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The early bird ...

Ecuador day sixteen


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Santa Fe

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View of the bay from the trail

Known also by the English name of Barrington, Santa Fe is one of the smaller islands at just 24 km square, and has a single visitor site with a wet landing. Unlike many of the other islands, it is relatively flat, having been formed by an uplift of land rather than a volcanic eruption, about four million years ago.

We arrived here after an overnight voyage from far-flung Española and anchored off the sands of Barrington Bay. This is the only visitor site on Santa Fe, and is considered one of the most beautiful coves in the Galápagos, with its white sand and turquoise waters sheltered by a line of rocks and islets offshore. The Angelito, like all the cruise boats that visit here, anchored some distance off shore because of that line of rocks, and the panga ride in was a lovely one.

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Fabian on the beach

We made a wet landing on the beach, and had to be careful as we arrived, as the Galápagos sea lion colony here was patrolled by a large and noisy bull. We gave him a wide berth as we waded ashore, walked up the sand and sat on a convenient rock to dry off our feet and slip into the trainers that are recommended for the trail here. I was later to see him a rather closer distance when snorkelling in the bay, and it was clear that he had been in more than a few fights!

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Sea lion pup

Once we had all dried off, and put on trainers if we hadn’t landed in sandals, we turned our attention to the activity on the beach. We had landed early, at around 7.00 am, well before those from either of the other two boats moored in the bay, so had the beach to ourselves. As usual we were immediately drawn to the various Galápagos sea lions relaxing on the sand. The noisy bull who had taken such an interest in our arrival was now guarding his harem from just off-shore.

We soon spotted one female who was further up the beach, almost among the salt bushes that line the beach. Moving closer we saw that she had a new-born sea lion pup; she was still blooded from the birth and the placenta was lying on the sand nearby.

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Mother and new-born baby

Our “David Attenborough moment”

As we watched, we spotted a couple of juvenile Galápagos hawks circling the area and landing in the nearby trees, and more soon arrived. They sat there for a while, eyeing up this “treat”, and perhaps each waiting for another to make a move, or for the mother to be sufficiently distracted. Eventually one of the hawks dived in to grab the placenta, and they were soon all fighting over it, devouring it with great relish.

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Snatching, and fighting over, the placenta

I was able to get a short video of all the commotion, and to get some good action shots using the motor drive on my camera – luckily it was running at the critical moment when one snatched the 'treat'. Once the meal was over they retreated to the trees, presumably to rest and digest, and we were able to get very close for more photos, even capturing the blood that still lingered on their hooked beaks. They seemed totally unfazed by their human audience, even seeming to pose for photos with us. Definitely one of my most memorable Galápagos experiences!

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Posing with a hawk!

The Galápagos hawk is the only hawk to be found here and is endemic. It is found throughout the archipelago but not in great numbers, and is considered under threat. One estimate puts the current population of mating pairs as low as 150. The adults are a dark brownish black, with darker heads and paler tails and under-wings. They have brown eyes, grey beaks, and yellow legs and feet. The juveniles are a mottled brown, which becomes darker as they grow older. This mottled effect gives them excellent camouflage when small and vulnerable.

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Galápagos hawks

After this, our short walk through the opuntia forest, though pleasant and interesting, was perhaps always going to be something of an anti-climax, but nevertheless we went in search of land iguanas.

Land iguanas on Santa Fe

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Santa Fe endemic land iguana

From the small beach we took the short loop trail through the opuntia forest on the headland to the north, overlooking beach and bay. This trail is just 800 metres long and rated easy/moderate; it was a relaxing walk after our longer hike on Española the previous afternoon.

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Opuntia with land iguana

Santa Fe is known for its own endemic species of land iguana, which is larger than those found on the other islands in the archipelago. They are also paler than elsewhere, being beige or milk chocolate in colour, and have more pronounced spines along the back. It is not clear how this species of iguana has evolved, but there are apparently fears that it may be slowly dying out, as it is becoming rarer and rarer to spot a Santa Fe land iguana these days. I read on one website, which seemed to be targeted at naturalist guides rather than visitors, “Warn your tourists that they might not see any”. Fabian didn’t give us any such warning however, and maybe he knew what he was doing, as we certainly did see some, though not as many as on some other islands.

