Quirky Quito

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August 24th 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: -0.223151, -78.5127

We were up early to embark on a walking tour of the city with our new travel buddies, Mark and Helen, and jumped in a taxi to the offices of Carpe Diem who were giving the tour. En route, I managed to speak enough pigeon Spanish to the driver to keep us entertained for the short ride into the city centre, passing by numerous monuments that he enthusiastically pointed out to us - the hospital his son was born in, the central local market and the mountains surrounding the city.

After a short walk from the offices, we arrived at the imposing Basilica Church, one of the major landmarks of the city which can be seen from all over, standing as it does on the brow of a huge hill, its twin towers climbing into the sky. Our guide pointed out the gargoyles that decorated the facade of the church - not the traditional gurning faces seen on barque churches that this one took its inspiration from, but local versions that represent the diverse fauna of Ecuador. Penguins, giant tortoises, iguanas, albatrosses, jaguars, condors and turtles leapt out of the stonework above us, the sky a brilliant blue behind. We toured the outside of the church, appreciating its unfinished state (it was officially opened by Pope John Paul II despite being still incomplete and it is said that when the building is finished, the world will end).

Suddenly realising the time, we dashed through the steep streets, remembering by our shortness of breath that we were once again at altitude, and made our way past incredible balconies and ornate frontages of brightly coloured buildings to the main square, where we would be able to witness the changing of the guard, which only happens once a week on a Monday. Fortunately, we only missed the very beginning of the ceremony and arrived just in time to see the mounted cavalry enter the square to great fanfares by the brass band that had marched in ahead of us. Dressed in the traditional blue and gold battle uniform of the soldiers who fought for, and won, independence from the Spanish, the guards stepped around the square in time, the blue, yellow and red of the Ecuadorian flags held proudly aloft on huge lances. A large crowd was gathered and we heard an announcement on the loudspeaker, at which point the assembled locals all looked towards the balcony of the imposing palace that made up one edge of the square. Here, a group of officially dressed men and women were lined up, one man dressed more impressively than the rest and waving to the crowd. From the excitement of the people around us, we deduced that this was the president and the guide confirmed our suspicions. The crowd cheered and sang as the national anthem was blasted out by the band and the huge flag was raised above the palace. The entire ceremony lasted around half an hour, and we watched as the guards, mounted and walking, made their way out of the square to cheers and adulation from the crowd.

From here, we visited the sparse church built solely for the indigenous people, with its simple domes and peeling paint on the walls. We then made out way past the more luxurious and opulent Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. Watched over by security guards, the interior boasts some of the finest gilt decoration in the continent and is one of Quito's most famous monuments. Our next stop was the high balcony of the central library, where we were afforded excellent views out over the city. High above us on the hills, candy coloured houses climbed the mountainside, providing a beautiful carpet at the feet of the grand statue of the Virgin Mary that stands atop one of the many hills surrounding Quito. We were encouraged to visit the statue, but warned to stay away from the streets at her base - our guide explained that of the people who venture into the area, over 90% are victims of robbery. It was a sobering reminder of the crime rate of the city and one we needed. It was difficult to believe that the pretty houses could hide such a dark heart, but, she continued, the area was a like a mini favela - the feared slum areas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil - and one to be avoided.

A little unnerved by the combination of our guide's warning and the previous evening's encounter with the shadier side of Quito, we stayed rigidly on the tourist trail, visiting a beautiful juice bar en route the the Plaza San Francisco. We were able to choose our own mixtures from the delectable range of exotic fruit juices on offer, and slurped away happily as we came across the pretty square, backed by the huge stone Francisco monastery, here, our guide regaled is with details of secret tunnels beneath the city, linking the convent with the monastery and the sad tales of remains of embryos being found during excavations - a reminder of the forbidden relationships that existed between the two institutions.

We stopped for a while and enjoyed a delicious coffee in the sunshine while planning our next move - a taxi ride of the Mitad Del Mundo - the centre of the world and the adjacent Intinan museum, where we would be able to straddle the equator, something we had been eager to do since booking the trip. Our taxi dropped us off at the simple, but entertaining Intinan museum first, where we sat in the sunshine while waiting for our tour to be begin. Our guide led us around the museum complex, past different exhibits showing aspects of indigenous life. We encountered rainforest tribes and the animals that live in the area, including anacondas, constrictors and tarantulas, but saving the most terrifying for last - the tiny, ghastly penis fish that lives in the Amazon and swims up the urethra if you pass urine in the river, growing inside its new host until it is the size of a Polo packet - the offending creature pickled in a jar thrust under our noses so we could appreciate the true horror of its existence - until it has to be surgically removed.

More than a little queasy, we were unprepared for the sight of two shrunken heads - one a sloth, the other a twelve year old boy, the son of a tribal elder - and a blow by blow account of how the shrunken heads were achieved, the skin being removed from the skull and organs of the head, before being marinated in a special blend of herbs and placed around a hot stone and heated until the skin shrivelled to the size of the stone, becoming an amulet or trophy for the proud new owner. Unsure of what this was to do with the centre of the world, but morbidly fascinated by the ethnographic history of the indigenous people, we nodded palely and continued on the tour.

We passed through a couple more exhibits of life in the Amazon and then found ourselves at the equator line. This one is the "real" equator line, found recently using GPS, after it was discovered that the original line, created by triangulating mountains years ago, was inaccurate by around 200m. We enjoyed taking photos of ourselves with one foot in each hemisphere, before taking part in a series of experiments to show what happens to different forces on the equator. We enjoyed playing with the direction of water going down the plug hole - anti clockwise in the north, clockwise in the south and straight down at the equator line. We experimented with the gravity of an egg, balancing it more easily on a nail at the equator than in one of the hemispheres and enjoyed some strength activities, showing us that forces are weaker on the equator.

After playtime was over, we jumped back in our taxi and headed to the much drier original Mitad del Mundo, where we paid our entry fee and found ourselves staring at a huge obelisk with compass directions on each face and some dull information about the emblems underneath each large letter. It was, at best, uninspiring and I was glad we had done the other museum too. Of course, it was interesting to read about how the equator line was calculated in times with little technology, but we did feel cheated out of our dollars based on our experience, realising that it was basically a huge shopping complex, packed with overpriced generic artisan crafts, with one unimpressive monument at its heart. As we read the information boards as we left, we found out that all of the activities we had taken part in at the other museum were myths, and that the equator line is actually over 5km long, thus the experiments must have been illusions or tricks, somewhat tainting the experience we had had previously. Still, we had straddled the centre of the world and so we didn't let it dampen our spirits too much.

The taxi dropped us off at our new hotel - a stunning converted mansion with large gates concealing two wide stone staircases leading up to a beautiful colonial frontage. We were welcomed with cold towels, a cool drink and impeccable service, before being shown to our plush room complete with four popster bed - a stunning way to end our final five nights in Quito. Because of its relationship with one of the local chocolate manufacturers, the mansion smells deeply of chocolate, the toiletries, candles and incense are all chocolate and vanilla scents and the relaxing smells follow us where we we go in the property.

After a quick relax and freshen up, we met our Oxford chums for dinner in a micro brewery, where we enjoyed good conversation, artisan beer and lovely pizza before calling it a night ready for an early start to the hot springs together tomorrow. The streets were once again eerily deserted as our taxi drove us back to our hotel, adding to my confused feelings about Quito - it's such a gorgeous city, but the sense of unease is one I haven't felt in any other city when travelling. It's an incongruous juxtaposition of beauty and low-level threat that doesn't seem to sit together well at all.


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