Quito – exploring the city at last

Back in Quito after our many excursions, we decided to spend a couple of days soaking up the city and exploring the old town. First stop on the list was the teleferico, which the guidebook described as a sky tram but was actually a cable car.

Back in Quito after our many excursions, we decided to spend a couple of days soaking up the city and exploring the old town. First stop on the list was the teleferico, which the guidebook described as a sky tram but was actually a cable car. It’s around a ten minute ride to the top, where you can enjoy spectacular views of both the city and the surrounding countryside. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can trek even higher, but we decided to content ourselves with the view from the top of the teleferico.

View from the teleferico

Back on solid ground and we decided to head to the historical centre. A leisurely stroll took in all the major sites including the Plaza Grande with the Palacio del Gobierno and the city’s cathedral, as well as other churches and monasteries. Having seen our fair share of religious buildings (and not being religious at all) we decided to give the tours a miss and instead opted to admire the beautiful architecture from the sunny exterior instead.

Quito's architecture

En route, we found an excellent little local café serving Ecuadorian delights including empanadas, tamales (a sort of mashed corn steamed and served in a banana leaf) and quimbolitas (a sweet cake made of corn). Very yummy and also very cheap.

Cafe Modelo

After lunch we visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Here, you can climb the clock tower for more stunning views of Quito. To get to the clock tower, you have to walk across a rickety bridge, climb an incredibly steep ladder, then, once outside, climb two more (open) staircases, both of which are equally as steep as the first one, before you reach the top. Having managed the bridge and the first set of stairs, neither of us was brave enough to make it all the way. Trust me, it was pretty hairy looking – I don’t think they’ve heard of health and safety here at all, and we weren’t the only ones to give it a miss. We did, however, still manage to get some great shots from the halfway point.

View from Basilica del Voto Nacional

They also have some awesome gargoyles, representing all the different Ecuadorian animals. Not so much scary as cute…

Basilica del Voto Nacional

That evening we sampled some of the Quito nightlife around La Mariscal, stopping for a few cuba libres at the delightfully titled Dirty Sanchez bar before settling down in the Irish bar, Finn McCool’s for the England-Scotland rugby match (being shown at 2am). At half time, we finally headed home to bed. By now, we’d been in Quito for nearly a week in total and were about ready to move on to Tena, the final stop on our trip before heading into the jungle for a month of volunteering.

Mindo – Cloud forest and evil spiders

Just a two hour local bus from Quito through stunning mountains and we are deposited into a tiny town deep within Ecuadorian cloud forest. I think we will come to prefer the cloud forest to the jungle, it’s essentially a tropical jungle with persistent cloud cover, making the place rather wet yet very green.

We loved Mindo.  Just a two hour local bus from Quito through stunning mountains and we are deposited into a tiny town deep within Ecuadorian cloud forest. I think we will come to prefer the cloud forest to the jungle, it’s essentially a tropical jungle with persistent cloud cover, making the place rather wet yet very green.

Mindo

We had a hostel to ourselves about 5 minutes’ walk from town, a wooden chalet type place with hammocks and an incredible jungle garden out back, with hundreds of humming birds feeding throughout the day. We arrived late at night and the noise from the nearby jungle was incredible. Our room was fairly bug free, but outside insects of all types were circling, smelling fresh meat. We are getting used to being eaten by all manner of things on our trip and sitting in hammock outsides we casually pointed out things crawling and flying around us. It’s only a couple of weeks until we spend some time in the jungle so we have to get used to this.

Dog of the month ( it’s been a while )

75% fleas, 25% dog

Everybody gets up early in Mindo – 6 am is the norm. This place is a birdwatcher’s paradise. We like birds but not as much as the slightly creepy twitchers (the official term for fanatical bird watchers) we see around town.  Think Harold Shipman’s face behind binoculars, in a hat, with a big bird book. Pre-dawn is the best time to catch a glimpse of some rare birds.

We however, are on holiday, so get up around 8am. We are going to hike into the cloud forest and swim in some waterfalls before heading out to a butterfly farm. It’s about a 4km walk to the highest waterfall, so we catch a cab as far as possible up a dirt road – on holiday remember – promising ourselves we will walk back down.