The trail winds through the extensive opuntia forest, which has the tallest trees in the archipelago, up to ten metres tall. This is not a coincidence – if the land iguanas are larger, the trees must grow taller to keep their fruit out of reach. And 'gigantism', as it is known, is a well-known feature of remote oceanic islands such as these, most usually attributed to the lack of large mammalian predators. These huge cacti certainly make for a dramatic landscape here, with the sea glimpsed between and below them, and the occasional land iguana dozing or eating the prickly pears at the feet of their sturdy trunks.

Snorkelling off Santa Fe

The second part of our morning here was devoted to snorkelling. I had been in two minds whether to join the group, as I was finding getting into the panga afterwards a bit of a challenge, and there was no option here to swim to the beach. But I decided to join the party, and it proved to be a great decision!

We were joined in our swim by a group of Galápagos sea lions, the females happy to play with us while the watchful alpha male who patrolled among them tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun. They stayed with us for a long while, and I was really pleased to be able to capture some of their antics on my waterproof camera, both on video , and these stills, just before its battery ran out! The sea lions seemed almost to know what I was doing, as they repeatedly swam towards me, peered at the lens and flipped gracefully away again. I was so happy to be able to capture these images of what was to be our last snorkelling session in the Galápagos – a fantastic one to end with!

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Snorkelling with the sea lions off Santa Fe

Once we were all back on the Angelito enjoying our customary post-snorkelling snack, she set off towards the little Plaza islands (Norte and Sur) off the east coast of Santa Cruz, where we moored just before lunch …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands snorkelling galapagos ecuador sea_lions Comments (2)

The last of our Galápagos Island landings

Ecuador day sixteen continued


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Plaza Sur

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Plaza Sur landscape

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Angelito moored off Plaza Sur

The two Plaza islands, North and South (aka Norte and Sur) lie just off the east coast of Santa Cruz. Both are uplifted islands, long and thin in shape, facing each other across a small bay.

We came to South Plaza on the last afternoon of our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. It was the tenth island we visited, and before we landed I had thought that maybe I was “all island-ed out”, but yet again I was to be surprised by the variety of experiences the Enchanted Isles can offer.

We had arrived at the Plazas just before lunch, and the Angelito had moored between the two islands, of which only South Plaza can be visited (North Plaza being closed for scientific research). It is the larger of the two islands but only 0.13 km square, so a walk here gives you a sense of having seen a whole island rather than just a small part of one.

The panga took us across to the landing place as soon as we had eaten, and we made a dry landing on to a low stone jetty which led to a rocky shoreline. Here there was a stone obelisk indicating that this is part of the Galápagos National Park (as are all the islands and their visitor sites). There were several Galápagos sea lions on the rocks here, along with Sally lightfoot crabs and some swallow-tailed gulls. But we didn’t spend a lot of time here, and instead soon set off on the trail across the island.

This trail is a loop, 2.5 km in length and rated moderate, although I found it easier going than many others. It leads gently uphill from the landing place through a very striking landscape of rocky soil and brightly coloured vegetation. This is sesuvium or Galápagos carpet weed which is turned vivid shades of red by the arid conditions at the end of the dry season (like an ankle-high New England Fall). If you visit in the rainy season however, you will find it mostly green.

We encountered a number of male land iguanas here, of the same species of these that we had seen on our first island visit on North Seymour. Their bright yellow colouring really added to the impression I had of a landscape that was both dramatic and at the same time rather domestic, with the almost tame iguanas resting languidly under many of the opuntia trees.

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Land iguanas

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Landscape with land iguana

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The least bad photo of
a yellow warbler
I took all week!

Other wildlife that we saw on the trail included a yellow warbler, ground and cactus finches, several Nazca boobies and (near the shore) marine iguanas.

