectly catered and dressed by Hilton – at the new Centre for Contemporary Art “El Bicentenario”, housed within the former military hospital of San Juan. The centre boasts a variety of exhibitions and can – of course – be privatized for a variety of events.

At the end of our meal and after the traditional welcome speech, we were divided in several smaller groups and departed for a walking tour of Quito’s Historic Center. Our professional – and at the same time very entertaining – English speaking guide proudly informed us that, despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the biggest, the best-preserved and the least altered historic centre in Latin America and therefore was the first city ever to be designated “Heritage of Mankind” by the United Nations. And his voice sounded even more proud, when he announced that Quito recently had been declared Cultural Capital of the Americas in 2011!

We started our visit at the Plaza de la Independencia, commonly known as the Plaza Grande, a beautiful square honoring the heroes who started the movement towards independence from Spain. Around the Square, one can find the Town Hall, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Cathedral and the Presidential Palace, the official residence of EcuadorPresident Rafael Correa and his – Belgian – wife Anne Malherbe. Definitely not to be missed either, is the Plaza Grande Hotel (http://www.plazagrandequito.com/). It is one of the first hotels ever constructed in the capital and known to be one of the finest boutique hotels in the city.

Next on our program was the historic San Agustin Convent, renowned for its spectacular inner courtyard. Every inch of the courtyard walls is covered in murals, depicting the life and work of San Agustin.

After a short walk, we arrived in “La Ronda”, undoubtedly the most charming corner of Old Town Quito. In the early beginnings, the street was no more than a tiny footpath leading to the river. Later, in the colonial era, it developed into one of the city’s richest neighborhoods and in the 20th century it became home to Quito’s bohemian quarter, housing artists of all kinds… In the 1970s, the street suffered from serious neglect; up to a point where it was even considered to be one of the city’s most dangerous streets. Recently, the Municipality of Quito started promoting the restoration of the neighborhood and much has been done to restore and maintain La Ronda’s original charm. Our arrival was celebrated with the tasting of yet a typical delicacy: “Empanadas de Viento” – literally “Wind Cakes” – hearty cheese and onion filled turnovers with a flaky crust that puffs up and fills with air during the frying process, served with white sugar sprinkled on top. Definitely worth a try! A few moments later, locals joined the celebration and invited us to take part in some traditional Ecuadorian and Quiteño street games: spinning-tops, hula hoops, piñatas, … And pretty soon, we were all children again!

We then continued our walk towards the Compañía de Jesús Church; a dazzling colonial masterpiece built by Jesuits in the 17th and 18th century, and recognized by the UNESCO as one of the 100 most important buildings in the world. After having admired the building’s elaborate Baroque façade and its stunning gold interior, our guide invited us to follow him up the stairs to the church’s roof, from where we could enjoy an interesting view over the city and its Spanish rooftops. But there was more! Through a tiny window, we clambered back inside and soon found ourselves standing right under the church’s dome. An amazing experience…  with a little VIP touch, since only a few people had taken these steps before us!

And last but not least, we paid a visit to the San Francisco complex, where a small workshop was organized on how to decorate little figurines with gold-leaf. The complex comprises a brilliant colonial styled church and ditto monastery, dating back to the second half of the 16th century and founded by – of all people! – the Belgian Franciscan Missionary “Jodoco Ricke”. Rumor has it, that it was this Joos de Rijcke who brought wheat and barley into the country and introduced the process of beer brewing in Ecuador. At the foot of the stairs to the church’s portal, a statue of the popular Franciscan, holding a stack of cornstalks in his arms, pays a silent tribute to our fellow countryman from Mechelen!

Lunch was offered in the beautifully restored Chapel of the City Museum of Quito (http://www.museociudadquito.gov.ec).  The beautiful building – colonial of course, what else? – at one time served as the Hospital of Saint John of God. It was completely restored at the end of the 20th century and nowadays houses interesting expositions about the social history of Quito. Again, Hilton catering and service proved to be excellent and the live string music perfectly matched the atmosphere!

The original plan for the afternoon was a tree planting ceremony – a tree for each buyer – but due to weather conditions, this event unfortunately was canceled. While some of us took advantage of this unexpected afternoon off to enjoy some personal sightseeing and/or shopping, others joined the afternoon press tour to the Barria of Bellavista – home of the late Oswaldo Guayasamín, a famous exemplary artist of Ecuadorian indigenism. We had the opportunity to admire not only his intriguing murals and paintings but also his greatest creation: The Chapel of Man – a temple-like building, dedicated to the integration of nations, the maintenance of peace and the defense of human rights. (www.capilladelhombre.com). A must for art lovers!

