Advantages Stunning mountains surrounding a bustling and colourful city
Disadvantages The smog
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
The CityI became really attached to Quito during my seven weeks there. It's a lively, very colourful city in a stunning setting - I think the thing I loved the most about Quito was being able to look up, walking anywhere west in the city, and see the most amazing jagged green mountain range towering up past the outskirts. It was wonderful. Ecuador's capital is maybe not quite as traditional as Bolivia's, or nearly as Westernized as Peru's, but it creates quite a nice balance somewhere in the middle, with both aspects of new and old - as seen by the fact that most people split Quito up into two halves, new and old, when describing the city.
The old city is beautiful, full of narrow winding streets, grand old colonial buildings, little local shops and cafes, wide-open plazas, impressive-looking theatres, and it's absolutely littered with churches. It's a lovely place to wander round for a day or two. The new city extends to the north of the old city, and the bit that most tourists are concerned with is Gringoland. Which, as the name suggests, is full of gringos, and sounds a bit like an adventure theme park or something. Unfortunately it's not. Gringoland (also called 'La Mariscal') is the area in Quito with all the most touristy and expensive restaurants, bars, clubs and internet cafes.The two most distinctive noises in Quito are dogs barking, and car horns honking. South American drivers are maniacs - instead of slowing down at a junction, for example, they'll simply honk their horn quickly and then speed right over it. One of the other distinctive things about Quito is the smog, which is awful. It's unbelievable the amount of thick black smoke that some buses belch out from their exhausts. But that was the only thing I really didn't like about Quito, and for someone who generally doesn't like cities, that's quite a compliment. It's got a lot of character, Quito, and more than enough to keep you occupied for a good few days as a sightseer - longer if you venture outside the city.
TransportIt's easy to walk around Gringoland and the old city separately, but it's a long walk between the two, so better to get a taxi or trolley bus. Trolley buses are only 25c per journey, and often you can return without paying more. That's about 18p. There's one line in Quito, with trolleys going in both directions on it, which is simple enough. The trolley buses have different numbers (C1, C2, C4, C5 and M) for different sections of the line, and it's fairly easy to work out which one you want. Even if you do get on the wrong one, it'll still be going in the right direction, so it's easy to get off when it stops and jump on another.
Taxis are good too, just make sure you fix the price before you get in - 2 to 3 dollars is a reasonable amount for getting around most of the city centre.Quito has loads of buses as well, again 25c for a journey and based on a jump-on jump-off system, but I never managed to work out how you ever knew where any of them were going. Maybe it's some closely guarded local knowledge passed down through generations. Or maybe I just couldn't be bothered to find out.
Some Things to Do in QuitoThere are great views of the city from the Virgin Mary statue on top of the big hill right in the middle of Quito (it's advised to take a taxi up and back if you're not in a big group and don't fancy getting mugged), and also from the Basilica, just outside the old city. The Basilica is absolutely massive, very dark and plain inside (much less gaudy than the cathedral in the old city), but definitely worth paying to go up to the top. There are also fantastic views from the park Itchimbia, up on the east side of Quito - a good place to go for sunset.
Casa de la Cultura: if you want a good museum, then this is probably the biggest and best. It's about a 15 minute walk from Gringoland along Juan Leon Mera. It's a huge place, with four floors, and a very comprehensive collection which covers everything from BC to the present day - there's an archeological floor full of pots and fertility statues and the like, a tiny side museum of gold (with some fantastic tiny gold llamas), two floors of colonial and republican art, and another of contemporary art. It's great stuff, and easy to spend a good two or three hours wandering round here.The San Francisco church: there are loads of churches in Quito, but of the ones I stumbled into this one - in the old city - was my favourite. It's absolutely gorgeous inside.
The Guayasamin foundation: somewhere in the new city, this foundation contains an exhibition of Guayasamin's work and also two collections he made himself during his lifetime; a highly interesting one of pre-Colombian artifacts (pots, statues, instruments, jewelry, etc, the usual stuff, from indigenous Ecuadorian cultures), and one of Colonial art. Guayasamin is a 20th C Ecuadorian artist, whose work reminds me slightly of Picasso, but just a bit more haunting. It's great stuff - I highly recommend this little place.Mitad del Mundo: I have to admit, we were not overly impressed with the 'middle of the world'. It's a bizarre dead little touristy complex of restaurants, shops, etc, plonked in the middle of one of the poorer suburbs just outside Quito, with a line painted down the middle of it where they thought the equator was until discovering it's actually about 200m down the road. What's probably much more worthwhile is going 200m down the road to the 'Solar Inti Nan' museum, which contains the real equator and some interesting little tricks to prove it. Shame that I didn't find out about that one till I got back home.
