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Entering Ecuador – first stop; Quito

Arriving in Quito was quite a relief after so much constant travel. We were due to stay there for around five days, so it was also a welcome change of pace not to have to rush around and see everything we possibly could in a mad dash.

We could see quite a bit of Quito without even leaving our hostel - this was the amazing view from the terrace!

We could see quite a bit of Quito without even leaving our hostel – this was the amazing view from the terrace! We loved sitting up here and catching our breath (which we needed to do after climbing up five flights of stairs at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet above sea level to get there!)

On our first day, we decided to get our bearings and take a free walking tour of the Centro Historico (the historical centre) where our hostel was based. The tour, run by Free Walking Tour Ecuador, was excellent and not only took us to some of the key sites in the area, but also gave us insight into life in Quito – complete with a tour of the market to see local delicacies being prepared.

Some of the sights in Quito that we saw during our walking tour

Some of the sights in Quito that we saw during our walking tour

During the tour, we were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard in Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square), where the President’s residence is situated. Although the changing of the guard happens twice daily, we got to see the special full formal-dress ceremony which is attended by the President of Ecuador himself. Apparently during this event (which happens every Monday) the guards wear replicas of the colourful uniforms worn during the Battle of Tarqui in 1829, when 4,000 Ecuadorian troops won their independence after beating a Peruvian army twice its size.

The president was on the balcony watching the proceedings from above

The president was on the balcony watching the proceedings from above

After the tour, we took the time to visit some of the places that the guide recommended to us – including La Basilica and Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús.

La Basilica - apparently this cathedral was never completed because funds ran out, so a priest began the rumour that if it was finished the world would end... It looks amazing though; the gargoyles around the outside represent creatures of the Galapagos Islands, such as turtles; and the beautiful stained glass window over the entrance illustrates the 1,300 different orchid species that are indigenous to Ecuador. In the sun, the windows cast multi-coloured lights across the interior.

La Basilica – apparently this cathedral was never completed because funds ran out, so a priest began the rumour that if it was finished the world would end… It looks amazing though; the gargoyles around the outside represent creatures of the Galapagos Islands, such as turtles; and the beautiful stained glass window over the entrance illustrates the 1,300 different orchid species that are indigenous to Ecuador. In the sun, the windows cast multi-coloured lights across the interior.

The blinding interior of La Compañia de Jesús - six tonnes of gold leaf!

The blinding interior of Inglesia de la Compañia de Jesús – gilded with seven tonnes of gold leaf!

The historical centre itself was a lovely part of the city just to have a stroll around. Although we were warned about pick-pockets and various scams to be aware of in the tourist-heavy parts, we didn’t have any problems and enjoyed our leisurely walk around the multi-coloured streets.

Strolling around the colonial streets of Quito's historic district

Strolling around the colonial streets of Quito’s historic district

The old city itself is pretty, but you can’t possibly fail to notice the pollution levels – the buses are constantly shrouded by a haze of black smog, which stains the pavements and bollards next to the roads (I dread to think what it was doing to our lungs). Also, Ecuadorians don’t seem to like bins. It’s quite a common site to see people throwing whole plastic bags of rubbish out of bus or car windows, or just dropping it in the street as they’re walking – which is odd considering the city itself seemed pretty clean during our walks.

That's not a smudge on our camera - that haze is the fumes from about three buses that went past us. On the right you can see the residue from the fumes blackening the bollards and road!

That haze isn’t a smudge on our camera – that’s the fumes from about three buses that went past us. On the right you can see the residue from the fumes blackening the bollards and road!

After seeing enough of the historical district at ground-level, we decided to take the Teleferico (cable car) up to the mountains overlooking the city. We found some spectacular views – and at one point the clouds on the horizon cleared enough for us to see the active (but dormant) volcano, Cotopaxi, looming in the distance.

Going up...

Going up…

Quito from above

Quito from above

Although you can't see it from inside the city, Cotopaxi is surprisingly close. It's an active (but dormant) volcano that you can climb up should you want to.

Although you can’t see it from inside the city, Cotopaxi is surprisingly close. You can even climb up it, should you want to.

Another must-see when visiting Quito is to travel 16 miles north of the city to Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world) – otherwise known as the equator. The monument built at Mitad del Mundo is not actually located at the true equator, but is where the French Geodesic Mission of around 1736 calculated it to be. Although people regard this site as the ‘fake’ equator (people seem to get quite angry about this!), I found it quite impressive that scientists from hundreds of years ago had managed to get so close to the actual equator (which is apparently only about 240 metres north) without the sort of technology we have today.

The original equator marker at 'the middle of the world'

The original equator marker at ‘the middle of the world’

Just up the road from Mitad del Mundo is Intiñan Solar Museum, which again claims to be at the equator. According to Google Earth it’s actually at -0.000174 latitude – but I’m not that pedantic and 0.000 latitude is close enough for me! At this museum guides show visitors a series of experiments that supposedly show the effects of being at the equator – including the enhanced ability to balance an egg (what a helpful skill!), and the coriolis effect (where water spins one way in the northern hemisphere, the other in the southern hemisphere and doesn’t spin at all at the equator). We had been warned to take these experiments with a pinch of salt as being at the equator really doesn’t affect gravitational forces all that much, but they were fascinating to watch nonetheless.

The obligatory equator picture - Dale's in the southern hemisphere and I'm in the northern hemisphere

The obligatory equator picture – Dale’s in the southern hemisphere and I’m in the northern hemisphere

The owner of the hostel we’d been staying at told us that just a short taxi ride from the equator was an extinct volcano that people had cultivated and inhabited. Without being 100% sure of the name of this place, we were lucky enough to find a taxi driver who knew exactly where we wanted to go. We were amazed by the spectacular views from the rim of the crater, which looked over the huge valley below. It looked like a very impressive place to live!

The incredible view from the edge of the crater that Puluahua sits inside

The incredible view from the edge of the crater that the town of Puluahua sits inside

We really enjoyed our week in Quito and found it to be a lovely city to spend some time in, with lots of interesting things to do and see. It was a perfect introduction to Ecuador.

The sunset over Quito

The sunset over Quito

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