We looked out for, but didn’t spot, one of the unique cross-bred iguanas known as hybrids that can sometimes be found here, with (usually) a marine iguana as father and land iguana as mother. These are always sterile, so have not led to the evolution of a totally new species. It isn’t known why this cross-breeding only happens here on South Plaza and not on the other islands where both iguana species are found.

The island is only 130 metres wide so we soon reached the southern edge and turned east towards the cliffs.

On the cliffs

The trail climbs quite gently and on the far side of South Plaza emerges on top of a cliff, from where we had a wonderful view of the bird life of this island. Shearwaters were wheeling in the sky, heading straight for the cliffs and veering away each time just before touching them as if they had some sort of built-in radar.

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The cliffs of Plaza Sur

Frigatebirds were riding the thermals higher up, and a couple of pelicans dived for fish. But the most exciting for me, because it was my first really good look at one, were the red-billed tropicbirds that sailed past our vantage point from time to time. This is a beautiful sea bird, with its bright red bill and flowing tail. It is not endemic to the Galápagos Islands, being widespread across the tropical Atlantic, eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans, but that didn’t make seeing them so closely any less special.

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Red-billed tropicbird

Further along the cliffs we came to a colony of young male Galápagos sea lions, known as bachelors, that is well-established here. I was amazed to learn that they are able to climb these rocky cliffs quite easily, and thus to find refuge from the bossy alpha bulls or “Beach Masters”. Here they can chill out with their mates and refresh themselves before perhaps trying to fight one of the alpha males for the right to rule a beach.

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Bachelor sea lions resting on the cliffs

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And Angelito passengers doing likewise!

We rested here too for a while before following the loop trail back to our starting point, a little sad that our afternoon on the final island of our cruise was coming to an end.

End of cruise party

That evening there was a party on board the Angelito to mark the end of our time together. Not for this little boat the formality of the big cruise ships on such occasions, but instead a really friendly gathering with a buffet dinner for which the chef and his assistant pulled out all the stops! The chef carved some amazing animals and flowers out of all sorts of vegetables, cooked a great buffet dinner with a wonderful fish as the centre-piece, and made a farewell cake.

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Chef's assistant, chef and captain

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What a spread!

After the meal there was an impromptu concert on the rear deck, with some of our travelling companions providing the percussion and others treading the boards. More than a few beers were consumed, and we had a lovely evening to round off what had been an incredible week!

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Music from the crew

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Ryan joins in

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Sue dancing with Brian, while Geoff, Reto and Yolande look on

Tomorrow we would fly back to the mainland, although Fabian still had one more corner of the Galápagos to share with us …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 13:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged people animals birds boats islands iguanas galapagos ecuador Comments (4)

Return to Quito

Ecuador day seventeen


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Black Turtle Cove

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Mangroves in Black Turtle Cove

On the final day of our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito we were again moored off Santa Cruz, this time in the channel to the north of the island that separates it from Baltra where the airport is situated. With only a few more hours left, we were all up early for a pre-breakfast final visit – a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove. This is a beautiful inlet surrounded by mangrove trees (three species – red, white and black). No landings are allowed here, and boats have to turn off their engines.

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Black Turtle Cove

The early morning light was lovely as Fabian steered us to a great spot where a small lagoon emptied into the cove. He grabbed a mangrove branch hanging out over the water to steady the panga, and we waited. We were rewarded by the sight of a succession of fish and other wildlife exiting the lagoon – several white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and a couple of spotted eagle rays. It was so tranquil there, just drifting slightly and watching these various creatures pass right by, or even underneath, our panga.

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Sea turtle

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White-tipped reef shark

After a while though we had to leave, and headed back to the Angelito for breakfast. On the way we saw a number of birds – a lava heron, brown noddies, several pelicans and a blue-footed booby.

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Pelican

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Leaving Black Turtle Cove

This is a rather different environment from any we had seen elsewhere in the archipelago and it was a special, peaceful spot in which to spend a short time, marking the end of a very enjoyable week aboard the Angelito.

