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Secret garden of the Inca

MANY things go through your head on the Iberian Airlines flight to Ecuador. How will I manage with the altitude in Quito, the second-highest capital city in the world? Will I be able to withdraw cash easily and walk the streets in a carefree manner?

Upon arrival in Quito, there is that snap, crackle and pop in the air that you get only in Latin America. A sort of organised chaos that takes a couple of days to get used to, but once you have, you wonder why you found it such a spectacle at first. My Spanish tightened up in the time I was there, but when dealing with the taxi driver outside Quito's Mariscal Sucre airport, not a single word from my tape language course wanted to play ball.

Any slightly unnerving impressions I had of Quito from this taxi journey quickly evaporated at The Secret Garden. The colonial hostel is located in the vibrant old town, an area distinguished from the international chains and omniplex cinemas of the "new town". Climbing a steep set of stairs, you come at last to a roof terrace, try to stop huffing and puffing long enough to order a drink and look out over rooftops. The illuminated Spanish colonial architecture and dim silhouettes of mountain peaks are finally presenting themselves.

The Secret Garden is the brainchild of can-do Aussie Tarquin Hill and his Ecuadorian wife Katherine, who expanded their simple idea into one of Lonely Planet's most recommended businesses. It has an old-style charm -- communal dining, no televisions -- while at the same time there are the hot showers, home-cooking and cleanliness. Their excellent value Spanish school, in-house tour operator and sister hostel near Cotapaxi (a picture-perfect volcano crowned with snow) make it a good place to begin your visit.

We were collected at 5am for our first expedition, and began a six-hour drive over the Andes towards the coast and the pristine virgin rainforests of the Choco region, an area that has not been preyed upon by oil companies and deforestation. These trips are organised by Touch The Jungle, an ecotourism company which brings small groups to this region alone. Once the conventional roadway came to an end, we bumped up a tiny logging road for an hour to a small port by a river. From here, we travelled two hours upstream by boat to the jungle village of Playa de Oro, a small community descended from African slaves who liberated themselves centuries ago. The clicks, squeals and echoes of the forest were just audible over the dull scream of the outboard.

We were greeted in the village by a rush of activity and excitement. Children swarmed around me, giggling and inspecting. Some kept a distance, looking in amazement at me, then glancing skywards, then back to make sure they aren't going mad. From here, we moved on to the rescue station, a retired army camp and our lodgings for the week. We slept soundly every night through the feverish jungle lullaby, washed each morning in the warm river and were brought on treks through the rainforest by day.

It is a difficult sensation to describe, the jungle environment. There seems to be activity everywhere without movement, while a warm sweet dew is breathed upon you. That whole "lungs of the earth" thing hit home quickly. It wasn't all snakes and monkeys, and nor should it have been -- the privilege of meeting them does not come lightly. Our evenings were spent reading in hammocks and listening to the thunderous nightly dump of rainfall clattering against the corrugated steel roof.

After a week that was blissfully removed from everything I had ever experienced, we bade farewell to the sounds and smiles of the jungle and returned to Quito. Our plan was to wind our way south by bus along the Andes to Cuenca, a university town and UNESCO World Heritage site, at odds with the fast pace of the capital. After a day or two of eating and drinking, we moved south again to Vilcabamba, which enjoys a sort of "best kept secret" status. The sleepy town at the centre of a lush green valley has long been thought to have regenerative properties and boasts a population famed for its longevity. Initially, it was known as the "playground of the Inca", and used as a sort of health spa for Incan royalty. I am unable to say at this point if the waters and the ways of Vilcabamba had any lasting benefits, but the setting did have an oddly soothing effect on us, like slipping into a warm bath after a very active day. Streams and brooks bubbled quietly in the background, and hummingbirds hover about the carefully kept flowerbeds. The neat village square throbbed gently by night with the chirps of crickets and you felt like the only guest in a vast private garden.

Getting out and about was easy. Horseback is the best way to explore the soft peaks and dales, especially around Mandango, or "Sleeping Inca" as the locals call it. You pass people, local and foreign, and they smile, as if to say "isn't this great?". When the day is done, and the air is filled with the scents and sounds of Mother Nature's warmer side, you can find yourself imagining a new life in Ecuador's own secret garden.

Sunday Independent