On route to cruise the Galapagos Islands, we had the opportunity to visit and explore the city of Quito, capital of Ecuador. Quito is the highest capital in the world, sitting at an impressive 2,850 m/9,350 ft above sea level. To give you some perspective, Mount Silverthrone in British Colombia and Mount St. Nicholas in Montana are approximately the same height. Some visitors, being unaccustomed to the high altitude, have difficulty breathing or become seriously ill, so we decided to be smart and acclimatize ourselves by spending a couple of days in Quito before we flew to the Galapagos islands.
I found Ecuatraveling through online research, a travel company with a base in Quito. Working with the wonderful Esteban, we booked our Galapagos Cruise; 6 days on the first class boat The Odyssey. Further research into the charming city and what Ecuatraveling had to offer, lead us to book other excursions in Quito after the cruise ended and we found ourselves back in Quito. It is with high praise that we recommend Ecuatraveling to anyone.
The first two days in Quito, before the cruise, we stayed at Hotel Vieja Cuba, which was a quaint B&B close to the heart of town with oodles of charm and great breakfasts. We had nothing specifically planned, so we spent our days slowly walking the streets and enjoying the coffee and delicious menu at The Magic Bean, in between many rounds of travel backgammon. On one such occasion, a taxi diver walking passed, noticed us playing and stood nearby as we finished off a game. After I lost (again) I made eye contact with him and he smiled, gesturing that he liked the game and was happy to see us play. I gestured back, offering to let him play the next round. He laughed, his face blushed, but he gestured an emphatic no. It was one of those moments where the language barrier made no difference whatsoever; we understood each other perfectly.
Quito in February carried a gentle cool breeze, but when the sun emerged, it felt warm; very similar to a comfortable North American spring. Wearing jeans, thin sweaters and light jackets, we were cozy, whether sitting on the patio at The Magic Bean or walking back to the hotel. We had read that the residents of Quito dressed conservatively, and usually in darker shades, so we opted for clothing that would help us best blend in. The one thing we didn’t consider was “fancy” dress wear. We happened to be in Ecuador on Valentine’s Day, and other than a card and some sweets to mark the day, we don’t usually celebrate. After a long day of exploring the city, we looked for a nearby restaurant for dinner. Me in my dark jeans, casual slip-ons and yoga jacket and he in his jeans, dark t-shirt and lululemon hoodie, much to our dismay, we appeared under dressed for every restaurant we passed. The local Burger King was even out of the question; walking by the one fast-food location, we could see patrons dressed in dress shirts and slacks and pretty dresses. We did manage to find a quaint family restaurant though (decorated with red balloons for the occasion) that welcomed the casually dressed, like us, and it was great.
TIP: Always research about the people, customs and way of life before visiting a new city. It will ensure you blend into the crowd easier. Dressing inappropriately or marking yourself as a typical tourist will make you an easy target for pick-pockets and scam artists.
Walking back to the hotel one afternoon, we came upon a small bookstore, called The English Bookshop, operated by Mark, a wonderful expat from the UK. We walked in and noticed Mark, with his lovely but thick accent, and a few others sitting near the front desk on stools and random chairs, drinking tea and chatting. Hearing the easy banter between them, we assumed they all knew each other, but later realized that the others were people who just happened upon the place, just like us, and got to talking. What a fantastic atmosphere. Mark offered us tea and we chatted for a while. He even offered to loan us a book on Galapagos so we could read up on the islands before the cruise. We declined, but I bought a book, just so I had a memento from such a great little shop. We did indeed go back, the very next day, and brought with us a little gift. We have gotten in the habit of bringing small packages of Canadian treats (chocolate bars, candy) to give to the people who have helped us organize our vacation or helped us along the way. We were so impressed with Mark’s welcoming and genuine nature that we decided to give him one of the gift packages, which he thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re ever in Quito, stop by, say hello, and buy a book; you won’t regret it.
After a whirlwind, but stunning, cruise around the Galapagos Islands, we arrived back in Quito, where we checked into our second hotel, Hotel Stubel. A beautiful large king suite with equipped with full living and kitchen area, plus outstanding views; it was exactly what we needed. I don’t think we have ever been so ecstatic to see a tub and multiple areas to spread out in. The cruise was amazing, the cabin spacious, but the itinerary was much more go-go-go than we had anticipated. Finally having time to soak in a steaming hot tub, order room service, and lounge each on a couch, was heavenly. At least for one night.