Leaving the Galápagos

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Plane at Baltra airport

I think we were all sad to leave the Angelito and these wonderful islands. Before we came I had wondered if a seven day cruise would be too long, with the various island landings too similar to prevent boredom. Now I was leaving I felt that a two week one would not have been too much!

Our return to the airport mirrored our arrival – mooring in the small harbour of Baltra Island, transfer by panga to the jetty and by bus to the airport terminal. Although a small airport (it has been modernised since our visit) there were facilities there to help pass the time – a café and of course a shop, where I was pleased to see copies of the book that another member of our group had purchased in Puerto Ayora as I had hoped to be able to find it somewhere. And I also got my best photo of a finch, as the travellers' left-overs in the café ensured they stayed still long enough to be captured on camera!

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Ground finch (I think) at the airport

Back 'home' in Quito

Our flight was a direct one back to Quito, where we were met and transferred back to the same hotel we had stayed in at the start of our Ecuador adventures, the San Francisco de Quito. On this occasion we were given a room opening off the main courtyard, #14, which had a large double bed on a mezzanine floor accessed by a rather narrow spiral staircase. The floor below had a wardrobe and desk, but would have benefitted from the addition of some seating perhaps. The bathroom opened off this floor, so the staircase had to be tackled if getting up in the night – not a major issue for us but I reckon some people might prefer to avoid this and the other courtyard rooms for this reason.

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Our final room at the Hotel San Francisco de Quito

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Hasta la Vuelta Señor

We retrieved the luggage we had stored there and freshened up, before heading out to dinner. It was slightly odd, after a week on board the Angelito, to be able to choose where to eat and to walk there through city streets. We opted for another of the restaurants in the Archbishop’s Palace (where we had enjoyed a good dinner on our first day in Quito at the Café del Fraile). This time we climbed to the second floor to try the unusually named Hasta la Vuelta Señor. This had been recommended by our local friend Marcello, and we were pleased when we arrived to see some familiar faces – Ryan and Mele, who had been on our Galápagos with us, were eating at the next table to ours with a local friend of their own. It was good to know that a place that looked pretty touristy was also a popular choice with Quito residents.

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Disappointing seco de chivo

We ordered a plate of empanadas to start with. Made with yucca flour and a cheese filling, they were delicious. But I was disappointed with my main course. I had chosen the seco de chivo – goat stew, a traditional favourite which I had been wanting to try (although the menu said lamb – a concession to tourist tastes, perhaps?).

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But the beers were good

However, the meat was rather dry and seemed over-cooked to me, and the boiled potato and rice that accompanied it weren’t great either. Chris had a sandwich “de la Ronda”, with turkey and cheese, and said it was OK but nothing special – all in all a disappointing meal compared to many we had eaten in Ecuador, and rather pricier than some too.

We said goodbye again to Ryan and Mele, promising to stay in touch on Facebook (which we have done, as well as with some others from our group) and walked back through the lovely streets of colonial Quito, happy now to be back in a city that we had both taken a real liking to. Not for the first time, we congratulated ourselves on having chosen to stay here in its historic centre, enjoying the atmosphere of these beautiful old buildings.

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Archbishops Palace at night

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Santo Domingo at night

And tomorrow we would spend another day with Marcello and Betty, and were looking forward to seeing them again …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals planes islands hotel galapagos quito ecuador Comments (5)

City shopping and dining

Ecuador day eighteen


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Quito

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In Tianguez

On our last full day in Ecuador we had made plans to meet up again with Betty and Marcello, the parents of a London friend whose company we had enjoyed earlier in the trip. They texted in the morning to say they had a small bit of business to attend to first, so we decided to use the time to pay a visit to our favourite café, Tianguez in the Plaza San Francisco.

After coffee we went into the attached shop to hunt for souvenirs, which occupies several of the arched spaces beneath the San Francisco monastery. It sells a wide range of high-quality crafts from all over Ecuador. Prices are not low, but everything is guaranteed fair-trade so you can be confident that the people who made the objects are getting a reasonable reward for their work.

