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Published: September 29th 2015
It was a short journey from the border to Quito: about five hours. That this is now for us a short bus trip because it can be done without taking an overnighter is testament to the distances we have chosen to travel between places across this incredibly expansive region of the world. Nonetheless, in those five short hours, it was incredible to witness the almost instantaneous transformation of the landscape between southern Colombia and northern Ecuador. Despite political boundaries often bearing little relevance to the geography of an area, there was a distinct change in the contours of the hills and the hue of greens across their distant ridges. When there was green, that was. Dull brown hillsides were prevalent the length of the highway to Quito, once having had trees but felled for something very important like economic prosperity no doubt.
On arriving into Quito we decided to find a taxi to take us to the house of our Couchsurfing host, Maurizio. The system is not immediately obvious within the bus station where we alighted and so, looking confused, we became prey for unlicensed taxis. We were approached by a man who seemed eager to give us a lift
but whose friendliness changed very quickly after we refused to get into his obviously private car. A couple of minutes later and we were jumping into a vehicle that at least made an effort to look like a real taxi but upon reflection very obviously wasn't due to having a non-functioning security camera sellotaped to the inside of the cab and no license details on show. After about 40 minutes the driver did get us to where we needed to go though so it wasn't a big problem.
Maurizio lives near Parque La Carolina, a very modern part of the city complete with expensive cafes and US-style shopping malls as well as the aforementioned public park. We arrived on a Sunday, often Latin America's day of community and leisure, so we saw all sorts of picnicing, skateboarding, lovers' kissing, footballing, and many other sunny Sunday afternoon pursuits throughout La Carolina, and it gave a very modern and urban introduction to the city. Maurizio's flat is a modern third floor apartment home to not only himself but his Polish wife, Martha, as well as two cats. (We have yet to stay with a host with a dog - clearly Couchsurfers
are cat people.) Martha was in Europe visiting family at the time so it was just Maurizio and us. Already late afternoon, we decided to go to the local supermarket to grab some food and retire with an early evening.
A few people had mentioned to us that Ecuador is a cheap place but its use of the US dollar as official currency seems to belie that. Looking at the prices of items in Supermaxxi, the major supermarket in the country, showed basics such as rice and onions to be notably more expensive here than in Colombia. Compared to US or UK prices they are cheap, of course (except imported products), but balanced against the countries of Latin America we have visited, Ecuador is averagely priced for travellers backpacking and cooking their own food. We also discovered whilst shopping and attempting to buy a six-pack of Club Negra that the country has a ban on alcohol sales during Sundays in an attempt to curb people skipping work on Monday mornings (Maurizio's explanation) or maybe because of the christian value of Sundays. Much like the "ley seca" we experienced in Chiapas just before the elections, this seems an arbitrary and
wholely pointless law to have but its in place so there you go. We got the food we needed and headed back through La Carolina to the flat where we had a night of chatting with Maurizio and another Couchsurfer, a woman from England staying for just the night.
The next day we headed into Quito's famous downtown area, which at 300 city blocks in size is reputed to have the largest extant colonial centre in all of Latin America. I have said before that colonial architecture has become much of a muchness for me now; it alone is no longer a draw to a city and, with the exception of Colombia's Mompox, the architecture no longer strikes me as it did when first travelling through Mexico. This has not changed. However Quito's old town is a beautiful looking place where the buildings have been kept in incredibly good condition whilst still being used for day to day activities. That it is not only the largest colonial town but also the highest capital city in the world definitely makes it unique.
Our first proper day in the city and we hit upon the "changing of the guard", a
very pompous affair held in the main square outside of the city hall and involved ceremonial soldiers dressed like stereotypical toy soldiers parading on foot and on horse whilst the President gave a booming speech about country and democracy and all that. E and I sat out the front of a cafe by the side of the square watching the proceedings, slightly bemused but soaking in the atmosphere of a square packed out with both locals and tourists. Afterwards we wandered the streets for a few hours, heading up the to Basílica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow) that towered above a vast portion of the old town. Like Las Lajas this building has gothic architecture and beautiful stained glass windows but unlike the Colombian church this building is huge - the largest with gothic architecture throughout the Americas, I later found out. It is possible to pay a couple of dollars and head up the belfry tower but, given E's ankle and my general lack of interest in going up another tower, we decided to skip it and instead hunted for some postcards. After this we headed back to the central plaza and continued exploring the old
streets furthermore, in the process coming across a tiny little kitten hanging out on a window ledge. The street sellers standing nearby offered to sell the kitten to us and, lovely though it was, we declined basically because we had already decided back in Mexico that rescuing animals by taking them with us would be incredibly difficult for both us and the creature.
