Friday, February 06, 2009


It's time to kick off my mini series based on my trip to Ecuador in January. When you start a journey like this in the capital of the country, you are never quite sure whether it will be a place to get out of as soon as possible, or somewhere where you can take some time to acclimatise to a new country and just to the idea of being on holiday. In the case of Quito it was the latter, just as well given that the city is located at an altitude of 2850 metres - you need to take things easy at this height. Take care too with the sun at this altitude and in a location just a bit south of the Equator, it may not feel very hot but it can burn quickly.

From the balcony of our hostel we could look over the old historic centre of Quito, but it was hard to imagine the small city this must have been not so long ago. Like so many other South American cities, Quito has experienced explosive growth in the last few decades and the city has spread along hillsides and in all directions from the original nucleus built by the Spanish.

The old centre is said to have improved in recent years, it once had a reputation as an unsafe area. This doesn't seem to be the case now, we walked through it by day and after dark and experienced no problems. Whilst not having the splendour of some of Mexico's towns, for example, the centre of Quito is still a largely well preserved district and has some beautiful buildings dating back as far as the Spanish arrival in the region.

A problem with this part of town is that it lacks life in the evenings once the shops have closed. Many of the restaurants in the area close around 6 or 7 in the evening. The main exception to this is a street which has obviously been fairly recently renovated - La Ronda. On the edge of the old city this street is full of bars and restaurants, but its location means that you might not find it by accident. There are some other exceptions to the rule in the rest of the old town, both at the higher and lower price extremes, but La Ronda gives you a more concentrated set of choices.

There on a Sunday, it was a pleasant surprise to see that traffic stopped in almost all of the city centre. We managed to walk from the historic centre, passing through parks and streets open only to cyclists and pedestrians, all the way to the newer part of the city known as Mariscal Sucre. Why can't they do this in Madrid was the question I found myself asking, the atmosphere was completely relaxed as residents and visitors could recover for a day the use of the city streets from incessant traffic.

Quito is surrounded by high volcanic peaks. As our first step towards acclimatisation for tougher walks to come, we hired a guide to take us to the Guagua Pichincha volcano. Although it's not far from the city you need to drive some distance to get round to the side from where it's possible to reach the summit. I found it tough going, we only walked up a few hundred metres to the top, starting some way below the refuge - but the peak is at 4784 metres and if you suffer from problems with the altitude you might find it too much. We didn't get very good visibility on the day we went, the best views seem to be in the morning and then the clouds move in during the rest of the day.

Down to the left side of here was the crater, we couldn't see much of it but there was a whiff of sulphur in the air to remind us that this is still an active volcano.

As an easier alternative inside Quito itself there is always the Parque Itchimbia, which offers great views over the city. It is also the location of an old covered market that has been converted into a cultural centre.

The hostel we stayed at, The Secret Garden, is on a hill just outside the centre and below Itchimbia. It's a great place to stay if you want to hang around Quito for a few days doing nothing in particular. It's a bad place to stay if you are one of those who go to bed early with the idea of doing things the next day - the open design of the building together with the party atmosphere on the terrace will make it very hard for you to sleep well.

Getting around the centre of the city is easy, you can do most of it on foot. If you're feeling lazy taxis are cheap although you have to negotiate your price in advance; from the airport to our hostel was only $10.


leftbanker said...

4785 meters! Yikes, that's higher than Washington State's highest peak and peaople actually live at those altitutdes in the Andes.

Graeme said...

Well I didn't see anyone living on that peak, unless you count the man looking after the refuge - but yes it's strange to see villages and abundant vegetation at 3-4000 metres when you're used to the tree line ending at around 2000 as it does in Madrid. In the next chapter we go higher!