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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 (9)

A day out with friends

Ecuador day two


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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 (8)

To market, to market …

Ecuador day three


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… 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 (8)

Ain’t no mountain high enough ...

Ecuador day six


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cotapaxi

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Overlooking Quito

Up early today as we were off again for another overnight trip out of the city, this time heading south to the area around Cotopaxi. I love mountain scenery, so this had been a must-see on my list when planning our trip to Ecuador. And the mountain did not disappoint, although for several reasons I was not at my best that day to appreciate it in all its glory.

We left Quito quite early in hazy sun and drove south with Jose Luiz, our guide from Surtrek, along the Panamerican Highway. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint overlooking the city to get a different perspective of its unusual shape, squeezed between the mountains.

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To the south of Quito this stretch of that famous road is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes because it passes between the eastern and western ridges of the Andes with several active and inactive volcanoes, of which the highest and most famous is Cotopaxi. Some of the volcanoes were very clearly visible, but others were disappointingly shrouded in cloud which seemed to build up the further south we travelled, including Cotopaxi itself.

A visit to a rose farm

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Jose Luiz suggested that we delay our drive up the mountain as he thought the weather might improve in a bit, and proposed that we detour to visit the rose farm belong to the hacienda where we were to stay later in the day. I was more interested in seeing the mountains than in roses, but as we couldn’t see any mountains just then, it seemed a good idea.

There are a lot of these rose farms in the area, but only a few can be visited. The one we went to is only open to those staying at the Hacienda la Cienega and security was tight, with Jose Luiz having to sign us in and accompany us everywhere while on the farm.

Rose-growing is an important part of the Ecuador economy and has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Many people in this region work on the farms. Jose Luiz explained that most of the roses grown here are exported to the USA, Russia and Indonesia. We saw the many varieties being grown here, under plastic to protect them from the cool nights. The climate here in the equatorial highlands, especially the consistent year-round hours of sunlight, means that the bushes produce a crop every six to eight weeks, making this a lucrative business for the growers and an important one for the country.

Fairly unusually for Ecuador, it seems, this is an organic farm – one of only four in the country. It switched from using the pesticides that are common here (including, or so I have read, some that are banned in more developed countries) and now prides itself on using only natural pest-control methods, including growing herbs to deter them near the entrances of the greenhouses and putting little bags over the most vulnerable blooms.

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Jose Luiz and Chris among the rose bushes

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We then went into the packing area where we could see how carefully the flowers are graded. The least good (that is, the smallest or those with too short stems) are kept back for the domestic market where they are sold very cheaply – you can get a large bunch (25 flowers) for the price of a single rose in the UK or US. The rest are packed in bunches of 12 and exported in refrigerated containers from a local airport.

In one corner of the packing room we saw some very unusually-coloured blooms. These are specially produced for the Far East market and are dyed with food colourings just as I used to do to carnations as a child!

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Grading the flowers

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And packing them

To Cotapaxi

After leaving the rose farm it was time to head for the mountains – well, for Cotopaxi specifically, the main object of our trip. We drove back north a little, and turned off the main road to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects the mountain, although on these lowest slopes the land is nevertheless used for timber and shows too many signs of human interference. The road through this lower part of the park was a bit of a mess, undergoing a lot of work that is intended eventually to improve access but in the short term has made it bumpy going! Jose Luiz explained that the previous Easter the President of Ecuador had come here for a camping holiday with his family and was so horrified by the state of the gravel road that he immediately ordered that it be tarred.

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Scenery around Cotopaxi

The road wound up through the pines until we reached the official entrance to the park. Beyond here we were above the tree-line and the scenery grew more wild and dramatic, although Cotopaxi itself remained stubbornly hidden from view. It was dull and a little drizzly in the low cloud, and we wondered if we would get any sight of the peak of the mountain, but our companion was optimistic that on the other side the weather would be better. It was quite usual, he said, for this side to be in cloud but for the far side, where we were headed, to be much clearer. And he was right. As we climbed, we rounded the mountain, and the peak of the volcano was revealed.

But we were still some way below it, down on the altiplano, or paramo as it is known in Ecuador, at around 3,800 metres. The road continued upwards across a barren stony terrain until we reached the parking lot. By now we were at 4,300 metres.

