Recently I raved about how pleasant Panama City was to visit. From there it was a quick flight to Quito, Ecuador, which quickly stole my vote. It was a city I could imagine staying put in for a while for no one reason in particular. Any trepidation over ending the Central America leg was quickly eliminated upon settling into the hostel.
Old Town – One of the first World Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978, the historic center is more charming and cozy than the guidebooks offer. The colonial streets felt familiar to me. Hilly, yet familiar. Dominating the skyline is the neo-gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional. For a few bucks they let you crawl all over the place – up towers, behind stained glass, in the bell and clock towers. The ladders leading up the towers were sturdy, but rickety enough to awaken my fear of open ledges. Beyond the architecture and overall vibe, my favorite spot was the Central Mercado. Not only because it’s possible to buy an entire bag of vegetables for less then $1, but also because you can buy delicious meals there as well. One US dollar would buy a comforting bowl of potato soup called locro de papa and for $2 a giant pitcher of freshly squeezed juice concoction (orange-banana, nom). When I developed a vicious cold that knocked me out, I’d drag myself two blocks down the hill to get my fill of soup and vitamin C.
Pichincha – On the west side of Quito, a cable car (teleferiqo) was built to transport folks up to an altitude of 4,100m (13,450ft). From there it’s possible to merely enjoy the view, walk a little further uphill to rent a horse or walk for hours and hours to the summit of Pichincha. The summit trail slopes gradually for just under two hours, all the while facing a false summit. After two hours you’ll realize you’re not that close at all as the trail wraps around the north side and places you onto loose gravel, ascending for another 45 minutes or so. After three days acclimatizing in Quito you may feel every meter of altitude in your pathetic gasps for air. You’ll wonder if the last 15-20 minutes of scrambling up steep rocks is really such a good idea with zero energy remaining. But then you’ll reach the summit of 4,696m (15,407 ft) and celebrate with other successful strangers as everyone marvels at the city below. A few bites to eat, a few sips of water and it’s immediately down the mountain for the sake of your cold hands and oxygen deprived body. Two hours of blissful downhill walking with breathtaking views and you’re back at the teleferiqo, cursing the long queue as 99% of those waiting before you have fresh legs and full bellies. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience (considering I was contemplating a higher summit and children were hiking this trail) and also completely rewarding.
Cotopaxi – Though it’s been described as a 6-hour relentless death march up the mountain, I still would enjoy tackling the summit of Cotopaxi (5,897 m, 19,347 ft) one day. Mountain biking down it was the runner’s up choice this visit and a worthwhile one. Based on reviews and over 20 yrs of experience, Biking Dutchman was my tour operator of choice. They had safe, reliable bikes and an excellent, passionate guide. It didn’t hurt that the homemade lunch was fantastic too. No time to waste in the parking lot area at around 4500m on Cotopaxi. The bikes were unloaded, a quick test of the brakes and we were flying down the mountain with ice pellets whipping us in the face. Some were less liberal with the brake pressure than others, but we regrouped every so often for pictures before carrying on. At the bottom we took off across the open landscape for another few hours with endless views of volcanoes, vast nothingness, wild horses and even some Incan ruins. Biking down and around Cotopaxi was a refreshing full day excursion to add some diversity to all the city time in Quito.
Shopping for the Galapagos – There is money to be saved by being flexible when planning a Galapagos trip. I worried that it was high season and there wouldn’t be spots available on any boats or the flights for that matter– I worried there wouldn’t be discounts – I worried for nothing! Before I entertained visiting the Galapagos I imagined it would cost thousands upon thousands of dollars, only accessible to very few. Galapagos is expensive – especially relative to the cost per day on mainland Ecuador, but for this unbelievably unique experience it’s actually quite affordable. Start by visiting a handful of agencies on and around Foch street in the Mariscal district of Quito. On my third stop, a last minute deal for a 5-day cruise to the general area I wanted to tour was presented for more than a hundred dollars cheaper than other agencies (same boat and everything). It’s useful to go in knowing roughly what area you want to see and what your max budget might be. Agencies offer boats from various Economy to Luxury classes. The prices quickly escalate with nicer boats, though you are getting a more knowledgeable guide with the expected comfort upgrades. To give you an idea of prices, I didn’t see a boat for under ~$700 while scouting around in August. A flight to the Galapagos from Quito or Guayaquil will run between $400-500 typically no matter the time of year or how last minute it’s being booked. Entry into the Galapagos is also $100 for foreign tourists. This will require a few posts to elaborate, but visiting the Galapagos was truly a unique and at times magical experience.
Colonial House Quito – This was a home away from home while in Quito. Upon
arriving, the owner gave me a welcome bracelet and it was nothing but hospitality from that point on. The top floor was nearly a private apartment with a shared tv room, dining room and kitchen. One of the best parts was a view of the Panecillo statue from the bedroom and the Basilica from the kitchen (especially lit up at night). It was two blocks from the central market and immersed in the colonial old town I came to love so much. The staff also arranged two helpful Spanish refresher classes from the comfort of the hostel. It’s not often I enjoy staying in a hostel enough to rave about it on this blog or contemplate staying there again if I were to return. Even without a good hot water shower, this was a highlight for me in Quito!