The day came to an end with the Official Welcome Cocktail Reception at the Alameda Park. According to the city guide, this cozy park – the oldest open space in Quito – is home to lovers drifting by in rowboats, children scampering around the artificial pond and young girls flirtingly posing for snapshots. We do believe this will be the case on a hot summer’s day, but not on a cold and windy October evening! So after a few drinks and a short walk around, we called it the night. Too bad no real plan B had been set up…

Our early retreat allowed us a good night’s sleep, preparing us for the “real work” of the next two days: two early-morning destination presentations at the Eugenio Espejo Conventions Center (http://www.centrodeconvenciones.com.ec) – again a former hospital – and two days of business sessions at the distinctive Itchimbía Cultural Centre (http://centrocultural-quito.com/ccmq.php?c=96)  – formerly  the 19th century steel and glass structure of the Santa Clara Market, located on one of the most important hillsides in the city of Quito and thus offering spectacular views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes.

Overall, the tradeshow was very well organized and the Hilton catering for the coffee breaks and lunches again proved to be excellent. Only a pity that in most of the cases, not even half of the buyers’ requests for appointments were honored and some of us were stuck with meetings that we of little or no interest at all.

 

Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador

 

Top of the bill of this year’s MITM America undoubtedly was the gala evening on Thursday night. The event started off at the Plaza Grande, with a “warm” welcome – locals in beautiful traditional attire offering all of us a rainbow shawl and a hot drink. After the official group picture in front of the cathedral, dancers of Jacchigua – Ecuador’s National Folklore Ballet – led the way to the Compañía de Jesús Church. This magnificent temple was the perfect setting to enjoy a fabulous performance of Quito’s Chamber Orchestra: The Four World’s Concert, a musical tribute to Ecuador’s four most important regions: The Galapagos, the Andes, the Amazon and the Coast. Upon exiting the church, the streets were covered with rose petals and beautifully dressed little children, holding candles and flowers, showed us the way to our next destination, the San Francisco Square. Here, we met with the Procession of Saint Marianita de Jesus, adorned with lanterns and more rose petals. We followed the procession to the Plaza in front of the Merced Church, where we were in for a real surprise! While the Town Band provided the music, more than four hundred Jacchigua dancers, both adults and children, treated us to an up tempo folkloric show, allowing us an insight into the colorful living cultures of Ecuador. It was truly amazing! The show came to an end with enormous fireworks, after which we entered the inner courtyard of the Merced Church and Monastery, to enjoy a fabulous performance of a tenor priest, followed by an excellent buffet dinner and dance evening… A superb evening indeed!

 

THE DAYS AFTER THE FAIR ….
But of course there is more to Ecuador than just Quito. A wide selection of interesting post tours, organized by local DMCs, was offered to convince both Hosted Buyers and Press of the variety of possibilities the country has to offer. Famtrip destinations included Cuenca, Otavalo and the Cotopaxi Volcano, the Andes & Amazon Region and of course the famous Galápagos Islands.  Unfortunately, the Galápagos trip was sold out the minute it became available online, leaving no space for BBT Online’s delegation. So we decided to go for the Andes & Amazon Tour instead!

The program, as presented by the renowned DMC Surtrek (http://www.surtrek.com/), looked very promising. It included, amongst others, a scenic drive along the Pan-American Highway, a relaxing afternoon in the Papallacta Hot Springs, a trip in a dugout canoe, a picnic lunch on the riverbanks, a three-hour walk through primary rainforest, a visit to an indigenous family and the construction of a raft, while the overnight stays were scheduled at the Termas de Papallacta Spa & Resort (http://www.termaspapallacta.com/) and the Casa del Suizo (http://www.casadelsuizo.com/).

The evening before our departure however, we learned that the Quito Convention Bureau had decided to take Surtrek – also in charge of the Otavalo and the Cotopaxi Volcano trip – off the organization of the Andes & Amazon Region tour, giving another DMC – the Andean Travel Company (http://www.andeantc.com/) – the opportunity to present their services as well. It seemed to be a fair and correct decision! So we did not worry, we were in for an exciting trip! Or at least, that’s what we expected. Very soon however, we would find out that the switch had been made very last minute and with a major lack of communication between the parties involved….

