09/11/13 - 09/12/13; 09/17/13 - 09/18/13: Quito, Ecuador
We were nervous about going to Quito. It was our first destination on our RTW trip and we’d read horror stories about how we were going to get conned or robbed. One traveler even wrote: “In Quito it is PROBABLE that you WILL be robbed within your first three days.” (Capitalization supplied by the author). Add in a few tales of false taxis that deliver you to armed muggers, and the warning bells start going off in your head.
Why are we traveling here? Why is this our first destination? What have we gotten ourselves into?!
Not exactly what you want to be thinking the night before your maiden voyage. When we took stock of all our research, though, the pro to con ratio heavily favored the pros. Sure there were dangers in Quito, but where aren’t there? Katie and I have lived in New York City and Los Angeles, and we survived all those years unscathed. You just have to use your head: stay in safe neighborhoods, be aware of your surroundings, don’t drop your bag on the ground, get out a giant map, and fumble around like you have no idea where you are.
So, we were cautious when we arrived in Quito, but after a few days that caution gave way to affection. Our hostel owner, Elena, was like a warm hearth that drew us in. She greeted us with a hug when we arrived and asked how we were doing each time we saw her, as though we were her kids coming home from school. Even though she didn’t speak a lick of English we always managed to communicate with her, and her hostel, Aleida’s, became our home away from home.
Elena was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Ecuador and its friendly people. From the lowlands to the highlands, we found Ecuadorians to be welcoming, helpful, and proud of their country. One taxi driver claimed Ecuador was a much better place to visit than Peru. “It has everything!” he declared. He was right. Ecuador’s relatively small size delivers a diverse and beautiful country. You can explore the jungle, scale volcanoes, visit ruins, and snorkel with sea lions all within a few weeks.
From our perspective, Ecuador seems to be on an upswing, trying to pull itself out of the third world into the first by improving infrastructure and focusing on tourism. Quito has transplanted its airport out of the city to improve safety and pollution. Unofficial taxis are being taken off the roads with security upgrades being added to the legitimate ones. Police officers and security guards can be encountered on practically every corner, making you feel safe while walking the streets throughout the day. So, after all our fretting, we were never conned or robbed while in Quito. In fact, it was a great place to start our trip for all the reasons previously mentioned, plus they use American currency so we never had to worry about getting our money exchanged. Bonus!
All that said, I don’t want to paint an overly bright picture of Quito. It still has its problems. For instance, the insane number of stray dogs roaming the streets (though I have to say they were surprisingly adorable), and the fact that every building in Quito has a wall or fence around it. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I mean every building. The hospital had an iron gate enclosing it with spikes on top. That’s right, the hospital. Thank goodness we didn’t need it, because I wasn’t sure how to get in! Walking around the city during the day felt generally safe, but once night fell we had to be extra cautious. In fact, the only time (so far) on our trip that we ever felt in danger was in Quito…
It was our first night out in the city. We went to meet up for dinner with our new French friends, Guillaume and Mathilde, whom we met on our Amazon trip. Their B&B was 15 minutes from our hostel, so we decided to walk. No problemo! But once we got off the main street we found very few people out, and the only people we did see were men. No cars drove by on the dirt roads. There were a few bars open here and there, but all other buildings were closed or abandoned. I’ve never been to Tijuana, Mexico, but it felt like what I’ve always imagined it to be at night: Not safe. Meanwhile two small white chicks were walking hastily down the street trying to get to their destination as fast as possible. When we reached the intersection their B&B was off of we couldn’t see it from the road. What we did see, however, were three men eyeing us curiously. One decided to walk next to me as I searched for the B&B. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!! (As you may have noticed, we were breaking one of our cardinal rules: Always know where you are and where you’re going!). Katie immediately called me toward her and away from Mr. Potential Threat. We turned the opposite direction and then we saw it, their charming B&B glowing like a fancy French bistro in a sea of seediness.
When we greeted our friends I said, “This area seems really sketchy.” Guillaume said they agreed, and were surprised when they arrived, but with the security guard posted outside the hotel they hadn’t had any issues. As we walked one block up (right by those three creepy men) the whole vibe changed. Lights, music, restaurants, people – we’d just stepped into the heart of Quito nightlife! Just one more example of how Quito is a world of contrasts; the friendliest people you’ll ever meet with the highest fences.
The next day was spent sightseeing with Guillaume and Mathilde. They invited us to share a taxi with them and see a few interesting sights just outside of Quito. It was too good an offer to refuse. First, we visited a volcanic crater called Pululahua that shelters a unique farmland. Only 200 people live there and their only way in or out is by horse or on foot. The taxi driver, a very friendly gentleman, explained that this crater is an ideal place for cultivating orchids because of its unusual ecosystem. Being on the equator, the temperature is consistent all year round, and they receive the perfect amount of moisture because everyday, around noon, giant clouds roll in and never roll out; they fill the crater like a giant scoop of ice cream. That’s why we visited first thing in the morning, to ensure we could actually see the village. It looked exactly as you’d imagine: a small rural town dropped into an enormous crater. Our driver said the volcano is still active, which supplies them with hot water rivers that run through the valley. Very cool!
