3rd Nov 2010 - 13th Nov 2010
After ten amazing days in the Galapagos Islands it was now time to discover some of mainland Ecuador.
San Francisco de Quito
Despite having spent a day in Quito before heading to the Galapagos I had not managed to see very much of the countries capital so it was only fitting that I undertake a city tour the second time around.
San Francisco de Quito (more commonly known as Quito) is the capital city of Ecuador and with an elevation of 2,800 metres it is the second-highest administrative capital city in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia) and is the highest legal capital (ahead of Sucre, Bolivia). Quito was the first city to be declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 and has assisted in keeping Quito as one of the largest and best-preserved historic centres in Latin America
During the first part of the tour we did a walking and driving tour of the new town (primarily made-up of commercial and government administrative buildings) before heading to the more famous (and appealing) old town.
While in the old town we did tours of the Cathedral of Quito, the Church of the Society of Jesus (La Compañía) and the Church of St. Francis (San Francisco) – three very different styled churches serving different ‘parts’ of Ecuadorian society.
Built by the Jesuits between 1605 and 1768, the La Compañía is one of the most beautiful baroque styled churches I have ever seen. Despite being baroque (which normally means it is so busy it is hard to work out what is going on) I found its symmetrical style and ornate decor breathtaking – the seven tons of gold used on the ceiling, walls, and altars probably adds to its appeal (there is even a huge mirror in front of the altar you can use to admire the gold detail on the ceiling without straining ones neck).
Asides from being beautiful I also enjoyed the visit to this church thanks to the unusual piece of art hanging on the right side of the entrance hall. As I mentioned above this church is about symmetry, the left side is about heaven and the right side about hell. The painting for heaven is a lovely cloud-filled picture of people being ascended to the heavens but the painting for hell is a fire fuelled picture of fury where sinners are labelled things like vanidad (vanity) and glotón (gluttony) and are each receiving an imaginative and excruciatingly appropriate punishment. It is said that schoolchildren were brought to the church and shown the mural to encourage them to choose the ‘right path.’
The Iglesia San Francisco is located in the Plaza San Francisco which sports a great view of the Virgin of Quito and where vendors of religious paraphernalia keep visitors stocked with rosaries, candles, incense and icons. Unfortunately mass had just finished when we arrived so my visit was quite quick and I didn't get a chance to learn the idiosyncrasies of this Church.
Despite the beauty of the La Compañía I liked the Cathedral the best because it had character. It was a grand cathedral with a geometrical wooden ceiling, large pipe organ and many features similar to other cathedrals around the world but there was one thing that made it uniquely different. Along one of the ceiling panels it had the traditional scene of the last supper painted but in the centre of the table where you would expect to find a loaf a bread instead there is a roasted guinea pig – the purpose being to honour both the Catholic religion and the original traditions / culture.
I was feeling rather ‘churched-out’ by this point so we went to the heart of colonial Quito, the Plaza de la Independencia. The plaza is essentially a small park dominated by a winged statue to independence and a legion of old men feeding pigeons and enjoying the sun. The Cathedral of Quito sits to the southwest of the plaza and the other three sides are occupied by the Palacio de Gobierno, the former Palacio Arzobispal (now a series of small shops and boutiques) and the City Hall (one of the only non-colonial building in the old town).
From the old town we made a trip to El Panecillo hill the home of the Virgin of Quito (a monument to the Virgin Mary). It was commissioned in 1976 by the religious order of the Oblates and is 41 metres tall, made of approximately 7,000 pieces of aluminium and being located at 3,016 metres the statue is visible from most parts of the city of Quito. When I first saw the statue I thought the Virgin was standing on a turtle, I was wrong. She is standing on top of a globe which is on top of a chained snake – symbolising her triumph over evil.
Peter, Roberto (the new tour guide) and I left Quito and made our way over the east range of the Andes Mountains. After making a stop at the Papallacta hot springs for a soak and moment of reflection in the mountain air we took a motor canoe on the Arahuno River into the Amazon Jungle. I only spent a day and a half in the jungle (which was less than I had originally hoped for) and I mainly occupied myself by going on walks and learning about the flora and fauna in the area. Peter was not quite as enthusiastic as me with the walking and I think it had something to do with the intense heat and humidity but I guess that is what you get for coming from Canberra! It rained at one point so it gave me a good excuse to lie in the hammock with a book but once the rain cleared I was back in the Jungle, looking at Sabar trees and I also paid a visit to the Amazoonica animal rescue centre which was a great way to learn about the different animals that made the Amazon their home!
Bidding the Amazon farewell much sooner than I would have liked we were back on the road and Roberto suggested that we make a stop at an orchid forest and so we did. An American was at work one day and got thinking about how difficult it would be to create a forest, intrigued he quit his job, moved to Ecuador and purchased a piece of cow pasturing land. With the essentially baron land he created Jardin Botanico. The ten hectares was re-planted with native trees and plants and from there nature took over; at first it looked like the insects would eat the plants before anything of substance was established but sure enough just as the insects came, so did the spiders and birds and now there is a secondary forest where only twenty years ago there was not a single tree.
With the forest growing the American (whose name I can not remember or I would stop referring to him as the American) decided to dabble in native orchids. He collected clippings of orchids from anywhere he could and attached them to trees to see what would grow – so amidst the new forest there are dozens of species of orchids growing as well (some are so small you need a magnifying glass to be able to see)!!
