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Ecuador: A guide to Quito

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Ecuador’s capital at an elevation of nearly 3000m, Quito, looks like a long, narrow strip with 50 km length and 5 km width. The old town, Centro historico, is right in the middle.

The “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, which includes Antisana and Cotopaxi, can be seen sitting on the horizon. For the best views, a cable car takes you up to 4000m along the Volcan Pichincha slopes.

Quito, an Inca city of great importance, was destroyed by Ruminahui in 1526 when the Spanish conquistadors arrived to Ecuador. The ruins were destroyed and the new town that we see today was built on top. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with monasteries, churches, mansions, and large squares.

It’s still bustling with street vendors dressed in colorful colonial costumes, hawking their wares despite its colonial architecture.

Centro Historico

The Plaza Grande is Quito’s focal point. It was built in 1534 at the site of Atahualpa’s palaces. It houses important civic and religious buildings. The Palacio de Giberno, a low-white building that houses the President, is still home to him. To the left of it is the Catedral Metropolita. The Palacio Arzobispal, once the palace of the archbishop, is opposite. Here shoe shiners do their work between the colonnades. People can watch this place, which is completely safe because pickpockets are prevented by groups of police.

The impressive cobbled Plaza San Francisco is just a few steps away, with Volcan Pichichina providing a dramatic backdrop. It is home to Ecuador’s oldest and most famous church, Iglesia de San Francisco. This long, whitewashed building has twin bell towers. Construction began just weeks after the founding of the city in 1534. It was completed 70 years later. Many have been rebuilt after numerous earthquakes and other natural disasters. It still occupies pride-of-place in one of Latin America’s most beautiful squares.

The oldest Quito covered market, Mercado San Francisco is located in San Roque’s traditional neighborhood. It was established in 1897. You’ll find exotic fruits and vegetables from Ecuador here, and it is also the best place to try local dishes. You will also find a section dedicated to traditional healing. This is a true sorcerer’s den with a variety of powders potions as well as dried herbs. A traditional healer will cleanse your body and soul using medicinal plants.

Mitad del Mundo

You can reach the Middle of the World by taking a short drive from town. Charles-Marie de La Condamine, a French scientist, led a mission in 1736 to determine the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth. He also determined that this was where the equatorial line runs through the earth. A monument was built later in 1936. In 1979, it was replaced by a concrete monolith 30m high and topped with an enormous metal globe. The museum contains an ethnographic collection and there is a lift that takes you to the top.

It has evolved into a tourist attraction with many museums, restaurants and handicraft shops. The weekend is filled with traditional music and dancing performances. A brand new UNASUR (Union of South American Nations Building) promotes the union of South American nations.

The theory is that you can cross the equator with one foot in each hemisphere. However, the French surveyors were wrong. GPS devices indicate that the true equator lies 240m away, on a hilltop that contains a sacred indigenous site over 1000 years old. You can still see it from the top.

Pululahua

Nearby is the extinct volcano Pululahua, whose crater is 400m deep, 5 km across, and is one of South America’s largest. It is also a Geobotanical Reserve. It is home to a unique moist microclimate and fertile soil that supports small settlements and patches of fields. The crater’s steep side is covered by lush cloud forests. From the Mirador De Ventanillas at the rim, one can see its sheer size and scale.

Nearby, the Pahuma Orchid Reserve protects over 300 orchid species, 9 of which are endemic. There are more than 500 bird species, including 40 hummingbirds. There are many trails that run through the cloud forest, leading to spectacular waterfalls. These trails are a great way to hear the birdsong, get close to orchids, and occasionally you can see the Andes. Although bears have been seen here, they are rare and should be avoided.

Antisana

The Antisana Ecological Reserve is located 100 km southeast of Quito. It was named after Ecuador’s fourth-highest volcano, which rises to 5758m. Its name means “Dark Mountain”, and the snow-covered slopes are often obscured by clouds. I am able to see better if the sky is clear so I climb up the Mica Lagoon.

There is another reason to visit. Mirador Los Condores is the name of the viewpoint. It’s the best place in Ecuador to see the Andean Condor, Ecuador’s national bird. It’s rare to see more than one hundred of these birds in the wild. A fly by of the largest flying bird in the world, gliding on thermals, is one the most exciting experiences in Ecuador.

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