Destination of the day: Quito, Ecuador!

Happy Monday to you all - for this week's "Destination of the Day", I decided to return to Ecuador and finish up my visit there by extolling the virtues of its truly cool capital city, Quito.  Not only is it one of the world's highest capital cities, in terms of elevation, but it's only about 20 miles from the equator, so you're about as far away from the center of the earth as you can get.  I'd say that things can get funky up in the thin air, but I only had totally normal fun times there.  Here are my favorite things about the city:

1) The architecture in old town!  I tell you what- I haven't explored too much of South America, or really too much of any part of the world colonized by the Spanish, and I'm regretting it.  There are just TONS of gorgeous buildings & plazas all over the old part of town, from official buildings and banks to just local shops & restaurants.  Just stroll around the cobblestone streets, surrounded by looming hills, and you can easily see why UNESCO chose it as its first World Heritage Site (along with Krakow, back in 1978).   Here are a bunch of pictures to enjoy (just click to advance to the next one):

2) El Panecillo - this is the hill immediately to the west of old town with a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, visible from pretty much everywhere in Quito.  Now- I didn't have the chance to go up to the top of the hill, but I loved catching glimpses of her from time to time.  The insider story we got was that she is actually not loved by all - apparently she's facing the North, where the wealthy residents live, and therefore turning her back on the less fortunate.  Eyebrows were raised when we asked why she was positioned that way, but honestly - she's pretty and she's gotta be facing one direction - right??

3) Churches!  Ok - you know how when you tour Europe you see probably way too many cathedrals?  Well, don't let any "church fatigue" keep you from Quito.  YES, there is a lot of religious art & architecture here- but it's worth it.  We only toured two of the many churches in the old town, but those were really quite impressive.  First up was the truly massive Church of San Francisco.  Not only is it huge, but it is COMPLETELY covered in gold leaf & decorations.  They didn't allow photos inside, but I managed to sneak one really terrible shot, just to give you some impression of how decorated this really was.  You have to purchase a tour to get into private areas, but if you go into the shop downstairs, you get to go deep into the bowels of the basement to get a sense of how big the complex is.  That's also where they hide the replicas of some racy primitive art from the native peoples, fyi, in case you were looking for a different kind of souvenir!  The other really impressive church we visited was the neo-gothic Basilica.  This was just so pretty - but with its own personality as well.  The gargoyles, for example, were local animals - like iguanas and birds you'd find in the Galapagos.  You can, and should, climb the towers for amazing views - we arrived just a bit too late to do so, and it's one of my regrets.  Here are shots of both:

4) El Mitad del Mundo!  You can, and should, go visit the equator when you come visit Quito.  There are actually two sites to visit - 1) the actual magnetic equator, which comprises a little mini-museum with exhibits about the native peoples of Ecuador and exhibits/games about the strange powers of the equator, and 2) the "fake" equator which is a big monument they built along with a large complex of shops & restaurants.  The first is fairly cheesy, but really enjoyable, and we actually learned stuff!  For example, I learned the process for shrinking heads, the fact that they area actually REAL, and that they're not just a war prize - they could also be made to honor someone.  I learned that there are tons of native tribes still living as they always have deep in the jungle, still raising & eating the local delicacy of "cuy", or guinea pig.  Also- you CAN balance an egg on the equator!  There are strange gravitational forces at the equator, making it nearly impossible for yourself to balance properly, or also use your muscles normally.  Did you know that water drains straight down directly on the equator?  And it's true that it goes clockwise & counter clockwise north & south of the equator (even a few feet).  Our G Adventures guide said these games/examples were all faked, but... well - I have video evidence of the water draining thing!  :)  The second, "official" equator visit is pretty much a skippable tourist trap, unless you want a photo that looks like you're standing on the actual equator in front of a big monument, or you want lunch in a probably over-priced, crowded restaurant.  I will say that the tourists were also of the local variety, whereas the museum was mostly foreigners, for what that's worth...

5) Food.  Now, I don't have much evidence to back this up really, and not exactly any restaurant recommendations- but there are many tasty specialties in Ecuador, most of which are really good.  MUCH better than the rather bland stuff I'd had in Costa Rica.  Of course, the most famous is the aforementioned "cuy", which remained untasted by yours truly, but my favorite, by far, was the delicious potato soup w/avacado called Locro de Papa.  Completely rich & creamy, totally satisfying - you honestly cannot come to Quito and not try this stuff.  Yes, their steaks are good (which makes sense, seeing as how there are cows EVERYWHERE), yes there is tasty ceviche (even in the hills of Quito), and yes they even have some empanadas, but nothing, in my mind, will make me forget my last lunch of hot, gooey potato soup.  YUM.      

To close - don't skimp on your time in Quito!  If you're coming to the Galapagos, for example, be sure to schedule at least an extra day or so upon arrival or before your departure to sample the delights of this wonderful & unique city.