Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is our first stop in South America. It is the second highest capital city in the world, which is to say the highest I have ever been in my life at 2850m. As previously mentioned in my last post, we stayed at the Secret Garden hostel, which is located in the San Blas area of the Old Town/Centro Historico. Price was a little steep at $32 a night with tax for a private room, but the bed was comfy, the room cosy (if a bit noisy) and the view of the old town, breathtaking. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site and is set in what looks like a huge valley, in the shadow of the 4794m peak of Volcan Pichincha. The city is huge and sprawls to an area of 324km².
Just want the gallery? Click here.
The first order of business was to acclimatise. The effects of altitude were very immediate, noted by panting and almost keeling over when trying to climb 4 flights of stairs. Ollie has experience with this sort of thing from her last visit to South America in Chile, where she had a more serious reaction. We decided to take it easy and explore the old town, starting by visiting the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a 115m high cathedral of neo-gothic design built at the start of the 20th century. In a cheeky salute to the country’s wildlife it has birds, iguanas and turtles poking out if its side instead of traditional gargoyles. $2 gives you access to the highest points, where you climb up rickety staircases to grab some spectacular views of Quito’s old and new towns. A bit shaky on our feet is an understatement. We took it slow.
We then set out to explore the rest, arriving first at the Plaza de la Independencia which is surrounded by a handsome collection of buildings. (Note: the majority of the photos in this post are of buildings, with the occasional selfie in front of buildings, sorry. They’re just rather photogenic.) This plaza was great place to sit, people watch and start to soak up the general Andean vibe. National mayoral elections were set for the Sunday so there was a peaceful yet passionate rally going on in front of us. A handsome square with some wonderful buildings, here are some pretty pictures:
I feel it important to add that due to elections, all sales of alcohol were banned for a few days before the election. We experienced a similar thing in El Salvador while we were there. Couldn’t help thinking what the reaction would be in the UK if the government tried to impose this law? Regardless, it tied in nicely with our pledge to stop drinking daily and get into more hiking and general day activities in Ecuador. A hostel is a different place when backpackers are forced to be sober. Still noisy bastards though.
We ventured into the new town to find a book shop (Confederate Books, very good) on our second day. Walking there takes about 30 mins at a gentle pace, past many grand monuments of various people of import throughout Ecuador’s history. Passing through Parque la Alameda and Parque El Ejido, it is clear that the Ecuadorans take pride in their public spaces. The centre of the new town itself, La Mariscal, reminded me of Playas de las Americas in Tenerife. BBQ restaurants and bars galore sprawl out to four streets around Plaza del Quinde. As there was no drinking allowed at the time, and it was morning, the vibe was a subdued one, but you can tell it probably gets quite messy of an evening. Avoid.
Various warnings about safety in Quito are to be heeded, but we felt safe walking around the city. We have certainly been to sketchier places so far, and the heavy presence of police around the main tourist areas was reminiscent of New York. Public transport used throughout the city. It was cheap and reliable, but also a bit crowded. No issues had.
Becoming more backpacker than I ever wanted we are now imposing a stricter budget on ourselves. This means eating cheap(er). And we did. Empanadas are widely available, with meat or cheese for between $0.50-$1.50, depending on size and quality. If you haven’t come across these, they are like Cornish Pasties and equally delicious. There are hundreds of small eateries around the city offering cheap breakfast and lunch for between $2-$4 a plate. (Loss of appetite due to the altitude meant that a 2 course meal was a bit beyond us though) There are also many great-looking eating establishments where you can enjoy fine dining. We can only look at these places and reminisce about when we could afford such treats. We relied instead on the local bakeries for food, of which there are many. On offer are some incredibly delicate cakes and delicious breads. We favored a cheese loaf and combined it with avocadoes, tomato and cucumber. I referred to as the Quito Special and it served us well.
There is plenty else to keep you busy in the city. Once we felt up to it, we took the 2.5km ride on the TeleferiQo, a cable car that rises to a height of 4100m up Volcan Pichincha. Some awesome views were on offer as well as our first sight of some llamas who were knocking about up there. So very exciting…
Silly me, I didn’t realise that the translation of Equator in Spanish is actually Ecuador. Something of a lightbulb moment thanks to iPhones auto correct text. So, a day trip to the site of Mitad del Mundo, where in 1736 Charles Marie de la Condamine made measurements to show the equatorial line was in order. City buses are dirt cheap ($0.40 each) and get you there in about 1.5 hours. Today, there is a huge monument and complex that declares itself ‘The middle of the world’, although now with the invention of GPS, this is shown to be inaccurate. We visited the Museo Solar Inti Ñan a few meters down the road, which now claims to be on the exact point of the Equator (but this is also discredited by many). At the museum they get you to walk on the equatorial line and challenge you not fall off due to the power of the equator. The power of suggestion is a wonderful thing and of course, everyone fell off. They then demonstrate the Coriolos Force which causes weather systems to veer right in the northern hemisphere and left in the southern hemisphere (and apparently why toilets flush the other way when in Australia). Here, at the ‘middle of the world’ they drain a sink on the equatorial line and the water slips down without spinning. It’s then repeated just to the north of the line (draining counterclockwise) and to the south (clockwise of course). A neat trick, but hard to believe…something to do with magnets maybe? Then came balancing an egg on a nail; a feat that is apparently easier dead on the equator. Ollie being the only one in our group who managed to do it got herself a handsome certificate for her efforts. Even though it may not be exactly on the equator and the demonstrations mere trickery, it is as close as you’re going to get to it, and it’s a pretty fun day out!
There is plenty more to do in the city, with various travel agencies offering tours to the surrounding towns of Mindo and Otavalo. We have decided to head south to Cuenca, then work our way back to Quito and check these places out then on Route to Colombia.
One thing we have noticed is the general levels of tourism here. Not just your backpackers, but people from all walks of life. Also, the average age of backpacker has dropped 5-10 years here, so we are now surrounded by ‘gap yahs’ who seem to be less friendly than the average traveler in Central America. Maybe we are now too old to hang with them. Oh well…
Anyway, bring on Cuenca, the city of the Panama (Montecristi) hat.