After that unexpected but very interesting experience we made an ice-cream stop at Santa Clara and arrived into Baños late in the afternoon!! Over the next day and half while I was in Baños I spent some time exploring the streets and markets of the small town, I did a bike ride to Green River, walked the Camino al Cielo (way to heaven trail) and explored the Cascada Pailon del Diablo (large pot devil’s waterfall). At the waterfall I was able to climb through a series of natural rock tunnels which lead me out behind the falling waters of the Cascada (I got very wet but it was fun, too bad I didn’t have my waterproof camera with me)!
Leaving Baños early on the third day we drove to the Cotopaxi volcano. Cotopaxi sits in the east range of the Andes and is located 28 km south of Quito. We only walked to 4,800m as the ascent to the summit (5,897m) is an actual hike which we unfortunately did not have time for. From Cotopaxi we returned to Quito where I said goodbye to Peter and Roberto and once again was on my own.
Having exhausted the sites of Quito I headed north to La Mitad del Mundo otherwise known as the middle of the world. La Mitad del Mundo is where the equator line crosses the South American continent and is technically considered the middle of the world (the reason for this was explained to me using a globe but it is too complicated to explain in this blog, if you are interested, ask me when I come home)! At the equator line there is the Intiñan Solar Museum which encompasses displays about local customs and traditions as well as fun facts about the equator. The guides perform demonstrations “supposedly” only possible on the equator (such as water flowing both counter-clockwise and clockwise down a drain and balancing an egg on the end of a nail) but it is well known that this is a tourist gimmick and that latitude has no measurable influence on these tricks (it is fun to pretend though)!! Northwest of La Mitad del Mundo is the Pululahua volcano so I went to have a bow-peep at the crater which is believed to be one of only a few in the world with human inhabitants.
Making stops at Calderon and Guayllabamba towns I arrived into Cayambe late in the afternoon and spent the evening at a hacienda (oddly enough owned by the mayor of Cayambe). Hacienda is the Spanish word for an estate and was a system of large land-holdings that in themselves were marks of status. Today most haciendas have been turned into hotels and provide people like me accommodation with a difference. The buildings feel so old-world and with a fire burning it was so nice to sit in the old wooden furniture with a good book and glass of wine.
First thing in the morning I went back into Cayambe town to see biscacho making (a traditional biscuit of Ecuador which was likened to a shortbread biscuit mixed with a pretzel). The bakery I visited still make the biscuits by hand but I am unsure whether they do this because they can not afford the machinery or whether the traditional methods result in a better tasting biscuit - I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask.
The area surrounding Cayambe is dominated by rows and rows of greenhouses all growing roses. An interesting fact, Ecuadorian men do not give their ladies roses as they would be considered cheap – you can buy a dozen roses for $1 in the local markets. Despite that fact I was interested in seeing inside a Rose farm and so I managed to get inside Sunrite Farms. First I walked through the greenhouses where each rose was covered with a special netting, at first I thought it was to help the rose keep its shape but it turns out that the netting increases the temperature of the rose and helps them to grow slightly quicker. From there we went inside the processing shed where the roses are taken once picked from the greenhouse.
It was a production line of flowers. The flowers are first washed and any little creatures removed from the leaves and the flowers are then sorted into colour and size (there is an international sizing chart for roses). Once sorted another team puts the roses into boxes by the dozen and places them on a conveyor belt which takes them to quality control. The stems of the roses are trimmed according to the customers request and orders of size and colour are placed into crates ready for international transport. The farmer will get anywhere from 25c to $1 for each rose depending on the size, colour and quality of the flower – I am now struggling to understand why I pay $10+ for a rose at home, hmm.
I made a stop at the beautiful San Pablo Lake to try and capture a glimpse of the Ibambura Volcano but unfortunately it was hidden behind a cloud – stupid clouds! From there I made my way into San Pablo to visit an animal rescue centre fondly dubbed ‘Condor Park.’ The park was home to birds that have been rescued from homes, hotels and even the Ecuadorian border where smugglers are caught trying to get them to collectors on international shores. Unfortunately the beautiful colour and nature of the native birds of South America make them an attractive pet but unfortunately most people do not know how to look after them properly resulting in physical and physiological issues for the bird.
Following the bird park I went to the Cotacachi National Park but unfortunately it was cold and raining so my enthusiasm to explore the area was limited-to-none so I went into Cotacachi town for lunch and perused the endless amount of leather product stores instead (does that make me a bad person?!). Later that afternoon I arrived in Otavalo where I went Salsa dancing for the first time – definitely need to invest in some lessons when I get to Guatemala.
The largest markets in South America are held in Otavalo on a Saturday and by good chance more than good planning I found myself in Otavalo on a Saturday (yay)! So after a sleep-in to recover from my night of salsa I spent some time wandering and bartering my way through the streets of Otavalo. Unfortunately I was mostly shopped out of multi-coloured table cloths, ponchos and pan-pipes (as a result of being in South America for three months) but I did manage to get a few bits and pieces.
It was then time to go back to Quito and say goodbye to South America but with every door that closes another one opens as it was also time to say hello to Central America!!