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By this Author: ToonSarah

The middle of the world

Ecuador introduction


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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.

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On El Panecillo

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.

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On Plaza Sur

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.

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At sea on the Angelito

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:

Quito

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.

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View of the city and church of Santo Domingo from our Quito hotel

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El Panecillo

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.

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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.

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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.

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In Otavalo market, and Chuquiragua flowers on Cotopaxi

Cuenca

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!

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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.

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Independence Day parade

Galápagos Islands

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.

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One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood.

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Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him.

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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.

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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.

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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 ...

Posted by ToonSarah 22:39 Archived in Ecuador Tagged tour galapagos quito ecuador cuenca Comments (13)

A city among volcanoes

Ecuador day one


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Quito

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View of the city from El Panecillo

Quito for me will forever be defined by its dramatic location. Squeezed between two volcanic Andean ranges, its streets continually wind up and dip down, leaving you giddy at times. Or maybe that giddiness is due to the altitude - at 2,800 metres above sea level, Quito can claim to be 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.

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Quito from Volcan Pichincha

The narrow shape also poses some interesting challenges for residents and the city authorities, especially as car ownership has grown so quickly in recent years. The north-south routes through the city easily become bottle-necks as almost everyone has to travel in those directions to reach their destination. The solution has been to impose a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number. For instance, our friend Marcello cannot drive in the city during peak times on a Monday, and our guide Jose Luiz cannot do so on a Wednesday – not even for work purposes. [When we returned from Quilotoa on a Wednesday evening he had to get his dad, also a tour guide, to help out by meeting us just outside the boundary, on the ring road, so that we could transfer to his car to drive into the city centre.] Of course, for the rich there is always a solution to such inconveniences, and many have simply bought a second car with a different number! Nevertheless, Marcello did tell us that he believes the regulation has had some positive impact on pollution levels.

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.

Flying to Quito

We had originally booked our flights to Quito through Opodo, flying out via Miami with Delta and returning via the same hub with American. Miami isn’t exactly my favourite airport, and I’m no fan of American Airlines either, but this was the best value I could get on the dates we wanted to travel. But about six weeks before the trip both airlines changed their schedules and the connections in Miami would no longer work. Opodo proposed instead that we flew both ways with Delta, and via Atlanta. The outward option looked good to us, with a reasonable connection time and arriving in Quito only five minutes later than we had planned. But the return flight looked tough – a late night departure, overnight to Atlanta, the best part of the day there and another overnight flight to Heathrow.

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Building detail, Quito

However, the person I spoke to at Opodo offered to look for alternatives, and came up with a great one, proposing to book us on a flight with KLM (one of my favourite airlines) to Amsterdam and a short hop to Heathrow from there. What is more, they didn’t charge us any extra for what I am sure would have been a dearer flight had we booked it from the start!

In the end we had a mixed outward journey and a very smooth return. Going out, we left Heathrow on time and arrived in Atlanta 30 minutes ahead of schedule after a reasonable flight – OK food, good in-flight entertainment, nothing to complain about! Atlanta Airport impressed us – clean, bright, not too busy, and possibly our fastest ever experience at US immigration!

We got a coffee and settled down to wait through the three hour lay-over. But three hours became four, and eventually five, as our flight to Quito was delayed by the late arrival in Atlanta of 50 connecting passengers coming from Tokyo. We therefore arrived in Quito almost two hours late, around midnight local time (5.00 AM London time!), and it took a further 1.5 hours to get through immigration and customs there (mostly spent queuing for the former – we had thought that arriving so late would mean shorter queues but another flight had got in just before ours and staff seemed unable to cope with two late flights).

Eventually we were through and out into the Quito night where Jose Luiz, who was to be our guide on our trips to Otovalo and Cotopaxi later in the week, was there to meet us, and to whisk us to our hotel through the mercifully deserted street. We finally arrived there just after 2.00 AM local time, 7.00 AM London time – 24 hours after we had got up that morning!

Hotel San Francisco de Quito

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Hotel courtyard

We used the Hotel San Francisco as our base for all of our time in Quito –the longer stay of four nights at the start of our trip, a couple of one night stopovers between tours, and a couple of nights right at the end of trip, when we returned from the Galápagos. We slept in three different rooms, of varied quality, during these visits, and found it to be on the whole a pleasant and convenient option if you’re looking for a mid-range hotel in the colonial part of town.

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Entrance to room #22

The hotel has lots of character, having been built in the early 18th century and retaining lots of its colonial features. The rooms open onto the terraces that run around the courtyard or onto the corridors that lead off it. They seem to vary considerably, even within the same price category, and although I can’t be sure as we never asked for a specific room, I have a feeling that it’s the luck of the draw whether you get a better or less good room for your money. To be sure of getting plenty of space you could pay for a suite, but note that these are on upper floors and there is no lift. The highest floors are four or five stories, and the stairs are steep. I know because we went up one day to the viewing terrace on the roof of the top floor, which is well worth doing for the great views of the city, but which would be quite a climb with heavy luggage, especially at these altitudes which can leave you breathless in any case!

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Room #22

The first room we had, for our initial four nights (and on one other night too) was unfortunately the least good of the three we stayed in here. This was number 22. It had the advantage of being a little tucked away on the second floor and very quiet, although we could hear the distinctive sound of the passing trolley buses. But it was very small and almost monastic in its plainness, with no window, although the skylight lit it pretty well. There was a small en suite with a shower, a wardrobe, wall-mounted TV (we never tried to use this or any other here so I can’t say how well they worked) and a tiny desk. The bed though was very comfortable and we slept well here.

On subsequent stays we were to be allocated nicer rooms as you will no doubt see if you follow this blog for long enough!

Our first day in Quito

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Breakfast room

Although we had arrived so late the previous night we were up in time for breakfast, keen to start exploring the city. Breakfast at the San Francisco is served in the basement restaurant, located in what was once a prison! You need to collect a voucher from reception on your way downstairs. But I found the breakfast decidedly disappointing – weak coffee, watered down juice drink and rolls with jam. The rolls were pretty good but the rest very poor. I really couldn’t fathom how, in a country famed for its high-quality coffee and delicious fruit juices, they could make quite such a disastrous attempt at both! You can pay for extra items if you want them, such as bacon and fresh fruit, but we never did so as I wasn’t confident they would be any better than the free stuff on offer, although had they offered proper coffee on that menu I would have been willing to pay for it perhaps.

Leaving the hotel we decided to stroll uphill (slowly – we were still getting used to the altitude!) to the nearby Plaza San Francisco, which was to become one of my favourite spots in the city and which offered plenty of sightseeing for this first morning. But on the way we detoured into the stunning church of La Compania.

Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús

The Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, often abbreviated to just La Compañia, is a must-see in Quito, even if you are not normally keen to visit lots of churches! You will rarely if ever have seen such a richly adorned church, and in fact, La Compañía is considered one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in the whole of South America.

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Detail and door

From the outside it looks interesting but no more so than many another church. It was built from grey volcanic stone over a lengthy period of time, between 1605 and 1765, to serve as the base for the Society of Jesus in Ecuador. Originally it had a bell tower, the tallest in colonial Quito, but this was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859, and although rebuilt, destroyed again in 1868. After that they seem to have given up, as it was never replaced. The facade is symmetrical in design and features Solomonic columns, which are symbolic of the Catholic doctrine that life’s journey starts at the bottom (on earth), but by following the holy path, it ends at heaven.

But it is the interior that will take your breath away! Not only is it ornately carved throughout, but almost every surface is covered with gold. I have read variously that there is almost half a ton of gold, and that there is nearly seven tons – but whatever the weight, it is almost overwhelming in places. You need to take the time to adjust and to start to see through the richness of the surfaces to the detail of the plasterwork itself, and to take in the paintings and other treasures.

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At the centre of the main altar is a statue of the local saint, Mariana de Jesús, whose remains are entombed at its foot. Look out for the paintings by Nicolás Javier Goribar of prophets from Old Testament on 16 of the pillars, and for the symbol of the sun on the main door and on the ceiling. The sun was an important symbol for the Inca, and the Spanish thought that if they decorated the entry with such a symbol, it might encourage local people to join the church. Another thing to note is the absence of figurative designs in the plasterwork, reflecting the Moorish influence – only geometrical shapes are used.

Photography is unfortunately not allowed inside (I would happily have paid extra to do so, as is the case elsewhere, but that option doesn’t seem to be offered in Quito). However there are some photos on the church’s website La Compania, and I confess to sneaking just one quick shot of part of the ceiling.

Tianguez and the Plaza San Francisco

Arriving on the Plaza San Francisco I declared myself in need of caffeine, after the disappointing beverage that had been on offer at breakfast time, and the conveniently located Tianguez beckoned us. We grabbed one of the outside tables, perused the extensive drinks menu and made our choices - double espresso for me (of course!) and for Chris a hot chocolate, served the traditional way with cubes of mild white cheese.

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Plaza San Francisco

This small café on the Plaza San Francisco became my favourite spot in Quito, for its excellent coffee and the great views over the activity on the plaza. The Plaza San Francisco is one of the oldest in the city, constructed on the site where the palace of the Inca ruler Atahualpa´s son, Auqui Francisco Tupatauchi, once stood. It was used for centuries by indigenous groups as a trading center, or tianguez – hence the name of the café and also the shop which now occupies the arches under the church. The plaza is cobbled and built on a slope, with the result that from the upper side, by the church and Tianguez café, you get some excellent views – of the life of the square, of the surrounding Quito rooftops (including the domes of La Compañia) and of El Panecillo and other hills of the city.

And there is plenty of life to be seen here, as you sit over a coffee or on the steps of the church. Young shoe-shine boys tout for business; women in traditional dress try to sell their colourful scarves; local workers hurry to their offices; children play in the fountain; tourists wander, cameras at the ready; and the tourist police watch over it all. If like me you regard people-watching as one of the essential pleasures of a city-based holiday, you will be very happy to spend time here.

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Scarf sellers in the plaza

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Shoe shine

We came to Tianguez several times during our stay as it was just a few blocks from our hotel and the coffee was the perfect antidote to the weak stuff on offer at breakfast there – here in contrast I could get excellent Ecuadorean coffee in my favourite plaza!

Iglesia de San Francisco and Museo Fray Pedro Gocial

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Iglesia de San Francisco

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Lovebirds

The Plaza San Francisco is dominated by the church of the same name, whose convent houses a museum of colonial religious art. Although we weren’t sure how interested we would be in the collection we decided to visit as we knew that doing so gives you access to the lovely and peaceful convent cloisters and to the choir loft of the church. The monastery is the oldest and largest in the country, taking up two city blocks. It was founded in 1546 but took 70 years to build.

The art works here include paintings, altar pieces and processional statues, displayed very nicely along the outer and inner cloisters. No photos are allowed in the inner one but you can take any pictures you want in the outer one, both of the works on display and the cloister itself. In one corner, we found some pretty birds – finches, lovebirds etc. I’m not a fan of keeping pet birds but at least these weren’t caged (though I assume their wings had been clipped to keep them here) and the lovebirds in particular were so sweet that we found them an added attraction to the museum.

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The outer cloisters

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17th century altarpiece

The altarpiece in my photo depicts Saint Barbara and is by an anonymous artist of the 17th century. This is in the outer cloister, which was why I was able to take the photo, and is typical of the works on display there.

But the highlight for me was a series of processional statues depicting the Passion on display in the inner cloister. These are typical of the Quito school in their vivid, if not gory, portrayal of the sufferings of Christ and the other saints. It is generally said that this goriness is a reference to the suffering that the indigenous people had undergone at the hands of their Spanish conquerors. Perhaps they found those who had suffered for this faith that had been imposed on them, to be the element of it with which they themselves could most easily identify? Whatever the explanation, these are powerful works, whether or not you share the beliefs that inspired them.

When you have finished looking at the art, and maybe sat a while in the peaceful cloister, you can climb a flight of stone stairs to the left of the museum entrance which lead you to the choir loft of the church. From here you have an excellent view of the church (although again no photos allowed).

The loft itself is also worth seeing, for the intricately carved choir stalls and the dramatic crucifix by Manuel Chile Caspicara, which dates back to 1650-70. It is said that Caspicara tied a model to a cross to examine how best to represent Christ's facial and body expressions as realistically as possible.

Plaza de la Independencia

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When we emerged from the museum, we decided to walk over to the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Independencia. Also known as the Plaza Grande, this is an attractive green space with the memorial to independence at its centre, plenty of benches for resting and people-watching, and is surrounded on three of its four sides by attractive old buildings. These are:

~ On the southwest side, the cathedral
~ On the northwest, the Palacio de Carondelet, the President’s Palace and seat of government for the republic
~ On the northeast, the Archbishop's Palace and the Palacio Hidalgo, built as a private residence (the only one of these that still remains on the plaza) for Juan Diaz de Hidalgo and now the Hotel Plaza Grande

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Palacio de Carondelet

On the remaining southeast side are municipal offices, including the police headquarters. The corners of the square also hold some interesting and attractive buildings, including the church of the Immaculate Conception and the Centro Cultural Metropolitano. Only the rather ugly 1970s building on the southeast side of the square spoils its harmony. This was built as a replacement for an earlier city hall, presumably because the functions of the council of this rapidly growing city had become too numerous for the facilities available in the old structure, but it is a shame that this happened during a period so little renowned both for its respect for historic architecture and for its ability to create memorable modern buildings.

