Ecuador Day 2: Old Town Quito

Palabra del día: angel

We wake to the smell of chocolate and the sound of diesel engines accelerating through the nearby alley. Breakfast is a formal affair, with fruit, yoghurt, and bread, along with bacon and eggs (tocino y revueltas). We learn that the couples we saw last night are in our tour group with CNH Tours as well.

After breakfast, our guide Edgar ushers us into a large, vibrantly green bus. We stop first at the Basilica, an epic gothic cathedral with gargoyles from each of the major biomes of Ecuador (the highlands, the coast, the Amazon River valley, and the Galápagos). A local woman tries to sell us scarves as we photograph the monolithic structure.

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Our journey continues up to the highest point in Quito, a hill from which the Virgin of Quito overlooks her city. A large statue designed in Spain, the Virgin Mary is depicted as she is in the Biblical apocalypse, with the devil chained as a snake around her feet and wings allowing her to rise out of his reach.

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We arrive early in the morning, before the tents nearby have time to open and display their wares to the tourist groups traveling to the monument. We step to the rail, able to see the illegal housing projects encroaching on the Parque Nacional Pinchincha, a national park that spans the mountaintops around the valley. Echoes of traffic horns, a man yelling for his son, and women calling to each other rise to our ears like the fog that clears from the valley as the morning warms to a balmy 22C. A dog barks nearby, and a few butterflies flutter down to land in the grass at the base of the Virgin. One of our tour group takes in the sunshine reflectively as he rests on a bench.

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Our guide eggs our driver back down the curved roads and into Old Town so we can arrive in time to see the changing of the guard at the Palacio, or Presidential Palace. Edgar tells us pickpockets lurk in the crowd, though the only organized effort by people not interested in watching the ceremony seems to be the local women targeting potential customers and spreading through the area with handfuls of Panama hats and scarves. Either way, double lines of policemen mark the edges of the plaza, refusing entry to anyone who would like a closer seat. Over the palace, armed guards with sniper rifles watch from their secure aeries above the croud.

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A loudspeaker blares out over the ceremony, and the marching band strikes up. The Ecuadorian flag is raised, and soldiers wielding shining sabers step smartly to the beat, blades lined up against their forearms as they pace. Parade horses join them, the grey horse showing its impatience with quick dances to the side.

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Soon, the changing of the guard is over, and the dignitaries speed through the streets with their police escorts, honking to clear the area before charging through.

We continue our walk to the Jesuit Church (La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), a museum and church which continues to offer services. The wood of the church has been through several earthquakes and a terrible fire, leaving the face of one cherub called the Watcher scarred and blackened. The most striking part of the church, however, is the gold leaf inlaid over almost every surface of the church’s interior. Paintings with Latin admonishments against sin depict the results of such actions, while the faces of bishops watch from above. The architecture is beautiful and captivating, though we only spend a short time there before we must continue to our last stop, Plaza San Francisco. By the time we walk around the plaza, which is dominated by a large monastery, our stomachs are growling.

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Our group drives up the road and out of Quito, taking small switchbacks at an alarming speed to climb the outer cone of an extinct volcano into Pululahua Crater. We eat lunch at the restaurant overlooking the patchwork farms inside the crater, enjoying a full three-course meal of locra with corn nuts, pork fritada, plantain fritters, vegetables, and dessert.

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After lunch, we travel to the Mitad del Mundo (you know, the touristy one, not the real one). We get a tour of the Intiñan Solar Museum, where we are regaled with tales of shrunken heads and exaggerations of the local peoples. The Other Half and I busy ourselves trying to identify the birds tittering in the bushes. We eventually find ourselves at the red line.

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Yes, it’s a lovely red line. Even if it isn’t real. And it’s totally not calculatable with a GPS (the actual equator is somewhere a few hundred feet to the north. We wind up annoying the guide by revealing the physics behind the tricks they perform at the ‘equator’, including balancing an egg on a nail, flushing water through a sink, and doing a sobriety test on the painted line.

The day ends at the hotel with tea and cookies. We discuss the afternoon with our fellow guests before retiring to our room to rest for the day ahead, our first view of the Galápagos.

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