Beyond the Galapagos Islands – Ecuador’s Forgotten Treasures

Ecuador is one of the countries that you’ve heard a lot about, but maybe would never consider visiting. Why go to Ecuador on holiday, when there are the exciting destinations of Colombia, with its rich jungles and famous beaches, and Peru, with its Inca history and Andes culture, both nearby?

One fabulous destination that Ecuador does offer, and one that you have probably seen countless times on TV documentaries and in wildlife, travel and photography magazines, is the Galapagos Islands. The islands will forever have their position in history due to their astounding array of endemic wildlife species and their connection with Charles Darwin and his infamous work on evolution following his trip to the islands on the Voyage of the Beagle.

Galapagos in Ecuador Photo: Blinking Idiot on Flickr

Galapagos in Ecuador

However Ecuador has so much more to offer the discerning tourist than these islands, and the many tourists that fly in to Ecuador, transfer to the islands for a tour or cruise then immediately fly home, are missing out on so much! Having had the pleasure of travelling through Ecuador and experiencing the delights that this country has to offer, over and above the Galapagos Islands, I realised that many people are missing out. Here’s my brief guide as to the best of the rest of the fabulous country of Ecuador:

Basilica del VotoNacional Quito

Basilica del VotoNacional Quito

Quito

Quito is one of two main stopover points for international tourists travelling to and from the Galapagos Islands (the other being Guayaquil), but is potentially a destination in itself. If you ever get the chance to visit Quito (and you should give yourself the opportunity!) then try and stay in a hotel in the old-town city centre rather than in the new modern region – it might cost a little more but you won’t regret it.

This region of the city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, due to its outstandingly well-preserved, ancient and beautiful central region. To explore this area is like stepping back to colonial-era South America – labyrinthine cobbled streets wind through white-painted buildings, leafy plazas, and ancient churches and religious buildings. You can get lost here for days, exploring, and soaking up the history. Make sure to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, if only for the adventurous climb through the rickety old roof for fabulous views of the city from a viewing platform on top near one of the spires.

Equator Quito

Equator Quito

Also worth visiting, although a little touristy (but good for a laugh!) is the equator visitor centre, only a few kilometres from Quito – stand on top of a painted line on the earth for a memorable, if a little corny, photo. Just don’t tell your friends and family that this isn’t “technically” the equator (they built the site in the wrong place – the true equator is a few hundred metres away!). Finally, for those that have fully acclimatised (don’t visit this if you’ve only just arrived), Quito’s “TelefériQo”, a giant gondola that travels from Quito, at 3117m above sea level, to the top of one of the valleys, at 3945m above sea level, offers excellent views of the city stretching away from you far below.

Guayaquil

Okay, so this may be a metropolis, and quite a large one at that, but if you’re going to pass through a destination (many international flights and connections to Galapagos use Guayaquil Airport), then it would be a shame not to visit the best of this city. Maybe not worth visiting for more than a couple of nights, but in that extra day or so you will be able to experience modern Ecuador – how Ecuadorian people see it and live it. Head down to the “Malecon 2000″, the walkway overlooking the Guayas River, built in 2000, lovely in the evenings.

View from Cerro Santa Ana Guayaquil at Night

View from Cerro Santa Ana Guayaquil at Night

During the day Guayaquil can be a sweaty and humid affair, but as dusk begins to set and the temperature falls this modern river-side getaway stretches for a few kilometres along the river-front, and contains many monuments, mini parks, restaurants, art displays and plenty of space for a relaxing stroll. At one end of the Malecon there is the fabulous district of “Las Penas”, which is a regenerated area of the city, full of many mini streets built up the sides of a hill, complete with perfect little art galleries, salsa bars and restaurants, and other delights abound – explore to your heart’s content! A walk along the streets of Las Penas will eventually lead up towards the hill at Cerro Santa Ana – there are fabulous views of the city below and a lighthouse at the top of the hill.

Art at Malecon Guayaquil

Art at Malecon Guayaquil

Unspoiled Beaches of Ecuador

There are many fabulous areas of South America that are not that well known by the English-speaking world. Take the beaches of Uruguay for example – very popular with Argentinians, and with Spanish wanting to escape the humdrum of Europe in the height of summer, but not really on the radar of other Europeans. The same could be said for Ecuador’s beaches, and it was tempting to not even mention the beaches on this list for fear of increasing their popularity – some places are best kept secret! The benefit of Ecuador’s beach regions, compared to many of their equivalents in the Mediterranean or other similar locations, is their relative quietness without the crowds and without high-rise hotels of purpose built resorts.