Next, we visited La Mitad del Mundo, which translates to: The Middle of the World. Ecuador gets its name because the equator cuts directly through it, and just outside of Quito you can visit the equator and stand in both the north and south hemispheres simultaneously. The equatorial line was determined nearly 300 years ago by scientists with instruments far less precise than the ones we use today. Consequently, the “equator” at La Mitad del Mundo is in the wrong place (Oops). It is incredibly close, though, sitting only 200 meters away from the actual equator. Sadly, well before GPS uncovered this small miscalculation, an impressive monument was built on this site to commemorate the original finding of the earth’s equator (Oops again).
None of us found La Mitad del Mundo to be very impressive. Aside from the bright yellow line of the “not” equator, it was a fairly confusing complex. There were a lot of buildings, many of which required additional fees to enter, and there was no coherent theme to what was inside of them. One was an insect house, another was an art gallery, while another had colonial miniatures. We actually had difficulty finding information about the equator, which was irritating. Eventually, we found a giant sundial explaining how native people used the sun to determine seasons. Living on the equator, there is no clear winter, summer, spring, and fall. Instead, there is a wet and dry season, and the sun’s positioning indicates when to plant. Later on, we finally found a museum chronicling how French scientists spearheaded the search for the equatorial line. Finding this exhibit at a monument honoring that defining moment shouldn’t have been so hard.
After visiting the “not” equator, we walked 200 meters away and visited the actual equator at the Museo Inti Ñan. This place was the definition of kitsch. With its abundance of cacti and clay pottery, I felt like I’d pulled into a southwestern roadside tourist trap. Once we paid our entrance fees we were treated to hasty viewings of a caged anaconda and a shrunken head. Then there were shoddy reproductions of tribal dwellings and deteriorating mannequins wearing tribal clothing. Our guide moved along briskly, all the while droning her memorized script. This was a “museum” done fast food style.
In a word, this place was amazing. I find kitsch to be rather fun, so I was thoroughly enjoying their tacky presentation, and when we hit the actual equator part of the presentation the fun factor increased tenfold. First, she explained the Coriolis effect which involves the rotation of the earth, the magnetic pull of the north and south poles, and the energy pushing out from the equator. She then performed her first and most impressive experiment: showing how the equator affects water draining down a hole. If you’re from the northern hemisphere then you know that water drains in a counter-clockwise direction. In the southern hemisphere it drains clockwise. Our guide placed a full tub of water on the equator and opened the drain. The water ran straight down the hole. No spinning. No vortex. Then she stepped ten feet away, on the southern side of the equator. The water drained clockwise. Ten feet to the northern side – the water drained counter-clockwise. Amazing what a difference a few feet make when you’re standing on the equator.
After that we all attempted to balance a raw egg on the head of a nail. None of us could do it, but she was able to accomplish the feat in moments (she gets a lot of practice). Apparently, on the equator, the yolk of an egg is pulled straight down, allowing the egg to be perfectly balanced…or something like that. Finally, she had us stand on the equator, close our eyes, and attempt to walk in a straight line, heel-to-toe. It was surprisingly difficult. We all kept teetering and falling over. This is because our inner ear was confused by the equal magnetic pull from the north and south poles…or something like that. I can’t remember the exact science behind these experiments, but they were really fun, and the highlight of my day.
We finished out our time with Guillaume and Mathilde at an Incan ruin called Rumicucho. It wasn’t incredibly impressive, but considering the ruins were from the 1500s, the three-foot walls looked quite good for being over 500 years old. The hilltop they sat upon overlooked a beautiful valley on one side and the town of Rumicucho on the other. Behind the town was a string of mountains, one of which held the crater we’d just visited, Pululahua. Sure enough, thick clouds filled the top of it. The giant ice cream cone had been filled, right on time.
After our walk around the ruins we headed back into Quito to say goodbye to our driver and to Guillaume and Mathilde, who were leaving Ecuador the following day. It was sad bidding farewell to our new friends. They were extremely good company, not to mention unbelievably smart (they are neuroscientists!). We immediately missed joking with them and exploiting their Spanish-speaking skills. Merci, Guillaume and Mathilde, for a wonderful day. We hope to meet up with you again someday!
The rest of our time in Quito was spent visiting museums and walking around the historic district, which encompassed a multitude of Catholic churches and cathedrals. From opulent Baroque structures to dark Gothic spires, we were awestruck by the detail and love poured into these buildings. The Basílica del Voto Nacional was my favorite because we were allowed to climb into the rafters and towers of the cathedral. There, we were able to sit eye-to-eye with gargoyles and gaze down on the bustling streets of Quito. The colors of the city struck me as incredibly beautiful; bold and full of life. Afterward, we were caught in one of the many thunderstorms that shook the city. But even in the rain, Quito was alive with activity: people selling their wares on tiny colonial streets; Andean women in fedora hats carrying baskets on their backs; cars zipping around a corners and flying up hills. It was a feast for the senses.
We paid $.25 for the city bus and wove our way back to the hostel where Elena greeted us one last time. We packed our bags for an early morning drive to the airport. Tomorrow we would be leaving Quito and flying into Cusco, Peru. We bid a fond farewell to Ecuador and hoped that Peru would treat us just as well. In a few days we’d be hiking the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu. I hope we were up for it!
(To learn more about the scientific effects of the equator you can watch the below educational video. Prepare to be dazzled!)