And the selection is excellent – so-called Panama hats to Amazonian blow-pipes, Pre-Colombian ceramics, tapestries and Tigua paintings. We had already bought all the souvenirs we wanted (and more!) as we travelled around, but I still wanted to find good quality coffee and chocolate as gifts for my family, and I knew I would find it here. And I wasn’t disappointed! There was a lot to choose from too, and I didn’t want to keep Betty and Marcello waiting, so I had to decide quite quickly. In the end, I purchased a selection of different chocolate bars, including one flavoured with rose petals and another with crystallised orange; some small boxes of chocolate covered fruits (such as pineapple) and coffee beans, and a jar of jam made by women in a local cooperative. I spent almost $50 here – a lot of money but I bought a lot of things :)

Then we headed back to the hotel to meet up with our friends. Their suggestion for our first visit of the morning was to another good Quito viewpoint.

Parque Itchimbia

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View of the city from Parque Itchimbia

Parque Itchimbia is one of several city parks in Quito, all of which seemed to me to be well-maintained and well-loved by locals. It is located on the hill of the same name and has quite recently (2004) been renovated, with new facilities added. These include the cultural centre in my main photo, which was reconstructed from the old glass and steel structure of the Santa Clara Market which lay on the other side of the city and had been imported from Hamburg during the government of Eloy Alfaro in 1889. The building now hosts exhibitions and trade shows – when we were there a modern furniture show was being dismantled, so we couldn’t go inside unfortunately.

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Cultural centre in the park

But we had come here mainly to check out the views, which were great, and as it was morning the sky was still blue and the weather warm and sunny. In particular, we had a super view of the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which stands opposite and just below the park, and of the mountains and volcanoes of the range to the west of the city, including Pichincha.

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Basilica del Voto Nacional from Itchimbia

Mercado Artesanal Metropolitano

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In the market

After spending some time in the park Betty proposed a visit to this large covered market. It reminded me a little of a Middle Eastern souk, with its narrow passages threaded between stalls piled high with colourful crafts etc. I was surprised to see quite a lot of locals shopping here, as the goods seemed to be mainly aimed at the tourist market – textiles (scarves, table coverings, hats and other clothing); pictures (some reasonably good Guayasamin reproductions, Tigua paintings and other rather tackier souvenirs); ornaments of various kinds; leather-work and speciality food-stuffs such as coffee and chocolate.

We had already done most of our souvenir shopping by this stage (or so we thought!) so we didn’t buy a lot, but we did enjoy wandering around and taking in all the activity. The one thing that we did buy was some ground coffee ($6.50 for a large bag) as that was one typically Ecuadorean souvenir that we hadn’t yet bought for ourselves – and very good it was too! Betty bought a small traditional mask for Marcello to take as a gift to friends in Venezuela whom he was to visit the next week and also bought us a bar of passion-fruit flavoured chocolate – delicious!

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Betty and Marcello choosing their mask

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Mural near the market

As we had enjoyed the market Betty suggested that they show us one of their favourite shops for traditional crafts. We weren’t particularly planning to shop, having already bought a lot on this trip (by our standards – we’re not usually big shoppers on holiday), but we agreed to check it out as it sounded interesting. And it was – interesting, lovely and rather expensive, at least when compared with the markets!

Galeria Latina

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In the Galeria Latina

This shop specialises in crafts from all over Latin America, not just Ecuador, and they seem only to have the best of everything. Nothing here was tacky, nothing badly made or uninteresting. There were musical instruments, textiles, beautiful silver jewellery, wall-hangings, paintings, wood-carvings, tagua nut carvings and even some very good antiques.

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Our coasters

As I have said, we had no plans to shop so just browsed around while Betty picked out a pair of silver earrings as a gift for her daughter in London, which we were to deliver on her behalf. But my eye was caught by a table full of very attractive wooden coasters, all different and in a range of colours. We asked about them and were told they were from Peru – so not much good as a souvenir of Ecuador then! We walked away ... and then returned. They really would go in our room, and we really did need new coasters ;) So we decided to buy a set. They were being sold on the basis that you could pick out any six that you wanted for the price of $35, so we went through and selected some that would best match our décor while also appealing to us – see what you think of our choices in my photo.

