Handy Little Ecuador September 7, 2018May 29, 2018 On the trail over Vilcabamba, Ecuador is a hiker’s dream. Brannon GerlingRhythms are resounding through the Otavalo Market, one of the largest and oldest indigenous markets in the world. There are handmade goods everywhere: hammocks and mantas, funky wool hats and gloves, brilliantly embroidered belts. A rainbow threaded into each piece. I look up and feel the drums pounding like cold sweats. We’re in the Ecuadorian Andes at 2,500 meters, and the ﬂutes ﬂutter like angels of the native world.Feet stamping. “I am the son of the Sun, going to those of my race,” they chant. “I’m one of the children of the Sun, going to my people. I’m a child of the Sun, coming for a purpose. I’ve come to find and gather the people of the Inca nation.” They reveal the entire market in full energetic illumination.Paused and arrested—everyone looks as the small group of musicians move by. I struggle to bag my camera. These are holy times for living, telling later. I’m glued to the man playing the bamboo ﬂute with a baby wrapped snugly to hisColors of the coastal party Mecca of Montanita. Brannon Gerlingback. He’s curled and rapidly blowing down into each pipe. One eye is open, squinting up to the sky—this burning man—as if he holds the world from falling to pieces. There’s a Rasta playing a churango leading the pack and a Peruvian man blowing hard into a huge ﬂute and beating a broad drum. “Inca child, you are not part of this world, come home with me…”Givin’ It Up to IntiI’m here during Inti Raymi, Festival of the Sun God, observing the Winter Solstice and honoring Inti for the return of longer days. Loving strangers surround me. We share drinks and snacks; we spontaneously play new instruments. Most importantly, we listen, and together as a nation, we blissfully praise what we preserve.It’s my first time in Ecuador and I soon realize it contains all of South America—the new travel frontier—in a nutshell. Native peoples edge Andean peaks with alpaca and wild horses, pristine rainforests steam to the east, UNESCO sites Quito and Cuenca vie for most charming colonial city and Montañita rocks the entire Pacific party coast. And the Galápagos Islands—a volcanic circus of sea and wildlife where humans are the minority while the rest of the animal kingdom ignores Darwin’s evolutionary theory.“I’m one of the children of the Sun, going to my people. I’m a child of the Sun, coming for a purpose. I’ve come to find and gather the people of the Inca nation.”Brannon GerlingInti Raymi was a sure highlight. It lasts for several days in the surrounding valleys but I left after a few and headed nearby for Cotacachi, an ex-pat haven hemmed imposingly in by verdant volcanoes and a sacred lake. Cotacachi has a thriving leather industry and one of South America’s most luxurious hotels, La Mirage, a garden labyrinth with an amazing spa complex that even boasts their own shaman. After hiking around Cuicocha Lake, you can buy some boots on Leather Street and strut out for the spa and a ﬁve-course feed in a peacock garden. Explore UNESCO EcuadorTravelling Ecuador is a major draw for rock climbers, downhill bikers and deep divers. In theBrannon GerlingBrannon GerlingCentral Highlands, I took the Quilotoa Loop through indigenous communities, steep mountain passes and crater lakes. Like many others on the Loop, I ended atBaños, getting lost in the clouds before mountain-biking down to the Amazon Basin.Around the Galápagos, I nearly had a mythical scuba experience. Schools of hammerhead sharks, sea lions, giant turtles, eagle rays, seals, penguins, marine iguanas and whale sharks. Theseare underwater volcanic islands separated from common Earth, an oceanic continent unto itself.In between outdoor adventures, I spent days in Quito and Cuenca, spoiled by local cuisine like ceviche: raw tilapia ‘cooked’ in lemon marinade; locro, a cheese-corn broth with aji criollo; and tamales, corn-ﬂour pockets with minced pork, eggs and raisins steamed in achira leaves.Retreat Like an ExpatIf you crave low-key, entire Ecuador is a fast-Enjoying fresh ceviche on the coast. Most Ecuadorian meals come with an entree like this. Brannon Gerlingbuilding refuge for expats. But Vilcabamba (pop. 9,000), former ‘playground’ of the Incan royalty, may be a class unto itself. The ‘Valley of Longevity’ claims some extraordinary lifespans, up to 135 years old. Those seeking the fountain of youth often find it here; it’s one of the most beautiful residential valleys in the world.I arrive at 7AM and I’m immediately absorbed into the community. Little girls affably approach me to simply get what I’m doing. Daniel invites me to a jazz concert at his commune while a skirted woman walks down a picturesque street shouldering a stack of timber and gives me an earthy wink. It’s so green, lush and fresh here. I walk into a little restaurant called Carlitos and order a beer.A Quechua couple brings daisies to sell at the Otavalo Market. Brannon GerlingBrannon GerlingCharlie, the owner from New Orleans, lays it down for me. “I’ve foundVilcabamba the answer to all my problems. I got a wife, family and tons of friends… But happiness isn’t so much a placeand time, but a method or decision.”“But why are expats generally so taken here?” I asked rather obviously.He points outside. “We can start with the weather. Besides, there’s zero pressure here.” He jovially slams some Slap Yo’ Momma spice on the counter for my burrito. “You really can step in a lot of shat here and it really doesn’t stick.” I’ve only been here for half a day and I get it. “This, my friend, is a phwack-up’s paradise… And we’re all here,” he smiles, “and we’ve enclaved.”This article first appeared in The Australia Times Travel Magazine.