Travel Dates 8th-20th April 2010.
Please click on any picture to see the larger version.
I am a little late with my Ecuador blogs; I had no wifi in the Galapagos and limited access since so I will be catching up over the next few days.
I stayed in Quito for a week before going to the Galapagos Islands and another night on my return.
On past trips I have been very successful pre-booking accommodation via the internet. On this trip I have had some dismal failures in that regard, both in hotels and hostels. I have given far too much worth to customer reviews and dis-honest hotel and hostel advertising. If you are thinking of visiting I suggest ignoring any glowing reviews of South American accommodation and reading just the moderate and bad ones to get a more valid picture. Too often reviews praised “wonderful” staff and neglected to mention woeful beds, bathrooms, noises or smells.
Quito was no exception. Jhomana Hostel in the Mariscal looked wonderful on the web and in customer reviews on tripadvisor and hostel web-sites. Maybe I just got the wrong room; you will find my own review here: Staff were great, but the room was not. I booked for two nights but moved out after one.
On the other hand, like the previous occasions in Puno and Cusco the move was a major improvement. Not only did I find a better hotel, the Huasi Continental, at a cheaper price but I later realised it was in a much better location in the Centro Historico.
If I ever travel in South America again I will book for only the first night in any location to allow me to move easily if that is unsuitable. I have found many hotels that give much better prices to “walk-ins” than on the web. The exception to that may be Rio de Janeiro, but I'll write on that town later. In case that looks like I'm panning all South American hotels; I'm not. The Royal Inn in Puno and Royal Inka 1 in Cusco were excellent and the Mercure Alameda in Quito was wonderful.
Where should you stay in Quito? Of my eight days in Quito I spent three in the Mariscal and five in the Centro Historico.
Both have their attractions but if I ever go again I would spend all the time in the Centro Historico. La Mariscal is “Tourist Central”. It is the district to stay if you are into the young party scene or if you prefer 4* hotels with all the trimmings and lots of up-market restaurants to choose from. Many of the people staying there are using it as a base, like I did, to go to the Galapagos Islands but many of them never see Quito at all; for them it is simply a place to stay between flights. Such a pity, because Quito is a fascinating place if you take the time to do some exploring.
The Centro Historico is a World Heritage Site and is considered by many to be the best-preserved old centre in South America.
There are no American-style 5* hotels in the Centro Historico; the Radisson, Hilton, Marriott and others are all in La Mariscal. If you want luxury there is one local hotel, the Plaza Grande, which starts at $500 a night and a few others below that price. But there are many old hotels like my Huasi Continental at $18 per night for a single (cheaper without the bathroom or the cable TV. It was like an acceptable 2* with a comfortable bed, plumbing that worked and cable TV that worked on some channels and not on others. And a need to learn enough Spanish to communicate with staff who know no English at all.
Although there are fewer up-market restaurants there are certainly enough to meet your needs. This complex, just off the Plaza Grande in part of the old Bishop's palace, has eight cafés and restaurants ranging from fast-food to the top-of-the-range Mea Culpa. I ate at the mid-range ones you can see on the lower floor (specialising in fish) and the middle floor (good all-round menu). A side benefit were shows in a side courtyard after dinner.
I won't go through the long list of churches (I am “churched out” by now), museums, palaces for Presidents, Bishops and others, or the other buildings in the district. Just a few selected photos.
The opening picture and the two above are from La Compania, reputedly one of the most beautiful churches in South America. It is one of the churches in the “Street of Seven Crosses”. I tend to get annoyed when photography is banned in a church that charges admission to tourists when there are no services happening. So I turn off the flash and the shutter noises and sneak a few. La Compania is possibly the most visited church in Quito, full of gilt, treasures and history. My bias will show; I saw this, and many other churches I have visited, as museums showing how ostentatiously the clerics in past centuries displayed obscene wealth to the indigenous subjects who had converted to their faith. Often that wealth was extracted from those same people. It is such a pity that the bloody wars of independence from Spain did not also achieve independence from Spain's religion.