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Monument to Independence

The plaza itself, as a public square, dates back to 1612. The first significant buildings to be constructed here were those built by the powerful Catholic Church – the cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace. Later, private homes followed – the Palacio Hidalgo next door to the Archbishop’s Palace, and more on the northwest side. These latter were damaged in the earthquake of 1627 and the site then occupied by the Palacio de Carondelet. In the eighteenth century, the square was further developed to act as a sort of garden for the latter, whose steps (since demolished to allow traffic to pass along this side of the square) led down into it. There was a fountain at the centre, but this was replaced in 1906 by a newly commissioned monument to commemorate the centenary of the country’s independence from Spain. This monument depicts the victory over the Spanish colonial troops through a triumphant condor holding a broken chain in his beak, and a fleeing Iberian lion which is limping away, dragging its cannons and standards as it goes.

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Monument to Independence

Any tourist who spends much time in colonial Quito is likely to pass through this square several times. We found it a pleasant haven when we wanted to rest during sightseeing walks (there always seemed to be a bench available) and particularly liked it at night, on our way to and from dinner at a nearby restaurant perhaps, when the surrounding buildings are nicely illuminated.

Now however, lunch beckoned – but this entry is becoming alarmingly long so I will continue in another one …

Posted by ToonSarah 15:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches hotel city quito ecuador Comments (6)

Getting to know Quito

Ecuador day one continued


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Palacio Arzobispal

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Palacio Arzobispal

After our morning spent exploring the Compania church, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de la Independencia (see previous entry) we decided to search out a light lunch. I knew from my research and tips from friends on Virtual Tourist (thanks Malena!) that there were a number of cafés and restaurants in the Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace) on the opposite side of the Plaza de la Independencia, so we decided to check these out.

The Archbishop's Palace is a two-story whitewashed building built in neoclassical style, with a colonnaded passage facing the plaza. Inside are a number of courtyards, around one of which are several restaurants (both fast food and smarter) and souvenir shops – also, conveniently, a good clean public loo!

It was built in the 17th century at a time when the Catholic Church was as powerful and important as the ruling Spanish government, if not more so. It remained the seat of power of the archbishops of Quito for centuries, undergoing various modifications as needed to preserve or improve the building. Its current restored appearance dates back to 2002 when the structure was strengthened and the courtyard given over to today’s commercial activity.

Querubin

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Humita

For lunch on this first day we chose the casual eatery Querubin, located on the ground floor of the Archbishop’s Palace. The space inside was quite small and full so we asked if we could eat at one of the tables outside in the courtyard, not being sure which of the several nearby restaurants they belonged to, and were told that indeed we could. It seemed that the tables were common to all the ground floor restaurants in fact.

We were keen to get our first taste of local food, having arrived too late for dinner the previous night. Chris chose a chicken empanada (a single large pastry rather than the more usual little ones) and I decided to try the humita. Humitas consist of fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. They can be savoury or sweet. This one was savoury but was rather disappointing – so bland in flavour that I could only enjoy eating it once I had covered the corn with generous dollops of the chilli sauce known as aji. As we were eating outside I had to go into the restaurant to ask for the latter – normally it is placed on every table in just about any restaurant in Ecuador. My choice of drink was more successful however – a delicious glass of mora juice. I also had a single espresso after my meal (more caffeine needed!), and Chris had a coke.

The Cathedral

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Cathedral


After lunch we decided to pay a visit to the cathedral. Easier said than done, at first, as while there appears to be an entrance from the Plaza de la Independencia, and indeed one from Moreno, in fact you enter through an unprepossessing doorway on Venezuela, which is almost lost in a row of small shops, so it took us a while to find. Admission to the cathedral cost us $1.50 (remember, these are October 2012 prices) and I found it very interesting if less ornate than I had been expecting – but isn’t that quite often the case with cathedrals?

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This was the first cathedral to be erected in South America, between 1550 and 1562, although it has been since restored several times owing to earthquake damage. It is today a fascinating mix of 16th century colonial Spanish design and local native influences. As an example of the latter, on the wall to the right of the altar there is a painting of the Last Supper with dishes that include cuy (roast guinea pig) and humitas (fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed) – it’s unlikely that either of these would have been on the menu in 30 AD Jerusalem!

On the whole, the interior is as I’ve said less flamboyant than some of the other smaller churches in the city, but no less interesting for that. As well as the painting mentioned above, I was taken by the hammered-relief silver doors of the rear chapel, through which we had entered, and the beautiful wooden ceiling which dates back to the turn of the 19th century. I also liked the dramatic altarpiece in sky blue picked out with lots of gold – as the most ornate piece of decoration in the cathedral it really draws the eye forwards to the altar, as it is of course intended to do. No photography is allowed inside, as seemed (frustratingly) to be the norm in Quito, but I have to confess that I did sneak one of this altar, without using flash, obviously.

The cathedral has seen its share of bloodshed. A bishop of Quito, José Ignacio Checa y Barba, was murdered here during the Good Friday mass in March 1877, poisoned with strychnine dissolved in the consecrated wine. Only two years earlier, in 1875, the Ecuadorian president Gabriel García Moreno was attacked with a machete outside the cathedral and was brought inside – a plaque behind the altar marks the spot where he died. His is one of several notable tombs in the cathedral, and another is that of Mariscal Sucre, one of Ecuador’s heroes of independence. You will recognise both these names as they are commemorated in nearby streets – Moreno runs just behind the cathedral and intersects with Avenida José de Sucre just a block away.

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A Helado de paila pan

Leaving the cathedral, we decided to complete the fourth side of the rectangular route we had been following from our hotel. The historical heart of Quito (and indeed much of the rest of the central part) is laid out in the square city blocks typical of colonial Spanish towns, making navigation easy. We attempted to visit the attractive church of San Agustin on the corner of Guayaquil and Chile, one block southeast of the Plaza de la Independencia, but found it closed – that would have to wait till another day. But nearby I knew was a café named for the church, the Heladaria San Agustin, which specialises in a traditional local treat, which just had to be tried – Helado de Paila. This is a particular sort of ice cream made in the north of Ecuador. It is made not through churning, as is usual, but instead prepared in a wide metal pan (a bit like a wok) which the ice cream maker spins on a bed of ice. The fruit juice, with I think just a little cream added, freezes in the pan through the contact with this ice. The result should be a thick creation somewhere between a sorbet and ice cream.

