Journey to the centre of the world: Quito
Hitting the heights in Ecuador's capital. By Adrienne Wyper
As we get off the plane, me and my fellow passengers are puffing and panting, and surely my luggage wasn't quite that heavy back at Heathrow?
Then I see the warning signs about altitude sickness, and remember that Quito is the second highest capital in the world, at 2,850 metres above sea level (La Paz, Bolivia is the number one). The city is long and relatively narrow, flanked on all sides by the Andes - known locally as the highlands.
The city is a popular destination on any South American tour itinerary, but it's also an excellent stop on your way to see the natural wonders of the Galapagos islands - where I was heading on a cruise. It's good to get over your jet lag before getting on a boat, and better to be in Ecuador well before your Galapagos cruise leaves - just in case of any delays en route.
It's divided into three sections: the old town, with cobbled streets, colonial buildings, museums and churches; the Mariscal Sucre, home to bars, shops, restaurants and travel agents; the new town, where the airport is - though it's due to move further out this year.
Ecuador's currency is the US dollar - bring small-denomination banknotes as prices for what you'll use cash for are reasonable.
What to... see
Start at the heart of the old town, with its Unesco World Heritage Site status, in the Plaza Grande - or Plaza de la Independencia if you're feeling formal. This palm-fringed square is named in honour of Ecuador's independence from Spain, commemorated with a column. Beyond the palms and pretty planting the square is flanked by the governor's palace (changing of the guard, Mondays at 11am), the archbishop's palace and the Metropolitan Cultural Centre.
Pick up a tourist guide, in a smart police-style uniform, for a city tour in the archbishop's palace, at the metropolitan tourism corporation (Corporación Metropolitana de Turismo). Tours run morning and afternoon, Tuesday to Sunday and cost $10 for adults.
In the cathedral, mass seems to be said on a constant basis, and you may find yourself blessed in passing by a priest on your tour of the sacristy. As mass was in progress, we took a discreet look, but managed to catch the painting of the Last Supper featuring cuy (guinea pig) as the dish of the day.
For Ecuador's most ornate church, head to La Compañia de Jesus, with its jawdroppingly ornate gold encrustations (all gold leaf, not solid, our guide assured us). Building started in 1605 and took 160 years and symmetry was key: the entire building is symmetrical, down to the trompe l'oeil staircase painted on one side!
The vast cobbled plaza of San Francisco offers the classic Quito view: historical buildings soaring to the heavens, backed by the dizzying slopes of the Andean volcano Pichincha. A statue in the square marks the first man to sow wheat in Ecuador. To the right of the church is the Museo Franciscano, with seriously impressive artworks including sculpture, furniture and house-high candelabra.
To learn more about the city's history, visit the Museo de la Ciudad, which documents daily life in the city as it has changed over the centuries, using lively tableaux and model, from the way of life of the indigenous peoples, to the imported ways of the conquering Spanish.
Discover more about the turbulent past of Ecuador at the Quito Revolution Exhibition, housed in the San Juan Military Hospital on a hill overlooking the city. It opened last year to commemorate the revolution in to overthrow the ruling French, which had its roots in 1809, with the final battle being won in 1822.
After all those city streets, you'll need a breath of fresh air so take a taxi up to Parque Itchimbia for a fresh breeze and a picturesque perch in the sunshine with a bird's-eye view of Quito from north to south.
For the best views you'll get without boarding a plane, take the TelefériQo, a cable car that zooms for 2.5km up the volcano Pichincha - a great ride for $8.50. At the top the altitude is 4,100m and, as well as amazing views of the tiny city below, you can comfortably look down on planes coming in to land at the airport - quite a dizzying sight. That's if you're not dizzied by your height above sea level: almost halfway up Everest. At the top, breathe the fresh mountain air deeply (you'll need to) and savour the peace.
Heading out of Quito
One of the most popular trips from the capital is to La Mitad del Mundo, 'the middle of the world', with all kinds of fun going on, from live music to the monument marking the spot where Charles-Marie de la Condamine wielded his measuring instruments back in 1736 to prove that this was the line of the equator (which gives Ecuador its name). However, in the 1990s it became apparent that the real site of the equator is a hill down the road, on a site known to be very important to indigenous people a thousand years or so ago.
So those Mitad-del-Mundo photos of you with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern may be out by a hop, skip and jump. The scales that show you weigh less may also be out. It's true that you weigh less at the equator, due to greater centrifugal force, but it's a tiny amount. But you're on holiday, so forget the scales anyway.
Between Quito and Otavalo is the biscuit town of Cayambe, where almost every shopfront offers 'bizcochos'. These are a dry, crisp savoury sausage-shaped biscuit, similar to a Dorset Knob. The bakery near the cemetery is reckoned to be best, with the whole family shaping the dough around the table and putting them in the oven.
Back on the road northeast to Otavalo, which plays host to one of the Andes' most important craft markets. It's a peaceful town, except for Saturdays, the busiest market day. Tourists and Ecuadoreans mingle in the massive market square, with a wealth of handicrafts for sale. Many of the makers are indigenous people, who you'll recognise from their traditional dress and the long ponytails of the men. On offer is a very tempting array of creative endeavours, much of it made by indigenous people, including rugs, beaded and silver jewellery, ponchos, scarves, paintings, intricately carved gourds, hammocks and hammock seats, sandals, felt hats, woven bags and embroidered blouses and table linen. Eye up everything on offer before deciding on a potential purchase and remember that haggling is expected, and can be a fun interaction.
