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April 3rd 2015
Published: June 12th 2017
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Geo: -0.223151, -78.5127

We had closed the blackout curtains in the room in a fit of optimism for the weather. We took our sole advantage of an opportunity to sleep in, and when we pulled back that shades a little before 8:00am we were delighted to see bright blue skies. This day was on our own, and while we had originally talked of booking a private tour for the day, we ultimately elected to go on our own. Among our primary goals for the day was to take the Teleferico cable car, which brings people high above the city for 360-degree views over the plateau. It only runs, however, in good weather, which evidently means it is closed more than it is open. The severity of thunderstorms in the area puts it at particular risk. Upon seeing the bright sun, we threw on clothes and headed down to breakfast. We were pleased and surprised to run into nearly the entirety of our tour group in the breakfast lounge. We chatting and compared experiences from the previous day and plans for the day. It was a much more fitting farewell than had been our hurried affair in the hotel lobby the day before.

We grabbed a taxi outside the hotel and managed to reach the Teleferico base station by 9:15am, only a few minutes after they'd opened for the day. There were a few people ahead of us in line, including three local men wearing immense backpacks. We later learned that those were in fact parachute packs, as they were base jumpers who were going to ride up top on the gondola, ride motorcycles to the far side of the peak, and the jump and coast into the far side of the valley. No thank you!

The ride to the top took about 15 minutes, and we gained another 1,500 ft in elevation, bringing us up to 14,500 ft, or more than two and half miles above sea level. We had all started to take altitude medicine again a couple of days earlier, but it was still challenging to get enough oxygen. There is a six-hour hike available from the landing site, but we elected to only do one short piece, to a far lookout, and even that we took very deliberately and with frequent "air breaks."

The skies were for the most part clear, but clouds still masked the summit of Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. It sits about 50 miles south of Quito at an elevation of more than 20,000 ft. Alas, we could not see the peak. A local was kind enough to tell us where it should be, but that's as close as we got.

By the time we rode back down to the bottom, the line to buy tickets stretched outside of the pavilion. It was a national holiday (Good Friday) and the weather was spectacular, so the locals were out in droves. Some friends from the tour had visited Teleferico the previous afternoon, and made it down at dusk. They'd told us their harrowing tale of reaching the ticket pavilion, which was closed and there were no taxis in sight. They resigned to taking a local bus and ended up pretty lost. My worries of a similar plight disappeared as we could see a queue of taxis outside the gate.

Our next goal was to get down to the Old City, where there was to be a huge parade of cucuruchos. We had read about the Good Friday ceremony as one of the "must sees" of Ecuador, which was another reason we had elected to extend our stay a day. The cucuruchos tradition grew out of the Spanish Inquisition, when those condemned to death were forced to wear purple robes and "shame cones." This grew into a ceremony to mark Good Friday and Christ's walk of condemnation. It was brought to the new world in the 1600's and persists to this day. People wearing robes and hoods -- looking strikingly like Klu Klux Klan outfits -- of purple, white, or black. The overwhelming numbers are purple. Men, women, and children then march in a multi-kilometer-long parade through the old town, following people wrapped in barbed wire, wearing real crowns of thorns, and/or carrying huge crosses through the streets. The taxi driver drove us as close to the old city as possible, but most of it was closed off by throngs of police for the ceremony. We had only to walk a couple of blocks before K first caught sight of a purple line of people coming down the hill, on the far side of the city. We walked toward them and soon realized it was the leading edge of the parade. We reached a point at which they turned down one of the cathedrals, and watched in morbid curiosity for about 10 minutes as people thronged past; many of them were using barbed wire and thorns on their bodies, as well as whipping themselves, which was a bit much to watch.

Having decided we'd seen enough, we tried to figure out a way to reach the plaza square that did not involve having to cross the parade path, which zig-zagged through the old city. We walked up and down several steep streets and managed to come in on the far flank of the parade, where we found a beautiful restaurant in one of the inner courtyards and had a very nice lunch. We took our time, but when we emerged the parade was still going on, more than three hours after it began. With all the roads closed, it involved asking help from several police men and soldiers before we reached a side street with some traffic, where we were able to flag down a taxi after about 5 minutes of waiting.

We all took a quick power nap. Anna was working on packing and repacking her suitcase when K and I decided to grab a taxi and go over to visit the botanical gardens, about which she had read. Again, because of the climate and lack of seasons, Ecuador has a tremendous variety of flowers, including more than 6,000 types of orchids. These are what K was most interested in seeing. The botanical gardens are located within a much larger park in a posh newer part of the city, not too far from our hotel. It was not crowded and we had plenty of time to walk through the elaborate eco-system displays and huge orchid greenhouses. I had made a big production of taking all the rain gear out of my backpack when we left the hotel, as it was clear and sunny and I was tired of carrying it all. Anna warned me that I was tempting fate, and that went through my mind as we watched the skies darken very quickly. Convinced we were going to be inundated, we both heaved a big sigh of relief when the storm passed to the south, leaving us unscathed.

We stopped by a large mall on the side of the park which had to be the fanciest mall I have ever visited. This was clearly the area of town where the monied Ecuadorians live, as it was three stories of Cartier, Hermes, Tiffany, etc. Very unexpected.

For dinner we went to a unique bistro around the corner from the hotel, which was also a theater for avant garde shows. We arrived too early for the performance, which was fine, and the meal was quite good. We all split a pretty amazing crepe dessert that served as a perfect top-off for the whole trip.

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