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We found a table in the café, which has a somewhat European style to it. The waiter helpfully brought us a plate of small taster spoonfuls so we could make our choice. These were mostly flavoured with various local fruits, many of them unknown to us on this, the first day of our trip. A bowl with two small scoops cost $2.00, so we decided to choose two flavours each. I was tempted by taxo, a type of passion-fruit, but in the end chose guanabana, which reminded me a little of lychees, and naranjilla, a green bitter orange that I found refreshing. Chris tried mora, the local blackberry-like fruit, and chocolate. He was disappointed with the latter, and indeed all the flavours seemed a little watery, which made me wonder why Helado de Paila is so celebrated (and indeed why this establishment is so highly rated). However the next day while out and about with our friends Betty and Marcello we stopped at a roadside heladeria in Nayon, where I had a much stronger flavoured and very refreshing cone of taxo flavoured Helado de Paila. So I don’t know if we had just caught this place on an off-day perhaps?

After our ice cream we realised that the long flight, time difference and maybe also the altitude were catching up with us, so we decided to go back to the hotel for a break and also to get to know our temporary home a little better than we’d been able to do when arriving so late the previous night. We spent a little time in the large communal lounge which has two computers for free internet access (there is also free wifi, though we found it patchy in the rooms), checking up on emails and social media, and then headed up to the roof terrace, up several flights of steep stairs, to check out the views which were great.

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View towards Santo Domingo

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View of La Compania and beyond

Café de Fraile

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Palacio Arzobispal - the courtyard at night

Having seen the range of restaurants inside the Archbishop’s Palace when we were there in the morning of our first day in Quito, we returned in the evening to try one of the smarter ones. Our choice was the Café del Fraile on the first floor (second floor to US readers) balcony of the courtyard. There were a number of tables along the narrow balcony with good views over the courtyard below, but the evening was a little chilly so we opted for an inside one. The décor here was quite interesting, with some old paintings on the walls, antique instruments etc. Service was a little slow perhaps, but not really a problem as we had all evening.

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Tortillon

We were brought bread and a tasty chilli sauce, aji, with the two beers we’d ordered and decided that was sufficient as starters. For my main course I chose a dish called tortillon which consisted of pieces of well-flavoured steak (which I think had been marinated in something but I’m not sure what) served with boiled rice, llapingachos (potato patties with a melted cheese centre – these became one of my favourite Ecuadorean treats), fried egg, avocado and salad. The rice was a little dull but the rest of the food very good. Chris had a “Sandwiche Fraile” with ham and cheese, which was served with fries. At the time we couldn’t judge as this was the first main meal we had in Ecuador, but on reflection I think it was one of the better ones we had in Quito (although we had even better food elsewhere perhaps).

We walked back to the hotel along the quiet streets (the colonial city is not the part to come to for boisterous night-life), very happy with our first day in this likeable city.

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Cathedral and El Sagrario at night

Tomorrow we would meet up with a local couple, parents of a London friend, to explore further afield …

Posted by ToonSarah 16:11 Archived in Ecuador Tagged restaurants city cathedral quito Comments (7)

A day out with friends

Ecuador day two


View Ecuador & Galapagos on ToonSarah's travel map.

In and around Quito

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With Marcello and Betty on El Panecillo

When we told a friend in London, originally from Quito, that we planned to visit the city, she immediately suggested that her Quiteño parents might like to meet up with us. An exchange of emails followed and it was all decided – we would spend our second day in the city with Marcelo and Betty. They arranged to pick us up at our hotel after breakfast, which they duly did, and what followed was a very enjoyable day with two excellent companions. Marcello speaks reasonable English, while Betty’s is rather more limited (as is our Spanish) so it fell to him to act as translator as well as chauffeur and guide, and he performed all three roles with charm.

He and Betty proposed a programme for the morning and then lunch, during which we could discuss our afternoon plans, and as all sounded good to us, off we went …

El Panecillo

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El Panecillo

We had already seen from below the hill known as El Panecillo, topped by its statue of the Virgen de Quito who watches over and protects the city. Although not high in comparison with the volcanoes among which the city nestles, it dominates the skyline when you look south down any of colonial Quito’s avenidas. And just as there are great views of it, so there are wonderful ones from it, so a visit to the top is a must if you can manage it. Best not to walk up though, as the steps that lead here are notoriously bad for crime and tourist muggings, so we were very happy that Betty and Marcello suggested this as our first stop of the morning.

El Panecillo means “the little bread loaf”, because of its shape. The hill was a sacred site for the Quechua, who had a temple to the Sun god (Yavirac) here and called the hill Shungoloma, meaning “hill of the heart".

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On El Panecillo

There are two reasons to come here – the statue, and the view. Starting with the former, it is 41 metres tall and was made of seven thousand pieces of aluminium. It was designed by the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras, engineered and erected by Anibal Lopez of Quito, and inaugurated on March 28, 1976, by the then archbishop of Quito, Pablo Muñoz Vega. The Virgin is standing on top of a globe and stepping on a serpent, which is a traditionally symbolic way to portray the Madonna. Less traditional are the wing – indeed, locals claim that she is the only one in the world with wings like an angel. The monument was inspired by the famous "Virgen de Quito" sculpted by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734, which adorns the main altar of the Church of San Francesco. It is full of movement – she might almost be dancing – very different to the usual static statues of the saint. The interior of the pedestal holds a small chapel. It is possible to climb to an observation terrace around the globe but we didn’t bother – according to Marcello the views are not that different from those you get at the foot of the pedestal, and we were more than happy with those.

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Cotopaxi from El Panecillo

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Views of the city

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The Olla del Panecillo

Yes, the views – spectacular, on a clear morning such as we were blessed with! You can see the city spread out beneath you (we spent some time picking out the landmarks while Marcello told us something about many of Quito’s sights that we should see on our visit) and beyond it the volcanoes. As well as snow-covered Cotapaxi to the south we saw Cayambe, also snow-covered, to the north along with Imbabura, Corazon and others. Do come here quite early in your day’s sightseeing though, as the clouds are likely to descend and hide the mountains from view by afternoon, especially in the rainy season.

Just below the feet of the Virgin is another sight, the so-called Olla del Panecillo. This large cistern is traditionally said to be of Inca origin, but recent tests have dated it to after the Spanish conquest. Marcello told us a story about a previous family visit here which should act as a warning. He decided he would like to get a photo of the family in front of the Olla del Panecillo, so he set the camera’s self-timer, rested it on the roof of his car parked just across the road and ran over to join the rest of the family posing for the shot. As the shutter fired a passer-by grabbed the camera and legged it – no family photo, and no family camera any more either :-(

Basilica del Voto Nacional

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In the Basilica del Voto Nacional

When we stood on El Panecillo, looking north, Marcello pointed out to us the Basilica del Voto Nacional, unusual in being of neo-Gothic design in predominantly Baroque Spanish colonial old Quito. And when we descended the hill this was the next place we visited. The Basilica is the largest neo-Gothic church in all of the New World – 140 metres long and 35 metres wide; 74 metres high in the transept, and 115 metres the height of its two front towers. It took almost 100 years to build, from the laying of the first stone in 1892 until its inauguration in 1988 – although technically it is considered unfinished, as a local legend says that when the Basílica is completed, the world will end.

