As every schoolchild learns, Ecuador is that tiny South American country that sits squarely astride the equator. What travelers there learn is that not only is the country at the middle of the world, but on top of it as well.
In Quito, for example, the clouds that swirl each afternoon over the intensely blue equatorial skies appear close enough to reach up and peel away. And, when you consider that Ecuador's charming capital city is some 9,300 feet above sea level, you realize that they very nearly are.
But Quito provides much to see at every level. At eye level the city is a treasure trove of Spanish colonial churches and plazas, splendidly preserved examples of 16th- and 17th-century design. In the foothills surrounding the city are thick forests of pine and eucalyptus that share space with Indian huts clinging to the nearly vertical slopes. Higher still, nearly 10,000 feet higher, the snow-capped volcanic cone of Cotopaxi casts a lordly shadow over it all.
With such beckoning surroundings, it is no wonder that Quito makes an excellent base from which to explore the dramatic Andean region to the north and south. The Pan American Highway quite handily links the city to rustic Indian villages where markets provide some of the best buys in South America for thick, hand-knit sweaters, wool ponchos and blankets, wood carvings, and beads.
Quito itself is well worth taking several days to explore, offering impressive museums, a landmark colonial section, and shops offering good, reasonably priced examples of the region's distinctive folk art. Although the equatorial sun overhead is the strongest anywhere on earth, the city's altitude ensures mild temperatures the year round.
A good starting point is at a place that traces the region's history back several thousand years - the Banco Central's stunning Archaeological Museum. One of several important museums in Ecuador that is owned and maintained by a bank, it offers tours by knowledgeable, English-speaking guides of its collection of artifacts dating back to 3500 BC.
A visit to the museum reveals that the bulk of the country's considerable art treasures were made by Indian hands. About 40 percent of the population is drawn from the country's 250 Indian tribes, among them descendants of the mighty Incas who conquered Ecuador in the 15th century, just 70 years before the Spanish arrived to do the same.
Beginning with the obsidian scraping tools of the Stone Age, the museum traces a chronological path of cultural development that spawned ceramic objects of ever-increasing beauty and sophistication. Among the most fanciful are a splendid array of whistling bottles, so-called because of the musical sounds they made as liquid was poured out of them. Shaped as monkeys, birds, snakes, or frogs, the vessels could make a sound resembling the animal they represented. A tape accompanying the exhibit is of whistling bottle music, a delightful, flutelike strain.
Most of the other ceramics are religious or ceremonial objects. Among these are fertility symbols, usually squatting human figures wearing the most fearsome frowns. A special velvet-covered room is used to display the magnificent jewelry produced in the pre-Columbian era. Among the nose rings, Incan hairpins, and emerald necklaces is a remarkable gold mask of a square-shaped head with snakelike hair, a kind of Ecuadorean Medusa.
On the floor above the Archaeological Museum is the Banco Central's splendid exhibit of Spanish colonial art. Although not taught to read or write, thousands of Indians were trained by the Spanish priests to produce European-style paintings and sculpture to adorn the dozens of churches built (also by Indians) in colonial Quito.
Thus the magnificent oil portraits on display, some accented with the then-plentiful gold dust, were executed by artists unable to sign their names to them. Equally impressive are the life-size wooden sculptures of angels and other religious figures that stand throughout the exhibit, their delicate colors and features remaining beautifully intact over the centuries.
Much of Quito's art, however, is not to be found in museums, but rather remains on whatever site it was originally intended to adorn. Many of those sites are in the colonial section of the city, a well-preserved enclave of narrow, cobbled streets, whitewashed houses, and lush courtyards hiding behind iron-gated passageways.
One of the most magnificent courtyards is open to public view, that of the St. Augustine monastery, nestled in the heart of the old city. Flowering trees, geraniums, and a gurgling fountain are rimmed by two stories of graceful archways supported by squat, gray columns, some slightly askew from three centuries of earthquake activity. Set into the ancient walls on the left and right of the courtyard is a series of early 18th-century paintings of the life of St. Augustine. Above them is a gold-leaf painted ceiling of octagons and pineapples; below them the artist, Miguel de Santiago, is buried beneath the wide-tiled floor.
As beautiful as the courtyards of old Quito are, they are closely rivaled by the city's spacious plazas. From St. Augustine it is a short walk to Independence Plaza, a palm-shaded square flanked by the low, modern city hall on one side and the grand, white neoclassical Presidential Palace on the other. The city's other great square is the Plaza de San Francisco, so-called because of the imposing Renaissance-style San Francisco Church, which has overlooked it since the early 1500s.
San Francisco Church, like other Ecuadorean churches, was built on the ruins of an Incan temple, because the Spaniards believed this would help enforce the new religious order and obliterate the old. The Indians were put to work fashioning San Francisco's massive gold altars, each one hand-carved wood and painted with gold. But the church foyer, festooned with the sun and moon symbols that the Incans worshiped, reveals that the Indians had not entirely left old beliefs behind.
From the old city it is a short drive or bus ride up the winding road to the top of Panicillo, the little hill at Quito's edge. Spreading beneath the hill is a sea of orange tile roofs, whitewashed houses, and iron balconies. Out beyond them stretches a parade of snowcapped volcanoes with a patchwork of farmland reaching partway up their slopes.
The glimpse of the countryside looming beyond often lures visitors to take one of the many day excursions from Quito that combine shopping in Indian markets with a spectacular ride along the stretch of the Pan American Highway known as the ''Avenue of the Volcanoes.'' For fees ranging from $15 to $40, depending on the size of the group, local tour companies such as Coltur or Ecuadorean Tours will provide a bus and English-speaking guide.
Market days in most villages are a once-a-week event. Among the best is the Saturday market in Otavalo, about a two-hour drive north of Quito. After wandering among the heaps of goods in the town plaza, it is hard to resist coming home with some of what the townspeople themselves wear - thick, reversible ponchos, hand-embroidered blouses, Panama hats (which are really an Ecuadorean product), and glass beads painted to resemble coral and gold. Otavalan women wear dozens of the beads around their wrists and necks, as much jewelry represents a respected station of life.
Along the way to Otavalo the highway curves through landscape that abruptly changes from lush farmland and eucalyptus forest to buff-colored desert and then back to farmland again. Small adobe villages, avocado orchards, and glistening lakes rest just beneath towering volcanoes with names such as Cotacachi, Imbabura, and Cayambe. Seemingly unaware of their lofty, almost intimidating surroundings, Indian farmers swathed in brilliantly colored shawls and ponchos go about their daily chores.
First-time visitors invariably stop at the equatorial line, which is marked by a small stone globular monument near the highway and the impressive rise of Cayambe in the distance. The opportunity to stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern is one of the many aspects of Ecuador that are hard to resist.