May 6, 2014 – May 7, 2014
The sprawling mountainous metropolis and capital of Ecuador, Quito was our next destination after Otavalo. At 2,800 meters (9,350 feet) it is the second highest capital city in the world second only to La Paz in Bolivia. (stay tuned for a future article on La Paz, Bolivia) Like most large metropolises in South America, Quito is a massive expanse of low buildings and apartment and condo towers, no skyscrapers here. Around 35 km from end to end, this city sits in a valley surrounded by volcanic peaks and mountain ridges.
The bus dropped us off at the north end of the city just a few kilometers south of the equator. Here we hopped in a cab for an hour long ride to the center of town, so long not really due to traffic, this city is just massive. The cab ride gave us a great view of the city, kilometers and kilometers of buildings in every direction, broken occasionally by large public parks. Thick clouds of diesel smoke from ancient buses filled the air and throngs of pedestrians crowded the streets on our drive in. Beautiful though it may be, Quito is still a large crowded capital city.
The heart of the city center is divided into two parts, the Old City; the original colonial section of town where government buildings and churches from the city’s founding in the 1500’s can still be seen, and the New City; the modern financial center of the city filled with banks, office towers, restaurants and crowds of people in suits. We stayed between the two town centers and could easily walk to either.
We were uncertain what to expect from Quito as nearly everyone who spoke English told us to be careful in the city, to watch our stuff and our surroundings. Memories of the thick crowds and pickpockets in Bogota made us a bit uneasy as we walked around in the city, though in the end we did not encounter any problems whatsoever and the city actually proved to be very pleasant. And we enjoyed real coffee! a rarity in South America.
A Note on Coffee in South America
One benefit of visiting a large city is the abundance of real coffee. One of the biggest surprises in traveling through South America is the tremendous lack of real brewed coffee. Even in Colombia where a large percentage of the worlds good coffee is grown, actually finding a fresh brewed cup can be an adventure in itself. By far most coffee served at cafés and restaurants is instant. In the heart of Colombia’s coffee country, in Salento, surrounded by hundreds of coffee plantations all the restaurants were serving instant coffee. Upon ordering coffee at most restaurants or cafés you will be asked if you want your coffee in water or milk, and what will appear is a steaming cup of hot water or milk – depending on your answer, along with a container of instant powdered coffee – and all have proved to be quite awful. It seems that real coffee is just too expensive and the bulk of South Americas coffee is packed up and sent abroad, what little remains behind is hard to find. Once a shop that actually sells real brewed coffee is found, it comes black or with sugar. Asking for coffee con leche (coffee with milk) at a shop selling real coffee will usually result in a steamed very foamy drink like a cappuccino. Asking for a regular cup of brewed coffee with a little milk poured in it is often met with blank confused stares. You want to do what to your coffee? Pour cold milk in it?
After arriving our first day and enjoying a proper cup of coffee, we went into the modern New City to research tour companies for our upcoming Amazon trip. All the companies have offices in the capital and going in person was the easiest way to get our questions answered and our trip booked. More on our Amazon jungle lodge trip in the next article! There were several bookstores in the neighborhood with a good selection of English books, so I spent the evening browsing the shops for a good book.
After finalizing our trip to the Amazon the following morning, we spent the afternoon exploring Quito’s Old City before our 11pm bus to the Amazon. The Old City, the original colonial town center dating back to the 1530’s, is the touristy heart of the city where one can find beautiful colonial style buildings and churches, lots of tourists, street vendors, and we were warned, pickpockets – though again we did not have any issues. The Old City was beautiful and made for a pleasant afternoon before our evening bus to Lago Agrio.