Oh Quito, such a fun yet odd place for a Christmas Holiday. Lots of fun. Odd in that we got to see about 50 people dressed as Santa on Motos drive down 12 de Octubre, some with Mrs Claus riding on the back, some kids riding along on bikes. I also got to watch people set a small campfire on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building and about two dozen watch it. Per our guard was nothing special. (If you know why, email me. Gracias.)
So, yeah, Quito.
We arrived the Sunday before Christmas for a 10 day stay. After checking out our immediate neighborhood, stocking up on coffee, Pilsener (Ecuador’s version of cheap, watery South American lager) and some food staples for cooking in our airBNB, we checked out a nearby brewery, Abysmo (decent), and waved at the Paraguayan embassy next door.
Monday we got up and decided to hit Old Town. The President, Lenin Moreno pulled out all the stops to welcome us. Full on crowd, parade with soldiers and horsemen in dress uni’s, all the important people on the balcony to greet us, complete with speech.
Oh wait, nevermind. Apparently the President addresses the people every Monday and we just literally stumbled into it, almost getting bowled over by the cavalry. Oh well, at least that likely means the protestors shouting at him weren’t there for me.
The whole downtown area is wonderful to take in, you can see why it was granted UNESCO heritage status. Lots of hills, though, at 2850m/9300 feet in the air can take a toll. And in addition to the obvious concerns with altitude (not for us, coming from Bogota, just a hundred meters and change lower) is the STRENGTH of the Sun. On a blue sky day your weather app might read 65F/18C, but the Sun will fry you. If feels a good 20F/12C hotter than it really is. It’s not uncommon to see locals toting umbrellas, not just for impending rain, but existent Sun as well or running around with their arms spread over their heads, coats out like Angel or Spike running around in the daylight in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.
So back to the old city… We did get to check out a good chunk of it on foot, including several churches that don’t allow internal photos to be taken. You can see why, particularly in the San Francisco Church where you can clearly see the damage time has done to some of the artwork. The Metropolitan Cathedral, adjacent to the Presidential Palace is definitely worth the paltry price of admission as you can see more than just the church, but continue back to see what else comprises the monastery… the library, etc.
We hiked up to the Notre Dame-looking Basilica del Voto Nacional, but more on that later as we would return, before calling it Day 1.
Day 2 we opted to take the TelefiQo up the nearby volcano Pichincha. Took a wrong fork while doing the hike up at the top and instead of doubling back and following the primary trail we doubled down and continued on the one we stumbled upon. Ended up with a pretty good view of the actual volcano.
Followed that up returning to the Basilica where we ascended the towers upwards. You basically take a rickety bridge over the spine of the church before a steep staircase takes you to the roof of the church. Katie then ascended another steep ladder (outside this time) up to the Condor’s Nest. Not good with heights, not thrilled at nothing between a stumble and flying in a fashion absolutely nothing like a condor, opted to hang back. Pressed hard against the wall of the Basilica.
We followed that up with some craft beer at Bandidos Del Paramo – two breweries sharing one pretty nice building to bring barley sodas to the people. Bandidos Hop Rey IPA and Guapa American Pale Ale were great (Paramo’s Oktoberfest and APA were also enjoyable) – putting pretty much most of what I’ve had in Colombia to shame. Kudos to the brewers of Quito.
We took off for a couple days to the Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Ecolodge for an overnighter. Was a two hour or so drive from Quito, windy mountain roads with brilliant scenery. The Lodge itself is some 23km off the main highway through a village, then another 7km on a dirt road, seemingly in the boonies. (Amusingly you pass the Mittad del Mundo monument on your way out of Quito, so you go from Middle of the Earth to Middle of Nowhere in about 95 minutes.)
The place itself as magical. Cross a bridge over the Alambi River to a pretty cool lodge. Our lodgings were river view so we had the nice white noise of rolling water to help relax when not out hiking.
So yeah, managed in 26 hours “botas” on the ground (they issue you rubber boots… they get like 9 inches of rain a week, so pretty much mandatory) to do a two-hour swamp hike with guide Arcenio and a short nature walk to a nearby waterfall before the afternoon rains came (and a welcome nap) followed by a two hour bird watching effort and another 90 minute river view loop hike the following morning. Learned a bit about the indigenous wildlife, absolutely failed to see the Spectacled Bears Katie was so hoping to see (missed by a couple days), but did see about 20 species of birds, including ten Hummingbirds a humming, eight Tanagers a-tanning, seven Motmots a molting, six Tyrant Flycatchers catching, five black condors and a green Toucan in a green tree. (Phew). Or something like that, you get the point.