It dominates this part of the city, and can be seen from all over town. Growing up in northern Europe, where Gothic (both original and neo-) is a commonly seen architectural style, I was less impressed by the Basilica than I felt I was expected to be by our lovely hosts for the day, for whom this must be an unusual and impressive building. It was interesting though to see how the exterior, though European in appearance, had borrowed elements from the country’s natural wealth, with gargoyles inspired by iguanas, monkeys, armadillos, pumas and Galápagos tortoises.

Inside I was more impressed. Although the grey stone interior is plain, even sombre, when compared with the ornate Baroque of, say, La Compañia, it is lit by some marvellous stained glass windows. I especially loved the kaleidoscope-like rose windows above the north and south transepts. Behind the main altar was another treasure – a small, much more colourful chapel dedicated to the Virgin and reserved for prayer (so no photos are allowed here, unlike the main church).

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Stained glass in the basilica

I knew from my research that it is possible to climb to the top of one of the Basilica’s tallest towers and, despite the dodgy knee that was slightly hampering my sightseeing, I would have liked to have given this a go, or at least taken the lift to the first level of the climb. But Marcello was keen to show us more of his city in the one day we had available to spend with them, so I had to be content with looking around at ground level.

So soon it was back to the car and on to our next stop.

Capilla del Hombre

The Fundacion Guayasamin currently operate two “museums” (for want of a better word) dedicated to the work of the great Ecuadorean artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Guayasamin was born in Quito in 1919, and was a contemporary and admirer of Picasso. I knew very little about him before our trip and was perhaps all the more bowled over by this place as a result. His work was heavily influenced by his perceptions of the suffering of the disadvantaged in society, inspired by his own mixed-race heritage and the oppression of the indigenous people of his country. War, famine, torture and other 20th century ills are all reflected in his creations – and yet strangely, I found his work uplifting.

Many of his pieces are currently exhibited in the Museo Guayasamín, which we didn’t visit. But a few blocks away, here at the Capilla del Hombre, exhibits and the building that contain them are one. This stark monument-cum-museum was designed by Guayasamin himself as a tribute to humankind, to the suffering of the indigenous poor and to the undying hope of man for something better. He planned to open it on the first day of the new 21st century, but died in 1999 before the work was quite completed, and in the event it did not open until November 2002. The building is intended to be a non-sectarian place of worship, a “chapel of man”, and incorporates elements of Inca and indigenous design motifs. At its heart is an eternal flame, dedicated to those who died defending human rights. Around this the works of art are arranged on three floors, descending down to the flame, with some smaller works in the main entrance area and some huge murals lower down. I was especially taken by a series of paintings of a woman’s face, and by a dramatic mural showing a bull and a condor, which we thought must represent the struggle between conquering Spain (the bull) and the indigenous people (the condor). Unfortunately, although I have read that tours are available in English and Marcello asked for one for us, we were told that they weren’t being offered that day, (though a tour in Spanish was in progress during our visit).

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On hoardings in the grounds

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In the grounds

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Copán stella

No photos are allowed inside, so we bought a postcard of one of the “face” paintings in the small but very nice gift-shop on the middle level. This also had some good quality reproductions. Photos are allowed outside, so I took a couple of the hoarding that divided off an area where work was being carried out, as this was decorated with copies of paintings by the artist. Marcello explained that the work here would eventually allow the Foundation to move the contents of the nearby museum to this site, so that all of Guayasamin’s works in Quito could be displayed in the one place.

Also in the grounds were a number of artefacts, gifts from other Latin American countries. The one in my photo is a stella from Copán, Honduras. Above this spot is a tree, planted by Guaysamin himself, under which he is buried; it has been named El Arbol de la Vida (The Tree of Life).

If you want to see what the inside does look like, there are a couple of photos on the Capilla del Hombre website.

By now we were all getting hungry so Chris and I proposed treating our hosts to lunch.

Mama Clorinda

Betty and Marcello brought us to this great little restaurant in La Mariscal district, which they said was one of their favourites for Ecuadorean dishes. We had to agree that it was an excellent choice for our lunch together. The atmosphere, even by day, is cosy, helped by the division of an already quite small space into even smaller ones. And the décor is cheerful, with bright walls and checked table-cloths.

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In Mama Clorinda

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Chorizo and llapingachos

We were brought a plate of four empanadas to have with our drinks while waiting for the meal. One each – except that as Betty is largely vegetarian and these had a meat filling, Chris and I got to split the extra one! They were excellent, as was the hot aji sauce to dip them in.

For my main course I followed a recommendation by Marcello that the fish here was usually good, and chose corvina or sea bass. It was served dusted with seasoned flour and fried and was very good, if a little salty. I also liked the accompanying menestra, a traditional bean stew, and it also came with boiled rice and fried plantain. Chris also really enjoyed his dish of chorizo sausages and llapingachos (potato patties stuffed with cheese) which also included a fried egg, avocado and salad. Marcello ate corvino like me and Betty a vegetable llapingachos dish. Between us we drank four Club beers, one bottle of water and three espresso coffees. The bill for the four of us came to $54 which I thought was good value for this tasty food served in such pleasant surroundings.

Over lunch we discussed the afternoon’s programme and decided to drive slightly further from the city centre to see an area Chris and I would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

Santuria de El Guápulo

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The Santuria de El Guápulo

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In Guápulo

Over the hill from La Mariscal lies the historic neighbourhood of Guápulo, reached by driving down the winding valley on a long cobbled street. At the bottom of the road we came to the impressive Santuria de El Guápulo, a striking church dating from the latter part of the 17th century (although restored in the 1930s) and one of Quito’s real treasures.

We were very fortunate to find it open, as the hours are apparently somewhat erratic. And we were so pleased that we were able to go inside, as it is truly beautiful I loved the ornate wooden pulpit (the work of Juan Bautista Manacho in 1716) and especially the sweet-looking little dog carved waiting at the bottom of the steps – such a nice touch! The altar-piece is also stunning, and there are some important paintings from the Quito school by Miguel de Santiago and Nicolás Javier de Goríbar.

There was a lone local woman praying near the front of the church so we walked around very quietly. Suddenly she broke into song – totally unselfconsciously and I am sure not for our benefit but for her own – or rather, for that of the one to whom she prayed. Ave Maria sung so beautifully in this otherwise empty church – how magical!

