Quito, not a place with five names, but a giant city spread across mountains and valleys. The city sits at an altitude of 2850 metres above sea level, it is home to over two million people and has been listed as the highest official capital city in the world.
We had left the Amazon, ready to leave behind the giant spiders but not ready to return to civilisation. Navigating ourselves at midnight Tuesday, in Quito was a bit of a mission; however, we made it and were thankful for the shower and comfortable bed awaiting us.
How to be a human again
Unfortunately, when you’re completely withdrawn from society and it’s troubles for a few days, you return to be faced with a large collection of menial tasks to do. Our collection included fun things like washing, blog writing, booking flights and finding hostels to stay in. These would have been so much easier if it weren’t for the crap internet at the hotel (due to “Buffer Bloat” causing crazy response times).
Dee loves sitting and doing adult tasks… we managed to make it through a few hours before deciding that being responsible is too difficult and that beers and food would probably be the way to go instead. Getting our bearings we ventured out into the Quito sunshine to San Augustin heladeria-restaurant for some amazing Seco de Chivo and house made ice cream. Amongst some of the bland flavours we’ve come across in Ecuador, Seco de Chivo was a welcome change; the stew is made from goat and served with plantains and yellow rice. For the locals the stew is only eaten on special occasions, as meat is an expensive commodity. There were two flavours of icecream, both of them fruits we can’t remember the name of.
Later in the afternoon, after recovering from the food coma we’d succumbed to, and managing to find a hairdresser for Dee to remove the last remnants of the Amazon from her hair, we hunted for a local brewpub we’d heard about. Fortunately, when we’d arrived, the pub was just opening and offered us delicious beers in their three-hour happy hour. After making sure we’d tasted a number of the beers, some deep-fried camembert and a sundried tomato pizza, the beer caught up with us and it was time to go home. Thankfully, the hostel was only 200m up the road, however it was up a giant hill - we were back in altitude territory… the struggle was real.
NO HANGOVER BUS!
Usually, when we have written about drinking lots of delicious beers and eating phenomenal food, we have a winding bus ride, packing and a hangover that would make the morning so much more difficult. Thursday, however, we were able to sleep in, enjoy a decent breakfast and kill the hangover vibes while wandering the city.
We were planning on going on a walking tour but found out that we were supposed to put our name down at the hostel and not email them like the instructions said. Given the slight hangover situation we decided that we would take it easy and investigate the city ourselves to find out what Quito was all about. We walked to Plaza Independencia, to look at the few churches, found Simon Bolivar street, avoided the 100 people offering to clean James’ shoes and found a chocolate shop that sold chocolate covered Ecuadorian coffee beans - they were amazing!
Quito is filled with history, the obvious things have happened, like the Caras conquering the Quitu, the Incas conquering the Caras, the Spaniards conquering the Incas and then old mate Simon Bolivar with his mates sorting all of them out. Although this is a very brief and simple synopsis of some of the horrific things that have happened, it is also close to the forty-fifth time we heard the story of Simon Bolivar. In saying that, the historic centre of Quito is one of the best-preserved centres in the Americas and Quito was the first UNESCO Heritage Listed site in the world. The main square is filled with people and surrounded by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace (which has been turned into shops and restaurants), the Municipal Palace and the Plaza Grande Hotel. We were able to take a free-guided tour around the presidential palace, learning about more of the country’s history and seeing some pretty expensive jewellery.
Eating out like a local
Some of the cheapest and most delicious meals we’ve had on our way around have been from the local markets. In this case, we’d read a little bit about the food offerings in the Mercado Central and had a bunch of recommendations for a small fish place called Don Johnny’s. Some of the stalls had questionable hygiene standards, with meat hanging all over the place and the occasional appearance of running water and a refrigerator. Arriving to the tables outside of Don Johnny’s we were congratulated on our broken Spanish, thrown a menu and then told not to worry about looking at it - we had to order the fried tuna soup with popcorn (cancha), potatoes and the Ecuadorian version of ceviche (a tomato-y concoction filled with seafood). This $5 meal was some of the best fish either of us had ever eaten - when in Quito you need to go to Don Jimmy’s!
Deciding that we were a little keen to have fish for dinner we found a fish stall that appeared to have refrigeration and better than average standards of cleanliness. In the Amazon we’d learnt to make bread from yuca, we attempted a version of this to have with our ceviche and finished the evening sitting at Bandido, utilising their high-speed internet to get a heap of photos uploaded and another countless amount of beers.
