Monday, September 16, 2013

Ecuador, A Wonderful Introduction to South America
(Part 1: Quito)

Traveling is like falling in love.  Although I can’t put into words what it is about a place that I’m drawn to, I know it … and feel it as soon as I find it, and as soon as I landed in Ecuador, I was captivated! 

Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador may be one of the smallest and less-known countries in South America, but it’s packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery.  

Everywhere we went, we were surrounded by breathtaking scenery, think majestic mountains of Switzerland alongside the tranquile beauty of the Greek Isles.  The eye-catching colors of Ecuador leap out from every corner of its diverse landscape. 

Although the country’s greatest draw are the Galápagos Islands, the rest of Ecuador shouldn’t be seen merely as a stopover.  Thanks to its compact size, travelling around Ecuador is easy, and this friendly and vibrant country truly is a microcosm of South America.  For me, Ecuador was a wonderful introduction to the continent that I hope to see and discover more of in the future.     
Located high up in the Andes, you can see the dramatic landscape of Ecuador’s capital even before you land, as you can get some of the best aerials views from the plane. 

The dramatic landscape surrounding Quito also creates unpredictable climate and turbulence, especially during flights.  A word of warning, take Dramamine and brace yourself.  Even for a seasoned traveler like myself, the extremely bumpy ride during takeoff and landing was hard to stomach … literally.  

Also, Quito’s altitude (2800m) can leave you feeling breathless and woozy when you first arrive, and it can take most visitors a couple of days to adjust, often by resting and keeping hydrated. 

The compact Old Town, known as the centro histórico, is the city’s undisputed highlight, a jumble of narrow streets and wide, cobbled plazas lined with churches, monasteries, mansions and colorful balconied houses. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town contains some of the most beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture on the continent.

I certainly enjoyed strolling through the breathtakingly beautiful streets, which from what I was told was the new and improved version.  There has been an extensive renovation and restoration to this part of town in the last 3 years as part of city's effort to boost tourism. 

Sundays (weekends) are a great day(s) to walk around Old Town, as majority of the roads are closed for pedestrians.  Also, churches and cathedrals, which usually charge an entrance fee are opened to public for free.

Highlights in Old Town:
  • Plaza de la Independencia (Grand Plaza)
  • Presidential Palace
  • Archbishop’s Place – a nice selection of restuarants & cafes located inside the courtyard
  • City Hall 
  • Calle García Moreno 
  • El Sagrario 
  • La Compañia de Jesus Church
  • Santo Domingo Plaza
Although it can get crowded, the atmosphere was festive and fun with different venues of music and street performance everywhere.  The streets were filled with musicians and performers, and every which way I turned, I saw beautiful colonial buildings with the breathtaking scenery of the mountain in the background and the dramatic view of the El Panecillo (Virgin Monument), which was absolutely stunning!  I really enjoyed spending the entire day just strolling, sightseeing and soaking up local culture.
Then, I headed uphill on Calle Sucre to Plaza San Francisco, which was one of the loveliest squares I've seen.  It's a perfect place (Tianguez Cultural Cafe) to stop for lunch, drinks or just to sit and enjoy the view.
Basilica del Voto Nacional, Ecuador’s largest Gothic cathedral, adorned with gargoyles inspired by the country’s iguanas, pumas and Galápagos tortoises.
Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Mankind), an impressive cultural complex conceived in 1985 by one of Ecuador’s greatest artists Oswaldo Guayasamín as a tribute to the resilience of the Indigenous South Americans. 
Not to miss:
  • the changing of the guards at Plaza de la Independencia (every Monday at 11:00am)
  • Sunday mornings in Old Town, which is closed for pedestrians
  • the view of Quito from the top of Basilica del Voto Nacional
  • La Casa de la Cultura, a phenomenal space that exhibits all types of art and cultural venues & the indigenous market (about 2 blocks away from la Casa de la Cultura) consists of some of the finest selection of Indigenous Arts and Crafts from Otavalo. 

Recommended restaurants:
Having a little knowledge of Ecuadorian food, I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was … so much so that now, it’s one of my favorites.  Filling potato soups, raw seafood marinated in tangy lime juice, refreshing ceviches are some of the more popular dishes, but everywhere I went, from the high Sierras to tiny coastal villages, I was privy to some of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had.  Also, there is a nice variety of ethnic restaurants in Quito.
  • Sher e Punjab
  • Miso (Av. Amazoznas e Isla Baltra 02 2246 362)
  • Quicentro Mall - You can find a nice variety of Ecuadorian cuisine.
Recommended day trips from Quito:
  • Mital del Mundo (the Equator), a spectacular place ... literally in the middle of nowhere, about 45 minute drive outside of Quito. 
  • Pupulahua, a dormant volcano that was transformed into an ecological park located near Mital del Mundo.  The view from the top was absolutely spectacular!
Ecuador, Part 2: Cuenca
Great Day Trips From Cuenca
Ecuador, Part 3: Guayaquil & the Coast

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