Salsa lessons: Well, why not. Everyone does salsa in South America. You'll find all the locals dancing it in the bars and clubs around Gringoland, so if you want to join in and salsa with some fit Ecuadorians (they always love gringos), then why not give lessons a go. And even if you don't want to salsa with the locals, give them a go anyway - a one hour lesson is reasonably cheap and good fun, and there are loads of dance places around the new city and Gringoland that do them.Casa de la Musica: a good place to go for cheap classical concerts. It's a short taxi ride west of Gringoland, not really far at all. If you get a chance, go and hear the 'Orchestra of Andean instruments' playing - a huge formal orchestra made up of traditional Andean instruments such as panpipes, charangos, guitars, wooden flutes, etc - nothing like anything I've heard before, but very interesting.
Bolivar Theatre: cheaper than the Sucre theatre (both in the old city) as it's still undergoing restoration from a fire. It's a huge spooky cavern of a theatre inside, and very dark, with the top half of the walls still black from smoke damage, but definitely worth checking out. You can get an events guide for what's on each month in Quito from the tourist information office, also in the old city.
The Teleferico: for even better views of Quito. The teleferico is a cable car at the west side of Quito which takes you up the mountain to an altitude of 4100m. It's quite expensive, from what I remember, and rising 1300m in about 10 minutes definitely does strange things to your head, but it does give you the most wicked views of the whole of Quito and the mountains beyond.
FoodAs the capital of Ecuador Quito has pretty much anything, from incredibly cheap little local cafes with flies buzzing round the tables selling typical Ecuadorian food, to expensive up-market touristy restaurants, steak houses, Mexicans and Chinese. It just depends what you want, and how adventurous you're willing to be. There are loads of local places around that do really good bargain two-course lunches ('almuerzos') for 1 or 2 dollars - generally a soup and then something like miscellaneous meat with rice and salad - but of course you're more likely to get food poisoning in somewhere like this than in an expensive touristy restaurant. (Although having said that, we ate loads of almuerzos and seemed to get away with it.)
And at the other end of the scale, there's always Gringoland. One of our favourite and most expensive places in Gringoland was 'The Magic Bean', which does fantastic smoothies and fruit juices, and great mammoth lunches too. Another was 'Red Hot Chilli Peppers', which does superb Mexican, and a third 'Mongos', a pretty cheap Mongolian restaurant that does really good DIY stir-frys (they have a particularly great cheap set menu), and also the strongest and cheapest cocktails I can remember encountering in the whole of the Andes - 70p for a concoction that's mostly alcohol. Nice.Not in Gringoland but in the Quicentro shopping mall is 'Crepes and Waffles', worth mentioning for it's, well, crepes and waffles - again expensive and touristy, but pretty damn good. Actually, there's another one somewhere else in Quito too, but I can't remember where. Sorry. And also worth mentioning is 'Pobre Diablo's', somewhere in the new city, a fantastic restaurant/bar that occasionally has live jazz - it's the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine and some good conversation.
And some typical Ecuadorian food and drink definitely worth trying:
Banana chips, or chifles, which you can buy in packets from corner shops and supermarkets - thin and salty, almost like crisps but not quite. Completely addictive. I wish they made them in England.
Ceviche - a costal specialty of finely chopped-up raw fish soaked in lime juice, with tomatoes and peppers and anything else to hand.
Plantains - huge green bananas, which are never eaten raw but always cooked.
Fruit juices of any variety. They're all amazing. I developed a particular liking for pineapple when I was in Ecuador, which I could drink by the gallon.
Hot chocolate and cheese - a hot chocolate with little chunks of cheese that you can throw in it and then spoon out. An interesting combination, but not as bad as you might think.
Ponche - another typical drink, made from hot milk, egg and cinnamon. A bit like eggnog but without the alcohol.
Coca tea - tea made from coca leaves, a very traditional Andean drink and said to be good for everything from indigestion and bad stomachs to altitude sickness. It's more like a herbal tea than a black tea but with a very distinctive flavour. It also looks like wee and smells of old socks. But I loved it.
