January 23, 2016
We’re back in Quito one week after arriving here. We haven’t always had wifi this first week and working on this lil netbook that doesn’t really connect with my camera is a bit frustrating (and on this first post only the photos are oversized for WordPress) but here goes:
January 15 – 16
We flew out of Victoria at 4pm and landed in Seattle 45 minutes later. We chowed down some chowder and salad then caught our next flight to Los Angeles (LAX). Disembarking at LAX is a sureal experience. It is still swathed in plastic sheets covering construction, has little signage and feels like a third world airport. We walked and walked and walked through long windowless passageways to our terminal: a huge rotunda with non-functioning electronics charging stations and few plugs that worked (people circulated trying to find somewhere to recharge their devices).
I was really hoping to sleep on the next leg to Miami. No such luck even with sleeping pills. And then somewhere around 4am the whole thing started to unravel. The pilot announced MIA was fogged in and that we were going to have to land at Houston. Then we learned we had to circle for two hours to burn off fuel. Finally when we landed we could not disembark but had to stay in the plane for an hour while they re-fueled, all the while wondering if we’d be able to land in MIA. Passengers were getting worried and cranky. Eventually we did land in MIA but had to wait in the plane another hour while waiting for an open gate. Many people missed their connections but we learned our flight had been moved back to 2pm.
We scrambled over to our next gate only to learn the flight to Quito had been moved back again. And then again. Passengers berated the gate staff. The police arrived. The flight continued to be moved back with changing excuses (thank you American Airlines for being so devious). We got food vouchers. Just as I returned to the gate with massive amounts of airport Chinese food they found a crew to go with the plane (the actual reason for the delay). We boarded. We were off. They fed us breakfast as they had got the wrong food and rather than delay the flight went with the brekkie option.
So we didn’t get to see the Caribbean or South America or the Andes or Quito from the air. But we landed at 9:30pm and our ride to our room was waiting their with a sign that read “Kelly Irvin”. It took about an hour to get into the city and find Aleida’s Hostal (small hotel or B&B). We were greeted by our hostess Elena who showed us our room and said to not worry about registering until we’d had some sleep (we had both managed to nod off a bit on the last leg but were exhausted by now).
We slept like logs and arose refreshed and not suffering any ill effects from the altitude (over 3000 meters). Elena served us breakfast, registered us, gave us a city map and made suggestions about where to go and how to get there. Did I mention Elena only speaks Spanish? Good practice for us!
We decided to visit the Volcan Pichincha, which rises over 4000 meters on the West side of Quito. We took a local bus, then a too expensive taxi (negotiate negotiate negotiate) to the cable car that took us to the top. Not long after we started walking around we noticed we were feeling a bit dizzy and I could tell my heart rate had increased (an American we’d been talking to had a wrist heart monitor and said his had increased to 100). We were now above the tree line, it was slightly chilly and a breeze drove big clouds past us. We walked a short distance on the trail to the old volcano’s caldera but decided we weren’t ready to go the distance. After admiring the spectacular view over Quito from different viewpoints we hopped back on the cable car. When we got off right away we noticed the warmer temperature and that we no longer felt dizzy at all. Instead of taking an expensive taxi back down we walked to the bus stop and returned to our room.
After a short rest we went out in search of dinner and discovered that most restaurants closed early on Sunday. We found one just behind our hostal though and had some excellent ceviche (which we later discovered was on the expensive side). So our first day and we learned a bit more Spanish and had a couple of lessons on budgeting.
On the recommendation of a New Zealand couple we’d met our first morning we booked into a free walking tour of Quito’s historical Old Town centre. We bussed down and found our gathering point. About 20 folks were on the tour led by two guides, one English speaking and one Spanish. Our groups split and our guide, Beto, took us first to the Centro Mercado (market) where we were shown cheap eateries and juice bars. We then walked to the Grand Plaza just in time to see the weekly changing of the guard and an appearance by President Correa on the Presidential Palace balcony. Many locals were there (besides the tourists) plus we saw a troup of school kids who were on their way to meet the President (each week kids from small towns get to meet him).
For the next couple of hours we walked to different plazas, saw a variety of landmarks (cathedrals, banks, palaces (President Correa refuses to stay in the Palace, it’s for the people) and La Ronda, the artesian and cultural centre). Meanwhile I could see those without hats and with bare shoulders burning under the equatorial sun.
After the tour Sue and I returned to the Centro Mercado for a set lunch (great value) and some amazing juices. Then we wandered back into the Old Town. I had spotted some cathedral spires up hill from where we’d been so we marched up hill (we were acclimatizing well) to the Basilica del Voto Nacionale. While admiring its exterior we notice people way up on a rear tower. We bought tickets and climbed and climbed up a bell tower, then traversed the cathedral ridge via a bridge under the roof, up a steep ladder and then outside. Sue declined the last two flights of steep exterior ladders (she gets vertigo) but I went for it. The view at the top was dazzling (and I was admittedly pretty pumped at having done the climb). Unfortunately most the photos I took were overexposed as I’d forgotten to change a setting on my camera (too excited by my climb!).
We walked back downhill, caught a bus back to our room and relaxed.
