Ecuador – the home of Incas and other indigenous tribes, Spanish Colonial architecture, Panama hats, volcanos, the equator, great cities and scenery – Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott set out to explore. This is the first of their reports.
Jackie had been eagerly anticipating standing on the Equator. A couple of years or so earlier we had been thrilled to stand on the Tropic of Capricorn in Argentina, but to stand on the Equator. Wow.
Sadly, we wished we hadn’t bothered. For both of us the visit to the Intinan Solar Museum was one of the biggest of disappointments. A rather disappointing monument in a small overcrowded space, surrounded by somewhat uninspiring huts featuring ethnic displays, the whole experience verging almost on a tacky theme park, but without the rides.
We left hurriedly. But at least we had stood at Latitude 0˚.
There is another monument fairly close-by but evidently the massive Mitad del Mundo monument stands a few metres off the true line, not altogether surprising bearing in mind it was erected long before GPS came into being.
Time to acclimatise
We had flown into Quito airport a day or so earlier, but to give us more time to acclimatise to the altitude, recover from the long haul flight and see some of the surrounding countryside, we had opted to stay at the delightful Hacienda Cusin for three nights. For one of us it was love at first – for the other it took a little longer.
How could anybody not love Hacienda Cusin with its beautiful grounds, friendly staff always happy to laugh with us and where nothing was too much trouble, where the food was good, fires blazed in the comfortable public rooms and even our bedrooms had wood burning stoves, where hot water bottles were tucked into our beds each evening, and where Enrique made pretty good cocktails.
Otavalo market – crowded but fun
Eminently more entertaining, but equally as overcrowded as our Equator experience, had been the previous day’s visit to Otavalo market.
It attracts buyers and sellers from all over Ecuador. The best day to be there is a Saturday. Get there very early, like 6am, if you want to watch the locals buying and selling animals.
But be warned if you are an animal lover you might find it a tad distressing and prefer to delay your visit until later in the day: or just concentrate on the Textiles and Handicraft market where street upon street is lined with stalls displaying textiles, jewellery, handicrafts, kitchen ware, ceramics, medicines and food.
It is noisy, chaotic fun, and picturesque too with many of the indigenous stall holders wearing their colourful native dress. Don’t forget to barter if you see something you want to buy!
En route to Otavalo
Whilst we were en route for Otavalo Cristian, our guide for that day, had taken us on a general sightseeing tour. We were glad he did, it is such a pretty area.
We started off with a quick stop to admire beautiful San Pablo lake; a lake with its own special eco-system, and also noted for its water sports. Its banks are fringed by reeds used by the local communities for weaving into handicrafts such as mats and baskets. We stopped on the road side at San Rafael to watch some of them being made.
Lunch was taken high above the stunningly beautiful crater lake of Cuicocha at the family run Mirador Restaurant atop one of the hills – a wonderful vantage point. Our simply cooked dishes of chicken and lake fish were excellent and good value. The Mirador also offers rooms for overnight stop-overs.
Evidently in the past Cristian had led hikes round the lake – it takes about four to five hours – he said. We decided to save that for another visit!
Shoes and coffee in Cotacachi
He lost us for a brief time in Cotacachi. It’s an attractive little town much loved by ex-pat Americans for its leisurely pace of life and good shopping: its speciality leather goods. There are lots of shoe and bag shops.
We didn’t find any shoes to suit but Cristian did introduce us to the welcoming and relaxing Rio intag Café at Imbabura 863 y Parque San Francisco serving seriously good coffee plus great cakes. You’ll recognise it by its funky entrance.
Heading for Quito
Early the next morning it was Raúl Carrión who picked us up from the Hacienda to drive us to Quito. He was to guide us for the next seven days, quickly becoming not only our guide, but also a valued friend and mentor.
La Ronda district hotel
It didn’t take very long to reach Quito and soon we were checking into the welcoming embrace of the Casona de la Ronda hotel in the historic district La Ronda, within easy walking distance of the city centre and close to Plaza Santa Domingo.
It was originally an old colonial home dating back to 1738 and has been beautifully restored and converted into the boutique hotel it is today.
We loved the plant bedecked landings, our comfortable rooms and the comfy little lounge with complimentary afternoon tea/coffee and cookies.
On the hotel’s doorstep a long narrow curving cobbled street; a street that has had a chequered life – not always for the best – but today is a fascinating mix of little galleries, artisan shops and restaurants.
