Dining on the edge of serenity at El Crater, Pululahua

Pululahua crater, Ecuador, as seen from mirador del Pululahua at Hotel & Restaurant El Crater

Dining on the edge of serenity at El Crater, Pululahua

Pululahua in Quichua means ‘cloud of water’ (fog). Both indigenous and foreign cultures have been fascinated for centuries with the perception that this crater serves as a source of spiritual wellbeing. At the edge of Mirador del Pululahua, hundreds of feet above the crater floor, enveloped in the soft feel of ethereal mist drifting up from the lush steep walls of the inactive volcano, it was easy to see why a stay in Ecuador at Hotel Restaurant El Crater and art gallery would be energizing relaxation.

Pululahua crater’s mystical qualities derive from its origins and location. A few seconds of degrees north of the equator, the once vast Volcan Pululahua, suffered a massive internal collapse when it last erupted 2,500 years ago forming the large deep crater. Its position within the western cordillera of the northern Ecuadorian Andes and the presence of warm underground volcanic springs have created a unique microclimate.

Established in 1966, the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, with more than 2,000 species of flora, birds, mammals and exotic insects, is also the Earth’s only inhabited volcanic crater. The last eruption caused the disappearance of several regional pre-Columbian cultures. Two thousand years later the Incas had only a short presence in the area due to the Spanish conquest.

Mineral rich soil and a mild rainforest microclimate made the crater ideal for farming. The Spanish established haciendas later granting these vast estates to religious orders. Mid-20th century land reforms saw the redistribution of lands from many large haciendas to former tenant farmers and workers.

Pululahua crater hosts less than 200 subsistence farm residents set in the middle of natural splendor. It’s a popular destination for hikers and naturalists who trek down the lush crater walls. Yet an Internet search will show that gentrification by way of weekend villas will make inroads. Quito and the tourist attractions of the equator and growing Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) are but a few miles south.

A table in Hotel Restaurant El Crater, all with panoramic views through large picture windows of the dynamic Geobotanical Reserve, offers an ideal dining experience. The sleek, comfortable, colorful décor reflects the owners’ professional interest in the modern artistic movement of reinterpreting traditional Andean motifs. That same sensibility extends to the extensive menu. El Crater highlights fresh local ingredients including corn, plantains and goat prepared to high standards expected of a first class restaurant in Ecuador.

The cheese empanada starter at El Crater was delicate yet crunchy. Ecuador’s national soup, creamy potato Locro de Papa, was appropriately served with optional garnishes of ripe avocado, crunchy corn nuts and white cheese. Maiz tostado, toasted fresh corn kernels (nuts) and popcorn are traditional garnishes or snacks at many meals. Aji criollo, an Ecuadorian hot sauce made with a touch of hot peppers, cilantro, garlic, onion and lime juice enhances many dishes in the cuisine.

Andean goat stew was actually tender braised short ribs served with rice, tostones (fried plantains) and mote (steamed hominy). Corn and potatoes have been indigenous to the Andes for thousands of years. Both rice and plantains (banana family) were Spanish introductions. It’s common to have more than one of these starches accompany a meal.

Ecuador is blessed with an abundance of fruit. Thick juice purees from fresh strawberry, mango to guanabana are favored at many meals. El Crater’s blended mixed red berries was equal to drinking a naturally sweetened liquid sorbet. Higos con queso, not too sweet plump cane syrup preserved black figs with slices of white farmers cheese, compliment many meals for dessert in Ecuador.

El Crater guests relax in peace enjoying fine dining, art and affordable luxury. Works by leading Ecuadoran artists decorate the buildings, grounds and are available in the gallery. The restaurant, hotel and gallery are built with local materials including volcanic pumice stone giving the structures silver gray accents. In El Crater’s boutique hotel, extensive use of glass, minimalist modern décor and ecofriendly features compliment the photo perfect views from windows at either end of the guest rooms.

Serenity, geologic biodiversity and a unique destination at the middle of the world have created Pululahua crater as another in Ecuador’s long list of attractions not yet discovered by mass tourism. Yet unlike many rare destinations, the crater and Hotel Restaurant El Crater and art gallery are a short, easy drive from Quito and Cuidad Mitad del Mundo. Dine leisurely as the afternoon ‘clouds of water’ swirl against the many shades of green within another of Earth’s treasures.

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