Beach at Montanita Ecuador

Beach at Montanita Ecuador

Of course, there are exceptions, with the city of Salinas being one example (a resort-town if ever there was one)… however a journey north from Salinas up Ecuador’s beautiful coastline (simply a delight at sunset) will take you past endless fishing villages, all sitting atop beautiful sandy beaches – just take your pick. Montañita, once a well-kept secret complete with lovely sandy beaches and fishing shacks serving up cold beers, has over recent years started to grow in popularity (the secret got out!), but is still worth visiting for those seeking a surfing style holiday, cheap beach-side villas, and glorious sun. As you head further north, travel along the “E15″ road and either stop wherever takes your fancy – try Mompiche, Cojimies, or countless others.

Cotopaxi in Ecuador Photo by Ainhoa Bilbao on Flickr

Cotopaxi in Ecuador

Cotopaxi National Park

There are many national parks in Ecuador, and all are probably worth a visit if you have the inclination, and time. Cotopaxi is probably the most well-known of the mainland parks, because of Cotopaxi stratovolcano that sits within the park and gives the park its name. The volcano features the beautiful symmetrical cone shape that is synonymous with volcanoes in general, and sits majestically on the Andean plateau (resembling that other equally beautiful volcano – Mount Fuji in Japan). Visitors to the national park are greeted by stunning Andean landscapes – rough tundra shrubbery, grazing llamas, indigenous farmers, sporadic farming buildings offering limited shelter – all with the sight of the giant conical volcano on the horizon. This is a landscape unlike anywhere else. The best way to experience this area is to get up close and personal with the region, and go on a horse-trekking adventure through the lands. For the brave, the volcano can be climbed on a guided climbing excursion, worth it to experience the awe-inspiring views from the top.

Horse Riding in the  Andes

Horse Riding in the Andes

Stay in a Hacienda

Not really a destination, but more of a way of life, haciendas were, and still are, large self-sufficient estates situated across much of the Ecuador mainland, around Quito and the surrounding area. Although their traditional ways have started to disappear, many of these haciendas have adapted and provide exceptional, and unique, tourism opportunities. Many excellent haciendas are close-by to Quito, so can easily be visited, and they provide an excellent way of experiencing what life might have been like for colonial people in Ecuador hundreds of years ago. The centre-piece of these large estates is usually the central mansion, some of which contain ancient Inca walls that were used in the construction of the mansions when built by the land-owners, and these mansions have been converted into wonderful and delightfully decorated accommodation.

Many thanks for this article to Jonathan, who spent time living in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, and who has travelled extensively in Ecuador. Since returning home to the UK, Jonathan has taken up photography after being inspired by the fabulous landscapes of the Andes, and works for Go Andes, a specialist holiday company that offers cruises and tours to the Galapagos Islands, as well as many other destinations through South America.

Photo Credits: Galpagos by BlinkingIdiot, Cotopaxi by Ainhoa Bilbao Other photos by Jonathan at Go Andes

For more South American stories:

Ecuador and the Amazon Rainforest
Coca tea or Cappuccino – in Peru
South America Backpacking with Indie Travel Podcast

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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Finding Josphine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech – video

When Mike and Lucie Wood found an old property in the Marrakech Medina to add to their small group of Marrakech Boutique Riads, they named it Riad Star, for not much more reason than their daughter liked the name. It was only when neighbours asked them if they were naming it after the star who had lived there, that they learned this had once been home to Josephine Baker; the American born cabaret artist of the 1920s, 30s and 40s who had been the toast of Paris, who had been awarded the Legion d’Honeur by Charles de Gaule for her wartime work in the French Resistance and who was a leader in the civil rights movement for racial equality. In honour of Josephine Baker, the renovation of Riad Star, with its art deco woodwork and coloured glass took a new theme, incorporating jazz age glamour and sparkle and a sprinkling of objets and memorabilia from the period.