On Friday afternoon we left the hotel with a minor delay of about half an hour. We let it be and considered it as our “one and only Ecuadorian encounter with the famous mañana culture”. But by the time we actually left Quito, we were more than two hours behind schedule already, because we had to pick up one extra passenger on the complete other side of town… 

EcuadorThe scenic drive along the Pan-American Highway indeed was magnificent and we had plenty of time to admire the ever-changing landscapes of the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. Our old coach was so slow, that it took forever to reach the village of Papallacta – situated at an altitude of 3.200m!  A nice opportunity to discuss the upcoming program with our guide, Marco. To our surprise, the poor guy had no clue at all; his function sheet only mentioned transfers and hotels. He of course tried to set things straight with the Andean Travel Company, but not much could be done this last minute…    

When we finally arrived at the Termas de Papallacta Spa & Resort it was dark already. The property’s hotel is basic, but it is set in a beautiful location and it matches the environment perfectly. The spa, on the contrary, is a jewel! Its hydrotherapy area, consisting of five hot thermal pools and one cold pool, is the ideal place to experience a variety of different hydro massages using either water jets or air bubbles; while the thermal club offers a variety of treatments in a private and exclusive environment. And although there absolutely was something magical to our nightly bath in the hot springs, it was a shame not being able to enjoy the view of the ice giant Antisana and the surrounding mountains. If we only had left Quito on time…

ecuadorThe next morning, we were in for a four hour’s drive to the tropical forest. Again the scenery was amazing with lush green valleys and sparkling waterfalls, but again the drive took forever… After a short stop in Tena – gateway to the jungle – to stock up on water and mosquito repellent, we continued our journey to Punta Ahuano, a tiny port town on the north bank of the Napo River, where we boarded dugout canoes for a twenty minutes’ ride downstream to la Casa del Suizo.

ecuadorPerched comfortably above the riverbank and the small Quichua Indian village of Ahuano, La Casa del Suizo is a charming hotel in the middle of the jungle, overlooking the vast expanses of the surrounding tropical rainforest environment. It offers 75 rooms, an open-air restaurant, a cozy tiki bar, a souvenir shop and a pool. What else can you wish for while in the jungle?

When we arrived at the hotel, lunch was ready and we realized that we would get to experience the program we had been promised. No visit to Pangayacu, no three-hour walk through primary rainforest, no lunch in the forest on the river banks and no raft building… So we settled for a nice buffet lunch at the hotel instead, followed by a refreshing dip in the hotel’s swimming pool and a walk through the forest to the Indian Village of Ahuano. After the official welcome, a local host introduced us to several aspects of traditional Quichua culture, including drinking chicha – a type of fermented beverage made from yucca – and eating palm worms. And at the end of our visit we all participated in a blowgun target-shooting contest… Fun, but very touristic indeed!

The following day, part of our group decided to follow Marco on a short trekking through the forest while others – including the BBT Online delegation – chartered a dugout canoe with skipper for a tranquil two hour cruise on the river to enjoy the jungle’s fauna and flora. A truly relaxing activity and probably the best two hours of the entire famtrip…

Before we knew it, we were heading back to Quito, using the same old coach and following the exact same route that we had travelled before. The trip took us more than six hours and was only interrupted for a lunch break at the Cotococha Amazon Lodge (http://www.cotococha.com/).

A quick site inspection taught us that the lodge offers 21 spacious bungalows and open space social areas, built according to traditional architecture in harmony with the surrounding rainforest and carefully decorated to blend in with nature. After the inspection, the lodge’s management treated us to a special welcome: an initiation into the Quichua culture! We all expected a déjà vu experience…  But thankfully, this introduction was much more profound than the ecuadorone we had experienced the day before and also included pottery making and spiritual cleaning rituals still practiced today throughout the surrounding community. Interesting, but still rather touristic though… And then followed lunch, basic but excellent, an interesting mix of both western and Quicha cuisine, including fried palm worms – just in case we wanted to give it a try!

It was way after 8.00 PM when we arrived back in Quito. We all expected to be dropped off at the Swissotel (http://www.swissotel.com/), but because of yet another last minute decision, we ended up at the Mercure Grand Hotel Alameda (http://www.mercure.com/) instead. A nice hotel as well, but the farewell dinner, set up in one of the hotel’s banquet rooms, was rather disappointing. The waiters were friendly and the food was not bad, but the evening was missing a festive atmosphere. And because of a new law to diminish the crime rate and to stimulate tourism in Ecuador by increasing safety, we couldn’t even get a beer or a glass of wine to complement our meal…
Indeed, getting a drink in Ecuador is proving a tricky task these days. Forget about having a nightcap in a bar after midnight during the week or popping to the corner store after 22.00 hrs for a bottle of wine.  The government has also banned the sale of alcohol in any bar or store on Sundays. If you fancy a drink on the Sabbath, you have to order food at a licensed restaurant before 16.00 hrs and still then, only beer, wine and chicha can be drunk. Maybe this is what the Government means with “Ecuador, La Vida en Estado Puro”?

www.mitmamericas.com

 

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