Walking tour: attempt #2
Friday morning was an early wake-up day, though we were sans hangover, which was a much better start to the day than our efforts on Thursday. We had breakfast at the hostel then went to San Blas Square for the walking tour. In true South American style, our guide Tatiana was half-an-hour late. She knew a lot about the city but spoke only a little English, so the explanations were mostly in Spanish. It was difficult at times because the words and tenses that she didn’t know in English were pretty much what we didn’t know in Spanish. We saw the churches, and the Monastry of St Francis (it was huge). We were given a bit of history about the city then sent on our way to explore.
We found a nice coffee place that makes ice coffee without milk (winning for Dee) and very good hot coffees. We wandered our way to La Mariscal over the other side of Quito, via the parliament to get our photo then settled in at the Ethnic coffee Café for barbecue lunch - steak, chicken, sausages, vegetables and beer (surprise!). We ventured around and took a look at a few of the streets then tackled the bus back into the Old Town, deciding that we needed a few more beers to make sure we knew what they tasted like. Of course we wound up at Bandido, then decided we wanted to try some new beer at Sirka Arts and Beer - really decent beers served with plantain chips and cheese, guacamole and salsa picante. A little drunk, it was time for dinner: we went to the place next door for dinner that was hideously expensive but worth it - Dee had prawns and James had quinoa-crusted fish. The owner desperately wanted to show us his wine collection but for a US$40 dinner we decided to bypass the $200 bottles of wine.
A day with something to do other than visiting brewpubs
Instead of opting for the hostel breakfast for the Saturday morning we thought we would treat ourselves to a breakfast near the square before heading on our day tour to see Quito’s surroundings. This time our scrambled eggs had tomato, parsley and onion in them, and the cheese in bread came toasted! Once finished we waited outside the tour office for our tour that was supposed to begin at 8am but they picked us up at 7:40… (very early for South American time). One of the other people on the tour arrived at 8:01 and got told off for being late, despite being told that the bus probably wouldn’t be there until 8:15. Getting ourselves settled in on the bus we drove one and a half hours to the lookout near Otavalo and tried some biscochi (an Ecuadorian biscuit), cherimoya (amazing fruit), dulce de leche and some of the locally made cheese. We also decided to buy some 100% cacao chocolate because it looked really delicious and has no dairy!
After the lookout we piled back on the bus and headed toward the Otavalo markets and saw everything under the sun. People selling brooms, goldfish, hoses, meat grinders, bouncy balls and sunglasses - these were just the people walking around. Today, the market pretty much took up a four by six block section fo the town. The stalls had a lot of home made arts and crafts as well as the usual stuff imported from China. They were really huge, the food hall had crab soup for $2 and whole barbecued pigs in front of the stalls that they were pulling the meat off for the dishes.
When we finished at the markets we headed toward a reserve to see the lake in the side of a volcano, along with millions of roses growing in greenhouses. Ecuador supplies more than a third of the world’s roses, it is almost offensive to give a lady roses because they are so cheap; it’s US$2 for two dozen! On our way around we dropped into a town called Cotacachi for their $15 menu del dia - it wasn’t terrible but certainly not worth $15: chicken and vegetables, corn and potato soup, fried fish with vegetables and fruit salad for dessert. There was a quick stop to learn about how the locals do weaving, which was a big local industry. We finished up by walking up “leather street” to the park and then jumped back on the bus to Quito and home to bed.
A chilled day at Cotapaxi
Once again waking up at stupid o’clock and fighting the terrible internet again we managed to catch Dee’s parents online to have a chat with - Skype has been really wonderful while travelling. James had organised to go to Cotapaxi (a nearby volcano) for the day while Dee decided to give it a miss, still not feeling well from the previous day. For breakfast we ventured to the same café as Saturday, the señora there looked genuinely happy to see us again.
James then went out the front of the hostel to wait for the van to pick him up, and when it arrived there were another 8 people on the tour - he was the last to be picked up. There was a couple from Arkansas on a 8 day holiday, a Danish and Sri Lankan couple who lived in England with their three kids, a Danish guy, and two Swiss women.
We started off down the Pan-American highway, being driven by Gabriel who was the same driver as the previous day, and our guide Jose-Luis, who started explaining about the volcanos in Ecuador. Depending on what you count as “active” there are about 14 active volcanos on the Ecuadorian mainland and 11 in the Galapagos (to be officially classed as active they needed to have had at least one eruption in the last 150 years). Because the eruptions make the soil more fertile, a lot of Ecuadorian settlements in the mountain are near volcanos.
Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world, although there are higher volcanos that are dormant. Unfortunately due to a small explosion last year the road to the refuge and hiking area is closed, so instead we could only go to the visitor centre, and then walk near a lagoon close to the Rumiñahui volcano.
