So just about one year ago, I was filled with hope when the vaccine rollout began. The beginning of the end I thought. So I began to do what I love most. Plan my vacations to far off destinations. Included in that list was a trip to Ecuador to visit Quito and the surrounding areas followed by 2 weeks in the Galápagos Islands. Little did I know when I booked the trip last year we would be back fighting yet another surge thanks to Omicron.
I considered canceling my trip, but in all reality, the United States is probably one of the worst places to be right now with the massive spike in cases so … with fairly low cases in Ecuador, my Covid vaccine card and negative Covid test in hand, I flew several thousand miles to Quito.
The trip was uneventful (except for a 2 hour delay in Miami while some rocket launch took place at Cape Canaveral), and I landed in Quito to overcast skies. My driver was there to pick me up and within 45 minutes, I was ensconced in the lovely Casa el Eden, a beautifully restored mansion right in the middle of old town.
Once I settled in to my wonderful room with massive windows, I decided to do a little exploring and find a place to eat. (I tried to minimize removing my mask on the plane, so I was starving.)
Now Quito sits at just over 9,000 feet so not nearly as high as some places I have been (Everest base camp to name one), but still high enough that I noticed the elevation when I walked up stairs or up a hill. And unfortunately, there are a lot of hills in Quito which I quickly found out when I walked the four blocks to the main square in Quito.
Now if you have been to any Latin American countries, you know that EVERY city/town/village has a main square. Typically there are a lot of shops and restaurants as well as a church. Quito’s main square, however, is a little different. The square is flanked by the Mayor’s office, the Presidential Palace, the Bishop’s residence and some shops and restaurants.
So after doing a 360 of the square, I found Lavid, the restaurant recommended by my hotel and settled in for a lovely meal of Seabass, mashed potatoes and veggies. Not only was the food spectacular, but the view across the square was awesome.
After dinner, I wandered back to my room and settled in for the night, hoping to sleep really well since the overnight flight to Miami was not what I would characterize as the height of rest. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be and I spent a very restless night finally nodding off around 2.
My alarm went off at 7 and it felt like I had hardly slept at all, but I needed to get a move on as my guides Jamie and Angela Hally were meeting me at 8:30 for a trip around Quito.
With a yummy breakfast of fresh fruits, juice, scrambled eggs, bread and tea under my belt, we set off in the brilliant sunshine to walk the Quito old town area. First up was the Quito Central Mercado. Now anyone who knows me knows I LOVE my markets. And this one did not disappoint. Smaller than some I have been in, but still filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and veggies, meats (chicken anyone) and herbs. The aroma of fresh produce filled the air and made me feel healthier just by walking through the market.
There were also a number of stalls where folks make and sell breakfast and lunch. We had missed the morning rush so it was pretty empty when we walked through, but still very interesting.
We left the market and began our walk toward the main square. On the way, we made a little detour to the Inglesia de St. Augustin, a beautiful old church that was constructed between 1580 and 1627 and happened to be open. It was in remarkable shape.
After the detour, we walked a couple blocks along the narrow streets to the main square, which I had seen the night before. However, Angela provided a lot of really interesting information about the square and identified the buildings surrounding the square (which was helpful since last night I had no idea what I was looking at). We wandered through the main part of the restaurant and shop area, which included a couple beautiful indoor patio areas, before leaving the building and walking past the Presidential Palace and up the street.
As we walked, we passed street vendors selling everything from knickknacks to nuts, fruits and veggies and flowers (a dozen gorgeous long stem roses for $1.)
We stopped by another church, Iglesia el Sagrario, a 17th century chapel that was adjacent to the Quito Cathedral. In fact, this street had so many churches that it is know as Calle de las Siete Cruces (the street of 7 crosses).
We continued to wander the narrow little streets of old town Quito before reaching Iglesia de San Francisco, the oldest church in Quito (dating to 1537). Now while the church is mammoth, the square in front of the church is equally impressive and is the scene of many religious festivities throughout the year. In fact, there was still a sign outside advertising the Navidad (Christmas) festivities.
