I remember feeling breathless after just a couple of steps into the hotel lobby. Those first few days at Lake Titicaca in Peru a few years ago, took some getting used to, and that was what I was thinking about as I arrived at Quito, Ecuador’s capital at an altitude of 2850m (9350ft). Fully expecting to feel the air stolen from my lungs, I didn’t have grand plans of filling my 1 day in Quito with too much action. But I stepped off the plane and out the airport to normality, and I breathed in the fresh air without a hint of a problem.
I had nearly 6 weeks of Spanish immersion in front of me, and I was determined to make the most of it. From the moment I boarded the LAN flight from New Zealand, I spoke only Spanish, and was quietly impressed with myself chatting to my taxi driver as he took me to my hotel for the night. Quito’s airport is relatively new and as yet it doesn’t have an airport hotel. Arriving at 11pm at night, with the city up to an hour’s drive away, I just wanted somewhere to put my head, so I had booked into the nearest hotel I could find, which was in the nearby village. Down a cobbled back street and hidden behind a high wall, the driver could have been taking me anywhere. Arranging a ride for the next morning, he left me behind and I got shown to my room which was right under the flight path on approach to the runway. Thankfully I was too tired to be bothered and I was out like a light.
The next morning I was up early to get into the city and make the most of the 1 day I had there. I was met by the same taxi driver as the night before and we chatted as much as my Spanish would allow on the 45 min drive to my next hotel. He told me about his family, and I told him about my work, and with patience and a bit of repetition, we managed a reasonable conversation. He got a bit lost as he reached the edge of the city but I didn’t mind because he was the first real Ecuadorian I had met and he was lovely.
I fell in love with Quito in an instant. It was that sudden. Driving down into a gully and seeing the buildings tower over us from the opposite hilltop, I was taken aback with just how undulating the place was. Full of hills itself, it is also surrounded by peaks and I was eager to get out and explore. It was a steep walk down from the hotel to La Mariscal, an area full of bars and restaurants and tourists. It was also the nearest stop for the city’s hop-on/hop-off bus tour which was going to be my mode of transport for the day. Like many large and long-standing cities, Quito is a mix of old and new, and it is a seemingly haphazard sprawl of highrises, parks, religious buildings and colonial buildings with hills jutting up behind it all.
My first port of call was Plaza Grande in the Old Town, or Centro Historico. The day was hot and sunny but I was determined to pound the streets of the region to soak up the atmosphere. Being a Saturday, there were as many locals as tourists, mainly hombres or caballeros chewing the cud with their amigos on the park bench. I slightly recoiled when one called me a gringa as I passed, unsure if it was meant as an insult or just a passing remark. Comment aside, I never felt threatened or uneasy wandering around Quito, and I followed a recommended walking route round the surrounding streets admiring domineering and religious buildings and museums before pounding up the steep street to the gorgeous Basilica del Voto Nacional.
We had passed it on the bus on the way to the Old Town, and no matter which angle you see it from, it is stunning. I was desperate for water by this point, and having finally obtained some, I despaired at being a weakling and not being able to open the bottle. I geared myself up to asking a stranger in Spanish to help me out before finally prising it open. It was much needed, for not only is the chapel itself beautiful, the real reason to visit is to climb the many stairs up the towers. First one side, and then across the roof to the towers at the other end, the changing viewpoint of the surrounding city is more than worth the $2 entry fee, but for some people, the steep ladders may be a physical and mental challenge.
With the bus passing by each stop hourly, I had some time to kill, so continued on foot to Parque La Almeda which was packed full of people relaxing with their family and friends, and had a quaint little lake at the far end. I was hungry but all the stalls were surrounded by crowds of people or didn’t look appetising so I pressed on and after a nice stroll, I headed back to the Basilica to jump back on the bus. From there we wound through the streets and up the hill to El Panecillo, a viewpoint with a giant sculpture of the Virgin who looked over the city. Visible from most of the city, she was huge up close. Round the corner, a collection of food stalls served various local foods and the city sprawled out below and to the side and up the neighbouring hillside. In fact, Quito appeared to disappear into the distance in every perceivable direction, but with a population of over 2.6 million people, it isn’t even the most populous city in Ecuador, with Guayaquil taking that crown.
Handily, the bus sits here for about half an hour to give time to soak up the view before moving on, and back down the hill, we motored through some tight streets and back through the Old Town before turning and hugging the western edge of the city below a large mountain, before cutting back into the city in the New Town and looping to Parque La Carolina where I jumped off. Surrounded by malls and American food chains, it was a totally different side to the city, but the park itself was well used by the locals with families having picnics, and people playing sports on the various sport fields. Two thirds of the way down, a lake was filled with people pedalling boats, and next door was the compact Botanical Gardens which I opted to go for a wander round.
By now well into the afternoon, I caught the last circuit of the tour bus to take me back to La Mariscal where I enjoyed a relatively expensive meal at a tourist bar before heading back to my hotel to meet up with the people that I was heading to the Galapagos Islands with. We headed back to La Mariscal in the darkness for a meal in another tourist restaurant before we headed off the next morning before sunrise for our early morning flight. By the time we reached Quito airport, the sunshine was spilling over the surrounding mountains, and the domineering structure of Cotopaxi volcano stood out against the blue sky with its white cap. Just a week later, Cotopaxi erupted.
On the banks of the expansive Rio Guayas, Guayaquil sits at just 4m above sea level and felt very different to Quito. An obligatory stop-over on my way home from the Galapagos Islands, I had just the evening to explore the country’s most populated city. The airport is within easy reach of the city centre, so having checked in at my airport hotel, I was quick to jump in a taxi and head to the Malecon, a large, developed promenade that snakes along the bank of the river. With play areas, restaurants, shops, a cinema and much more, there was plenty to do here. I’d read about a bus tour of the city, and with time to kill till the night time tour, I plodded my way along and back most of the length of the malecon. By this point on my trip, I was keen to avoid tourist restaurants, and found the best place I could for local food, the last Ecuadorian meal I would have. Certainly, the staff seemed surprised when I walked in and spoke Spanish, and generally, despite Guayaquil being the main point to get to the Galapagos Islands, it seemed a lot less sure what to do with tourists. Granted, I didn’t venture far on foot outwith the malecon, but there was just a very different vibe to the place than I’d experienced with Quito, and I just couldn’t warm to the city very much.
When finally the time came for the bus tour, my feeling was increased even more. The open top bus blasted loud and irritating music for the entire 1.5hr route. Repeatedly we had to duck low branches to avoid being knocked out by a tree, but most importantly, what was supposed to be a tour of the city’s sights, felt like an irritating drive round ‘Nowheresville’. I had been told about a few places worthy of a visit which I assumed the bus would go near, but instead it felt like we were being shown every mall and car showroom the city had. It even included the airport as a tourist site, and after just 20 mins I was desperate to get off. Finally, we found our way back to the malecon, and I happily disembarked and went in search of a taxi.
With so many places I could explore within reach of Quito, I would happily head back to Ecuador’s capital in a heartbeat, but Guayaquil was just not the city for me.