Exploring in and around Quito

Sunday 17 to Thursday 21 December

We had requested a driver from the hotel we booked in Quito to pick us up from the airport. After waiting a long time and then making enquiries at the information desk, it appeared that our request had got lost – I had made it after 5pm on Friday, and there was no way that the hotel office staff were going to attend to it until Monday. Today was Sunday.

The receptionist at Hotel Sebastian was most apologetic and upgraded our room as compensation. We found ourselves on the 7th floor with amazing views over the city and the nearby mountains. We liked the room so much we extended our stay to four nights.

After our experience of taking extreme caution in Bogotá, we were delighted when the receptionist assured us it was perfectly safe in down-town. Although we were still at a high altitude at 2850m, the air was not quite as cold in Quito.

Ignoring the hotel staff’s recommendation to take a taxi, we preferred to stretch our legs and get a feel for the layout of the city.

It was Saturday afternoon and most small businesses were closed. However the Parque del Ejibo was full of vendors, particularly souvenirs and Ecuadorian snacks.

It was a long downhill walk to the centre of town, and Bruce was wondering why our hotel was so far out of town. As we explored, we realised that we were in the tourist quarter and there certainly weren’t many accommodation or meal options in the centre of town.

We wound our way through the old town’s narrow streets to the Basilica de Quito, a magnificent Gothic church, standing high and proud. It had been an early start in Bogotá and a long morning, so we sat down to enjoy a coffee/ice cream in the church café. A wedding was taking place, and it was fun to watch the wedding party leave the church. Once the wedding party had left we were able to visit the inside of the church with beautiful stained glass windows, its colourful display of flowers and the inevitable nativity scene without baby Jesus.

From there we continued to the old town which was alive with people. Plaza Grande Quito was busy with families, a group singing, a single man promising we were all doomed, the inevitable homeless people and shoe shine boys.

As we wandered through the street we were amazed to see so many street vendors selling anything you could imagine – toothbrushes, bottled drinks, dresses, single cigarettes. Christmas comes in different forms. Here there seemed to be a lot of dress up costumes, especially for children – Santa Claus, angels, shepherds and all manner of super heroes. The other curious item we saw well sold was Santa costumes for your favourite pooch.

What struck us about the UNESCO listed old town was a distinct lack of facilities for western tourists. It seems very much a town for the local people. We loved that, as so many old towns we have visited have been completely given over to tourism with all the dwellings converted to souvenir shops and restaurants, Quito had a lively, local ambience.

We visited yet another church – Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco. Set to overlook the old town of Quito, the 16th century complex is believed to be the largest architectural ensemble of colonial Latin America. It fronts onto Plaza de San Francisco, which was boarded up as part of development of a new underground train system.

With weary legs and a healthy appetite, we took our hotel’s advice and caught a cab back to our hotel in the relatively new part of town.

The local square was alive on Saturday evening. We found a great restaurant serving an upmarket version of Ecuadorian food.

We had no plans for Ecuador but the hotel staff very quickly put us in touch with Victor who arranged a day trip to Otavalo with a driver guide called Jose. Otavalo is a town famous for textiles, about 90km NNE of Quito in the Andean mountains.

We stopped at a lookout which gave us an amazing view over the Volcán Cayambe, the third highest mountain in Ecuador and part of the famous Avenue of Volcanoes. The mountain crosses the equator and at 5,739-metres, Cayambe’s peak is the point of the Earth’s surface that is farthest from its axis. We could see the volcano through the haze, if we squinted, however the view from the lookout was impressive.

We stopped at the Hosteria Puertlago on the San Pablo Lake – with Cerro Imbabura, another volcano, in the distance. This seemed to be a favourite place of Jose, a rather nice looking resort hotel.

We then visited the Otavalo Indigenous Market, famous for its handicrafts. I was particularly impressed by their beautiful weavings, but we have a no buy policy – we couldn’t possible add such weight to our limited luggage.

As usual Bruce & I wandered off in different directions as one item or another interested us, but Jose became particularly concerned about my quest for independence in this quite small market place. It didn’t feel dangerous, but you never know, we were after all, new to Ecuador.

Our next stop was the Peguche Falls, close to Otavalo. It was a pretty place, and we were entertained by the visitors who got themselves quite wet trying to record selfies of their visit. I got conned into petting a couple of Lamas – that was free, but taking photos of me with them was not!

On the walk back to the car we were struck by the number of eucalypts, and of course the strong eucalyptus smell, which reminded us of home. We were to see many more on our travels – they have been planted by the British to provide building materials, firewood and eucalyptus oil.

The last stop was Cotacachi famous for leather tooling. Sometimes I think it would be wonderful to arrive in these places with an empty suitcase.

Our second day with Jose was to visit the rain forest in the Mindo Valley west of Quito. Just a short distance away but the amazing terrain had us winding our way through the cloud forest that separates Quito from the coastal plain. The journey was a slow 100km and we dropped to 1250m – half the elevation of Quito.

Our first stop was an excursion in the Casacada Reina region. From the carpark we took the tarabita or cable car ride to reach a hiking area, then a 45 minute walk to the lower cascades. Jose wanted to know if we could manage the humid, steep hike. The trees, the flowers, the water were all wonderful and I think we passed with flying colours. We were also starting to understand that Jose loved selfies, or even better, for us to grab a picture of him. He seemed rather disappointed that we didn’t rely on a B&T selfie in every location we found – that’s not to say we were short on taking photos, we just concentrate on what is around us, rather than us.

We stopped for lunch at a Mariposario or butterfly farm where Jose insisted I try the trout stuffed with mushrooms and baked in banana leaves.

There was a nice variety of butterflies and a well displayed area showing the life cycle with eggs, larvae, pupa and adults. But the butterfly farm also had a beautiful display of tropical flowers which attracted the hummingbirds. We had been entranced by these tiny energetic birds on previous journeys through the Americas, but that didn’t stop us wasting many megapixels on them here.

On our return we stopped by the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument near Quito. It is right on the equator and commemorates the site where the 18th-century French explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine once calculated the globe’s equatorial line.

Beside it is the building of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) – the united nations group for the South American continent. The weather had turned – it was cold and grey and very gloomy, so we were limited to a short stop in the bus carpark for a couple of very quick snaps.

We enjoyed Jose’s company, his English was quite good and he appeared to have a good knowledge of Ecuador. He suggested that he could show us through the major sites. We had been hoping to find someone to guide us through Ecuador so we accepted his tour proposal.

Our last day in Quito was a day to ourselves and we decided to visit the teleferique. It was impressive, 2.5km long and rising nearly a kilometre. This put us at more than 4,000m above sea level, another endurance test for the travelling that lies ahead. The view over the city was amazing as dark clouds rolled over the volcanoes behind us.

The vegetation changed dramatically as we rode up the hill in the comfort of the cable car – from the now familiar eucalypts to thick grasses and tiny camouflaged flowers.

We tried taking a shortcut from one path to another just about three or four metres higher. Of course I expected to be out of breath, but I was surprised to see that Bruce was also struggling. There were a lot of hiking and horse riding tracks around – clearly us sea lovers are not as acclimatised to these altitudes.

And when we returned to Quito’s city level in the very fast cable car, my fingers started to tingle as my body re-acclimatised to the denser air.

It was back to our now favourite restaurant for our last dinner in Quito, before setting off on an extraordinary adventure with Jose.