La Choza

After shopping it was time for lunch. On our previous day out we had treated them; this time they wanted to return the favour and brought us to this smart-looking restaurant on a busy street in modern Quito, Avenida 12 de Octubre. In appearance it is the antithesis of cosy Mama Clorinda where we had eaten with them previously, being a large open dining room with a bustling atmosphere and some beautiful traditional art and decorative touches. But like Mama Clorinda it focuses on Ecuadorean cooking and is very well-established in the city, having been run by three generations of the same family for forty years.

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In La Choza

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Llapingachos con fritada

I opted for the llapingachos con fritada – my favourite potato patties here served with fried pork. I loved the patties as I had elsewhere, the egg was nicely fried, and the peanut sauce that came with the dish was good. But I found the pork a little dry and thought the meat had been over-cooked, not for the first time in Ecuador. Chris felt the same about the pork in his traditional platter, which he otherwise enjoyed, but Marcello had the same dish and enthused about the meat, so I am guessing that it must be local taste to serve it so dry, rather than poor cooking skills! Betty’s corvina (sea bass) in coconut sauce looked lovely, as she said it was, and I found myself wishing I’d ordered that ;) I drank a delicious guanabana juice (another of my favourite Ecuadorean tastes). As our hosts paid I don’t know what the final bill came to, but it struck me as quite expensive for Quito. Overall I enjoyed the meal, and loved the décor here, but I’m not sure it’s worth the higher prices when there’s so much good value food in the city.

We had sat for quite a while chatting over lunch, so afterwards we decided to head back to our hotel – we had packing to do and we also felt that our hosts had given up more than enough of their time. So Marcello drove back through the heavy Quito traffic and we said our farewells, promising to meet again when/if they came to visit their daughter in London (which so far unfortunately hasn’t happened).

Back to the Vista Hermosa

For our final dinner in the city we decided to go back to one of the restaurants we had enjoyed earlier in the trip, the Vista Hermosa, as we thought it would be nice to end the trip with another look at this great view. Unfortunately we weren’t quite so lucky and our table was one row back from the windows, but we could still enjoy the city lights from where we sat. We skipped the starters as we had eaten a large lunch, and again shared a pizza – this time the vegetarian one, which I preferred to the ham and mushroom one we’d had previously. Chris had two Club beers, I also had one, and after the meal had an excellent Brandy Alexander to round off our farewell dinner.

But there would still be time to see a little more of the city tomorrow morning …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged market restaurants quito ecuador crafts Comments (0)

Farewell to Ecuador

Ecuador day nineteen

A last morning in Quito

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Santo Domingo

So, almost time to go home, after an amazing time in Ecuador. We had explored the old colonial cities of Quito and Cuenca, been awed by the majesty of the Andes, and been thrilled by the many wildlife encounters on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. But with an evening flight to catch, we determined to make the most of our last few hours here and take in some of the sights for which we had not previously had time.

Museo Domenicano de Arte Fray Pedro Bedón

We started here, just around the corner from our hotel. The Museo Domenicano de Arte in the monastery of Santo Domingo may be smaller than the Museo Fray Pedro Gocial attached to Iglesia San Francisco, but it is well worth a visit. In some ways I liked it more – perhaps because there were fewer exhibits and it was therefore easier to take them in; perhaps because the leaflet we were given gave us a good explanation in English of a few of the more noted pieces; perhaps because photography is allowed; but probably because we had the opportunity here to see more than just the museum itself.

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In the cloisters

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Wooden statue

But let’s start with the museum. We came here first thing in the morning and were the only visitors. The entrance fee of $2 included the brief leaflet, in Spanish and English, mentioned above. We were offered a guide but declined as we wanted to look round at our own pace. The guy who sold us the ticket told us we were allowed to take photos, without flash naturally, and walked with us to the room off the cloister where the treasures are displayed, which he unlocked for us. We spent some time in the short series of rooms. Among the treasures on display are:
~ a huge hymn book, dating from 1681 and made from parchment, leather and wood
~ an 18th century painting of the Virgin of the Rosary, by an anonymous artist of the Cuzco school
~ various wooden statues of saints from the 17th and 18th centuries, very realistic on their portrayal

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In the museum

When we had finished looking around here, we took some time to enjoy the peaceful cloister where more paintings were displayed, some of them looking decided more modern but not described in our leaflet.

