Ecuador's Equator

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Quito is less than one degree below the equator and has the distinction of being the first place below the equator I have visited on this particular journey. I know what you’re thinking: hot, humid, blistering sun. You’re wrong about the first two. The city is at an elevation of about 2900m above sea level (or 9500 ft) and while the sun is definitely warm and will scorch your skin the air is cool and even chilly in the evening. And no, it doesn’t warm up at some other time of the year because, being on the equator, there are no seasons. Every day is the same length, every day the temperature is consistent within a few degrees, and every day you have nice and sunny mornings with increasing cloud and maybe rain in the afternoon. Almost. Although it might sound boring, Quito is anything but. Even a walk down the street can be a hair-raising experience as I would soon discover first-hand. My arrival, for another example, was fraught with challenges and unexpected surprises.

According to the Lonely Planet, there are two main terminals for the city of Quito, one near the airport (in the north) and the other just south of the old town. So it was a bit confusing when my bus from Otavalo arrived at some terminal in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver sorted me out, however, by putting me on a bus that said Plaza San Blas, which is on the south end of the old town and walking distance from the hostel I was going to check out. The cost was a bit suspicious, however, as city busses are supposed to cost 25 cents and I was paying $1, half the price the 2.5 hour bus from Otavalo cost. I soon saw why as we wound along freeways perched on the mountainside and wound our way into Quito. Or so I thought. Each time we turned a corner there was a whole new stretch of city. “THAT must be Quito!” And then we’d turn again. The bus reached a roundabout and the driver’s assistant told me I should get out here. Why I’d want to was beyond me as the bus was supposedly heading to Plaza San Blas, but with some discussion it appeared that was not the case. They told me to get on the Trole line which the LP had warned was no place to be loaded with baggage but I took my chances and made my way in the direction of the old town. I realized just in time that the stop I wanted, Banco Central, was only on the opposite line and got off at Hermano Miguel, then wandered up the hill. There, at last, was The Secret Garden.

You Say Party, We Say Fie!

Sometimes getting around is straightforward and sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you have no idea what’s going. At the end of the day, you always make it, of course. Somewhere. My somewhere was the Secret Garden, probably one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed at... ever. The staff were friendly, the beds were comfy and cozy, the view from the terrace was unmatched, and the food was delicious. Of course, you had to pay for these luxuries, and then add 12% tax on top (everywhere else includes it and it’s pretty annoying that they don’t here). Still, in the end the hostel was $10/night, drinks were $2.25, and meals were about $5 but for some pretty gourmet fare compared to the usual backpacker diet. I had a full sushi roll one night for $3.30, pork chops in fig sauce another for $5, stir fry, and so on. In Quito you have a very distinct choice: party or culture? If you want to party, the area to be is in the new town (AKA La Mariscal) which is surrounded by pubs, bars, and tourist outlets such as travel agents. The area is, however, quite dangerous in the evenings and on Sundays when there aren’t many people around. On the other hand, the old town where Secret Garden is located is colonial and full of local flavour not to mention churches, palaces, and all sorts of interesting architecture. Nights here are likewise risky but not so bad as Mariscal.

Pardon Me, Would You Squirt Me With Gray Poupon?

So, the scene has been set. I met a girl from Cincinnati named Kim in my dorm and we decided to explore the old town together the next day. We made our way first to Plaza Grande de Independencia, which was a nice walk along Guyaquil St and past, I should add, a music store with a piano. The plaza was really beautiful and surrounded on all sides by historic and important buildings including the Presidential Palace. It was humming with activity from both humans and birds pecking in the grass and among the flowers and though the weather was largely overcast, it was stunning. There was also a protest in front of the palace against corruption (what such demonstrations hope to accomplish is beyond me but it’s better than violence) and we found out it was possible to tour the palace (with passport) at 2:30 PM. We grabbed lunch on the fourth floor patio of a nearby building ($3.50) right across from the Bolivar theatre, and then started walking back through the old town in the direction of the large gothic basilica that dominates the skyline of this part of town. We were walking along on our way across when I felt something fall from above although in retrospect I’m not sure how this is possible as nothing touched me; Perhaps I just saw it hit Kim in my peripheral vision.

The man in front of us looked confused and at his hands as though he had felt something too. It took less than a second to see that Kim had a line of brown goop all the way down her back and her jeans and realize what was happening. It’s a common scam here to squirt tourists with some condiment or other (mustard is popular as it COULD be bird-related) and then offer to help them with some tissue you just happen to have on you. Usually there are two of you and while one is cleaning – your pockets primarily – the other is distracting you or claiming there is some of mystery goop on your backpack. If you take that off, you’re done for. The first guy distracts you again while the other bolts with your belongings. That they would do this to Kim while I was walking with her is pretty shocking but we were on to it almost instantly and inside a restaurant before they could even reach us. One man stood at the door proffering tissue and I told him to get lost; it happened so fast that I wasn’t certain enough of the culprit to get upset or violent which is probably just as well. They got away with nothing and, unlike others who have managed to avoid the mustard attack only to be mugged or beaten around the corner, they scampered off and left us alone. I helped clean an understandably shaken Kim and we continued our walk to the basilica without further mishap (well, she did trip on the cobblestones, poor girl, but was mostly unharmed).