Quito – the second highest capital in the world
The historic heart of Quito is fairly compact and you can get a good feel for it in a day. Nevertheless it is so crammed with churches and monasteries and wonderful Spanish colonial buildings you do need longer.
Raúl started our introductory tour of Quito, the world’s first UNESCO heritage site, in the glorious golden ornate baroque interior of La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.
Seemingly every inch of ornamentation is covered in gold leaf or gilded plaster – Raúl reckons some seven tons of gold leaf.
From there he led us to the Plaza de la Independencia so we could watch the changing of the guard ceremony outside the Government Palace.
This is a truly impressive affair which takes place every Monday at 11am lasting about 30 minutes and involving a band, plus immaculate marching foot and cavalry soldiers.
Whilst we waited he told us a little about Quito’s history. The original site had been inhabited by indigenous peoples for centuries, and actually takes its name from one of the tribes – the Quitus. During the latter part of the 15th century the Incas had conquered the area with Quito becoming its capital. It was only for a comparatively short time however, as invading Spanish troops were drawing closer. To save the city from falling into enemy hands the Inca ruler had it razed to the ground.
Nevertheless the Spanish rebuilt the city using much of rubble hence traces of Inca stonework are still visible to this day in the Cathedral and San Francisco church.
In the early 19th century Ecuador’s struggle for independence began and in 1830 Quito became the capital of the new Republic of Ecuador.
San Francisco Church and Monastery
Raúl introduced us to the twin-bell towered church and monastery of San Francisco, built by the Spanish 1536-8.
Behind the façade we discovered a vast complex of buildings and courtyards including the church with its rich, highly ornate baroque ornamentation and a stunning carved ceiling. It too has a lot of gold leaf. The museum by the way houses a magnificent collection of religious artworks and furniture.
Surrounding the plaza are shops many of them selling good quality items such as Panama hats (Casa Montecristi), jewellery , Equadorian chocolate and handicrafts.
Centro Cultural Metropolitano
Later we admired the lovely cloisters of the Museo de la Ciudad and learnt a little more about Quito’s history from the artefacts on display, before turning our attention to the splendid Centro Cultural Metropolitano.
The Centro Cultural Metropolitano houses a number of temporary exhibitions featuring Ecuadorian and Latin American art. It further endeared itself to us with its covered, inner patio with, in one corner, a good restaurant/café. The service was good, the meal tasty, and good value. We liked it so much we went back the next day.
A modern shopping mall
On our second day we took a taxi out to the modern section of the city. Our taxi dropped us off at Mal El Jardin, a modern and very pleasant shopping mall, with a great book shop (Mr Books).
We had hoped to find a shop that could help Jackie with a problem she was having with her mobile phone. We did find one, but unfortunately not even the very helpful assistant and Google Translate could resolve the problem.
Really we needed an extra day in Quito.
There was so much more we could have seen – more churches and museums plus wonderful atmospheric old streets. If we had had time we would have loved to have taken the TelefčriQo – the cable car – up the Pichincha volcano. We were told that the city views and the sight of the 14 volcanoes that make up the Avenue of the Volcanoes are spectacular.
Luckily Raúl fearing we might not have time for the cable car, drove us up to the El Panecillo vantage point high above Quito so that we could see his city spread out below us, and admire the massive winged statue of La Virgen del Panecillo that we could see floodlit each night from our hotel bedroom windows.
The Quiteños are kind, fun loving, friendly folk. One day when we were returning to our hotel I had taken a wrong turning and got us moderately lost. We were rescued by a policeman who realised that the only way of getting us back on track was to escort us. He did, only leaving us when I could actually see the hotel.
There were the women in the ladies dress shops who became new best friends, even when we left without buying anything; and countless others who cheerfully helped us during our visit.
Visit organised by: Holiday Architects – multi-award-winning tailor-made tour operator holidayarchitects.co.uk
Ecuador Guide: Raúl Carrión email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We stayed at: Hacienda Cusin: haciendacusin.com
Our thanks to all the staff, and especially Valeria, Enrique, Pablo and the two Hectors.
Casona de la Ronda: lacasonadelaronda.com. Our thanks to all the staff and especially Sami, Lilly, Maria, Eddie, Bryan, Omah, and not forgetting Edgar and his excellent omelettes.