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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Text and photos by Luc
Jones, partner Antal Russia

ewcomers to Russia struggle with the whole concept of giving flowers here. Back home if you present a bunch to a girl you’ve taken a shine to, after the initial shock her first thought is likely to be “this guy’s expecting to get laid”, and woe betide you should you arrive home to your wife with an armful of flowers on any other date than her birthday or your wedding anniversary; her immediate reaction will almost certainly be “you’ve slept with someone else and are trying to ease your guilt”! Oh, and in the States don’t even think about putting “flowers” and a “female co-worker” in the same sentence unless your idea of fun is a pending lawsuit, even if it’s for her birthday and the whole team have chipped in.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this most certainly isn’t the case in Russia, where every third retail outlet which isn’t an apteka is almost certainly a 24-hour flower shop. Russians give flowers at almost every opportunity and without needing much of a reason to do so. Curiously very few of these, especially roses, are actually grown in Russia, apart from those crappy, short ones you can see in small bunches being hawked at suburban train stations by babushkas, and which have almost certainly been grown at her dacha. The beautiful, tall roses which come in a variety of colours (I’ve even spotted them in a dark blue, although I’m not sure if this what nature intended) have in fact been shipped in from the world’s floral capital, Amsterdam, but in fact mostly began their life in Ecuador— yes, that little South American country many people have barely heard of and would struggle to place on a map.


Ecuador means “equator” in Spanish and strangely enough the equator run through the top of the country, just north of the capital Quito—or to give it it’s full name, San Francisco de Quito—which is the second highest capital in the world, no less. The Andes range runs in a vertical line down the country and it is the fertile volcanic soil that lends itself to being able to produce beautiful flowers for export. Curiously most Ecuadorians outside of the trade seem to be aware of this fact since the majority of tourists to the country are from Western Europe or North America, plus a few Aussies, and it’s largely the backpacker crowd than high end. In a week here I didn’t hear Russian spoken once.

Kick off any trip with a couple of days in Quito, if only to acclimatize to the altitude, but there’s plenty to keep you busy both during the day and at night as this is where you will find the country’s best bars and restaurants, where tourists mix with locals. The old, colonial architecture makes for pleasant walks and be sure to take the cable car up a nearby mountain for exceptional views of the city. Just 16 miles north of Quito is Mitad del Mundo where just about every tour will take you for a day trip as it’s an opportunity to straddle the equator. Ironically, after the massive monument was constructed, it turned out that the “real” equator was in fact a few hundred yards away, and subsequently a new mini-theme park was built around this one. It’s all fairly tacky but if you’ve come all this way, it’s worth a few hours of your time and makes for a good photo opportunity.

Heading South of Quito is Cotopaxi mountain, the country’s second highest and part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Technically, it’s still active but deemed safe to climb although most people drive up as far as the top car park (at an altitude of 4,600m and walk some 200m up to the base camp. It looks easy but this is where the lack of oxygen in the altitude plays its part and you’ll need to stop for breath every few minutes, and smokers would be advised to stay in the car. Once back down again, you’ll be thinking about not only renewing your gym membership but also about actually showing up more than once or twice a month as this mountain takes it out of all but the fittest.

Lardasses can let the train take the strain on one of the few remaining parts of the Ecuadorian railway network still functioning, the ride down La Nariz Del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose: if you look at it at just the right angle, it’s does, kind of look like a nose), which is an incredible feat of engineering. Nowadays it caters only to tourists. Passengers can no longer ride on the roof, after a recent fatality, yet nevertheless views from the open windows are spectacular. Back on the winding mountain roads, you’ll come to Ingapirca, the largest Inca ruins in Ecuador. The showpiece, the temple of the sun, is surprisingly well preserved. On the face of it, Macchu Picchu it most certainly ain’t, but then again you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself and you don’t need to hike for several days to get there!

Cajas National Park

Just before you reach Cuenca, be sure to spend a day walking around the Cajas national park. The name is derived from the local Quicha word “cassa” which means “gateway to the snowy mountains”, which is rather apt given that much of the park rests at an altitude of between 3,000-4,000 metres. Ecuador is a bird-watcher’s paradise and twitchers flock here in their droves to see species native only to the country. Cajas has excellent examples of the flora and fauna that can be found here—even if trying to spot one of the world’s few remaining South American Condors or the world’s largest hummingbird as it eats agave flowers isn’t your idea of a great day out, then just take in the views with a long walk around one or three of the approximately 270 lakes and lagoons in the park. You won’t be disappointed.

Return to civilization in Cuenca which rivals Quito (they’re both UNESCO-listed, and deservedly so) and requires at least a day to do it justice, even if it is considerably smaller. It’s also surrounded on all sides by mountains, allowing for a rather cozy feel, especially when walking along the river, just beyond the key sights dotted around the main square. From here I wished I could then have headed down to Guayaquil and on the Galapogos islands for an extra week, but regrettably I have a day job which ensures that I’ll have to leave ‘em until next time. But there will definitely be a next time as this is one country in the region that certainly punches above its weight in terms of cramming in so many attractions into such a small landmass. Possibly the fact that there’s no Rio-style carnival here, or a nutty Chavez-guy in charge adds to the attraction, and my guess is that Ecuadorians would prefer to keep it that way. They’re a friendly bunch and delighted that you made the effort to visit their country, and won’t expect any flowers in return!

Getting there: there are no direct flights from Moscow to Ecuador (or anywhere else in Latin America, for that matter). You’ll need to go via either a European or US hub (usually Miami). As Quito is relatively small, most airlines fly into Bogota and you’ll need an additional change in the Colombian capital.

Getting in there: fortunately visas are not required by Russians or Westerners travelling as tourists, BUT if you choose to fly via the States, Russians must have a US visa, even if you don’t leave the airport.

Getting around there: my tailor-made tour was organized by Happy Gringo (www. who despite the silly name were excellent and extremely helpful in putting together a programme which crammed in a huge amount in a short space of time.

Spending there: Ecuador’s currency is the US$, although they have their own coins, interchangeable with their American equivalents. The Greenback replaced the Sucre in 1999, which on the one hand solved the problem of hyperinflation but resulted in higher prices. However, by European/ North American standards, Ecuador is pretty cheap.

Speaking there: the official language is Spanish, although some English is spoken in the more touristy areas.

Inca Ruins at Ingapirca

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