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Published: June 28th 2008
Inside the ClockMiddle of the world
View from the interior of the Basilica del Voto Nacional clock tower.
There are few cities that can match Quito
in terms of location. Drive a few hours to the west and you reach Ecuador's beaches, while the fascinating jungle landscapes are close by in the east. If it's mountains and volcanoes you want, well, they're practically on your doorstep as the city is surrounded by them; including the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, only 1.5 hours to the south. An equally compelling attraction near Quito, one from which Ecuador took it's name, is the Equator, which passes through Ecuador just north of the city, and which was one of the first things we went to see first from Quito.
Going to "see" the Equator might at first sound like a pointless activity, but there's plenty to do at Mitad del Mundo
(Middle of the World). The position of the equator was first determined by an 18th century French expedition, and a large monument now stands above the line which they determined to be the Equator. To ensure you stand in the right spot, they've painted a large line on either side of the monument - not surprisingly, this is a very popular spot for photographs, as
it's not often you get the chance to stand in both hemispheres at once. There's only one problem: the French calculations were slightly off, and it has since been shown using GPS that the real Equator line lies 200 metres to the north!
After taking the obligatory photos at the "fake" Equator line, we moved on to the real line, where there is a bizarre but fascinating outdoor museum showing, via a number of experiments, the effects of Coriolis Force on, and on either side of, the Equator. Our guide demonstrated water flowing anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern hemisphere and directly down on the Equator. I'm a bit dubious about the validity of these "experiments" as the Coriolis force is not strong enough to have that much of an effect. Having said that, I still couldn't figure out how he did these! He also demonstrated how, in the absence of Coriolis force on the equator, we could balance an egg on a nail (3 out of 4 of us did this and were given a certificate), and also how our resistance was less on the line than on either side of it! All good fun!
Divided by the equator
At Mitad del Mundo, standing on either side of the supposed Equator line.
I've since read that the true Equator varies by between 9 metres north and south every year, so there is no way these experiments were valid. But it's a fascinating place to visit nevertheless. Quito's Old Town
With attractions like Mitad del Mundo and Ecuador's jungles, volcanoes and beaches so accessible, you might expect many people to ignore the city of Quito, but there much to see here too, especially in the old town area, one of Ecuador's four UNESCO world heritage sites.
Most tourist hotels and hostels in Quito are located in Mariscal Sucre (aka Gringo Land) in the new town, an area full of hotels, Internet cafes, restaurants, but lacking the historic sights of the old town. We chose to stay in San Blas instead, an area bordering the new and old towns. Our first hotel was The Secret Garden, recommended by many guide books and by lots of travellers too. On the plus side it's in a great location & has fantastic views of town from the rooftop terrace, we met some very friendly people there and it was a good place to pick up information on Quito's sights. However, it was very noisy, quite
Basilica del Voto Nacional
View of Basilica del Voto Nacional with Volcan Pichincha in the background.
expensive for what you got, and run by gringos for gringos. If you're on a GAP year, only want to meet fellow backpackers and get drunk every night you'll love it. Otherwise try Hostal San Blas one street to the north.
The architects of the old town of Quito seem to have worked on the principle of fitting as many spectacular churches and buildings into as small an area as possible. Our favourite sight in this area was the Gothic style Basilica del Voto Nacional, one of the most recognisable and photographed churches in the city, as it stands on a hill above the old town. There were steep spires, high bell towers and gargoyles of iguanas and turtles. It reminded me a little bit of Notre Dame in Paris. We climbed right to the top of the towers via steep and scary ladders and had great views over the city. Even better was the climb in the bell tower - after reaching the top you could climb out on to a narrow ledge where there was nothing below you and the ground. We loved it though I wouldn't recommend it if you don't like heights.
Summit of Corazon from the early part of our hike.
were some Americans working in Quito as volunteers. We later bumped into them in the Jesuit Church - Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus - where they kindly invited us to join their tour. The guide gave us a very informative tour about the history of the church and, in particular about Mariana de Jesus, one of Ecuador's three Saints. She gave her life so that the people of Quito would be spared earthquakes and diseases.