The forest is stunning, moss covering almost every tree, and the fauna is almost alien. Walking down the path to the waterfall we come across a natural pool and take a dip. We also discover a manmade water slide cutting through the jungle, ending in a 2-3 metre drop into the plunge pool at the bottom of the waterfall. There is no one about to hear our screams so we give it a shot. The thing is fast, and we survive with only a couple of bleeding elbows.

Mindo waterfalls

The driver who dropped us off at the top of the mountain tells us of a better, more beautiful hike back down the mountain and gives us some sketchy details of the route.  What he didn’t tell us was the path was obviously abandoned some years back and although stunning involved a little bit of rope work in places. We didn’t get lost and found our way back to the main river, eventually working out how to use a dodgy hand-powered cable car thing to get across the river.

Who needs a guide? just climb down this bit...

 

A couple of hours in the butterfly farm and a beer later we are back in town as rain clouds start to build (as they do every day here around 6pm). It’s usual for it not to rain most of the evening.

Butterflies in Mindo

The town may wake at 6am but sleeps at 8pm. Restaurants start to close with only those with accommodation attached working late. It’s an early night, we are heading back to Quito tomorrow afternoon but not before we decide to walk our way up the mountain road again, feeling a little guilty about the taxi ride. En route we spot a green toucanette ( no picture )and cute red squirrel( no picture) and evil looking spider (below).

A little friend found on our walk...

This is another place we could easily have spent much more time, but we are on a schedule until our volunteering so back to Quito we go. But before we get on the bus I manage to shoot this video of the hummingbirds feeding in the back garden of our hostel. The first 3-4 minutes is in slo-mo, the last part is normal speed.

The equator, middle earth, no Hobbits.

You really can’t come to Ecuador without including a short visit to the actual equator, our next day trip out of Quito. It’s about a two hour trip to the San Antonio parish north of Quito on some great local buses.

You really can’t come to Ecuador without including a short visit to the actual equator, our next day trip out of Quito. It’s about a two hour trip to the San Antonio parish north of Quito on some great local buses.

In 1938 a 10 metre monument was erected to mark the centre of the earth (Mitad del Mundo). Unfortunately, they missed the mark somewhat and in 1979 it was moved 7km down the road. The area now is akin to an amusement park, with a museum, restaurants, and on Sundays, famous national musicians performing in a little amphitheatre. On the Sunday we arrived the place was rammed with locals signing along to a couple of celebrities. Loads of fun, but not a clue who they were.

I’m resisting posting the usual picture of me with one foot in each hemisphere, or a jump shot of me captured mid-air in front of the monument which was bizarrely popular. I don’t get the attraction of the jump shot photos, some cameras out here actually detect when you are at the optimal point in a jump and automatically take a photo.

Anyway, here is a photo of the equator itself, exciting stuff.

 

The equator, special stuff.

Amusingly, sometime in the 90’s, someone came here with one of those new-fangled GPS gizmos and discovered that the equator equations were miscalculated again (you think they would have checked after they had to move it the last time). Turns out that it’s actually about 300m down the road, but this time they’re not budging, the truth quietly ignored and dismissed as a dirty little secret.  Luckily for one local the real latitude 0’0”00 is in his back garden and he’s now making a tidy profit on the entrance to the “Real Mitad del Mundo”.

The "real" equator, equally special stuff.

This small attraction is well worth the visit. It’s padded out with some “authentic” tribal huts, dubious shrunken heads and completely idiotic scientific experiments which are supposed to show how magical the equator line is. For half an hour we were shown how water flows in different directions down a plug hole on either side of the equator (that’s nonsense by-the-way), how it’s possible to balance an egg on a pin here and how it’s easier to walk in a straight line. Hilarious, but not as hilarious as a group of young American teachers who were lapping this all up as fact. Worrying.

Shrunken head.

A great day, great local street food and laughs at the parlour tricks. Touristy as hell, but how could we miss the equator in Ecuador?

Otavalo – shopping at the Sunday market

After an eight hour bus journey from Guayaquil, we arrived at the bus terminal in Quito and hopped in a cab to our hostel. We’ve heard mixed reviews about the city – some say it’s a colonial delight, others warn about the risk of being robbed – but we’re here for a week or so whilst we visit various sights in the surrounding area as well as exploring the city’s own offerings.

