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Published: October 29th 2008
Basilica del Voto Nacional
Cuenca airport was so small that I thought the taxi driver was dropping me off at a warehouse, and I was only convinced he wasn't having me on when I saw the first of the 8 check-in desks. The flight to Quito was cloud the entire way, with not even one Ande, let alone a whole range of them, visible.
The airport pick-up for my hostal in Quito never materialised, and this, plus the non-existent wifi (contrary to the description on their website), dwarven room (I had to stoop in order to negotiate it without injury), and brazen attempt by the owner to scam me out of my deposit, led me to check out the following morning. My second abode was average but even there the owner was intent on pushing tours for which he would get a commission rather than ones that matched my interests and budget, leading me to abandon hope of finding somewhere decent. The on-site Japanese restaurant served some monstrous onigiri that softened my initial negative sentiments about the place.
This behaviour was totally in keeping with Quito New Town, the enclave of the city hosting much of its tourist accommodation in addition to numerous
tour agencies, craft stores, and overpriced gringo bars and restaurants. Food and drink prices often don't include a 12% tax and a 10% service charge, ratcheting up bills even higher. The whole area simply reeked of a tourist trap but, strangely, there didn't seem to be that many tourists around. My favourite establishment was the Chelsea bar in Plaza Foch, which nightly showed an excellent selection of disco videos including more Boney M than I could have ever dreamed of.
Quito had the similar variety of ethnicities that I'd noticed further south in the country, with Chinese being an obvious additional contingent - it was strange seeing the hanzi characters for "Internet cafe" dotted about the place. Many of the hairdressers bore the legend "Made in Colombia" on their store signs, and I could only assume that Colombian hairdressers have a reputation in Ecuador worth boasting about.
At this time of year, the weather pattern in Quito seems to be sun in the morning then cloud and/or rain in the afternoon so you need to time your sightseeing. Though the New Town has the lion's share of the tourist services, the Old Town is by far the more
Plaza de la Independencia
picturesque of the two areas. It was pleasant enough walking the 45 minutes between the New and Old Towns, with the crowded public transport not appealing. The Old Town was more of the colonial buildings, squares, and religious constructions that I've been seeing for the last few months though there were 2 standouts.
The Jesuit church of La Compania, the pinnacle of Baroque architecture in Ecuador, had all the reserve of a Buddhist temple - a mass of detailed stonework on the outside, and a riot of gold leaf-covered woodwork and paintings in the interior. I particular liked the 2 spiral staircases on either side of the entrance - one real and one a trompe l'oeil painting. There was even a helpful magnifying mirror near the altar so that you could admire the art on the ceiling without cricking your neck.
And, secondly, the Basilica del Vota Nacional may have been built of concrete, but its Gothic styling and details of local creatures made it more interesting than some of the older churches.
Quito Old Town also provided me with something that I've searched unsuccessfully for in umpteen stores between Lima and here, namely insoles for my
Basilica del Voto Nacional
hiking boots. Bizarrely, I finally found them on a street vendor's stall whose ONLY product was insoles. Of course, they're not odour-eating ones so my boots will still honk, but at least they should fit a little better.
Quito has a bad reputation for petty crime and one reason why became apparent when I started making enquiries about tours to El Oriente (Ecuador's portion of the Amazon basin) and the Galapagos. Credit card commissions are high here (4% or more) and, with many credit card companies already charging a 3% commission for usage of their cards outside of their home country, it makes financial sense to pay cash. However with tours of El Oriente and the Galapagos generally running into hundreds and thousands of dollars respectively, there are a lot of gringos floating around who are well worth robbing. To counter this, there's a level of security (both police and armed guards employed by bars/restaurants/shops) that's notably large even by South American standards. Even so, when I took out my camera to take some photos in a fairly public place, a local woman warned me to hold on tight to it.
In fact I had heard and read
so many warnings about Quito that I had actually started wearing my moneybelt, which had been idling at the bottom of my rucksack for nearly 3 years. Into my pockets went some small notes and expired cards as a sop to any pickpockets/muggers, and I kept an even closer eye on my surroundings than I normally do.
Thus it was a bit of bummer that Quito was the first city on my travels where I was to be a victim of crime. A meeting at about 10PM on a deserted street between me and 3 local men resulted in me having my trousers ripped beyond repair as they attempted to get to my moneybelt, the superhero powers that I have in my imagination sadly not translating to any useful martial arts ability in real life. My moneybelt was also broken, the $50 in it taken, and I was left shaken, angry, and embarrassed, yet still in possession of my passport and ATM/credit cards without which my impending trip to the Galapagos (less than 36 hours distant) would have been impossible given I'd only been left with $1.06. Annoyingly, I had even seen these guys about 10 seconds before the
incident happened, however they had been chatting with a security guard hence I assumed there was nothing untoward about the situation. Needless to say, the security guard had magically disappeared from the scene when I finally got up off the ground. I then remembered that an English expat I'd been talking to just days before had said he would never go down that particular street at night and that there were serial criminals in the area whose identity was well-known to all. This was 1 block from my hostal, and 1 block from Plaza Foch, the main bar/restaurant area in the New Town. The people at my hostal were sympathetic, with the reception guy saying he'd been mugged 3 times and now carried his money in his shoe. Even the cleaning lady had been robbed at knifepoint.
From Quito, I made trips to El Oriente (the part of the Amazon basin in Ecuador's borders) and the Galapagos Islands, both blogged separately.
And I only returned to the capital when I had plans for a quick exit out.
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