24.10.2012 - 13.11.2012
Mitad del Mundo monument
The name “Ecuador” means Equator, which this small but very varied country straddles. Indeed, there is a monument near the capital, Quito, which marks “El Mitad del Mundo” – the Middle of the World.
We came here primarily because we wanted to see the Galápagos Islands, but it is too interesting a country not to see something of the mainland as well, so that is what we decided to do. And we were not sorry, as we found so much to like and enjoy here in the middle of the world.
While the Galápagos were, as we’d hoped they would be, the highlight of our trip, we had a wonderful time on the mainland too. We started (and finished) our trip in Quito, which I grew to really like – a slightly mad, bustling city surrounded by volcanoes and with a lovely old colonial heart.
From here we made various trips out of the city – to the famous market at Otavalo, to the hot springs of Papallacta, and to Cotopaxi to the south.
After about ten days in and around Quito we flew south to Cuenca, a city with which we soon fell in love. I can see why so many Americans choose to retire here. A likeable mix of historic architecture, good restaurants, lively bars and a welcoming atmosphere left us wishing we had allowed more time for our visit to this very likeable city.
But the Galápagos Islands were calling us, as they had been for some years. We were originally due to visit them in January 2009, but when Chris’s father fell ill we had to cancel the trip. Since then various events had conspired against us rescheduling the holiday, but finally, in November 2012, we were able to fulfil our dream.
Like us, you will get there eventually if you follow this blog, but meanwhile some general points about our trip.
It was my original intention to put the trip together myself, booking our Galápagos cruise on our chosen boat, the Angelito, through their Quito-based agents, Cometa Travel, and arranging time in Quito either side of it, from where we would have done tours to various parts of Ecuador in the north. But out of curiosity I also contacted a UK company, Real Ecuador (now Real World Holidays), to find out what they would charge if they were to put together a package for us – not a group tour, but to book the accommodation, internal flights etc. Their quote was of course dearer but not as much so as I had expected, and it included a couple of overnight tours from Quito, as well as a flight to and few nights in Cuenca in the south, which I really wanted to see. So we decided it was worth the extra to book with them, and I was very satisfied with everything, especially their flexibility. The original quote had included things like a guided tour of colonial Quito, which we didn’t want as we preferred to explore on our own, and a hotel in the city’s Mariscal district, whereas we wanted to stay in the old colonial area, and there were no problems changing things around to suit us. In the end I reckon the costs worked out only a fraction higher this way than if we had done exactly the same things but made the arrangements ourselves!
The only major thing I did arrange separately was our flights from London to Quito and back. We also chose to do our own sightseeing in Quito, as I said, and were able to spend two of our days there with the parents of a London friend who introduced us to some of the well known, and less visited, sights of their city. Meanwhile the arrangements made on our behalf by Real Ecuador for the other elements of our stay worked out very well and we were very happy with the decision we had made.
Here is a brief overview of the main places we visited – much more detailed entries will follow in due course:
We spent four nights in Quito at the start of our holiday, a couple more between tours to various places in the north, and two more at the end of the trip.
View of the city and church of Santo Domingo from our Quito hotel
I grew to really like the city – the contrast between its traffic-filled, somewhat manic newer areas and the colonial quarter at its heart, and its situation in a cleft between the Andean volcanoes. This situation has resulted in the city developing in an unusually thin and long shape – only 5 km at its widest east-west point, but about 40 km from north to south. It is also unusually high – at 2,800 metres above sea level, the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.
The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.
We spent most of our time here in the city’s colonial heart, which was one of the first two places in the world to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (the other was Krakow in Poland). We visited many of its churches, people-watched in its attractive plazas, wandered its streets and ate in its restaurants at night.
Cathedral and El Sagrario at night
But we did venture further afield at times. We were lucky enough to have friends in the city, or rather, the parents of a London friend, who had offered to spend time with us and introduce us to some parts of the city that they especially thought we would like. So with Betty and Marcelo we enjoyed the views from El Panecillo and the Parque Itchimbia, visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional and the Fundacion Guayasamin, ate in a couple of very good restaurants in the Mariscal, shopped in the market and toured some of the outlying districts such as Guapulo and Nayon.
Church in Guapulo and stella at the Fundacion Guayasamin
We also had some tours outside the city with a guide, Jose Luiz, which we had arranged prior to departure from England as part of our tour package with Real Ecuador and their Ecuadorean partners, Surtrek. One was a day trip to Otavalo, famous for its market and to the Mitad del Mundo monument which marks the line of the Equator (although in practice it is slightly off the line as its location was based on a scientific survey carried out before the accurate measurements later made possible with GPS). Another was an overnight tour to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, and we also spent a night at the lovely Termes de Papallacta.
In Otavalo market, and Chuquiragua flowers on Cotopaxi
When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has apparently become a favourite place to retire for Americans, and I can see why. It has lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, good restaurants and of course the cost of living is low by US (and UK) standards. But it’s also a great place to include on a holiday itinerary for all the same reasons!
Cathedral in Cuenca
The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderon, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching. We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. We had a great couple of days here, and I left wishing it could have been longer.
Independence Day parade
For many years, I have wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. Fortunately, the experience more than lived up to my expectations! A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special.
One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood.
Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him.
On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured.
And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.
Fabian, our Galápagos guide
We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea.
No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. We were fortunate too to have a great set of travelling companions (important when living in such close quarters) and overall couldn’t have asked for more from our Galápagos experience.
Join me in my following entries to share our Ecuador adventure ...