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Cars parked below Cotopaxi

From here it is possible to walk up to the refuge near the snow line (at 4,800 metres). But the altitude made my headache almost unmanageable, and my bad knee was another reason not to attempt the climb. So we contented ourselves with taking photos from this point, and even so, I soon had to return to the car and beg Jose Luiz to drive down a little!

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Clouds swirling around Cotopaxi

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Trying to pretend I feel OK!

It is relatively unusual for me to suffer like this at altitude. We had already been in Ecuador for nearly a week, spending our time in and around Quito. The city lies at 2,800 metres, which can be high enough to cause shortness of breath and making climbing its many hills a challenge (altitude sickness is generally thought to be possible anywhere above 2,400 metres). But we had both found that we didn’t really notice the altitude too much, apart from a slight breathlessness on the hotel stairs at times, and I had been hopeful that Cotopaxi would not be a problem either. But I think the problem was that I had woken up with a slight headache and the altitude turned that into a pounding one somewhat spoiling what would have been a super day. Even the local remedy of coca tea, which we bought at a little café and gift-shop inside the park made no difference, unfortunately. [On our second day in this area, when we went nearly as high, I had no problems, thankfully.]

It had nevertheless been a special experience to see this magnificent mountain. Whether you admire it from the plains below, drive up to the parking lot, walk up to the refuge or even climb to the summit (5,900 metres), a visit to Cotopaxi is a must when in Ecuador!

Cotopaxi means “Smooth Neck of the Moon” and the indigenous people have revered the mountain for centuries. The mountain was the bringer of both good rains and good crops. Pre-Incan civilizations believed god dwelled at the top of the mountain. But the mountain is also potentially the bringer of disaster. A still-active volcano (it last erupted about 70 years ago), an eruption today would cause the ice in its glacier to melt and to flood the valley below, bringing destruction to nearby Latacunga and as far north as the southern suburbs of Quito. Latacunga indeed has already been twice destroyed by such an eruption, in 1744 and 1768. The last major eruption was in 1903/04; does that mean that one is overdue?!!

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On our way down from Cotopaxi ’s parking area we stopped to take a short walk and see some of the hardy plants that grow in this altiplano or paramo landscape. Here we saw the chuquiragua plant, which Jose Luiz told us is the national flower of Ecuador. This is a low shrub which grows only in this country and neighbouring Peru. It has yellow/orange flowers which the hummingbirds like to visit for their nectar – indeed we saw an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird here, which is the highest-living hummingbird in the world. I didn’t manage to get a photo of the bird (though I was able to later in the day, as you will see), so am using Chris’s photo here, with his permission!

Other plants that grow in this tough environment include valerian and lupine. I took a photo of the latter and of a pretty yellow flower, which fellow blogger aussirose has suggested is probably a hawkweed - thank you Ann!

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Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird

Tambopaxi Lodge

When we were back “down” (at 3,800 metres!) on the paramo Jose Luiz drove us to another area of the park with a bleak but to me very appealing landscape. Here we had a good lunch at Tambopaxi Lodge, sitting in the cosy dining room with views from the window (when the clouds permitted) of not only Cotopaxi but also another volcano, Rumiñahui (4,721 m). We were also pleased to get another look at an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird, this time a female, who visited the feeder outside our window several times during the meal.

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Female Hillstar Hummingbird

Our meal started with a really tasty and warming pumpkin soup. This was followed by pork chops, which needed the excellent spicy sauce, aji, to liven them up. We had mango mousse for dessert, and a choice of fruit juices – I chose the very good mango juice.

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Tambopaxi Lodge

Laguna Limpiopungo

After our lunch we retraced our route back past the turnoff to Cotopaxi and stopped a little further along the road at the Laguna Limpiopungo. This is a beautiful and tranquil spot, and an oasis of sorts in the paramo for all sorts of birds.

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Laguna Limpiopungo

A short walk from the car park brings you to a viewing platform where a notice board helps with identification. We saw a number of these, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Andean Teal, Andean Coot (so much bigger than the Coot we have here in England!), Andean Gull and nearby an Andean Lapwing. Other birds that can be seen here, according to the notice board, include the Caracara and Solitary Sandpiper, but we didn’t spot either of these.