AccommodationAlthough I spent seven weeks in Quito, four of those weeks were spent staying with a host family and the other three in Spanish school accommodation which for half of the year is overrun with VentureCo gap-year groups anyway, so there's not actually really much I can say about accommodation in Quito. Don't expect hot showers, stay out of Gringoland, which is probably the most expensive area in the whole city, and go and look in a guidebook.
When to goQuito, practically on the equator and yet at a fairly high altitude, is supposed to benefit from an eternally spring-like climate. I've no idea if this is true. I'm sure that Quito has a rainy season and a dry season too, which means that it's a good bit cloudier and rains a lot more from around November to March, and then it's much drier and sunnier from March to November. So probably the best bet is to go during our spring and summer, but to be fair I don't think it makes a great deal of difference - and besides, Ecuadorian thunderstorms are fantastic. They're much better than the piddly little thunderstorms we get back at home.
HealthFood poisoning is always a risk - one of our most talked about subjects in Quito was the state of our bowel movements - but a risk reduced by eating in expensive gringo restaurants, by avoiding salads (which are often washed in tap water) and by asking for drinks without ice. Oh, and always drink bottled water. If you're spending any serious amount of time in Ecuador you're almost guaranteed to get food poisoning at least once (although a few of our group did manage to hold out until we'd moved onto Peru) - but most cases only last at the most 24 hours, and after a day of throwing up and explosive dioreaha - nice - things should get back to normal.
Quito isn't too high, at 2800m, to make altitude sickness a problem, most of the time. When arriving by plane from England you'll probably notice it's that bit harder to walk up hills without getting out of breath, and you might get a bit of a headache too, but that's about it, and it shouldn't last. To help alleviate altitude sickness if you need to you can rest for a day or so when you first arrive, don't try and eat too much, and drink some coca tea.Due to altitude and also the fact that Ecuador is situated on some sort of bulge in the Earth it's far easier to get sun-burnt here than in England. Beware! USE SUN-CREAM or let your face peel off.
A Few Places Just Outside of QuitoOtavalo
Otavalo is about 2 and a half hours by bus north of Quito in the Andes. It's a little provincial town with not much at all in it, apart from on Saturdays, when they have the most amazing sprawling colourful indigenous market which takes over whole centre of town. If you want artesania, then this is undoubtedly the place to come. It's cheap, especially if you haggle, and even if your backpack is already overflowing with ponchos and stripy trousers and alpaca jumpers it's still nice to just wander round the streets and have a look. There are some beautiful walks from Otavalo too - it's a lovely and green, very rural area, a huge contrast to Quito - to lakes and waterfalls and indigenous communities around the place. It's possible to do the market in a day from Quito, but nice to stay over the night and go off walking as well, and there's a great laid-back little hostal just outside Quito called 'La Luna', with really nice rooms, hammocks outside to swing in, good food, friendly owners, information on walking circuits, and a couple of bloody big dogs.Mindo
Mindo is another 2 and a half bus journey or so east of Quito into the cloud forest. Cloud forest is so-called because it's forest in a cloud - fair enough, really - and before we got there I didn't think there could possibly be a cloud big enough to cover it all, but we didn't see a single bit of sky during our whole weekend in Mindo. The scenery there on the bus journey gradually changes from dry mountains around Quito to lush, wet cloudy rainforest, with huge exotic plants and grass and trees and bright flowers, and it's just so different. I loved it. There's absolutely nothing to do in the one-street town of Mindo itself, but tubing down the river is good fun (which involves sitting on a raft made from giant tubes tied together and sedately floating down the river - usually - for us, after a heavy rainfall, tubing turned into some sort of primitive form of white-water rafting), and there's also a fantastic walk you can do into the cloud forest to a huge waterfall with a little cordoned-off pool to swim in.Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world, just north of Quito. We did a hugely fun day of mountain biking in the national park which spreads out from below Cotopaxi, with 'The Biking Dutchman', who I highly recommend. For 36 dollars (about 25 pounds) you get to cycle (as quickly or slowly as you want) from the base of the volcano, at 4600m, down through an immense Lord of the Rings-esqe landscape through the national park to 3500m. The bikes are great - of a much higher standard than most of the bikes you find in the Andes (I speak from experience) - they provide a fantastic homemade lunch, English-speaking guides too, and the scenery is fabulous. Plus, it's very nearly all downhill, so you don't have to be particularly fit to do it either.
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