On the way back our (awesome) driver Gonzalo took us through the misty mountains, now obscured almost completely by clouds – like something out of Stephen King’s “The Mist” – and to a few sights.
First was Pululahua, a volcano with a fantastic view of the crater… normally. As with most the mountains we had driven past earlier in the morning the entire thing was obscured by clouds. Made for a pretty interesting/weird view. Gonzalo had a postcard in his cab, so we were able to see what we would have seen.
Next stop was the actual equator. Not the one with the big towering monument – turns out that while the Franco-Spanish explorers who measured with Earth with the instruments of the times around 1736 were very close, they were off by about 250 meter or so.
Some enterprising locals then went on to build up a museum/site with a lot of local history (perhaps overdramatized by the guides… I wouldn’t recommend the “penisfish” drinking game as unless you have my tolerance, a sip each time “watch out swimming in the jungle river for the penisfish” is said will floor lightweights.) Followed by some exhibits at the actual GPS-verified Equator.
Following that we went to the far more grand, but incorrect, “Fakequator” for a look around before heading home.
Saturday was fairly quiet, just looked around Plaza Fochs (lots of restaurants, bars) and hiked over to the Parque Carolina for a look around. Nice park, dog park section for those with four-legged buddies, pedal boats, skate park, some vendors selling Ceviche, water, etc.
Sunday am we were up bright and early and off to the Cotopaxi Volcano. We booked a Hike ‘n Bike trip. A busload of travelers from all over (Switzerland, China, New Zealand, France, Germany, Brasil) joined forces to have a merry ol’ time. The bus took us to the park, some 50km or so from Quito and all the way up to about 4,500m (about 14,750feet). From there, despite being an hour from the Equator, during “summer” (at least for those south of it) the temperatures dropped to near freezing.
We trudged our way, slowly, up some 350m more to the refuge where climbers, erm, take refuge for a day or so before doing the two day climb to the actual top. From there after a few minutes to visit the baños or chow down some more cocoa leaves (I was enjoying a cocoa leaf lollipop, which helped and hindered a tad. Tasted great, cocoa-power to help with altitude versus a big, spherical pop in my mouth impeding air intake.) While we were trudging before, the remaining 150m up featured more treacherous footing on already light oxygen. Basically most our ragtag group of extranjero funseekers were shuffling like zombies in The Walking Dead at this point. Head’s down, pushing ever onward. We lost some along the way, as did other groups. Just had to toss in the towel. I nearly did with the top in view, save for an Ecuadorian family there with their young kids. One was struggling as badly as I was (I had paused and shared a rock with them for a 2 minute breather) passed me, just muttering “!Vamos!” with each ponderously slow step. “iVamos!” (3 count, shuffle) “iVamos!”. I glanced at him, “iListo!” and continued up. We hit 5000m, about 16,404 feet, the glacier line. Woohoo! A couple minutes later we began the return trek. Was a bit easier, what with gravity doing some of the work, though the treacherous footing had a few of us nearly take a tumble. (Side note, Katie didn’t find it terribly tough. Not even top 25… the hike surely wasn’t that difficult, but the breathing sure was.)
Next came the bike portion… riding on slippery rock roads on wobbly legs, with rocky road doing a bunch of cutbacks down the mountain. Some 17 (of 26) of us started, wary of danger thanks to the safety lecture (which made the prior Penisfish admonitions seem quaint) … two others and I pulled the plug maybe 200m in. I had almost no control and while I could have completed it, would have been nothing but 30minutes stress rather than a fun experience. Katie was slower going, riding the brake pretty much the entire way, but finished. (She is bad ass, I am fat ass.) We then returned to Quito, lunch along the way, said “Adios!” to all our new compadres and basically took the rest of the day and Christmas off.
We closed out Quito on Tuesday with a look around our neighborhood… up and coming, some restaurants a little more autentico and less touristy than Plaza Fochs with a lot of street art, as well as a final trip to a couple near by breweries and pubs (Hops Craft Beer Pub is worth a visit) before packing up for our next stop, Guayaquil.
Final verdict on our first 10 days in Ecuador? Cue the old Drew Carey Show theme song and sing along… “Quito Rocks! Quito Rocks!”