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Laguna Limpiopungo

From the platform the path continues right round the lake, a circuit of just over a mile (just under two kilometres). We considered taking it, but it had started to rain, and the path was fairly uninviting as a group of construction workers was relaying it. So we decided to abandon the idea and instead just spent a little time with our binoculars, enjoying the bird activity.

We also had more good views of Rumiñahui from here. Unlike Cotopaxi this volcano is dormant and sits just below the snowline. It is named after an Incan general who fought against the Spanish conquerors, leading the resistance against them in this part of the country. Defeated by them in a battle near another volcano, Chimborazo, he had Quito burned to the ground rather than let it be captured by the invaders.

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Rumiñahui from Tambopaxi

As we drove away the rain got heavier, and we saw another aspect of the landscape here – bleak and rather forbidding but at the same time eerily beautiful. I have read that Limpiopungo is at risk of disappearing because the waters that feed it are being diverted for irrigation purposes. It would be a real shame if this lovely spot is lost, not only for those of us that visit the park but also for the many birds that come here.

Hacienda la Cienega

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Hacienda la Cienega

Leaving the Cotopaxi National Park in the rain we headed for our base for the night, the Hacienda La Cienega, arriving here in the middle of a storm. We received a friendly welcome and were shown to our room, having arranged to meet up with Jose Luiz later for dinner.

The room, number 31, was on the far side of this historic property and was a good size, with a large and comfortable bed, and was nicely decorated. We were pleased to see that it had a heater as well as a fireplace, as the day was chilly at these heights (over 3,000 metres above sea level I believe) and the fire not lit – although later it was lit for us, and very cosy it was too!

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Our bedroom at the hacienda

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One of the corridors

We went to the small bar to see if we could get a coffee but the friendly manager immediately proposed that we sat in the then-empty restaurant (it was only about 4.30 pm) as there was a good fire going. He brought us a cafetière of excellent coffee and even lit some candles! Later in the afternoon we went to sit in one of the hallways to take advantage of the free wifi (which didn’t work in our bedroom) and again staff hurried to make us comfortable, stoking up the fire in the wood-burning stove. Later the rain stopped and I took a brief walk in the courtyard garden, its lush tropical trees and bushes dripping and birds starting to sing after their soaking.

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In the garden

The hacienda is packed with history! It dates from the early part of the 18th century, and was so well built that it survived the 1744 eruption of Cotopaxi. It has played host to numerous famous people, including Charles Marie de la Condamine, a French scientist who participated in the 1736-44 Geodesic Mission that determined the true shape of the earth (and identified the location of the equator just north of Quito) and to Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer/naturalist who studied Cotopaxi’s volcanic activity in 1802, and who is best known for proposing the theory that the lands bordering the Atlantic were once joined (and for having an ocean current named for him!), as well as many of Ecuador’s former presidents.

On one side of the courtyard is the small but beautiful Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary. It can apparently be used for weddings, and Jose Luiz told us later that on some visits his tourist guests have been accommodated for dinner in one part of the dining room while the wedding party celebrated in the other. The chapel doors stood open when I was exploring the garden, as they did the next morning, so I was able to have a look inside at the lovely wooden altarpiece, unusual reed ceiling and several old paintings.

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Inside the chapel

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In the restaurant

In the evening we had dinner in the hacienda’s atmospheric restaurant, along with the only other people who appeared to be staying here, another couple and their guide. I had read good reviews of the food here, and seen an extensive menu, and as it was my birthday I was looking forward to a bit of a feast! But we discovered from Jose Luiz that our dinner was included in our tour and was a set menu. No matter – it would still be good, I thought. With hindsight though I wish we had asked if we could pay the extra to choose from the menu, as the meal proved to be rather disappointing. The vegetable soup was OK, but the chicken curry poor (we are used to good curries here in England) and served with pallid, floppy potato chips! They did however make a bit of a fuss about my birthday. I had not mentioned it at all to Jose Luiz, nor he to us, but Surtrek had clearly noted my date of birth and when the time came for dessert I was brought a slice of chocolate cake with a candle in it. Chris and Jose Luiz meanwhile were served a slice of something called “fruit cheese” – a sort of blancmange or mousse-like concoction. Chris and I decided to split our two different desserts and I was pleased that we did, as the fruit cheese was much nicer than my birthday chocolate cake, which seemed dry and stale. So altogether not an especially good meal and a somewhat unsatisfactory end to our day.