Expecting more relax-time on the cruise, we had pre-arranged day tours through Ecuatraveling for each of our remaining days in Quito. The first was a private walking tour of Old Town Quito, including a trip to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World). The weather was cooler when we returned, a slight chill in the air; very much like fall. Our private guide, Andreas, was phenomenal, as were the people of Quito that we encountered. While on the walking tour, Andreas had access that allowed us to cross the gates and stand in front of the main door of the Presidential Palace, leaving the other tourists behind. It just so happened that the press were gathered beyond that main gate, awaiting the current President to emerge. (Ecuador happened to be in the midst of a Presidential election). A local reporter spotted us and without provocation, asked if we were tourists. We nodded yes and he immediately proceeded to explain what was happening with the press and the details surrounding the election. Like so many locals we met, he was charismatic, gracious and proud.
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) was a fun stop on the journey, with plenty of information and experiments (like balancing an egg on a nail) to prove that we truly were on the equator line. A must visit if you’re in Quito. For lunch, wanting to stay away from the typical tourist stops, Andreas recommended a local restaurant where we had delicious meals, including fresh cheese empanadas and a savoury shrimp and rice dish I am still salivating over. We stopped to admire the unbelievable Basilica del Voto Nacional Church, with it’s beautiful Gothic architecture. Standing on the street across from the entrance, the church looms over you, but feels inviting. When you begin to notice the details, like the playful (non-traditional) gargoyles, you can’t help but smile. We also visited the stunning Compagnia de Jesus church, with it's gold interior. Pictures (like the one above) cannot do it justice. Andreas also took us to various view points around the city, where one could look out and be amazed at the clustered but somehow serene view of the city below.
The next day, also a private tour with Andreas, we traveled to Cotopaxi National Park and up the side of the snow-capped (active) volcano, stopping along the way to see llamas and alpacas. (Cue the high-pitched shrieking sound that immediately emerges from my mouth when I see a llama). Dressed in our thickest clothing, hats and gloves, we tried to step lightly in the snow, more than 15,000 feet above sea level. (The Rocky Mountains, at their highest point, is 4,401 m/14,440 ft). The road to the second highest parking lot in the world was winding, and with every turn, the lava boulders that lined the path grew larger. The air was thin, the path steep and slippery, but we waddled our way to a stump, where we sat and just soaked up the view. Even on a semi-cloudy day (yes, we were literally in the clouds) the view below and the view above were spectacular.
The day after, dressed now in summertime shorts and tanks, we joined a small group to hike inside the humid Mindo Cloud Forest. We hiked down the tight, winding and rocky path to a small, but impressive waterfall, then back up the other side, stopping along the way to admire the mushrooms, flowers and massive trees. Having hiked through the cloud forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica, this particular hike wasn’t as impressive, but beautiful and worthwhile none the less. We would love to return and be able to spend more time in the forest, wandering along other paths at our own pace. One day.
TIP: Be weary of tour packages that include multiple options and a long itinerary, as you may end up with a snapshot of everything rather than a few meaningful experiences. This particular small group of six had options that split the group, which meant those that opted out of certain activities were left waiting. Time that could have been better spent exploring.
We ended the tour with a visit to a local chocolate factory, where we were given a small demonstration (and a delicious sample) and a nearby butterfly sanctuary, where the butterflies not only fluttered happily around you, but landed upon you. It was quite magical.
We had arranged for yet another private day tour with Andreas on our last full day in Quito, hoping to see the incredible views from the Teleferico, but alas the morning sky was too foggy and we decided against it. In our pre-trip research, we can discovered two artist museums that we just had to visit. The first was The Temple of the Sun Museum, which not only houses art by the famous Ortega Maila, but is in itself a work of art. The second was La Capilla del Hombre, a museum built by artist Oswaldo Guayasmin and dedicated to the peoples of Latin America. The museum was not finished until after his death, but is an impressive tribute to his works and their powerful meanings. We were so moved by his works that we purchased three prints to have them framed. They now proudly hang in our home.
Not able to see the views we were hoping for that day, Andreas took us to lookout points, including the peaceful greenery of the Pululahua Volcano crater and one that looked into the valley, littered with thousands of rooftops. After escorted us to a market, where we purchased some local (and very sour) blackberries and the Guanabana fruit, we ended the day early, back at The Magic Bean for an afternoon coffee. Andreas was a pure gem, his hospitality allowed us to see and learn far more of Quito than we could have hoped.
To the uninformed, Quito may appear simplistic or typical, but just a scratch beneath the surface and one can see the multitude of interesting layers of culture, art, politics, food, history and nature that make up this impressive city. One cannot deny the magic of a place where you can somehow experience all four seasons in the same trip.