No photos are allowed inside, but I asked an attendant who was hovering in the porch if I could take some there of the interesting wall-paintings, and was told that I might. I haven’t been able to find any mention of these paintings, perhaps because the treasures inside are so noteworthy.

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In the porch, and statue of Orellana on the plaza

Outside the church on the other side of the plaza is a statue of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, gazing out over the land he “discovered”. There is a story, possibly true, that the name of this part of the city is derived from Guadalupe – that here the Spanish planned their sanctuary and dedicated it to the Virgin of Guadalupe. But the local Indians weren't able to pronounce the name and it became corrupted as Guápulo.

Nayon

After our visit to Guápulo, Marcello was keen to show us more of Quito’s outskirts, so we drove to Nayon on a winding road in the northeast suburbs. The fertile valleys around Quito are ideal for growing flowering plants, and Nayon is the place that locals go to buy them. The road is lined with small nurseries, each with a beautiful display of plants for sale. We parked about halfway along and had a good wander around one of them. My eye was especially drawn to the wide variety of hibiscus, one of my favourite flowers, and to the bougainvilleas. It surprised me that with such a temperate climate it was possible to grow what to us are exotic blooms – but of course the growers take good care to protect their plants from the chilly nights at these altitudes.

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In Nayon

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When we had finished looking around (we didn’t buy anything, naturally, as these are not the most transportable of souvenirs!) we went across the road to one of Betty and Marcello’s favourite heladerias. I had been disappointed the previous day with my first taste of Helado de Paila, the traditional northern Ecuador version of ice cream, so I wasn’t sure about having it again here. But I have to say that it was much nicer than the one I’d eaten at the famed Heladeria San Agustin. I chose taxo flavour (a form of passionfruit) and really enjoyed its refreshing sharpness. It was also cheaper than the Heladeria San Agustin, at just $1.50 for a large cone.

After our ices we headed back to the city centre and to our hotel. Before dropping us off Betty and Marcello proposed meeting up again on our return to the city at the end of our trip when we would have a lot to tell them about our adventures in the Galápagos in particular – a suggestion we were happy to agree to.

That evening, still full from our large and quite late lunch, we decided against having dinner but headed to the street known as La Ronda in search of just a drink or two.

La Ronda

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La Ronda on a Friday evening

If you’re looking for lively bars and lots of late-night action, the colonial part of Quito is not where you should be staying! Although these days generally considered safe at night (and we certainly didn’t experience or observe anything to worry us), it is quiet and definitely low-key. A pleasant dinner, a stroll through its attractive streets, and a relatively early night are probably the norm for most people who choose to stay here. But there is one street, La Ronda, which can be considerably livelier, especially at weekends.

La Ronda (also known as Calle Morales) is a narrow street on the south side of the old town, and has become known for its relatively lively nightlife. We found though that this varied very much according to when we visited. On this first visit, a Friday, the street was packed with both locals and tourists, and the atmosphere was great, although we were to find it much quieter when visiting on a “school night”.

The street is really little more than a pedestrianised lane, lined with old colonial buildings from 16th century onwards. On some of these there are informative illustrated boards, describing the history of the area and some of the artists and writers who once lived there. Today the old buildings have been turned into restaurants (some smart and upmarket, others cheap and cheerful), bars and shops. On a busy evening there are street traders selling gimmicky items such as light sabres and whirling helicopter toys, which seemed to be aimed more at the local market than tourists, but some of the shops have some nice craft items and paintings if you’re looking for something more special. But really this is a place to come and wander, soak up the atmosphere, eat and drink ...

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Soldiers on La Ronda

The street is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to pre-colonial times, when the indigenous inhabitants used it as a path to the Pichincha River, where they went to fish, bathe and wash clothing. Later it developed as the route to the San Juan de Dios Hospital, then the home to all types of artists, and later still became a street notorious for crime – theft, muggings and worse. Today however, like much of the colonial quarter, it has cleaned up its act and is regularly patrolled by tourist police who ensure that you need have no fears about visiting here.

We also saw the smartly uniformed soldiers in my photo here, who were happy to pose for my photo (and for many others!) But I have no idea, and no one could tell me, whether they were here on duty or for pleasure.

After strolling up and down we found a tiny bar near the Santo Domingo end of the street and settled down for a couple of beers at a table near the door from where we could watch the action. This was a pleasant low-key end to what had been a very busy day.

Tomorrow we would be heading further out of town …

Posted by ToonSarah 07:57 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches art views restaurants city museum quito Comments (6)

To market, to market …

Ecuador day three


View Ecuador & Galapagos on ToonSarah's travel map.

… To buy a fat pig?

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Maybe not, but Otavalo market is still, despite being very “touristy”, a must for most visitors to Quito. To be honest, when planning our Ecuador trip, a visit here wasn’t one of my top priorities and with relatively little time in Quito I had considered giving it a miss as we’d seen many colourful markets elsewhere. But then I had second thoughts and when our tour company proposed including it I went along with the suggestion. On balance, I think it was good decision as we enjoyed our visit and it is one of the sights of northern Ecuador. But we opted for a half-day visit rather than the more usual full day and packed some other sights into our day out, as you will see. And although a guided excursion is not for everyone, we decided that while not cheap it would be the most efficient way to fit several of the major sights near Quito into just one day of our limited time there. We were very pleased with the arrangement as we had an excellent guide in Jose Luiz, working for local company Surtrek.

We left Quito after an early breakfast, driving north. We stopped in the town of Cayambe to take photos of the volcano of that name and to taste custard apples bought from one of the several fruit stalls along the roadside.

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Volcan Cayambe

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Custard apples

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Posing for a photo

We also stopped at a roadside gift-shop and café near Lago San Pablo, El Miralago, which is clearly strategically positioned to catch the tourist trade, with super views from its garden and local children posing with alpacas and llamas in return for a coin or two. But you can hardly blame them for cashing in like this, and since it gave us a chance to pause for refreshment as well as photos, and to help the local economy, I had no complaints!

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Lago San Pablo

Here we were able to try the local treat of biscochos (biscuits, served with dulce de leche) and queso de hoja (a haloumi-like white cheese, served in cubes on a banana leaf). The views were great and it was a restful spot, despite the steady stream of other visitors. We didn’t buy anything in the shop, other than a couple of postage stamps, but it looked to have a range of souvenirs towards the tackier end of the spectrum, although as I didn’t have a proper look round I may be doing them a disservice!

From here we continued to Otavalo, where Jose Luiz dropped us off not far from the Plaza de Ponchos where the market is held. He showed us where to go, but after that left us to our own devices for a couple of hours, for which I was thankful, as we were happier wandering around on our own than following a guide everywhere.