Riad Star, Marrakech Photo by RiadStar.com

The courtyard of Riad Star in Marrakech, decorated on a Jazz age theme

I hope you enjoy the video below of Finding Josephine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech

If you can’t see the video above of Finding Josephine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech view it on my blog here or on YouTube here

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We spent a weekend staying at Riad Star in May, taking advantage of the new easyJet direct flight from Bristol with a schedule that is well timed for long weekend breaks. Our taxi from the airport dropped us as close as it could could get to the Riad, where Abdel, the energetic Riad manager greeted us and led us through the narrow lanes to the unassuming door of the Riad, marked only with a small star. Miriam, the Riad’s excellent cook had prepared a traditional Moroccan meal for us with a selection of side dishes as starters; coleslaw with walnuts and sweet dried fruits, a delicious rice dish with green and red peppers, courgettes and green beans cooked with oil, lemon, parsley and cumin. After such a feast we barely had room for the succulant and fruity lamb tagine cooked with prunes, a dish that is often served at celebration meals in Morocco.

The Josephine room where stayed is thought to be where Josephine Baker herself slept, and the white walls were hung with Jazz age prints from the Revue Negre as well as a large portrait of Grace Kelly who befriended Josephine Baker and invited her to perform in Monacco. The double bed covered with a soft gold bedspread was framed by an arch of traditional carved plasterwork, while silver cutwork metal lamps threw patterns of light on the ceiling. On the tiled floor was a Zayan Berber marriage shawl serving as a rug, with silver sequins woven into the fabric to represent money and a few small tables and stools scattered with catalogues and records from Josephine Baker’s musical performances.

The Josephine Room at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Josephine Room at Riad Star in Marrakech

Our en suite bathroom was a similar fusion of traditional Moroccan polished plasterwork and art deco inspired polished black marble with delicious orange blossom shower gel and body lotion from Les Sens de Marrakech. The powerful shower was contained in a bathing area with a high step which I tackled rather carefully for fear of slipping on the tiled surfaces. At the internal window from which voices wafted up from the kitchen below, was a wire sculpture of Josephine Baker dangling in the space, complete with banana skirt and pouting lips.

Our bathroom in the Josephine room at Riad Star Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Our bathroom in the Josephine room at Riad Star

From reading the books and biographies about Josephine Baker that were scattered around the Riad, I learned more fascinating stories of her time in Marrakech. In the early years of the Second World War, Josephine had started to work for the French resistance, secretly passing information about German operations within occupied France which she hid in her underwear or wrote in invisible ink on her music scores. In 1941 she received orders to move on the North Africa, arriving first in Algiers and then moving on the Casablanca and Marrakech, and it was during this time that she met one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Morocco, T’hami el Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech. Josephine had left France suffering with pneumonia and fatigue but now El Glaoui offered her a place to rest and recuperate in his palace, now the Museum of Marrakech next door to Riad Star, putting on a grand dinner in her honour.

The inner courtyard of Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The inner courtyard of Riad Star in Marrakech

The two became close friends and in 1942 Josephine became pregnant and late in her pregnancy suffered a miscarriage in the clinic in Casablanca. She developed an acute infection  from which she nearly died and had an emergency hysterectomy which meant that she could never have children of her own. When she was well enough Josephine returned to Marrakech where El Glaoui offered her the use of the guest wing of his palace, now Riad Star, to recuperate. It is said that the Pasha paid children to stand under her window and recite verses from the Koran, as we might say a prayer for someone’s good health and speedy recovery.

As the Josephine room where we stayed is the only room in the riad that overlooks the street, which is unusual as most look inwards to the courtyard, it is believed that this must have been her bedroom. In the street she was known for her generosity and the elderly neighbour remembered being given sweets and modelling clay by her when he was a child. After her recovery Josephine Baker spent the remaining war years touring North Africa entertaining the American, English and French troops and later adopted a ‘Rainbow tribe’ of thirteen children to make up for the children of her own she could never have.

Jazz bedroom in Riad Star Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Jazz bedroom in Riad Star, Marrakech

We loved the fusion of Moroccan craftsmanship at Riad Star with the elegant furnishings and metalwork from the souk and the Art Deco antiques and objets that owners, Mike and Lucie Wood have collected on their travels. Each room is decorated in unique style and is named after a part of Josephine Baker’s life; The Paris room after the Casino de Paris that made her a star; the Rainbow room after her Rainbow tribe of adoptive children and the Chiquita room on the roof terrace after her pet cheetah.