The following day we decided to head to the Teleferico, a cable car that ascends from the edge of Quito into the volcanic ridges bordering the city. Having had a great time with L and E on the cable car above Bogotá, I knew this would be great fun. Being a famous tourist attraction in the city I arrived expecting long queues and stuffed carriages but as it turned out by turning up early on a mid-week morning we hit it during a quiet period with literally nobody else queueing for tickets. Grabbing a car to ourselves, we settled into the 15 minute ride to the top.
There is something about this ride that is better appreciated on the way up or down than from the bottom or the top: the size of Quito. As
we slid our way upwards to Pichincha Volcano the full size of the city became stunningly evident. Though its square meterage is not that great compared to, say, LA or London, as an very narrow city running north to south it stretched from horizon to horizon. When we arrived into Quito the bus terminal was located in the far north of the city; it was amazing to be able to see that the 40 minute taxi journey to Maurizio's place took us barely 1/5th the length of the city. Even the historic downtown no longer represented the geographical centre, with the southern part of the city extending far into the valleys beyond visible distance. To see such overwhelming numbers of roads and buildings was impressive.
At the top was something equally impressive though in a very differeny way. Pichincha is apparently an active volcano, something we didn't know at the time, though one that hasn't erupted in many years. Its height above an already high-up city place sit at almost 5000m above sea level. It is possible to walk to this peak from the Teleferico station, there being a well-trodden path leading out of the terminal and up into
the peaks, but E and I decided to walk just a few minutes to the foot of the peaks and enjoy the view from there. Parts of it reminded me of the Cornish countryside, particularly the coastal path leading out of Falmouth, but most of it was scrub and grass waving fiercely in the mountain wind. From here there was almost no man-made noises to be heard and, interestingly, few animals noises too. Just the roar of the wind and the infrequent human passersby on their way into the peaks. We spent an hour or so up there before returning to city level, spending more time in the historic centre, and returning to Maurizio's.
Our third and final full day in Quito saw us heading to the Mitad del Mundo - middle of the world. Unsurprisingly, Ecuador is situated on the equator, and the line itself passes a few miles north of Quito. Following instructions from the internet, we rode a couple of public buses out to the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo and hopped off when the unmissably large building complete with national flags from around the world appeared outside of the window. Before arriving I was naïve enough
to expect maybe a plaque in the ground or a fancy stick or something but what we arrived at was a fully comprehensive complex containing restaurants, gift shops, museums, statues and sculptures, and of course a gigantic obelisk marking the equatorial centre.
Except it doesn't. Not only is the equator in fact a five kilometre wide zone banding the Earth, owing to the shifting of the Earth's axis over the years, but the monument itself was placed by its French builders several hundred metres away from the central point. Meanwhile the geographical middle, found and marked by the indigenous population several centuries previous, goes unheralded outside of the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo complex. Perhaps that is for the best. Nonetheless the "city" itself is an interesting place for a few hours. The obelisk at the centre is hollow and contain a museum exploring not only the planetary science about the equator - including both information and interactive displays refuting the urban legend about water swirling one way in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere - but brief introductions to the numerous indigenous cultures that lived and still live throughout Ecuador. This was, by far, the most interesting portion of the place.
The same evening we headed to Quito's incredibly shiny new bus terminal in the southern portion of the city. We caught a very crowded bus from Maurizio's flat to the central terminal, a roughly 20 minute journey when there is minimal traffic, and from there took a second bus to Terminal Quitumbe. This bus took approximately an hour and a quarter to get to the southern terminal though on a good traffic day it reportedly takes about an hour. That means the northern to southern bus terminal is apprximately two hours by public bus, and even then it is far from being in the far south of the city. Crazy! Nonetheless we got to the terminal early, bought our tickets for an overnight bus to the coastal city of Manta and sat down to wait for its arrival.
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