Today is Monday October 14th and after 2 weeks of being stuck in Otavalo, I was finally able to make it Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Considering the fact that the city was ground zero for the violent protests against the government during the recent national strike, I was unsure what I would find. However, given the logistics of traveling through the country, I didn’t want to pass up a golden opportunity to explore Ecuador’s capital city or the surrounding landmarks.
End of El Paro-As my preceding posts detail, I arrived in Ecuador just in time to get stuck in Otavalo due to a nationwide protest (El Paro) against the government. Two days ago, I would have never imagined that I would be writing from Quito’s historical center this week based on the way things were going. Ecuador’s president had just announced a nationwide curfew due to the escalation of protests and more people were heading to Quito to stand against the government. The government had basically fled to Guayaquil for their own safety. At this point, hundreds of people had been detained and several had been killed including one of the leaders of the indigenous union. However, late Saturday night, the government and protesters agreed to meet face to face through mediation by the United Nations and Catholic church on Sunday. The meeting was actually broadcast live in prime time Sunday night throughout country. After each side stated their case and took a very conciliatory tone with the opposition, there was about an hour break before the UN mediator came back on the screen and announced that a deal had been reached between the government and protesters. Ecuador’s president had agreed to repeal a controversial law and remake it under the advice of representatives from varying sectors of society. Almost immediately, hundreds of people and cars flooded the streets of Otavalo to celebrate. Despite it being almost 11PM, I went out and walked with many of the towns people to the center of the city as they chanted and waved Ecuadorian flags. Despite it being very inconvenient for my travels, I was very impressed in how the whole country banded together to protest against something that they cared about. I found it to be a very democratic moment regardless of what specifically the people were objecting against. While I’m not sure what the future holds, as Ecuador still has many economic challenges, I am glad to have witnessed this event up close.
Arrival in Quito- When I woke up on Monday, I wasn’t planning on going to Quito for a few more days. As much as I was sick of Otavalo, I figured Quito was still smoldering from El Paro. In addition, although the bus terminal was back and running, none of the buses were going to directly to Quito from Otavalo. About 10 AM, I ultimately decided to leave for two reasons. First, I was running extremely low on cash and my debit card didn’t work in any of Otavalos ATMs. When I tried calling the bank to see what was going, I found out that it was a holiday in the United States and they were closed. I figured it would be easier to find an international bank in Quito to where I could get money. Second, when I went to extend my stay, the credit card machine at the hotel was down despite having worked previously. I took it as a sign that my time in Otavalo had come to an end. I packed my stuff up and took a bus to Cayambe which was about 2 hours east of Quito. The ride only cost 85 cents so I figured that if I couldn’t get a bus to Quito then it wouldn’t be that expensive to get back to Otavalo. There was no terminal in Cayambe and so I had to walk to the town’s main intersection to hopefully catch a passing bus. Sure enough, as soon as I arrived, there was a bus passing heading to the capital city. The fare was about $2 USD for a two hour trip. Although there were vestiges of the roadblocks set up by protesters during the strike, the ride turned out to be fairly easy. I arrived in Quito without a hotel reservation. I had made one before but cancelled it when it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to leave Otavalo. I figured that there would still be rooms available given what just occurred. From the northern bus terminal, I took the municipal bus (.35 cents) and a cab ($2 USD) to El Centro Historico, the main tourist area of the city. I arrived at the hotel with 1% power on my phone and had to plug it to remake the reservation through the Booking.com mobile app in order to receive a slight discount. Turns out the room I reserved was literally a broom closet in the very back of the hotel so I paid $20 more for a slightly bigger room near the hotel entrance. The hotel was right next to the main plaza and within walking distance of many tourist attractions. Surprising, while there was definitely a police presence, there was little evidence to suggest the city had been the battleground of 2 weeks of protests. I through my stuff in the room and went and got a haircut; something that was long overdue.
