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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.