Plaza de Ponchos

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The tourist-focused market takes place in this large central square. There are markets in every Ecuadorean town, small or large, so what is so special about Otavalo? Well, for one thing, its size. It has to be one of the largest markets not just in Ecuador but possibly in South America – at least on a Saturday, the principal market day, when not only the Plaza de Ponchos is jammed with those selling and those buying, but also the surrounding streets. The other factor in its popularity is its location - only 145 kilometres, and therefore an easy day trip, from Quito.

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Scarves for sale

The people of Otavalo and the surrounding area have been making textiles for centuries. As tourism to Ecuador has grown, their goods have become well-known and popular, and the market has grown because of this, and also because the local people have spotted a good opportunity and made the most of it! They are recognised as the most prosperous indigenous group in Ecuador, and perhaps in all Latin America.

The textiles are mainly of the practical variety, such as blankets, thick jumpers, ponchos, scarves, hats and so on, rather than the purely decorative wall-hangings that you see in other cultures. But it is not only textiles that you will find for sale here. We saw pictures (lots of Guayasamin reproductions of varying qualities, and some interesting paintings based on pre-Columbian motifs, one of which we bought); musical instruments (mainly the ubiquitous pan-pipes, but also drums and other percussion instruments); hats; jewellery; wood-carvings and tagua nut carvings; leather handbags and larger woven bags; hammocks and cushions and more.

On one side of the square are a few stalls selling simple meals such as roast pork, corn and soups, but otherwise the emphasis is very much on handicrafts (there is an animal and food market elsewhere in town but we didn’t visit that).

Of course the sellers are hoping that you will buy, but we didn’t experience too much pressure, although when I stopped to look at a stall for any length of time I would raise their hopes and there would be a rapid explanation of the goods and how wonderful they were!

For the most part we were happy to wander up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos. A few people were OK about posing, especially stall-holders hoping we might make a purchase, but they tend to do so quite stiffly so you don’t get a natural look and a sense of the bustle and activity of the market. So mainly I used my zoom lens to grab candid shots as I find these more natural and wanted to capture the activity as much as the individuals.

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As I wandered around the market stalls taking my photos I began to realise that all the women were dressed in a similar style, rather different from the indigenous people I had seen in Quito. This is the traditional dress of the Otavaleña. It consists of white blouses, with coloured embroidery (usually of flowers) and flared lace sleeves, worn with black or dark skirts. They wear their hair long, but instead of plaiting it, as I had seen the women of Quito do, they tie it back with coloured braid in a loose ponytail. They usually have many strings of gold beads around their necks, and strings of coral beads around their wrists. Many of the older ones fold a cloth over their heads, known as a fachalina, like those in some of my photos.

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Women in traditional Otavalan dress

The men traditionally wear white trousers, cut off just below the knee, with dark blue ponchos and felt hats. Their hair too is worn long. We saw relatively few men in this costume compared to the number of women wearing the traditional dress, but many had the long hair and felt hat, albeit often combined with modern jeans and t-shirts.

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Traditional hat

Shopping at the market

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Picture on leather

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Necklace

While I always like to bring back a souvenir or two from our travels, neither Chris nor I see shopping as a major holiday activity, and we hadn’t expected to buy a lot at Otavalo, being more interested in taking photos of the activity than participating in it. However a number of things did catch my eye and I couldn’t resist making a few purchases in the market. These were:

~ A pretty silver necklace with inlays of different coloured bits of shell, depicting a bird (a quetzal I suspect), for which, after some haggling, I paid $20, having brought the vendor down from $26 and got him to throw in the silver chain

~ A small picture executed on leather in a style we saw on a few stalls, based on indigenous (pre-Columbian) mythology and symbolism – we paid $8 for this, which we thought so reasonable that we didn’t bother to haggle

Buena Vista

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In need of refreshment and a sit-down after an hour or so of wandering around the market, we looked for somewhere where we might also get a view of the action, and found it at the Buena Vista, which lived up to its name! We climbed the stairs to the first floor room which is quite cosy – lots of wood, a small library of travel guides to browse, and bright cushions on the chairs. We secured a table near the window (there was just one other small group of people here at the time, though a couple more arrived before we left) and were pleased to find a good list of fresh juices on the menu, as by then we had already realised that no other cold drink came close to these for taste and refreshment in Ecuador! Chris chose orange juice and I had passion-fruit, and both were delicious and served in large glasses. As we drank we were able to step out onto the tiny balcony and take some photos of the market from above and all the activity going on beneath us. Just the break from browsing and shopping that we had needed!

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A few more photos in the market

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After another wander around and a few more photos it was time to head to the point Jose Luiz had designated to pick us up. Arriving there five minutes early we were easy prey for a couple of sellers operating on the streets outside the market! Although attracted by the colourful scarves I’d seen on many stalls I hadn’t planned on buying one, as I had a pile of scarves at home, but one older lady who approached us had a good selection, and they were so bright and cheerful, and she was quite interesting (showing us photos of her home near Lago San Pablo), so I cracked and bought one for $2.50 (she had wanted $3 but I had seen similar at two for $5 in Quito so refused to pay more).

And I have to say that I have worn it regularly every winter since, it has retained its bright colours and is often admired by friends and colleagues, so it has more than justified the impulse purchase!

Cotacachi

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Church in Cotacachi

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On the church steps

From Otavalo we drove to Cotacachi, a town a little to the north. The town is known throughout Ecuador for its leather work, on items such as clothing, footwear, bags, belts and wallets. We strolled the length of the main street, where every shop it seemed was selling these leather goods – everything from tiny coin purses for a couple of dollars to very stylish handbags, jackets and even small pieces of furniture. Had we wanted to shop, we could have spent ages choosing, but as it was we soon tired of every shop looking the same! However, a detour off the main road along Avenida Bolivar offered us a glimpse of this striking church which we were pleased to have seen, though there was no time to see if the interior was as interesting as the exterior.

Cotacachi is also considered to be a good place to get a taste of traditional Ecuadorean food. We spotted several places that looked tempting, but as lunch was included in our tour we had to go where Jose Luiz took us. I was at first disappointed to see that the large restaurant he stopped at was apparently catering just for tourists visiting with their guides, but I have to admit that the lunch we had there was excellent – a really good shrimp ceviche to start with, pork (grilled outside in the garden) to follow, and we could also have had desert though both Chris and I were too full and declined this. It was a pleasant, relaxing meal after the bustle of Otavalo market.

Apparently Cotacachi is becoming a popular place for Americans to retire to, and I could see why it might appeal, set in the scenic highlands of northern Ecuador and with a good standard of living for relatively low prices. Too quiet for me though!