Quito City Tour- As has become habit during my travels, the first thing that I look for when I arrive to a new city is the free walking tour. These tours give me a chance to not only go to the cities best attractions but it also allows me to ask questions directly to a local tour guide. After doing a Google search, I found Free Walking Tour Quito and booked a tour for the following morning. Although I received a confirmation email, I didn’t know what to expect given the recency of the protests. I arrived at the meeting point the following morning which was annotated by a sign hanging above a restaurant. As the meeting time came, I didn’t see anyone. I waited for about five minutes and figured that there wouldn’t be a tour. As I was turning to leave, I saw a local Ecuadorian man post under the sign. Although he didn’t look like the guide for the website, I went and ask if he was a guide in Spanish. He replied in English that he was and confirmed my reservation. The guides name was Ivan and he told me that he had been certified by the government to conduct tours of the city. As we were about to leave, we ended up being joined by two European travelers. This was even better because I would have felt bad if I were the only one. The tour was done mostly in Spanish by choice but for the more complicated ideas, Ivan was more than capable of explaining them in English if I had trouble comprehending. We toured many of the neighborhoods in El Centro Historico and got quite the workout as we walked up and down Quito’s numerous hills. We stopped at a local market and sampled many of the fruits that the vendors had to offer. We then checked out the central community center, Cumanda, which was very modern and even had a gym similar to a 24 Hour Fitness in the United States. We then went inside Iglesia San Francisco de Quito, the second biggest church in the city. The church was filled with gold from floor to ceiling that was comparable to many of the Buddhist temples throughout southeast Asia (except photo taking was allowed). Ivan then took us over to a local cocoa shop to sample different varieties of Ecuadorean chocolate (the countries sixth biggest export). However, the best part of the tour came at the end when Ivan was able to get us in to La Plaza Grande (the main presidential square) given that we were two days removed from violent protests taking place there. Considering we had to pass five different military checkpoints, it was quite an accomplishment. Because I tend to dress down when I am out and about (to not attract unwanted attention), I have been mistaken for a local numerous times during my travels. I was actually told not to speak Spanish to make it evident that I was American because one of the cops thought I was a Venezuelan migrant. Had I not been on the tour, I would not have been able to get within 100 yards of the presidential palace. After touring the highly secure park, we got to take photographs with some of the Ecuadorian military soldiers. As an American military veteran, I respect the work to do for their country even in the most trying times. The tour took about three hours and I gave Ivan a $7 USD tip but I felt that the tour was worth much more than that.
El Panecillo- High above one of the world’s highest cities sits a 45 meter tall aluminum statute which overlooks the city. From afar El Panecillo looks like an angel staring down from above but in fact it is the pregnant virgin Mary signifying the prevalence of Roman Catholicism in Ecuadorian society. El Panecillo was built in 1976 by Spanish sculptor Agustín de la Herrán Matorras. I decided to take a trip to El Panecillo on a Wednesday morning. I paid $4 USD for a 10 minute Uber from Plaza Santa Domingo in the Quito’s historical center to the top of the mountain. While there was the cheaper option of taking a city bus, it would have probably taken me an hour to arrive with the traffic and various stops. The area leading up to El Panecillo was steep and rundown so I wouldn’t recommend walking either. I arrived at the base of the statute and got there early enough to where not many other people were around. More importantly, there was no entrance fee to see the statute. The statute was just as stunning up close as it was from down on the ground. I was able to take many pictures of the statute (including the obligatory selfie to prove I was actually there). While there was the option to go onto an observatory deck to see a 360 degree view of Quito, the view was just as nice from down in the parking lot. Outside of seeing the statute and the surrounding view of the city, there wasn’t much else going on. Behind the statute, there were several food shacks that seemed to sell things which catered to European and American tourists (i.e. hotdogs, hamburgers, pizza). While many of the stands were still closed, the ones that were opened seemed to be pretty expensive. I ended up spending about 45 minutes at the statute as I had to wait for the bus. In the end, I thought El Panecillo was worth the trip for the views alone and would recommend going as early as possible to avoid the inevitable rush of tourists.
Cuidad del Mundo- At the foot of El Panecillo sits a bus stop that conveniently goes to La Mitad del Mundo or “The Center of the World”. I was able to hop on the bus and pay .50 cents for the hour journey. Unfortunately, I assumed that the bus would stop directly in front of the monument so I ended up missing the stop and had to pay another .25 cents to get dropped off at the gate by a returning bus. Had I been paying more attention; I would have clearly seen the monument as it can’t be missed from the street. Cuidad del Mundo is a gimmicky theme park that takes advantage of its location in the “center of the world”. The park itself isn’t in Quito but rather neighboring Pichincha. Upon arrival, I paid the $5 USD entrance fee, however it surprised me that the ticket office didn’t accept credit card while many of the stores inside did. It was also interesting in that you can actually get a decent picture of the monument without even stepping foot into the park as it is clearly visible from the gate. A few European tourists were actually taking selfies and running off without buying a ticket and the guard didn’t seem to care. This annoyed me because they couldn’t afford the $5 USD entrance fee to support the park then they shouldn’t be traveling. Inside the gate, there were several themed areas to explore which surrounded the monument that were included in the entrance fee. One of the places that I liked was the model indigenous village right by the entrance. I was able to walk through several types of huts filled with descriptions and replica of tools that the coastal tribes used in their everyday lives. One of the huts actually had an actor playing the role of a medicine man but he didn’t really seem terribly excited to be there when I spoke to him. The same hut did have an area with several live Guinea pigs (cuy in Spanish) which I was able to get a video of. There was also a train that people are able to ride around the park (although I didn’t ride it). Like any other theme park, Cuidad del Mundo was also filled with restaurants and souvenir shops. There was also a chocolate shop that sold overpriced chocolate but had a FREE portable phone charging machine. The charging machine was a pleasant surprise given my phone was at about 20% power when I discovered it. Overall, I went at a perfect time because there were hardly any people there which allowed me to get a lot of good photos of the various attractions. I feel that I wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience as much on a Saturday when the park is full of people. I spent about an hour walking around and then caught a bus back to Quito.
