Equatorial Wonderland

Quito, Ecuador

Be careful what you wish for … such great advice! We bemoan the fact that we have had such short stints in Cusco, a place worth spending more time. Our so-called last day here, we both wish for just one more day. A 5 AM wake-up call and 5:30 taxi for a 7:30 flight to Quito via Lima has us at the airport in good time. There is a long line up at Avianca. A pretty señorita offers to help us at the automatic check-in. She enters our booking number several times, each time resulting in an error code. She goes off to consult with the staff at the check-in desk, returns and tries again. Takes a closer look at our ticket and says ” your flight is for tomorrow, not today”.

Back to the hotel where, because it is so early, our room has not yet been cleaned and is available for another night. We get our extra day in Cusco. AAARRRGGGHHHHH!!! Such a rookie travel mistake! Could have been worse though … we could have gone on Wednesday for a Tuesday flight and been a day late.

The next day, Wednesday, we do it all again: 5 AM wake-up call, 5:30 taxi, stand in line at Avianca. This time we get on our flight to Quito, arriving mid-afternoon. Quito is another UNESCO world heritage site and is reputed to have one of the best preserved colonial centres in all of the Americas. It is also the closest capital to the Equator, which runs just north of the city.

Located in a long narrow valley, and surrounded by snow-capped volcanos, Quito is 70 kms long and 8 kms wide and is home to over 2.5 million people. The several view points we take photos from never entirely capture the size of the place. Even from way up the slope of Mt. Pichincha, the volcano closest to the city, it is impossible to fully take it all in. We take the teleferico halfway up and then hike further up, until we run out of steam because of the altitude.

The hotel Mansion del Angel, where we are staying, is a fully restored mansion that was once a private home. It is now a gorgeous boutique hotel and at $100/night, it is great value. We’ve been upgraded to a “suite”, complete with 15 ft ceilings, a canopied 4 poster bed and a fireplace in the sitting area.

We spend the first afternoon in the centro historico, starting with the “basilica”, a new (just 100 years old) gothic church, the outside of which rivals anything we have seen in Europe. We climb to the top of one of the spires for views of the city.

Next stop is the 400 year old Jesuit church of “la compania”. Inside the gold leaf covering absolutely everything has me putting my sunglasses on. It is ridiculously bright, shiny and ornate. Later that night the outside will be illuminated with garishly colourful lights. Kind of tacky, but it attracts a crowd, all taking photos with their phones.

Finding a church in Quito is easy … they are everywhere. Finding a restaurant, not so easy. The lack of cafe culture in the old centre is surprising, especially since the climate here is perpetually spring-like. We walk for blocks finding nothing that even resembles an eatery and end up in what appears to be a cafeteria, but has a bodega below. Rather strange. The food is ok. The second glass of red wine we order tastes heavily of perfume and we figure it is likely dish detergent that somehow migrated into the wine. We actually cannot drink it!

Outside the restaurant a crowd has gathered because of the “festival of light” that has the historical buildings lit up, as part of the UN Habitat III conference that is being held in Quito this week. We stumble into a free theatre performance of Ecuadoran folk dancing that is part of the conference entertainment.

Unfortunately, the conference crowds are a set up for petty crime. Craig is pick-pocketed while we are caught up in what can only be described as a mob outside one of the churches during the festival of light. Thankfully only cash is taken, not credit card, bank cards, nor his passport.

An evening at La Ventenal Restaurant, on a hill to the west of the city, is so memorable we add it to our 10 best dining experiences list. It is in a bad neighbourhood, according to our hotel manager. A taxi drops us off at a gate and we are escorted along a footpath to the restaurant entrance by a billy-club carrying security guard. We go for the view, trying to overlook the trip advisor reviews, mostly slamming the food, so maybe our expectations are low, but Craig’s grilled barracuda is one of the best pieces of fish we have ever tasted. And the view is spectacular!

A day north of the city, at the Otavalo Saturday market, is also memorable. It is a two hour drive, across the Equator, through lush, green agricultural country. Always the mountains and volcanos form a back drop.

The market is massive. Two hours of browsing and we see about a quarter of it, although the wares and handicrafts do become a bit repetitive after the first half hour. Once again we wonder: is there a huge factory hidden somewhere in the hills where all of this stuff is mass produced? Is it really all “hecho a mano”, made by hand? Is the baby alpaca real or is some/most of it acrylic? Naively I expect the salespeople to answer these questions frankly.

The fruit and vegetable stalls are full of the bounty of a land that has a year-long growing season, as was the case in Bolivia and Peru. No one goes hungry!

We stop for lunch at a hotel in the nearby town of Cotacachi. Set in a garden full of blooms and about a dozen peacocks, the dining room is opulent. We experience a dining first: a first course served in a music box. The box arrives closed and playing pan flute music. I have no idea what to expect when I open it. There sits a potato croquet, a small, but ostentatiously presented amuse bouche. A peacock comes to the window and peers in. I feel like Alice in f**king wonderland!

The fantastic experiences we are having here (notwithstanding the pickpocketing incident), plus the low cost of living, plus the amazing array of produce … all no doubt explain why there are so many Canadian and American ex-pats living in Ecuador. It is a bit of a wonderland!

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