As we went to leave the same guy who had sold us the tickets asked if we would like to see the original monastery refectory. We said that we would, so he locked up the museum (there were still no other visitors) and took us to the far corner of the cloister where he unlocked a door that led through the next cloister. This is currently part of the school for boys run by the monks, but he explained that the building works that we could see going on were being carried out to turn another part of the monastery into the school and open this part up to the public, thus extending the museum.

He then opened another door and we were in the refectory. This was really worth seeing – a large room beautifully decorated, with seating along the edges. Each of the 54 seats has a painting of one of the Dominican martyrs, along with the cause of their demise – some stabbed, some stoned, one shot by arrows and so on. As a contrast to these rather grizzly images, the ceiling has beautiful paintings depicting the life of St Catherine, from her birth at one end to old age at the other. Our guide pointed out that some had been restored and were consequently much richer in colour. The room is apparently still in use – hired out by the monks for special events, and used by themselves on feast days.

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In the refectory

Back in the cloister I asked our guide about the more modern paintings we had seen, and one in particular that had intrigued me. He explained that it had been painted in 1933 by a Dominican monk and artist, and showed the establishment, in Guayaquil, of Ecuador’s first trade union. You can see people practicing their various trades and crafts, gathered around Jesus in his guise as a carpenter, with his father Joseph, also of course a carpenter, behind him. On the right a Dominican brother leads more workers to join the union, and in the background is the busy port of the city, a hive of industry and activity.

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Painting marking the first trade union in Ecuador

We had spent considerably longer here than we had expected, and there was still the neighbouring church to be seen.

Iglesia Santo Domingo

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Chapel of the Rosary

The church of Santo Domingo was our “next-door neighbour” while we were in Quito, but somehow we had never got around to going inside until now, our last morning in the city, and when we did so there was a service in progress so we couldn’t look round properly. But while we were hesitating at the back a local lady motioned to us to indicate that we should go ahead, so we did just walk quietly along the right-hand side to peer into its most noted treasure, the Chapel of the Rosary. This alone is worth a visit to this church! It is richly decorated in deep red and gold, with a stunning rococo altar-piece, and quite takes your breath away. We had been told by our guide in the museum that this was the only part of the church to retain its original appearance, after the rest was redecorated in what later Dominicans considered more appropriate to the worship of God – this being thought perhaps too rich and worldly. But can you imagine what the church must once have looked like if it were once all like this?! It isn’t possible to enter the chapel (or at least, wasn’t possible when we visited) but photos are allowed from the gate that closes it off, as long as you don’t use flash. Despite resting my camera on that gate, the gloom has meant that my photo is a little blurred but I had to share it so you can see a little of the dramatic effect of this chapel.

The rest of the church is much plainer although still worth seeing, with some notable paintings – apparently. As I said, we weren’t really able to look around properly, but didn’t mind at all, as once we’d seen that chapel we were more than happy that we’d made time to come inside our neighbour church.

The church stands in, and dominates, the plaza of the same name. In the centre of the square a statue of Antonio Jose de Sucre points to the Pichincha volcano where he led the winning battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822. I had read that the square is considered unsafe at night, but we had walked along its north-eastern side several times on our way to and from La Ronda, once stopping to take photos, and had never seen anything to concern us. However, we may have been lucky, so do be careful if you visit at night.

From the southern corner of the plaza you can walk under the arch that the church forms over the road, Rocafuerte, and look back for some rather different views.