But overall it had been a good day: the clouds had cleared for us, we had seen Cotopaxi and the other volcanoes, and the fire was lit in our cosy room.

And tomorrow there would be more wonderful scenery – and no headache!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains birds volcanoes national_park cotopaxi Comments (8)

At the crater's edge

Ecuador day seven


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep in our cosy room in the Hacienda la Cienega we woke to dry weather and, I was pleased to note, my headache of the previous day had cleared. We had breakfast in the same restaurant which was more of a success than the dinner had been – fresh fruit (melon, pineapple and banana), fresh juice (babaco – related to papaya and very refreshing), scrambled eggs and bacon, and reasonable coffee.

Overall, we had really liked our short stay here, because of the special atmosphere and history of the place, but if you go, take a warm jumper and ask to order your dinner from the main menu (see previous entry)!

Pujili

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Pujili market

We were heading for Quilotoa, the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos), but on the way stopped first in the small town of Pujili to visit the market. As we had been in Otavalo a few days before, I wondered whether this would be similar, but it was an altogether more local and authentic affair. Market days here are Wednesday and Sunday (we were here on a Wednesday) and are a major event for the local people, as the jammed streets around the town testified. Farmers from all the villages in the surrounding area head here to sell their wares and to buy what they need themselves. But this is more than simply a place to shop; going to the market is an important social activity, and locals dress up and take time to mingle, to greet their friends and to catch up on the gossip.

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Shoppers at the market

There were no tourist handicrafts here, though one woman was selling the local felt hats. Instead, it was all about food! Live chickens, fresh fruits (many that I didn’t recognise but whose juices we realised we had been drinking once we heard their names from Jose Luiz), herbs and vegetables and more.

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Fruit for sale, and very fresh chickens

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Guagua de pan

We also saw several stalls selling the traditional Day of the Dead breads, guagua de pan. Most of the customers were locals (in fact, I don’t believe I saw any other tourists apart from ourselves) and were mainly intent on their shopping, though on one side of the square a small crowd had gathered around a girl who was singing and selling her CDs, and a nearby food stall was doing great business.

This was a fantastic place for people watching (and photographing) and for getting a good introduction to local produce, including several of the fruits we had been enjoying as juices but not seen “whole” before. I can definitely recommend a stop here if you’re in the area on market day.

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Stall holders

The drive to Quilotoa

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Returning to the car after our enjoyable photography session in the market we headed towards Quilatoa through some lovely scenery. One thing that amazed and impressed me was just how much of this highland environment was under cultivation. The local people have farmed these lands for centuries of course, and are experienced at getting the best out of them, using traditional terracing and irrigation techniques. Crops grown here include potatoes, maize, beans and other vegetables.

We also stopped at one point near a house built in the typical indigenous style of wood, wattle and daub, with a steep over-hanging straw roof to protect it from the often harsh weather conditions at this altitude (we were around 3,800 metres at this point).

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Traditional house

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Progress was slow however, owing to extensive roadworks along this road. It seemed that every couple of miles along this road, part of it was being dug up. As I commented at the time, “I’m sure it’s going to be lovely when it’s finished!”

The worst road-works, or at least for anyone in a hurry, involved a narrow stretch of road on a tight bend on a steep hill. To widen the road they were using dynamite, which seems to be a popular “tool” here, and this involved closing the road totally (in both directions) for lengthy periods while they set off a blast and then cleared the resulting rubble. Although not the busiest road in the country this is the only route into and out of the Quilotoa area, so this caused considerable jams.

We were stuck in the waiting queue here for at least thirty minutes, but at least this is a scenic spot and we were able to use the time to get out of the car and stretch our legs, enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside and take a few photos.