A View to Time Kill

Climbing the Basilica is probably the single best thing there is to do within the confines of Quito. You climb some rickety spiral stairs and can climb through the crawlspace over the cathedral and beneath the slopes roof to get to the spire. From there, it’s some really open and exposed steps high above the city below to get up the spire to some fantastic views. Back down from there and through the crawlspace again you can climb up one of the two clock towers which due to their height feel even more precarious. I couldn’t help but think about the recent earthquake in Chile and ponder how vulnerable we were so high above the city in this old church. Thankfully, the Earth held itself together and – after a delicious hot chocolate – we made it back to the ground safely. Quito is a city surrounded by volcanoes and hills and so there are no shortage of views here. Another day, I hiked to the edge of the old town and up El Panecillo, a huge angel on one of the nearby hills. You can’t walk up because the base of the hill is ironically very dangerous so from there I took a cab up to the top and looked around. I had the bad luck of doing so on a Sunday so there was no option to go inside the angel but the views were nice. I still wouldn’t say it was worth doing but if you’re killing time in Quito it will pass a morning.

The final viewpoint that I took was up the Teleferiqo, a cable car up to a mountain 4100m above sea level (and thus over 1 km above the city). It’s different seeing things from that high as you lose your depth perception and I actually liked the view from the Basilica better, but I needed to acclimatise for my upcoming hike to Cotopaxi (the highest active volcano in the world at 6000m) and from the top of the Teleferiqo you can hike up to 4700m on an extinct volcano over Quito. The walk was really nice and not too difficult but I had the misfortune of incoming cloud which began to obscure the rocky peak with every step I took in that direction. It too was a great way to pass a day although the ride itself costs $8.50 for foreigners not to mention taxi fare to get there. I took the metro to Colon and took a $2 taxi from there and then split a cab with some Kiwi doctors back down to the new town for another $1. As for me, I probably got to about 4650m or so which didn’t break my record of 4660m in China due to the cloud. I’m told on a clear day you get some great views of the glacier tipped volcanoes in all directions around Quito but clear days are hard to come by in this city any time after 10 so go early. You can get to the peak in about 3 hours from the top.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

The day after Kim was attacked with mustard and two days before the equinox, we set off for the equatorial line which runs just north of Quito. It’s about 1.5 hours from Quito’s old town view two busses (40 cents) and is also worth the trip. It’s pretty funny that the big landmark and park that they built in the 70s to mark the equator and give tourists something to photograph was put in the wrong place. The actual equatorial line, thanks to the wonders of the US Military and GPS, is actually about 200m away and (I suspect) on some farmer’s land bordering the park. He did what any good entrepreneur would do and built his own kitschy park full of knick knacks and random statues and charged a $3 admission. The original monument (where most people take photos and hope nobody will notice) cost $2 and is a lot cooler to photograph but the mistake we made was looking around the park before someone came to collect our $3 and deciding it wasn’t worth it. We later learned from the Danes in our room (we’d reconciled with them after they were really noisy in the dorm my first night) that we’d missed out. The highlight of the tour is not the kitsch but rather the experiments they perform on the equator. They take a sink, fill it with water and leaves, and then pull the plug north, south, and on the equator and it drains clockwise, counter-clockwise, and straight down respectively; They balance an egg on a nail which, due to the fact that gravity is straight down only on the equator is impossible anywhere else; They have you walk the line with your eyes closed to demonstrate that (apparently) your balance is thrown off while right on the equator. Most of these things have been disputed by scientists so viewing them is quite perplexing. I wish we’d done it firsthand instead of in video form.

There’s not much else to say about Quito. The city grew on me day by day and I wound up staying longer than is probably necessary but enjoying it. I looked into trips to the Galapagos but found nothing cheap enough or with a good itinerary worth booking, thinking it would be good to go do Cotopaxi, return to Quito for the Galapagos, and then continue heading south. Instead, I booked the Monday morning transport (only $5) to the Secret Garden hostel overlooking Cotopaxi. It costs $30/night including all food and non-alcoholic drinks plus some pretty reasonably priced tours and from everything I’ve seen it’s entirely worth it. Cotopaxi sits out the window, covered in ice even here on the equator, looming over the green highlands strewn with cows and farms. From there, I decided, I would head to Banos, do everything in the mountains while I was acclimatised then head to the coast and hopefully have some luck finding a deal to the Galapagos either on the islands themselves or else in Guyaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.

Quito Photos

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