Rainbow bedroom in Riad Star, Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Rainbow bedroom in Riad Star, Marrakech

Each morning we were served a delicious breakfast of fruit salad, pancakes and scrambled eggs, seated at the green banquette in the alcove to one side of the inner courtyard, which had a small dipping pool to cool off on hot days. While many of the Riads of Marrakech have been converted into holiday homes or small boutique hotels, they were originally family homes designed to house extended families, with different generations living in the rooms that overlook the internal courtyard. The narrow street outside may look a little scruffy, but the unassuming door opens to reveal an elegant private world, designed to shield the women from prying eyes and to keep the house cool in the heat of summer. Owner, Mike Wood told me how most of the skilled craftsmen he had employed to recreate the traditional Beijmat teracotta tiled floors, Tadlakt polished plasterwork and hand carved plasterwork friezes and arches, could be found within 10 minutes of the Riad. From the souk had come embroidered cushions, small silver poufs and stools, silver cut metalwork lanterns and berber sequin marriage rugs, as well as art deco statues and ornaments in keeping with the Jazz Age theme.

Breakfast at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Breakfast at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The roof terrace has been converted into a delightful area for relaxation, with a wrought iron ballustrade around the central opening which has a clever retractable roof to keep the courtyard below dry and warm in the cooler months. The terrace is cleverly designed with different seating and sunbathing areas separated by arrangements of shrubs and herbs in pots, and in the evening the fairy lights twinkle in the bouganvillia with a fireplace for cooler evenings. There’s also a private hammam that leads off the terrace, where private treatments can be arranged, which is ideal for couples who want to try the hammam experience together, as the public hammams are strictly segregated.

The terrace at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The terrace at Riad Star in Marrakech

In keeping with the Josephine Baker theme, there’s a rail of sparkling, sequinned dresses and other costumes provided for guests to dress up, with a jewellery box of 1920s style hair ornaments and necklaces to try. While we were there, the Riad had a special display of costumes for the Marrakech Bienniale cultural festival, including a red evening gown worn by Josephine Baker in during one of her final performances in Paris before she died in 1975. The Woods managed to purchase the dress, along with a sequined costume worn by the celebrated French singer, Mistinguett, letters, a movie script and other Josephine Baker memorabilia at a recent auction at the Casino de Paris.

Left: Josephine Baker dancing in her banana skirt Right: Dress worn by Josephine Baker in Paris Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Josephine Baker dancing in her banana skirt Right: Dress worn by Josephine Baker in Paris

We very much enjoyed our stay at Riad Star, being looked after by the wonderful staff, relaxing in the beautifully restored surroundings and reliving a little Jazz Age glamour. I’m sure Josephine Baker would have approved.

Visiting Riad Star and Marrakech

Thanks to Riad Star who hosted our stay in Marrakech. Rooms at the Riad start at £140 per night bed and breakfast. The Riad is one of four in the Marrakech-Riad family, which are all well located close to all the major sights of the Medina, with English-speaking Moroccan staff who will offer advice, airport transfers, book restaurants, and lend you a local mobile so they can rescue you if you get lost in the Souk! Each Riad has between 4 and 7 bedrooms, making them ideal to book as a group if you are planning a gathering of family or friends, or for couples planning a romantic getaway.

Heather and Guy flew to Marrakech courtesy of easyJet who fly from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays – perfect for a long weekend break. EasyJet also fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, Stanstead and Manchester so you really have no excuse!

We also found the free Marrakech-Riad app was indispensable for finding our way around the Medina and full of useful tips and information about sightseeing, restaurants and shopping. The app features a GPS responsive map of the old town medina which saves you from getting lost in the maze of narrow lanes and the latest version has been extended to cover the new town area of Marrakech. Download the free Marrakech-Riad app from iTunes here

More things to see in Morocco

Marrakech – on shopping, sightseeing and (not) getting lost in the souk
Paradise Valley – Blue pools and waterfalls in Morocco – video
Top 10 things to do in Marrakech

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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Tagines and fresh orange juice – the food we enjoyed in Morocco

My recent trip to Marrakech has brought back mouth-watering memories of last year’s trip to Morrocco with the family, when we stayed in Taghazout, the surf-capital of Morocco. Our week was spent in an apartment that overlooked the ocean and we spent our time either trying to surf (the kids) or hanging out in the many little cafes along the sea front (me) surfing in our imagination while sipping a refreshing orange juice or a sweet mint tea.