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Mural in the town

El Mitad del Mundo

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Monument at El Mitad del Mundo

Our afternoon was spent at the Middle of the World! You might imagine that this is at the centre of the earth’s core! But no. El Mitad del Mundo is the name given to both a monument near Quito, and the area immediately around it which was erected to mark the line of the equator. Rather than cause confusion, as “Ecuador” means “Equator” in Spanish, it was given this more fanciful name.

Today we know that in any case the monument stands not on the equator but very near it instead, but that is because we now have more sophisticated means of measuring such things than did those whose exploits are commemorated here. The monument here commemorates the work of the French Geodesic Mission in 1736. In that year a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean – was sent to this region to try to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference were greater around its equator or around the poles. In doing this they needed to establish the exact line of the equator, and this is where they determined it lay – close, but not quite accurate, although impressive for that day and age.

Around the monument various museums and attractions have sprung up, aimed at the many visitors who come here, and it was to one of these that we headed first.

Museo de Sitio Intiñan

Inti Nan is a tourist attraction in the vicinity of the Mitad del Mundo monument. Depending on your perspective it is either a tourist trap or a lot of fun. We took it all with a pinch of salt and thoroughly enjoyed our visit, but whether it lives up to the grand claim made on its website of being “an educational centre of culture and promotion of our nation” is debatable!

It actually seems to be a bit unsure of what it is, exactly, and the result is a bit of a hotch-potch of exhibits. You go around with a guide (independent wandering seems not to be allowed) – ours was very good but had a rather unfortunate squeaky voice that added to the oddness of the place.

We went first to an area which focuses on the Amazonian region of Ecuador, with exhibits covering the wildlife (snakes and spiders for the most part), the typical lives of its people (there’s a mock-up of a traditional dwelling) and the custom of shrinking heads. This was explained to us in some detail and their prized “real shrunken head” pointed out with pride. Our guide was keen to reassure this that this is thought to be the head of the twelve year old son of a chief who died of natural causes (there are no signs of violence, and heads were traditionally shrunk to preserve an important person for posterity as well as to celebrate a victory over an enemy).

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Head-shrinking

A nearby area is devoted to a collection of totem poles from the various indigenous peoples of the Americas, including Chile, Mexico and of course Ecuador. But the main attraction is an Equator line that the owners of the museum claim is the true line, and although others dispute that it seems to be generally agreed that this is closer than Mitad del Mundo at least. Of course, everyone wants to stand on the line and the guides are happy to take your photo while you do so.

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On the Equator?

They will also demonstrate a series of “scientific” experiments demonstrated to “prove” that it is genuinely the equator. Some say the experiments are fake, and some certainly seemed likely to be so to me, such as the demonstration of the difficulty in walking in a straight line with eyes closed, or our apparent lack of strength here. Others were more convincing, such as the water changing direction as it swirls through a plug-hole (attributed to the “Coriolis effect”, a scientific principle to which our guide referred several times). But even so, when I got home and looked more closely at my video of this last one I started to wonder whether that too might not be faked. Wikipedia would seem to back up my suspicions:

“Water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilets in the northern and southern hemispheres can be observed.” See the full Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation, and have a look at my video for yourself to see if you share my doubts.

The tour ends with a demonstration of traditional dancing, which I found more laughable than authentic, but that might just have been the incongruous setting. Generally though it was all good fun – and we even got our passports stamped to show that we had been right at the equator!

Mitad del Mundo monument

The monument that bears the name Mitad del Mundo is a 30 metre tall stone pyramid topped with a globe 4.5 metres in diameter, so it’s hard to miss! It can hardly be considered beautiful but it is certainly impressive. It would be all the more so perhaps if the painted line on which it stands, and which crosses the plaza beneath to feature in so many tourist photos, really did mark the equator, but sadly this is not the case.

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The French Geodesic Mission arrived in what is today Ecuador in 1736. It was undertaken by a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean. The purpose was to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference was greater around its equator or around the poles. The team measured arcs of the Earth’s curvature from the plains near Quito to the southern city of Cuenca. These measurements enabled them to establish accurately for the first time the true size of the Earth, which eventual led to the development of the international metric system of measurement. As part of their work it was of course necessary to ascertain where the equator fell, and they made a pretty good job of it considering that they were working in an age before computers, GPS and so on. But we now know that they were off by a few degrees, and that all those who pose so enthusiastically on this line are not quite where they maybe think they are!

There is a lot more to do here than pose for that photo, but we were short of time after our busy day at Otavalo market and Intiñan. If you wanted, you could probably spend the best part of a day here. There is a museum inside the monument itself, which exhibits a variety of objects relating to indigenous Ecuadorian culture, such as clothing of the different ethnic groups, and in the area immediately around you can visit a planetarium, see a miniature model of Quito, and walk through a mock-up of a small colonial town complete with handicraft shops and cafés. But we contended ourselves with a few photos before rejoining Jose Luis and our driver for the journey back to Quito.

Back in Quito for the evening

That evening we decided to return to La Ronda where we had enjoyed a drink the previous day and look for a restaurant there for dinner. Our choice was La Primera Casa, which is popular but which we found a little disappointing. It was a Saturday evening, when La Ronda was at its busiest and the restaurant pretty busy too, although not completely full. Perhaps that explains, but doesn’t justify, the incredibly slow service. Now, I don’t want to be hurried over a meal when I’m on holiday, and I’d rather that service were a little slow than too quick. But to sit for 15 minutes between ordering our first beer and its arrival, and 30 minutes before the empanadas we’d ordered to go with it appeared, is a bit too much! A shame, as the interior of this restaurant is lovely, with several small rooms decorated with interesting folk items such as colourful masks and a central fire – though we were to find that the latter did not give off enough heat to counter the chill air coming through the door.

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In La Primera Casa

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Fritada

When the empanadas did eventually arrive they were very good – light and crisp, with a tasty filling and a hot salsa aji (chilli sauce) for dipping. Unfortunately though, my main course didn’t live up to this promising start. I had ordered fritada, a traditional dish of pork with different accompaniments – corn (both the local white corn or moté and corn on the cob), lima beans, avocado, white cheese, plantain, my favourite llapingachos (potato patties) and salsa. The meat seemed over-cooked to my taste (though as I found this in a number of Ecuadorean restaurants I started to wonder if locals prefer their meat served dry like this?) The corn and beans were lacking in flavour too, though the llapingachos were very good and the salsa delicious. Chris was somewhat happier with his choice of chicken Cordon Bleu (a popular, albeit international, dish here), but overall we found the meal disappointing and, by the end of it, the restaurant uncomfortably cold.

So, back to the hotel to warm up, and to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure which was to be an overnight trip out of town …

Posted by ToonSarah 04:14 Archived in Ecuador Tagged restaurant market equator quito mitad_del_mundo otavalo Comments (6)

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