Passage Note #53: Northern Ecuador - Quito, La Mitad del Mundo, Otavalo
Our ambitious itinerary was to explore Northern Ecuador, Central Highlands and the Amazon - which we did in 4 weeks, the majority of time in the company of Chuck’s sister Maureen and brother-in-law Buzz from s/v Encore and our mutual friend Vicki from Arizona. Chuck had met Vicki when both were cruising on their sailboats in the South Pacific twenty years ago and became good friends; it wasn't until later that Vicki realized that she and Maureen were sorority sisters in college and they reconnected through Chuck. A small world story!
When in Ecuador, all roads lead to Quito.
Sooner or later you will find yourself here - either because you have scheduled a visit to see this stunning city, or because the way to get somewhere else requires you to pass through here. Quito’s elevation of 9,350 feet and location just south of the equator makes it a capital city at the top of the world at the middle of the earth. It is the highest capital city in the world (although La Paz, Bolivia might have a legitimate claim to this title - it remains for the hairsplitters to duke it out).
We had several comings and goings to Quito during our 4 week northern/central Ecuador journey. The purpose of our first entrance into Quito was to spend four days getting acquainted with the city. We stayed at a lovely hotel in the magical Centro Histórico, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Hotel San Francisco de Quito is an historic colonial mansion with a pretty courtyard on a pedestrian street close to Plaza Grande, the heart of old town.
A cancerous sprawl comprises the Quito metropolitan area of 1.8 million people. Once contained by its elongated Andean valley, development now continues to creep ever so higher almost by capillary action upwards onto the sides of the hills and massive volcanoes forming its periphery. Pressure for more space comes from a continuing influx of the country’s rural poor. This urban massiveness does not escape the traveler who must confront its size and congestion when entering by plane or bus, the transportation hubs for which are inconveniently located far from the center --- the center being the destination for most travelers - most likely either the Centro Histórico (“old town”) or La Mariscal (tourist part of the “new town”). Like an artichoke, get through the thorny outside and you will reach the heart.
First, it’s a good idea to take a bus tour to get oriented since Quito is so large...and hilly. The extensive two hour excursion takes in the major sites from El Panecillo hill and the winged Virgin of Quito overlooking the southern end, to the TelefériQo (aerial tram) on the west, and large parks (Parque La Carolina and Botanical Gardens) of the northern end - with the old colonial center, new town, Mariscal Sucre, and modern high rise business centers in between.
On our second day we went on a walking tour which we arranged through the Tourist Office on the main square. Our guide, Maria, was a high ranking policewoman as well as an employee of the Tourist Office, and as we walked through the streets to the churches and museums of the central area, subordinate police officers would stop to salute her. Highlights included the glittering golden interior of La Compañía de Jesús, the Museo de la Ciudad (city museum illustrating the evolution of Quito) and Monasterio de Carmen Alto where we bought lime sweets filled with coconut (coquitos) made the same way for centuries by the nuns there. We questioned Maria about the safety of the area, having heard stories that it was not safe to stay in the center. She explained that the Centro Historico had been cleaned up considerably over the last few years - many street stalls and questionable activity had been removed or tightly regulated, lighting was vastly improved, and there were many more police patrolling the streets now.
She confirmed the remarks in our Lonely Planet guidebook: that La Mariscal - “gringolandia” or “traveler’s ghetto”, the new part of the city which is the nightlife and touristic center, had become more dangerous. Our experience bore this out since we walked all around the Old Town day and night without incident or worry; when we stayed in La Mariscal later in the trip, our hostal warned us not to walk anywhere after dark but to take a taxi everyplace.
In Quito we connected with our friend Tari, a young Brooklynite who was spending several months in the nearby town of Sangolqui volunteering on a social project involving art and music. In a short time, Tari had mastered enough spanish to allow her vivaciousness to connect her to the pulse of the Quito arts scene. Thanks to her, we spent a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon at an artist’s studio in the Quito suburbs. Sara Palacios is a well-known Ecuadorian ceramicist and sculptor who opens her home/studio to writers and artists. Her spacious patio, gallery, and gardens attract the artistic elite of the city who gather to share conversation, philosophy, and tea. Sara ushered us around her newest exhibit called “Casas de Mujeres” (Women’s Houses). One of the resident painters, a woman who Tari introduced us to as the Iranian Frida (Kahlo), showed us her artwork and spoke about the dangerous and restrictive conditions she encountered as an artist seeking freedom of expression in her homeland of Iran. Quito had been comfortably accommodating to her creative efforts and receptive to her work.
La Ronda is a lively part of the Centro Historico that reminded us of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. On the weekend evenings this narrow street, lined with 17th century buildings, is jam packed with people from wall to wall winding their way downhill and up. Most are Quiteños (locals). Live music spills out from every doorway, be it a restaurant or gallery. Street musicians and dancers are found on every corner. In fact, one of the things that impressed us about Quito was the quantity of live arts performances - either happening informally or scheduled through the City’s abundant cultural program. In the four short days we were there, we witnessed 4 traditional dances with beautiful costumes, one modern dance, and two musical performances - all open air in the plazas and streets.