Eating Cous Cous at Paradise Valley in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Eating Cous Cous at Paradise Valley in Morocco

We were there around Easter a year ago, and since Morocco is a warm and sunny spring destination and a number of airlines, such as Monarch offer cheap flights to Agadir, there’s really no excuse to go. Here are some of the happy food memories from our trip to Taghazout and Agadir to tempt you;

Moroccan Salad and orange juice at Taghazout in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Moroccan Salad and orange juice at Taghazout in Morocco

Because of the years that Morocco was under a French protectorate, it’s easy to find delicious freshly baked baguettes as well as the more traditional Moroccan flat-bread to eat for breakfast. With it we tried the local Amlou, a dip made of ground almonds, Argan oil and local honey which was so moreish that we had to bring a jar home with us. It makes a smooth, oily mixture, a bit like runny peanut butter to dip your bread into and on one of our day trips we stopped at the Argan oil co-operative to learn how the argan kernels are pressed to make the oil used both in cooking and in skin and hair preparations.

Lunch was often a Moroccan salad which is served in all the cafes and restaurants as a side dish or starter, preferably with a view of the expert surfers twisting and turning their way into the beach. The salad is made from the vegetables that most families might have growing in their back garden, chopped small, such as tomatoes, cucumber, green and red peppers and red onion tossed in vinaigrette and served with French bread.

Orange sellers Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Orange sellers in Morocco

Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not generally served, except in cafes and restaurants that cater for Europeans, but instead we drank gallons of freshly pressed orange juice. In the markets you’ll see huge stalls full of oranges waiting to be taken home and pressed into juice and we also came across a few juice bars that sold more interesting juice combinations, using carrots, beetroot and ginger such as the kiosk next to L’Auberge in Taghazout.

Chickpea Salad in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Chickpea Salad in Morocco

Another ingredient that featured in many of the Moroccan dishes we ate was chickpeas, which is made into hummus but also used in the green salad that we often ordered, mixed with other Mediterannean ingredients such as tomatoes, black olives and goats cheese, or cooked in tagine dishes in place of meat.

Cous Cous at L'Auberge in Taghazout Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cous Cous at L’Auberge in Taghazout

A staple of the North African cuisine is of course cous cous, a small grain that is steamed and then served with oven cooked vegetables and sometimes pieces of meat or chickpeas. I began to realise that the same repertoire of Moroccan dishes appears in almost every restaurant, from the street-food vendor to the smart restaurant, so you are often paying more for the decor and ambiance of the restaurant than any difference in the style or quality of the food.

We ate cous cous several times in different variations in Taghazout, from the elegant French-style version at L’Auberge, to a party version for the guest night put on by the owners of the Surf’n'Stay apartment where we stayed, as well as a home cooked version prepared over the open fire after our walk up to Paradise Valley. Each time there is a base of cooked cous cous in the bottom of the clay tagine dish, topped with chunks of meat and then a layer of large vegetable pieces, such as carrots and courgettes and potatoes laid over the mound of cous cous, with a dish of spicy harissa sauce of the side or poured over the top to give extra flavour. I gather that the French almost regard cous cous, which they inherited from their North African colonies as a national dish, just as we Brits love a good curry even though our Indian empire is long gone.

Cous Cous at Paradise Valley near Agadir Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cous Cous at Paradise Valley near Agadir

The final favourite that we discovered in every restaurant was the Tagine, which refers more to the style of oven cooking in a clay pot than to any specific combination of meat and vegetables. Just as we might talk about a stew or casserole cooked in the oven, the Moroccan tagine dishes rely on being cooked oh so slowly in the oven (think six hours). Since every neighbourhood would have a hammam, you might leave your tagine dish with the man stoking the wood fired boiler for the hammam and come back a few hours later after your bath to pick it up for your lunch.

Chicken with apricots in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Chicken with apricots in Morocco

The tagines we tried seemed to often combine meat with fruit flavours, such as lamb cooked with prunes or chicken cooked with preserved lemons and green olives which were delicious.

I know that in a week near Agadir we only scratched the surface of Moroccan cuisine and were probably experiencing the tourist favourite dishes. From reading some of the Moroccan Food blogs out there such as The View from Fez and Maroc Mama I know there is plenty of variety in Moroccan home cooking, so if you are tempted, I commend some of their recipes to you. Enjoy!

More inspiration from Morocco

Paradise Valley – blue pools and Waterfalls in Morocco
Life’s a beach – watching the surfers in Taghazout
Marrakech – on shopping, sightseeing and (not) getting lost in the souk

This article was brought to you in partnership with Monarch Airlines who fly twice a week from Manchester to Morocco.

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

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