The fruit and veg market is also a stunning sight, with more types of banana than you can imagine, strange exotic fruits, tiny blue potatoes and street-food vendors (recommended only for those of the strongest stomach).
In the nearby village of Peguche, you can watch weavers at work, and see the pre-Spanish traditional hand loom, where the weaver sat down to brace the loom between his outstretched legs and leant back as a counterbalance to tauten the warp/weft. You can see natural dyeing methods, and how the cochineal beetle, sulphurous earth, and lemon juice can be combined to create about five colours. Gorgeous rugs, scarves and jumpers are on sale here.
Rattle down the stone-paved streets (with grass growing in the cracks) to Hacienda Pinsaqui. A textile workshop when it was built 30 years ago, this white-painted estate, now operating as a hotel-cum-restaurant-cum riding centre is set in peaceful, pretty grounds (with wandering llamas, peacocks and hammocks). Lunch costs $26 - I enjoyed a delicious vegetarian lunch of locro de papa (thick cheesy potato soup), fried plantain, white corn, savoury rice, avocado and beans was served in the dark-wood dining room, overlooking tropical blooms and hummingbirds in the garden. Double rooms start from $130 a night.
Where to... stay
Towering above the Avenida Amazonas between the Old Town and the Mariscal Sucre, the Hilton Colón Quito has 255 rooms. The ultra-modern executive tower CHK offers soundproof, climate-controlled rooms to let you catch up on your sleep. Use your room card-key in the lift to access your room's floor and the 17th, where you'll find free snacks, beer and wine every evening between 6pm and 8pm, plus newspapers and magazines and internet access. In the mornings, breakfast is served here with a fine view towards Cotopaxi volcano, with the cloud streaming down towards the city. For reservations email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.hiltoncolon.com or call (00 593 2) 256 0666. Double rooms cost from $161 to $303 per night.
Tucked away in the grid of streets in the Old Town, El Patio Andaluz is a Spanish colonial building dating from the 16th century. With rooms centred on a pretty courtyard and traditional furniture and decoration, it's a great base for exploring the old town. For reservations email email@example.com, visit www.hotelpatioandaluz.com or call (00 593 2) 228 0830. Double rooms cost from $200 to $250 per night.
Where to... eat and drink
Coffee Tree, on the corner of Reina Victoria and Foch in the Mariscal area, is a great people-watching bar, which roasts its own coffee, and serves beer (try the crisp, clean Ecuadorean Pilsener brand), wine and cocktails. The music is varied and the atmosphere is lively.
Take a break from souvenir-shopping in the Mariscal at Este Café serving imaginative coffees. My favourite was the delicious cappuccino Cayambe, named after the nearby volcano, which is a cappuccino with a slab of white chocolate tucked away in its depths.
Tucked away in the foundations of the San Francisco church is a bar/café, with live music in the evenings.
On the edge of the old town, hidden behind a nondescript door is Casa San Marcos, a beautifully restored colonial mansion, filled with elegant antiques, artwork, and beautiful flowers. At the back is an outdoor café, with views of the Virgin on the hilltop. You can stay the night too, with rooms from $80 per night.
El Mosaico Perch above the city at sunset for amazing views from this bar serving Greek, American and Ecuadorean cuisine. Try a glass of canelazo, a hot drink with a kick, made from aguardiente (sugar-cane alcohol) and fruit.
What to buy
Ecuador is a great place for inexpensive souvenir shopping, with lots of small items made of beads that are easy on the pocket - and the suitcase.
Protect your head in an authentic hand-woven Panama hat from Homero Ortega (on Isabel La Catolica).
For an array of handicrafts second only to those at Otavalo, go to market: Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal (on Jorge Washington between Mera and Reina Victoria). The alleyways are handily numbered so you can keep track of what you like. I picked up some dazzlingly bright appliquéd shoes.
If upmarket silver jewellery is more your thing, you're sure to find something to suit in Ag (named after the chemical symbol for silver). I picked up a couple of health charms to make a necklace. You'll also find antiques here too. It's on Mera, near the market above.
For spacious browsing, with a garden, stop off at Galeria Latina, also on Mera, for tagua carvings, intricately painted bowls, weaving and knitwear.
How to get there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Ecuador. Airlines who serve Quito (with a stop in the US or Europe) include Continental, Delta American Airlines, KLM, Air France and Iberia. Return flights cost from around £650. Search for flights on www.travelsupermarket.com.
The Quito stay was organised by Quasar Expeditions, who have been operating in Ecuador for 24 years. A Galapagos Basic Package Pluscosts from $759 p/p and includes: Galapagos round-trip airfare, Galapagos National Park entrance fee, Park Transit Control Card, two nights at a five-star hotel in Quito or Guayaquil and four airport transfers with an English-speaking guide To find out more visit www.galapagosexpeditions.com or call freephone 0800 883 0827.
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