Once you've had enough of all the churches and museums, it's nice to just sit back in a cafe and watch the people and listen to the noises of Quito. By day the streets of Quito are always noisy, with no one louder than the street vendors, whose sales strategy seems to be to mention what they are selling rapidly every few seconds in as loud a voice as possible. I'm not sure if it's works or if it's worth the strain they put on their voice, but it's a tactic copied by all salespeople in the country. A quick high in Quito
Quito's teleferico takes you quickly up the slopes of Volcan Pichincha, the mountain overlooking the city from the west.
Guinea Pigs at Mitad del Mundo.
The journey up in the cable car takes about 15 minutes, and on a clear day this is a great place for views of the whole city. You can see how Quito's expansion east and west has been limited by the volcanoes, but how it seems to stretch endlessly from north to south. Cruz Loma (4100m) is the final stop on the teleferico journey - at this point you're so high above the city that it's very hard to pick out individual things - it all looks so uniform. There are cafes, restaurants and viewing points at Cruz Lomo, as well as hiking opportunities to the mountain summit, Ruca Pichincha (4600). We hadn't prepared to hike to the summit as supposedly it's a prime target area for muggers. In the words of the British Foreign Office:
We strongly advise against visiting the top of the "Teleferico" (cable car), where there have been several cases of rape and armed robbery involving foreign tourists, including a British national.
This seems a little exaggerated to us, or perhaps the danger has passed, as plenty of people were walking to the summit from Cruz Loma. We hiked in that direction for about an hour before turning back - the summit was covered in clouds anyway so we didn't miss too much.
On the subject of safety, crime is perhaps the
Close up of the vultures on Basilica del Voto Nacional.
biggest concern for visitors to Quito. The man running The English Bookshop
in the Mariscal told us that in his view about 75%!o(MISSING)f visitors to Quito get mugged. We were told not to travel on the Troles (trams) as crime was so rampant that the average cost of a journey was said to be 15 dollars! And even other backpackers we met had been robbed in broad daylight. Our experience of Quito was completely different. We travelled on the Trole, we walked in both the old and new towns in the evenings, and overall it seemed safe enough to me so long as you took normal big city precautions. Volcan Corazon
There's plenty of choices should you want to get high in Ecuador, though if you want to get really high you'll probably have to pay lots for the privilege. Settling for a smaller buzz, Ruth and I decided to try and add another 4000 metre peak to our list, in the shape of Volcan Corazon, an extinct volcano near the town of Machachi to the south of Quito. This may not be quite as daunting a task as nearby Cotopaxi (5897m) but at 4798m Corazon is no
Summit of Corazon
Behind us and all around us is a lot of cloud!
walk in the park either.
To do this in one day we had to wake at 5:30am, leave Quito by 7:00 and arrived in Alausi (just east of Machachi) before 9:00 am. We had no real map of the route though the summit was visible for most of the hike, and many of the friendly locals were more than happy to point out the way near the start. Our starting altitude was 3100 which meant we faced a rather daunting ascent of almost 1700 metres.
The skies were completely clear that morning and we had views of all the nearby volcanoes - the landscape was simply stunning. We followed the path up through farmland and forest to about 3500 metres before the path became much steeper, the air thinner and our rests more frequent! Our progress was slow but steady and we reached the saddle below the summit after 5 hours. By now we were struggling with the altitude, we were slightly behind schedule and the clear skies had turned cloudy. It's scary how quickly the clouds can roll in on these volcanoes. We scrambled up towards the summit, which always seemed just beyond reach - when we
Breakfast in The Secret Garden
Ruth enjoying breakfast on the rooftop cafe in The Secret Garden hostel.
finally reached the summit ridge (which we initially thought was the summit) we could do no more and decided to go back. I reckon we reached a false summit about 50 metres short of the highest point. However, we were well behind schedule, the clouds by this stage surrounded us, and we wanted to get back safely. In fact, one British backpacker died on the descent of Corazon a few years back so it can be a dangerous peak. Had we stayed in the area we would probably have made the top but we had to get back to Quito that evening. Moving on...
By the end of our stay in Quito we had grown to really like the city, more so than any other South American capital we've seen since Buenos Aires. It would take a long time to see a city this size, not to mention all the surrounding sights outside the city, so in our week here we've only scratched the surface of Ecuador's capital. But we'll be back again...someday!
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