We’re staying in a lovely colonial town house in the upmarket ‘La Floresta’ area, a ten minute walk from the busy ‘La Mariscal’ or ‘Gringolandia’ as the locals like to call it. Although it’s a hostel, it feels more like a homestay – we are sharing the bathroom with the owners and have to walk through their kitchen to get to ours. It’s strange at first, but after a few days it’s like a home from home.

Our first trip out of town is north to the Sunday market at Otavalo. Although we’ve been to our fair share of markets, we’d heard that it’s supposed to be one of the best, so we decided to check it out. Whilst some people stay overnight, or visit on one of the ridiculously overpriced tours, since it’s only a couple of hours from Quito we just hop on a local bus on the morning of the market.

Otavalo market

Otavalo itself is worth a quick wander round before heading to the market, with the usual colonial plazas and cute churches but I’m glad we didn’t spend any longer here. The market itself is well worth a visit. Although there are the usual llama jumpers and woolly hats that you’ll find in every South American town, there’s also a lot of stuff that you won’t have seen before. The prices are cheap too – Rich managed to get some half decent Panama hats for little more than $10 each and I picked up a gorgeous chunky knit wool hoodie for $25.

Woolly hats and balaclavas

The market is huge, and of course, after a while it can get a little repetitive but we managed to spend a good few hours wandering the stalls before getting bored. Of course, some of it is pure tourist crap, such as the numerous stalls selling dream catchers made of fluorescent, mass produced feathers, but there are some real gems and we came away with a few bagfuls of treasures including jewellery, a wooden figurine and even a bizarre rainbow balaclava type thing which has to be seen to be believed.

Roast pig

There’s also a food market and if you’re brave enough you can try the freshly roasted pig or the fried fish. If you’re feeling a little less adventurous there’s plenty of yummy fruit and veg as well as fresh bread, herbs and spices. We opted for a nicely ripe avocado and some bread rolls – at $2 both a delicious and cheap lunch for the bus home!

Fresh fruit and veg

Montanita – gringo surf central

Whilst Puerto Lopez remains remarkably underdeveloped, Montanita has quickly grown into a gringo-infested surfer town. The streets are lined with Western restaurants, serving nearly identical menus of international favourites, whilst the bars pump out pop music 24 hours a day. At the weekends, the locals come to party, but mid-week you’d be hard pressed to find many Ecuadorian faces, even amongst the bar staff. Sure, if you’re looking for somewhere to relax for a few days, it’s a nice enough place, but it’s certainly not what you would call authentic. Still, we were looking for somewhere to chill for a couple of days in relative comfort, so we couldn’t go far wrong here.

After dumping our bags at the hotel (although it had a swimming pool, it looked a little green), we headed out for a breakfast of pancakes. It’s certainly not expensive, but as it’s very Western, you’ll pay more here than in the local restaurants in many other towns.  Despite the dozens of cafes and bars, it’s a tiny town, and apart from surfing, there’s not a whole lot else to do except relax. As the weather was a little on the grey side, we decided against donning a wet suit and instead enjoyed a lazy afternoon wandering along the beach.

The beach

We came across a half built hotel called the Dharma Retreat with a pretty cool looking bar so stopped in for a couple of happy hour cocktails. We got chatting to the barmaid, a Scottish girl called Ashley, would bizarrely knew the owners of the animal refuge where we were going to work, as well as a couple of guys who had created some fantastic wood carvings around the place. A few more drinks later and we were talking life, the universe and everything whilst watching them carve some new wood creations. A bizarre but amusing afternoon.

A little tipsy, we headed back into town to continue the drinking and a few hours later were falling into bed after one too many caipirinhas. Awaking the next morning with sore heads and delicate stomachs, we enjoyed a lazy day at the hotel, watching films, emerging only to top up on food and water before an early night.

Town at night

The next day and we were headed to Quito. Montanita’s probably a riot at weekends and during the peak season, but mid-week in the off season and things are very chilled. Great for a couple of days but it would be easy to get bored here and we were keen to try and fit in the rest of the country before heading to our volunteering.