As we went along the highway, we passed through the town of Machachi, which is a “cowboy” town, as it is the main one near a lot of cattle and sheep farming areas. Jose said that if we were still in the area the following weekend, the town would be holding their largest celebration of the year with cowboy parades, rodeo-type activities, and a small amount of bull fighting.
We turned off the highway on to the road toward the Parque National Cotopaxi, and the scenery changed a lot - from plains to forest. Looking out the window, it looked a lot like it does in Tasmania! Jose then mentioned that we were passing through a lot of pine (I believe Radiata) and Eucalyptus plantations. The gum trees were brought over from Australia to grow for construction, but then became a bit of a weed as they consume a lot of water and causing native plants and animals to suffer. I guess we could say this was revenge for cane toads?
Arriving at the visitor centre, we were offered coca tea, which all the other tourists had not tried before. The table had some sheets on it with a list of the supposed properties it has, including curing “vocal fatigue” which one of the kids on the tour obviously did not suffer from. The visitor centre shows a diorama of the national park, and talks about how the volcanos were formed.
After that brief stop, we continued up the road to the Limpiopungo lagoon near the Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui volcanos. The lagoon is very shallow, only 1 meter at it’s deepest point, and is home to several types of birds including Andean Gulls (they sound just like sea gulls).
There is a small walk around the lagoon and marsh, which takes around one and a half hours to do, with a few rotundas on the way. The walk was pretty flat, so it was not a problem for everyone who hadn’t dealt with coming to altitude yet. A little over half way around we went off the main track, and started going up a hill to get a better view of the Cotopaxi volcano. Going up-hill at altitude is much harder, although it was not too steep, but one of the ladies decided to stop and wait at the bottom just a few minutes in. After about 20 minutes walking uphill, we stopped at the top of a rise to get some photos of the valley leading to the plain below Cotopaxi.
Everyone was pretty hungry by this point, as we left Quito at 8am and it was 2pm, so we headed back to Machachi for lunch. We had a set menu with two small cheese empanadas (one pastry and one green plantain outside), locro (potato soup) with corn and avocado, a choice of grilled beef or chicken with the usual rice-potato-vegetable combination, and either mora (blackberry) icecream or maracuya (passionfruit) cheesecake.
By the time we finished lunch it was 3:30 and we headed back off into the van. Surprisingly we went straight back to Quito, with me dropped off at 4:05 despite the schedule saying we would arrive at 6pm. This meant Dee, who was out having a coffee wasn’t ready for me to be back quite yet.
While James was away for the day, Dee had a very chill day, venturing through the markets and getting things together to cook at the hostel: a delicious fish stew, and some banana, peanut butter and mora “icecream”. In her adventures around, Dee decided that it was time for some more decent coffee and to have a little look around the square, more specifically, people watching. Many countries in South America have traditions that may seem strange in Australia, and this particular Sunday offered one that was quite confusing. Settling in for coffee there were a large amount of people very, very formally dressed. Dee assumed that, because it was a Sunday, and being in a very traditional religious country, the formality was because Sunday mass was being held. Not far off from the prediction, there was Sunday mass, however, it was a Sunday mass wedding day… It costs the locals a lot of money to have their wedding in the city’s cathedral, so instead of each family paying $1000usd to hire the church for their wedding, the families all get together and have their weddings in very quick succession, one after the other, after the other. In total there were 120 brides getting married, and each wedding lasted less than 15 minutes. There were tears, some interesting dress choices, lots and lots of people trying to take photos, and a giant line outside the church for people waiting to get married. Not the traditional style that one would assume, but interesting nonetheless.
Surprise: there’s another teleferico!
Monday morning it was finally time to go up the teleferico (our fourth in South America). Since it is a long way to the base station, we caught a taxi from the hostel, which took about 15 minutes. The base station is already a reasonable way up, at 3215m above sea level (365m above the city itself), but as we got closer we could see how high it went. After purchasing tickets (for US $8.50 each!, La Paz was 25c) we started the ride up to 3775m. The ride was fairly uneventful, although there was some ear popping due to the large altitude changes.
That afternoon we returned to the coffee shop we had been to the previous day, Ktedral since it had great coffee and said hello to the staff there again. Since we were up for a few drinks, we got talking to them more, and ended up staying there for quite a long time. The guys upstairs showed us quite a bit of their fancier equipment, and how to use it, and talk about how it affects the flavour. The two upstairs were Venezuelan and very friendly, and it was good for us to practice our Spanish and then ask a few questions about complicated English bits. Dee learnt how to use some of the equipment they had, and it even made their facebook page!
For the rest of the day it was packing to get ready for our flight the following day to head to the land that is Colombia!
Go see all the photos from Quito