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Santo Domingo from Rocafuerte

After visiting the church we walked up to the Plaza San Francisco for coffee at our favourite café, Tianguez, and from there walked along the narrow but busy shopping street, Cuenca. We came across a number of clothes shops along this street that to our European eyes were rather old-fashioned but all the more fascinating for that, and they presented us with some great photo opportunities. In particular, the shops selling clothes for special occasions such as children’s First Communion celebrations, and dresses for brides, caught our eye – and our camera lenses!

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Shops in the colonial city

Iglesia La Merced

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La Merced

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I had not read as much about this church as many of the others in Quito before our arrival, but as our walk led us this way we decided to pop inside for a look. Approaching the church along Cuenca gave us an excellent view of it, and as it was morning and therefore sunny it was shown to best advantage, its white walls gleaming. Entering we found that there was no fee to pay and no restriction on photography other than a request not to use flash – unusual here in Quito.

The church dates from the early part of the 18th century, having replaced an earlier one that was destroyed by earthquake in 1660. The tower is the highest in colonial Quito, at 47 metres. According to a legend this tower is possessed by the devil. Supposedly the only person strong enough to resist the devil was a black bell-ringer named Ceferino, and no one has dared enter the tower since he died in 1810. The clock therefore stands still and the bell is never rung.

The church has an unusual grey stone door frame, with images of the sun and moon carved above the lintel – the two heavenly bodies worshipped by the indigenous people who no doubt quarried the stone. Inside two features dominate – the beautifully painted dome with its dedication to Mary, and the altar. The latter has a life-size stone statue of the Virgin of Mercy, to whom Sucre dedicated his victorious sword after the Battle of Pichincha. The statue was carried in procession during the eruptions of Pichincha volcano.

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The dome of La Merced

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The altar

All this we saw, as well as a number of interesting paintings. But I wish I had done more research, as I found out after returning home that the cloister here is considered one of the most attractive in Quito, with pillars of stone and dazzling white archways, as well as a wide stone courtyard with a magnificent carved stone fountain in the centre. Furthermore, from this cloister you can apparently access the library, with two floors of ancient parchments and gold- and leather-bound books. How I regretted not having seen this! Nevertheless we enjoyed our visit to this slightly off-the-path church.

Iglesia San Agustin

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Iglesia San Agustin

By now we were running out of morning and still wanted to fit in lunch before we had to leave. But we made time for a brief visit to another church.

The church of San Agustin is one of the oldest in Quito, having been constructed during the first half of the 17th century, but much of it has been rebuilt after damage by earthquake in 1880. It has a distinctive tall bell tower (37 metres) topped with a statue of St Agustine. We didn’t have time for a proper exploration, but we did manage to get a quick look at what seemed to me to be a somewhat plainer church than some of the others in Quito but with attractively painted walls and ceiling – almost more in the style of a grand house than a place of worship. The most noted part of the church is in fact its cloisters, which we had no time to visit. These are decorated with paintings depicting the life of St Augustine, dating from the mid 17th century and the work of an important artist of the Quiteño school, Miguel de Santiago. The chapterhouse opens off the cloister and was the location for an important event in the city’s history – the signing, on August 10th 1809, of Ecuador’s declaration of independence from Spain.

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Last lunch in Quito

A more thorough exploration of this church and its treasures will be one of my priorities should we ever return to Quito.

As our route back to the hotel took us past the Plaza Independencia we popped into the Palacio Arzobispal for lunch at Querubin, where we had eaten on our first day in the city. A toasted cheese sandwich and last glass of my favourite guanabana juice were a good finale to our time in this very likeable city.

Travelling home

After lunch we headed back to the Hotel San Francisco de Quito to pick up the bags they had kindly been looking after for us. Our transfer to the airport went smoothly, as did the flight home, with none of the delays of our outward journey, and the standard of service on board was as good as I’d remembered from a previous long-haul flight with KLM some years ago.

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Sunset over Ecuador

Travelling directly from Quito to Europe was great, as it meant a long overnight leg with a chance to catch some sleep, and a short hop back to Heathrow on a plane so small that baggage reclaim was mercifully quick, and we were home from the airport in record time!

The end of another wonderful trip – one of the most memorable we have taken.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches sunset city quito ecuador street_photography Comments (5)

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