Exploring the colonial elegance of Ecuador's capital Quito and visiting a museum dedicated to the Equator
Although we had been exhausted when we arrived in Quito, sleep had been difficult to achieve. Being European we are used to hotels not having air conditioning and relying on the good old fashion method of heat regulation – opening windows. The night air was cool enough to provide relief but unfortunately, the Nu House hotel borders onto a square full of bars and restaurants that are frequented by the young (and noisy residents) of town. The raucous behaviour went on until 3.30 am – and whilst our children managed to sleep through – we had a fitful and broken night’s sleep.
1. COLONIAL QUITO
Tiredness was no excuse for whimping out as we had a busy day ahead and our tour guides were picking us up at 8:00 am. So after a somewhat frenetic breakfast, we waited to be collected at the hotel reception. The plan for the day was to spend some time exploring the colonial downtown area of Quite, a trip to the high point overlooking the city and then a trip to the Equator – after which we would have free time.
Our first port of call was the La Basílica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. This is a magnificent church but is relatively newly constructed. It was started in 1892 and was finally blessed by Pope John Paul II on January 30, 1985. The most stunning element of the Basilica was the sun shining through the large stained glass windows throwing a beautiful multi-coloured pattern on the walls, pillar and marble floors of the Basilica.
From the Basilica we took a short drive down to the Plaza de La Independencia located in the heart of the historic quarter of the city. Facing the plaza are important buildings representing the five major seats of power in Quito; the Palacio de Gobierno, the Cathedral, the Municipalidad, the Palacio Arzobispal and the Casa del Alcalde. This square is the governmental and ecumenical hub of the city and, to a large degree, the country. A short walk from the Plaza is la Iglesia de la Merced. This church has a definite Moorish design style. The building is filled with wonderfully ornate altars covered in gold leaf and around the church are a wonderful collection of oil paintings and carvings of religious figures. Our final destination in Quito’s colonial old town is another church – la Iglesia de San Francisco. This is in another plaza, la Plaza San Francisco, just around the corner from Plaza de la Independencia. San Francisco was the first church built in Quito. The church and the Plaza are built upon an Incan temple which was the traditional way the invading Spaniards quelled the Incan culture.
2. EL PANECILLO
Our next port of call is El Panecillo, a hill a short distance from the colonial centre that hosts a 45m-high (148-ft.) high statue of the winged virgin; La Virgen de Quito. The Panecillo stands at about 3,000 m (9,840 ft.), so it is an ideal vantage point to see the city. On the way to El Pancecillo, we pass through some very disadvantaged areas, where we could see the high level of poverty present in this developing country. Emily was most struck by the number of street dogs loose on the streets of Quito. We climbed to the top of the virgin monument where the peaks of the lush green Andes mountain range were clearly visible in the distance. Quito is a sprawling city covering around 60 km and is home to 1.2 million people, all of which can be seen from El Panecillo.
3. INTINAN SOLAR MUSEUM
This concluded our trip to colonial Quito – our next port of call was the Mital del Mundo – the Equator. Our journey took us 45 minutes north of El Panecillo, through the bustling streets of this lofty city.
Pollution, as in most large developing cities is an issue and there appeared to be few controls on vehicle emissions. The worst offenders are the city buses. Additionally, the laws on the number of passengers in a car also seemed to be either non-existent or at best flaunted. We saw one car with about 8 children in it, 2 of whom are sitting on the lap of the lady driving. By and by we reached the Inti Ñan Solar Museum, dedicated to the culture of Ecuador and the equator. The original monument to the equator is still there but unfortunately, modern technology in the form of GPS has shown that it was indeed in the wrong place. The true line of the equator runs through the museum grounds.
The tour takes us through some recreations of the traditional homes of the Ecuadorian people. Finally, we reach the point of our quest -the line marking the Equator. Jack takes great pleasure in leaping from the Northern to the Southern hemispheres. Here our guide takes us through a few experiments to demonstrate we actually are on the equator. She takes a metal sink and pours in a bucket of water – here the water goes straight down through the hole in the bottom of the sink. Next, we move about a metre into the Northern hemisphere where we repeat the experiment and this time the water spins clockwise down the hole due to the Coriolis effect. We then go into in the Southern hemisphere and do the experiment again and the water goes down the hole this time spinning anti-clockwise. Amazing stuff. We do several more experiments that can only be achieved on the equator – such as balancing eggs on a nail. The end of our tour once again traced the roots of Ecuadorian culture and we got shown some rather gruesome artefacts including real shrunken heads taken from the Amazonian people. There was a gruesome poster showing the steps from decapitation through to the process of shrinking the head. We were also given the opportunity to use a blowpipe and shoot some darts at a cactus.
We had a wonderful time and all too soon it was time to return to Quito. Our tour guides recommended a restaurant a few blocks from our hotel where we decided to celebrate Karen’s birthday. The restaurant was wonderfully decorated and there was a lovely atmosphere, made all the more lively by the wedding in the adjoining room. We choose some traditional Ecuadorian foods and had the most wonderful meal. To accompany our eating there was an elderly gentleman playing music on an electric organ – and as a special request he piped out “happy birthday” and this was synchronised with the waiting staff bringing out a delicious chocolate cake and providing Karen with a special hat to wear (something like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter) during the rendition of the special song..
After this, we returned to the hotel and then with an afternoon of leisure we decided to visit a local artisan market where we picked up a few more souvenirs of our trip to Quito.
The best time to visit Quito
The best months for a trip to Quito are those of the dry season, that is, those who go from June to September. The other months of the year – especially those between November and February – can be quite good.
Where to stay?
1. HOTEL CASA GANGOTENA
Casa Gangotena was long the grand manor of one of Quito’s most important families, though its last look came about just a century ago after it was rebuilt following a fire. The new owners did their own rebuilding job to turn it into a hotel, digging down under for some support areas and parking, adding on a section for other spaces. The result is a hotel full of character and historic detail, but one has all the required safety infrastructure, communication technology, and bathrooms to please 21st-century guests.
2. HOTEL VIEJA CUBA
The charming Hotel Vieja Cuba with its warm and cosy atmosphere is a place of quietness right in the heart of Quito’s vibrant tourist area, the La Mariscal district. Located close to lively cafes and restaurants, shopping centers and boutiques, it’s situated only 10 kms/6.2 miles from the International Airport Mariscal Sucre (20 minutes by taxi). The carefully renovated colonial building features 26 modern and comfortable guest rooms, as well as beautiful gardens on its outsides. Furthermore, the hotel offers exquisite Mediterranean cuisine at the bar and restaurant Orisha.
3. HOSTAL JUANA DE ARCO
The Hostal is considered a heritage house in the historic centre of Quito. There are 30 beautiful and cosy rooms, where you could enjoy a familiar and calm environment within the establishment. The hotel has two kitchens for the exclusive use of the guests and coming soon we will open a ‘green space’ for smokers and you could also do another activity! The hostel is located in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, in the historic centre of Quito.