Inside the church, there are over 3,500 works of art. Most impressive for me were the beautiful sculptures, which lined both sides of the church. Really magnificent. And … bonus. There was a service going on and we were able to listen to the priest sing (good voice).
After the visit to the magnificent church, we crossed the square and went to Yumbos artisanal chocolate shop. And all I can say is Yumbos is YUMMY. We were given a lesson in how cacao beans are made into chocolate and then given a variety of samples to try.
The chocolate is produced in Mindo (I will be going there on Sunday) at a small co-op run by indigenous women. All the flavoring is 100% natural and all of the chocolate bars contain at least 60% chocolate (as compared to Hershey’s, which has 30%).
The flavors were fantastic, but my favorite, as always, was the chili flavored chocolate. Magnificent. I also liked the orange, vanilla, lemon grass and berry. And of course, I purchased a stack to take home.
After the chocolate break, we took a juice break at a small hole in the wall shop that only locals would likely find. There were a variety of juices, but I ended up with a berry juice as well as a passion fruit juice. The fruits were pressed and out came the juice. Delish!
Next up was the Virgin of Quito. The massive aluminum statute that presides over all of Quito. Rather than killing our lungs and legs hiking up El Panacillo hill, we opted to take the car. The walk to the car took us through La Ronda (the oldest area in Old Quito) and along the oldest street in Quito, Calle de la Paseo 24 de Mayo, which was filled with old shops and restaurants.
The drive to see the Virgin, took us through narrow winding streets and up, up, up to the top of the hill giving us a magnificent view of all of Quito (and its 2.5 million residents).
Now the Virgin of Quito is one of the tallest statutes in all of South America (taller than Christ the Redeemer) and is made of 7,400 pieces of aluminum. The statute has presided over Quito since 1975.
After taking in the views, we left the Virgin and proceeded to drive to our last stop of the day in city, the Basilica of Ecuador, a very European/Gothic style church, which was completed in 1924. Now I am not a big fan of Gothic buildings, but this one was awesome because of the “gargoyles” lining to outer levels of the church. The gargoyles consisted of animals and birds of Ecuador and included turtles, blue footed boobies, jaguar, condors, armadillos, iguanas and on and on. It was superb.
After the quick visit to the Basillica, we made our way east to the “Center of the World”, aka the equator. Now the only other time I have stood on the equator was in Uganda so I was really looking forward to this (and I know my friend Tom Linde would be all over this as he is a big fan of silly geographical markings.)
Anyway, the interesting thing about the Ecuador equator is that the original spot marking the equator is off by about 200 meters. We, however, were going to visit the actual equator. But before, the equator, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at a tiny little empanada shop.
Now my love of empanadas knows no bounds. I fell in love with these fried pastries in Easter Island where I consumed so many that after a couple days the guy running the little shop did not even have to ask for my order when I walked in. And the empanadas in Argentina were equally fabulous so I was very excited to try Ecuador’s version. Verdict … Awesome! I had both a cheese empanada and pollo (chicken) empanada, with the chicken being the star. And, unfortunately, I was so interested in eating, I forgot to take a picture … but I am certain there will be more. Simply superb.
So after the lovely empanadas, we made the quick drive to the center of the world. And interesting factoid, there was a llama at the entrance to greet us cause … why not?
We paid the entrance fee and were given a really nice little tour of the site along with demos of some of the gravitational differences between equator and north and south. I failed miserably in the egg challenge (try to balance the egg on the head of a nail while standing on the equator), found it challenging to walk the equator line with my eyes closed, and watched water swirl clockwise when south of the equator and counterclockwise when north of the equator. And what happens on the equator? No swirl. The water flows straight into the bowl.
And also included in the tour was a bit of history regarding the animals native to the area as well as some history regarding the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, including viewing typical homes and weaponry and learning about the ancient tradition of lopping off the head of your enemy and shrinking it down to the size of a doll’s head. (Fortunately, the practice ended 50 years ago. And yes, we saw an actual shrunken head!
Anyways, all in all, it was a wonderful first day in Quito. Tomorrow we are off to the Otavelo Market (the largest market in the area) as well as some small towns along the way. Looking forward to a little shopping!