Our final visit to Quito, on the trip from the Amazon rainforest back to Jacaranda in Bahia de Caraquez, entailed another overnight. We stayed once again in the Centro Historico but this time in an old mansion down an alley off of Plaza San Francisco. Plaza San Francisco is an immense open cobblestoned space dominated by one of the city’s largest churches and monastery, Monasterio and Iglesia San Francisco (the oldest in Ecuador); located underneath in its stone arches is Tianguez, a high quality craft store (fair trade and museum-associated) and cafe. The square is also home to one of Quito’s most luxurious hotels, Casa Gangotena, at $375+ a night. Around the corner, our small Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuña is still owned by its original family and reminded us of the house museum we visited in Cuenca with its authentic colonial decor and furnishings. Breakfast was served in a pleasant little cafe next door in the back of the alleyway. Sonia, the proprietress, was very warm and insisted on walking us the short distance to the plaza to help us flag down a taxi to the bus station where we caught an 8 hour bus back to Bahia.
Our second time in Quito, a week after we returned from the Central Highlands, we stayed at the Traveller’s Inn in La Mariscal overnight with Maureen and Buzz, just long enough to rendezvous with our friend Vicki. This is when we got a birds-eye view of the city from the TelefériQo, the cable car that rises 2.5 km. up Pichincha Volcano from the urban plain to a visitors center near the top of Cruz Loma (4100 m. high). The day was not crystal but clear enough to see most of the surrounding volcanoes. The City is laid out beneath you but unfortunately, there is nothing to identify what you are looking at - no brochures, maps, plaques, or telescopes. You would think they would give you some interpretive material, especially at the stiff prices of the cable car trip ($9). In the cafe, we walked over to one of the concessionaires - the one who takes your picture and then photoshops you hanging off the cable car above the city with a snow capped volcano in the background - and asked him to point out some of the landmarks which he begrudgingly did. After a short walk to the beginning of the hiking trails that lead further up to Rucu Pinchincha, the five of us boarded the car for our three minute descent.
We are certain we will return to Quito soon because we have decided to repeat our stay in Ecuador next summer and expand our South American travel to experience more of this wonderful continent’s magic.
Quito is the culinary capital of Ecuador and we enjoyed several local dishes: seco de chivo (braised goat stew), ceviche, patacones (plantain fritters), fritada (fried pork with hominy), corn based humitas and quimbolitos, and helados de paila (old-fashioned ice cream handmade in big copper bowls at Restaurante San Agustin). Two dining highlights deserve mention: The Theatrum and Zazu. The first is a first-class restaurant on the second floor of the Teatro Sucre, a 1878 theater building, and has an appropriately dramatic setting of linen-covered tables set amidst flowing floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains; this is old world elegance with a chef’s tasting menu of 5 courses served under silver domes. Zazu, one of Quito’s best restaurants with a Peruvian chef, is a mecca for local epicureans and the reputation for excellent contemporary fusion cuisine is well deserved.
La Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World)
“Ecuador’s biggest claim to fame (and name) is its location right on the equator”...... Lonely Planet Guide
Our tourists’ pilgrimage to the Middle of the World - the equator - felt like we were playing “What’s (or, in this case, Where’s) My Line?” Anyone old enough to remember those old-school TV shows? Of three contestants, which is the true one? Will the real La Mitad please stand up? We visited three places to be able to have that "photo op" of standing at 0.00 degrees latitude with one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other foot in the northern hemisphere.
At the first stop, on the edge of a park near a little town off the main highway, there was a small concrete globe with a line on either side demarcating the equator - a candidate based on our guide’s story that this is at the latitude where the indigenous had identified the line centuries ago. No one else was in sight. The second place, named "La Mitad del Mundo", was more like a giant crowded amusement park with a major monument, museums, restaurants, craft stalls and Sunday entertainment - complete with various admission fees: the location set by the French geodesic survey of 1736 and officially celebrated by the Ecuadorian tourist industry. The third contender was a few hundred meters east, in the amusing Museo Solar Inti Ñan with its hoax-y energy, egg-balancing and water demonstrations. Here a number of people milled about watching draining water spin either clockwise or counterclockwise.
Called the “mother-lode” of crafts markets, the famous indigenous market of Otavalo peaks on Saturdays and is the place to go for traditional crafts, hand woven rugs and bags, woolly sweaters and hats, folk art, pottery, beaded necklaces, and straw hats. Hundreds of stalls manned mainly by indigenous women in traditional dress fill the central Plaza de Ponchos and radiate outward. Everywhere you looked was eye candy! The market has been going on for centuries in its role as a crossroads of the Andes. We practiced how to say “hello” in the highland kichwa language and delighted in seeing the faces of the women light up when we greeted them. The indigena of Otavalo are the wealthiest of indigenous peoples in Ecuador; their textile weaving skills have been highly valued throughout the centuries.
So what’s the real deal? According to a recent GPS measurement, La Mitad del Mundo is 240 meters off the mark. And the Museo is not it either. Number One was more likely. “The true equator resides on a sacred indigenous site constructed more than 1000 years ago. The name of the site is Catequilla, and it sits on a hilltop on the opposite side of the highway from the Mitad del Mundo” (Lonely Planet). So much for technological advances.
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