TelefériQo- In Spanish “teleférico” means cable car. Many Latin American cities (i.e. Medellin, Caracas) use the teleférico as a form of public transportation due to the fact much of their population lives in the mountains. Despite, the extreme changes of elevation one encounters when traveling through the neighborhoods of Quito, the city does not have an established teleférico public transportation system. Instead, the TelefériQo is used to shuttle tourists to the foot of Volcan Pichincha located about 2500 meters above the station. Although, I was ill prepared to attempt to climb the volcano, I decided to ride the TelefériQo for the experience and the views at the top. The station was located about 20 minutes from the Quito’s historical center and cost me about $4 to take an Uber. While there was a security gate at the foot of the hill, most taxis and Ubers are able to pass through and drop passengers at the top of the hill. The roundtrip ticket on the cable car cost $8.50 USD for foreigners, however the ticket office did accept credit card which allowed me to conserve my much needed cash. I went early enough to where the line was not the long and I was able to get in a car almost immediately. The trip up the mountain took 18 minutes and I felt relatively safe riding in the car. Going up, I was forced to share with 5 other people so getting pictures was difficult during the ascent. After arriving at the summit, I could immediately feel the change of temperature as it got about 25 degree cooler. Fortunately, there was little wind which made it bearable given the fact that I didn’t have a jacket or sweater. Outside the station are two overpriced coffee shops, although Cruz Loma Café provided an excellent view of the valley AND accepts credit card for payment. The trail is pretty easy even with the difficulties of walking at altitude. In addition, there were several benches and wooden lawn chairs available to sit and enjoy the view of Quito (which is magnificent). There was even a few swings, but these were mostly used for people posing for Instagram pictures. Eventually, I hit the sign annotating the beginning of the Pichincha hike and turned back. The Pichincha hike takes anywhere between 6-8 hours depending on fitness level and is considered to be pretty difficult. Had I been better prepared and come earlier, I may have done it. I spent about 2 hours hanging out and then took the cable car back down. Going down, it was easier for me to get a private car and take pictures. Upon arriving at the ground station, I was able to take a free shuttle down to the base of the hill and take a city bus back into Quito for .25 cents. Even though I didn’t climb Pichincha, I still thought the trip was worth it.
Mindo-Located about two hours north of Quito in Ecuador’s cloud forest, Mindo is a place where tourists usually either pay $60-$90 for a day excursion tour or stay for a few days in one of the towns rustic hostels. I decided to make a day trip using public transportation. Given that buses only go back and forth to Mindo a few times a day from Quito, I wanted to leave on the first bus out in order to maximize my experience. I woke up at 6:30 and took the city bus (.35 cents) from Plaza Marin to Terminal Ofelia, located in the northern part of Quito. The trip consisted of an hour long journey crammed against locals going in to work during their morning commute. I arrived in time to get a ticket on the 8AM bus to Mindo ($3.10 USD). The trip took about 2 hours and 20 minutes and the ride was fairly comfortable given not many other people were on the bus. The bus dropped me off about 3 blocks from Mindo’s central square. The town itself could be considered a clone of Minca in northern Colombia while being slightly more aesthetically pleasing. It was easily walkable and had a mix of expensive restaurants, tour package operators, and souvenir shops. I was able to find the cities tourism office across the street from the central square. Talking to the representative, there seem to be excursions located right outside of the city which are very popular amongst tourists. These include ziplining, butterfly watching, horseback riding, and rappelling. There was also three waterfalls in which people could hike too. These excursions were priced between $5-45 USD; however, taxis costs about 6 USD each way which is criminal when considering the price for public transportation in Ecuador. Generally, when there are a lot of tourists around, one can split the cab ride to make it more affordable. However, most of the tourists that I saw were heading to the terminal to go back to Quito. Thus, I decided to forgo those activities and just do a tour of Mindo’s main chocolate factory. It was an hour-long tour that cost $10 USD an done through a company called Quetzal. During my city tour in Quito, it was recommended that I observe the chocolate making process in Mindo. Fortunately, I was the only person there and Jorge (the tour guide) explained to me the process of converting cocoa beans into items like chocolate bars, lip balm, and even barbeque sauce. We also toured the factory as workers were busy melting and packaging chocolate bars. The best part of the tour came when I got to try the finished products. I tried everything from organic hot cocoa to ginger flavored chocolate. My favorite was the brownie which was so good that I overpaid ($3 USD) for another piece from the restaurant. The tour provided good value for the price and gave me something affordable to do while in Mindo. After the tour, I headed back to the bus station just in time to catch the 1:45 PM bus back to Quito.