But it isn't surprising. One of the things I learned from reading about those revolutions was that they were not revolutions by the indigenous people but by the leaders of the colonial Spanish communities who all had god on their side. A free and fascinating museum in Quito is the home of Mariscal Sucre who I found was one of the heroes of the fight for independence. He was a great general in the field in several campaigns and also very effective on the political scene. He came from a wealthy family of upper-class Spanish parents and was representative of the leaders of the revolution at the time. The house, even by today's standards, is a mansion. It also includes its own chapel, directly off the main bedroom.
Unfortunately the weather in Quito in April is “four seasons in a day”. In the week I was there it became reasonably predictable: cold and cloudy until about ten am, warm and sunny from then until noon, then the clouds rolled back in and by three pm it would be wet and cold. On the day I decided to take the Teleferico cable car, to a mountain top beside the town, the sunny ten am to midday gap I was relying on didn't happen and the rain arrived early so Quito disappeared below the clouds when I was about three-quarters of the way up. It was still a spectacular view until then.
I also wandered about on the local public transport system. The main transit system is the “trole” which are three separate lines for electric trolley-buses on the north-south routes along Quito's spine. All rides, regardless of length, are 25c. Ecuador uses the US$ as it's official currency. I paid my 25c to sit in a couple of them for their entire length and back again to see Quito beyond the tourist district.
They are complemented by the Collectivo buses. I noticed that the trole buses can use their own engines when they disconnect from the overhead power lines but usually they are clean, green and electric. However, most of the collectivos made up for that with clouds of black diesel exhaust belching out in their wake. Their destinations can be a mystery. I used one, also 25c, to get from the Teleferico terminus to the Centro Historico and only missed by a km or so. Not too bad in the circumstances.
The general impression I got when comparing Ecuador to Peru was that there are many similarities in foods, lifestyle and systems but that the Ecuadorians are significantly more affluent. Cars and taxis are newer, roads and streets are in a better state of maintenance, hotels are a slightly higher standard for the same stars, restaurants present similar foods but at a slightly higher standard. However, the restaurant prices are very similar to Peru and quite cheap by our standards. Similarly to Peru I ate breakfasts and lunches in indigenous desayuno and almuerzo cafés for a couple of dollars and my evening meals at better restaurants for $15-$20 including wine and taxes.
A few snaps to close with. In both Peru and Ecuador I noticed many more shops selling fabric than at home, implying that more people make their own clothes. For those who cannot these tailors ply their trade in the street. For these roof repairers “Occupational Health and Safety” is a concept which apparently does not translate into Spanish.
Wherever you go in the old city the winged virgin looks down from the nearby hills.
Apparently there is an election looming. While speakers for one candidate were double teaming highly amplified speeches from the stage in the Plaza de Santo Domingo (I could hear them in my room not far away) one of his opposition staged a clown show, with music, to try to drown them out. So the candidate's men and girls on stilts turned up to save the day. Voting for the candidate with the best clowns and stilt-walkers is probably as good as any other way of electing a politician. Actually, we probably do something similar back home....
The police presence was less oppressive than Peru but there was a significant use of armed private security people to balance that, This guy, pistol on hip, was guarding the entrance while I had my café con leche in a tourist café, but for the Casino allied to my final hotel, the Mercure Alameda in La Mariscal, more firepower appeared to be necessary.
There were secondary benefits to staying in the Centro Historico. On Sunday many of the streets were closed to vehicles and dedicated to cyclists. This appeared to be a regular arrangement. It became a pleasant day to wander the area and respectfully visit some of the churches during services.
On Monday I was strolling through the Plaza Grande mid-morning when I noticed some soldiers dressed in period uniforms. Over the next hour there was a ceremony and an address from the President (he's the dark-haired younger one in the centre on the balcony) and a lot of band music, marching, and military displays.
Finally, I can only presume this owner discovered an interesting way to use several diverse pots of paint lying around in his store-room.