Quilotoa

This delay, combined with the stop in Pujili, meant that it was late morning when we arrived at our destination. Later the day was to get very rainy, even stormy, but for now it was dry but with low cloud. Although I had hoped to see the lake in sunshine, I have to say that the gloomy light made it very atmospheric and brought out the green colours very effectively.

We parked in a large car park just below the rim, in the small but sprawling village that relies on tourist income generated by the lake. A short flight of steps led us up to the viewpoint. The previous day I had struggled with a headache that owed much in its intensity to the high altitudes we were at, but today thankfully the only symptom was a certain breathlessness as I hurried to reach the famous view! But soon we were there, perched high above the deep green-blue waters, with the lowering clouds reflected dramatically in them. The sight did not disappoint!

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Quilotoa is the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos) and lies at 3,914 metres. Its large caldera, three kilometres in width, is filled with a beautiful green lake, 250 metres deep. The colour of the lake is due to the various minerals that have dissolved in its waters.

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The lake lies about 400 metres below the rim, and a path winds its way down. But partly because of the weather, partly because of my dodgy knee, and partly because we were later than we’d planned (thanks to those roadworks) and it became a choice between a walk or lunch, we opted not to go down. Instead we just took a shorter walk part of the way along the path round the rim (the full circuit would take the best part of a day). If you do decide to go down it’s about a 30 minute hike, and a good hour or more to climb back up, although it’s also possible to hire mules to bring you up.

Lunch at Kirutwa

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Chris and Jose Luiz at lunch by the fire

We ate our lunch in this friendly café which is perched right on the crater’s edge near to the viewpoint. Jose Luiz explained that he likes to patronise this restaurant because it is community-run. Local people take turns at the cooking and serving and the profits are shared among them.

We took a table by the fireplace and one of the women came over to stoke it, as it was a chilly day. We were amused to see that they were burning all sorts of pieces of wood, including an old broom handle and several bits of old furniture, some of which stuck out into the room rather alarmingly. No UK Health & Safety inspector would have passed the arrangement, but it certainly made for a great blaze!

We started our lunch with a bowl of tasty lentil soup which was accompanied by yucca chips (a nice change from the more usual banana) and a hot aji sauce. The main course was pork chops, as it had been the day before in Tambopaxi. Unused to large lunches I opted to skip this course, but Chris had one and said it was very good. Dessert was pineapple, which I love, although it was a shame that it was served in a rather sweet syrup. The accompanying juices were very refreshing however, and we enjoyed our cosy meal here.

One thing I loved about Quilotoa was the way the light kept changing, because of all those clouds. While we were having lunch a thick fog had descended, which totally hid both the lake and the houses of the small village from view, but by the time we finished eating and climbed back to the viewpoint for a final look, the clouds lifted again briefly to reveal the lake below.

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On our way back to where the car was parked we stopped in the nearby crafts cooperative where local people have stalls to sell their handiwork. This is a new initiative and it felt like it too – very pristine and soulless – a bit like a church hall! But I’m sure it will mellow and bring real benefits to the community.

When we visited only some of the small stalls were open and the place was pretty quiet. Some women were knitting and chatting, and we had a quick look round at the various crafts being sold – mostly textiles and paintings. We wanted to support the initiative so we bought a small Tigua painting from a one of the youngest sellers for $5 (we didn’t haggle as the price was so reasonable and the girl so young).

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In the craft cooperative - our young seller on the right

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Our little painting

Tigua is a collection of small Andean communities in this area, whose artists have become renowned for their paintings of colourful rural scenes. Traditionally they painted on drums and masks, but in the 1970s a Quito art dealer persuaded one of the artists to paint on a flat surface, a sheep hide stretched over a wooden frame. This changed the art-form completely, and today most Tigua artists produce only flat paintings, still on the stretched sheepskin.

Paintings are usually quite small, limited by the size of the hide (ours though is very small!) The subject matter is always a rural scene, and favourite motifs include Cotopaxi and other Andean scenery, village life, working in the fields, condors, llamas and more. Our little picture features several of these elements, which is why we chose it. I was really pleased to have this small example of this traditional folk art, which now hangs in our kitchen and brightens our breakfasts on dull winter mornings.

