Hotel Ali Shungu
Trekking the ecuadoran backcountry doesn't necessarily entail camping on rainforest muck or dining on cuy, aka roasted guinea pig. That is, if you base yourself in Otavalo, an Andean mountain town 70 miles northeast of Quito, and specifically at the Hotel Ali Shungu (below). Longtime expats Frank Kiefer and Margaret Goodhart, originally from Washington, D.C., hand-built this Mediterranean-style hacienda eight years ago. And the location couldn't be better: just four blocks from Otavalo's market, which stages Ecuador's largest crafts fair every Saturday, and within ten miles of hiking and biking among an impressive trinity of 15,000-plus-foot volcanoes.
AT THE INN: Check out the proprietors' collection of folk artmasks and woven rugs that decorate 16 rooms with balconies (including two kitchen-equipped suites)before hitting the market. After intense bargaining sessions, unwind with an organic salad and a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc at the Ali Shungu's excellent courtyard restaurant.
OUT THE BACK DOOR: To tackle 15,200-foot Imbabura, take a 40-minute cab ride ($12) to the village of Esperanza, where you'll start a four-hour, 6,000-foot ascent past crater lakes and windblown expanses of wild grasses. Or check the hotel bulletin board to find outfitters renting mountain bikes (about $5 per day) or horses ($5 per hour), both good modes of transportation for exploring the area's 800-year-old Incan footpaths paved with crushed rocks. Alternatively, a 20-minute stroll from the hotel will have you swimming in chilly pools at the base of the 100-foot Peguche Waterfalls.
GETTING THERE: From the Quito airport, you can either shell out $439 per week for a midsize from Hertzor drop $1.50 on the two-hour bus ride.
STAYING THERE: Double rooms cost $42; five-person suites, $132. For information, visit www.alishungu.com or call 011-593-6-920-750.
WIL S. HYLTON