La Mitad del Mundo — The Centre of the World
Last month I had the chance to visit one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Americas—Quito, Ecuador. It also happens to be the highest capital city in the world at 2800 meters above sea level and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is has perpetual spring like weather which makes it a perfect year round destination. I was there during the rainy season and only experienced one afternoon of rain.
Quito is often overlooked as a destination and just treated as a stopover before heading to the Galapagos, however, my week there proved that stereotype wrong. This vibrant city has all the culture, charm and food one could ever ask for! Old churches, interesting colonial architecture, art galleries and museums are in abundance – and food. Did I mention food? I have never eaten as well as I did in Quito.
I was there as a guest of Quito Turismo, and they took great care of us. They showed us the highlights of the city and its surrounds. We stayed in the most charming boutique hotel— something I have never experienced before. Who knew you could combine the authenticity of eras past with the conveniences of the 21st century so seamlessly? We were just a 3 minute walk from Independence Plaza—Quito’s largest public square. There was a supermarket and bank right at our doorstep. One of the highlights for me was the Don Quixote installation that was on a balcony next door.
The Old City centre is great for walking around and has many charming boutique hotels whereas the La Mariscal neighbourhood offers modern, large hotels and world class restaurants offering international fare. There is something for everyone in this bustling (yet still charming!) city. We had some time to explore the old city, a highlight for me was seeing the San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco) and The Church of the Society of Jesus (La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús). The craftsmanship and attention to detail in both were mind boggling. Every square inch is covered in intricate paintings, woodwork and gold! Although I did not have the chance to go inside the Basílica del Voto Nacional, I was awestruck by the exterior that is covered in native animals to mainland Ecuador and The Galapagos instead of Gargoyles.
I was also fortunate enough to eat at some of the best restaurants in Quito. Fresh seafood, fruit and cheese—it doesn’t get better than that. I was surprised by the quality of the bread; it could easily compete with that from any European delicatessen. We had everything from traditional Ecuadorian ceviche (garnished with popcorn and plantain chips in it) and potato soup (with avocado and fresh cheese) to the best crème brulee I have ever had. The restaurants were all clean, well decorated and very well staffed. We were never left wanting.
Part of the reason I was there was to have a look at the hotels our clients visit as well as discovering some new options. Checking out the best restaurants was hard, but someone had to do it. I can say with confidence Ecuadorian people are some of the warmest, most welcoming people I have ever met. Everywhere I looked I saw a smiling face. Every employee of every establishment I walked into seemed to take it into their own hands to make my experience as memorable as possible. It worked.
Shopping for handicrafts is a vice I have, the bargaining is exhilarating. I cannot turn down a good market and luckily enough Otavalo in Ecuador is the largest of its kind in the Americas. Deep friend Cuy to Alpaca wool sweaters to Panama Hats (originally from Ecuador) and everything in between was on offer and every price was negotiable. I could easily have spent the whole day walking around the huge market grounds. There were tons of food stalls to help keep those energy levels up. It was a fascinating people watching experience, too. There was just so much going on; I didn’t know where to look at times. The colours were so vibrant, it was hard not to buy all the cobalt blue scarves I could carry; in the end I settled for 3 for $5. Not a bad deal, if you ask me!
Ecuador unsurprisingly means equator in Spanish. As you can imagine, the country got its name because of its relation to the equator. Quito itself is located on a plateau in the Andes with its main square just 25km south of the equator; parts of the city are within 1km. There is a monument right that the Equator aptly called La Mitad del Mundo—The Centre of the World. The monument is 30 meters tall and offers some great photo ops, there are some touristy shops on the grounds, but you can find similar items at Otavalo for better prices. The highlight for me in this area was the Intiñan Solar Museum. It’s a kitschy little tourist trap (I really mean that in the nicest way possible!) where you can do experiments that apparently can only be done at the equator. The tours are interactive and the guides have fun with the guests. My favourite demonstration was balancing an egg on a nail; if you are successful you get the official Egg Master Certificate. A great addition to any resume! It’s a fun little stop if you are in the area.
Did you know that Ecuador is one the world’s leaders in Rose production? I didn’t either. On visiting a plantation I learned many more interesting facts like the size of the bloom and length of the stem determines to what region of the world the rose is shipped. Every country has very different ideas of what a perfect rose looks like. Each colour needs specific temperatures and amounts of sunshine to thrive. There is even a rainbow coloured variety where each petal is a different colour. No wonder they are amongst the world’s most coveted flowers.
The only downfall of the whole trip was that it wasn’t long enough. If you would like an insider’s advice on your next Ecuadorian adventure, please feel free to contact me. I now have the firsthand knowledge of where to eat, stay, see and shop that will make your trip as memorable as mine!
November 29, 2013