Cañon del Río Toachi

Time now though to head back to the city. About half way between Quilotoa and the main road, Jose Luiz pulled over and led us across the road and past a small grove of pine trees to a viewpoint over this dramatic gorge which you wouldn’t even realise was here if not “in the know”. The scenery down in its depths is quite a contrast to the farmland around it – you really get a sense of a scar cut through the landscape by the fast-flowing river, the Toachi, some 2,600 metres below where you stand. A great little photo stop – thank Jose Luiz!

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Cañon del Río Toachi

Storm over the Andes

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The journey back to Quito was to provide one of the most unforgettable sights of our time in Ecuador – one that was totally unplanned, and which arose out of what might have been seen as a problem. We were stuck again in the same traffic jam that had held us up on our way to the lake, and it was sheer bad luck, or so we thought, that we should be returning through this spot at the same time as they again blasted through the hillside and closed it to traffic while clearing the rubble – not a quick undertaking. There was nothing to do but wait. I passed a little time updating my journal, while keeping an eye open out of the window for anything interesting to happen on the road or in the fields below where we sat. As I did so I noticed that the clouds were descending and swirling around, and the sky growing darker. There were some dramatic flashes of lightening and loud claps of thunder as the storm circled around the valley. Despite the rain I just had to get out of the car and get a few shots.

When the storm and the road block cleared, at about the same time, we were able to drive on, through the still-falling rain. It was easy to see why the fields here seem so fertile and green, as rain in these mountains must be a common occurrence at certain times of year at least. I loved these soft green landscapes, with patchwork fields dotted with small houses and occasional workers, children herding sheep and seemingly suicidal dogs darting out into the passing traffic.

Back “home” in Quito

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Room #21

As we approached the city Jose Luiz explained that as it was Wednesday he would be unable to drive us to the hotel. As I explained in an earlier entry in this blog, the city had imposed a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number, to help manage the heavy congestion on its roads, and Wednesday was Jose Luiz’s “no entry” day! The solution was to call his father, also a tour guide but with a restriction on a different day of the week, and get him to meet us just outside the limit of the central zone. The transfer went smoothly and we were soon back at our base, the Hotel San Francisco, where we collected our luggage from storage and found ourselves allocated a much nicer room than on the two previous stays. This was room #21, just down the corridor from our previous one but worlds away in terms of space and character! It had a beautiful vaulted brick ceiling, a large en suite, lots of storage including some antique trunks, and even an in-room Jacuzzi tub! What a shame that we were only here for a few hours though!

Vista Hermosa

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View from the terrace

Jose Luiz had recommended this restaurant to us, so we decided to check it out that evening. It is located just a stone’s throw from the Plaza de la Independencia, on the top floor of a fairly tall (for colonial Quito) building and enjoys wonderful views from both the inside restaurant and the roof terrace above. It is accessed via an old-fashioned lift complete with equally old-fashioned lift attendant. When you emerge from the lift you have the choice of climbing a short flight of steps to the roof or eating inside. We chose the latter, as winter / rainy season evenings in Quito can be a bit chilly as well as damp, but I imagine in fine weather the roof terrace is a fantastic location for an evening drink or two. Even at this time of year, with the heaters provided, it would be OK just for drinking, but less suited to eating in our opinion, though we did go up to admire the view and take some photos.

Inside, we were lucky enough to secure a window table so could admire the view throughout our meal. We started with a shared bowl of corn chips with guacamole – there were plenty of chips (too many really) but the portion of guacamole was a little stingy we thought. We then shared a pizza; we had been going to order one each, fooled by the reasonable prices into thinking they would be quite small, but luckily the helpful waitress told us that one would be enough, and she was right. It had a good ham and mushroom topping, and Chris, a real pizza fan, gave it his seal of approval although personally I prefer a less crispy base. We had a large Pilsner beer each to wash it down, and very much enjoyed what would be our last evening in Quito for a while.

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Interior

Back at the hotel we had plenty to do to sort our bags, as we were going to store one here for our return at the end of the trip. No need to cart around dirty laundry or our clean “travelling home” outfits, when space on our Galápagos cruise boat would be so limited.

But before that we were off to Cuenca, a rather special city …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains lakes volcanoes market quito ecuador crafts Comments (7)

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