For our third and last day in Quito we decided to take advantage of a beautiful sunny morning and visit the Jardin Botanico. We caught another form of transport, an articulated bus, to the large Park Carolina and walked to the Botanical Gardens. Each climatic region of Ecuador is represented in the Gardens: coastal, cloud forest, highlands and the Amazon. We were blown away by some of the flora: incredible flowers (including a huge orchid house), wonderful trees and shrubs (including an enclosed display of carnivorous plants and another very hot house of Amazonian plants). We spent a couple of hours wandering around, sitting and contemplating.
We then returned towards the city centre and visited the Casa Cultura, the Contemporary Art Gallery. Although we saw an amazing display of musical instruments from around the world and another of indigenous crafts the contemporary art was so-so and very poorly lit. Sue and I agreed on one painting being outstanding and a few others being worthy but much of it was either derivative or just poor. (unfortunately I changed some camera settings; although I have photos they can’t be uploaded until I’m home with my real computer :0()
We returned to our room for a short rest and then ventured out for dinner. I had noted a couple of restaurants within a half hour walk but when we hit the street we saw almost right across the street from us a place we had never noticed before: Fridas Taco Bar. The price was right so we ventured in and were very pleasantly surprised. Great food, great decor and best of all (we decided to splurge as it sounded so good) the most amazing Tamarindo Margarita. Thick, spicy and so delicious. We could not stop raving (when we got back to our room we posted reviews on Trip Advisor and Facebook). What a great way to end our first visit to Quito!
We checked out from Hostal Aleida, said our farewells to Elena, got some last bits of advice and took a taxi to one of the big bus terminals in the north of the city (Quito’s three million people are strung out along a north south axis in a hilly valley between the East and West Andes).
The bus was almost empty so we sat up front on the right side for best viewing. As we drove our to Quito, through its endless suburbs the sun shone but then as we drove up into the West Andes we could see mist hovering over the mountain tops and then coming down into the valleys. Sue commented that the landscape around Quito looked like that of Kamloops. But as we crossed over the Andes it quickly changed into cloud forest: high peaks, deep deep valleys and thick luscious greenery enveloped in mist. The two and a half hour bus ride to Mindo wound down down down. We saw only a couple of small villages, little farming a endless tall trees with vines swathing the mountains.
In Mindo on Wednesday; staying at Las Luciernaga in a cabana surrounded by what looks like tall bamboo trees (guayno?). A very tranquil little town (4000 people) with a tourist industry based on bird watching, tubing down the river, ziplining through the cloud forest and canyoneering. Our host is an expat Swiss, Willy, who arrived in Ecuador as a tourist, came back as a sports consultant educator and eventually bought land and opened a hostal for tourists, a small school and supports local sports.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the town and in the evening watched local women play futbol in a covered stadium. At one end were the women, at the other men playing volleyball with nets we’d never seen so high. The occasional dog would wander into the playing zone and between games kids would take over with their soccer balls.
The next morning, Thursday, we were served an excellent breakfast by Willy: hash plantain with eggs (which filled us until mid-afternoon). We bought tickets in town for the cable car across a valley to a hike to see the Casacadas (waterfalls). We walked about 7 or 8 kms., mostly uphill, to the cable car. On the other side we were given a map told the time needed to see all the falls (all in Spanish). We spent the next two hours hiking up and down (sometimes steep) trails to view the series falls. The mist thickened to showers and just after we reached the last waterfalls turned to steady rain. At the last falls Sue soaked her hot feet and I stripped down to my shorts and went for a refreshing dip in a shallow pool (most of the water was moving fast). By the time we hiked back to the top to the cable car we were soaked through; luckily it’s a warm rain here. About half way back down the road I remembered I’d packed my raincoat (doh). We stopped for congratulatory cervesas outside a small store and then back to our cabana.
After drying off and changing clothes we walked back into town (about 5 minutes) for early dinner. One of the best part of our meals here?… the juices. Truly amazingly delicious. I’m in love with the mora jugos (blackberry juice). We then did a short stroll through the darkened back streets. Mindo is so very mellow and the wooden architecture picturesque.
Friday, the 22nd
Another filling breakfast from Willy: veggie omelettes, juice, tea (for me), coffee (for Sue). Then off to town to buy tickets for the Mindo Canopy ziplines and back up into the hills. But not quite as far as the cable car. And a nice breeze on a sunny morning.
Sue’s been on ziplines before but it was my first time. The hardest part was hiking up to the takeoff points in the heat. Sue tried a couple of different positions (the Superman, er… woman, and Butterfly). She won’t let me post the photos of this last one! I stuck with the upright position. We went on 10 ziplines, flying out over and through the cloud forest. Lots of fun and now I’ve done it once I’m psyched to try it again (maybe at home through our coastal forests).
We stopped for congratulatory drinks on the way back (mora lassi for me; mora juice and Ecuadorian coffee for Sue). By the time we picked up our laundry and got back the clouds were rolling in and soon after the rain started. We can see the pattern clearly now. Best to rise early and enjoy the sun and spend the afternoon relaxing, catching up on notes and planning our next stage.
Anything I’ve forgotten to mention? The constant sound of frogs, birds and cicadas in Mindo. How very mellow it is here (dogs and kids run free on the streets). The great juices (oh, I did ;o). The water (in the air, the fast moving rivers). The feeling of community.
Tomorrow we return to Quito for a Saturday night adventure in La Ronda.
Check back in a week or so and we’ll let you know how that went and our planned Quillatoa Loop trek (over several days at the base of a volcano and around a volcanic crater lake).