Ruthie Stein, Friendly Planet Travel’s Group Department Manager, got the opportunity to travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands a few weeks ago. She experienced much of what our travelers will see on Friendly Planet’s Galapagos Islands Hopper and Galapagos Islands Explorer tours.
When she returned, she was armed with notes, photos, and memories of what she calls the most wonderful experience of her life. I asked her to share the details of her trip with us on the blog, and she happily agreed.
Over the course of nine fun-filled days, Ruthie spent time in Quito, Ecuador and on the islands of Santa Cruz, Floreana, and Isabella in the Galapagos. She begins her blog post series about her trip with her two-day stay in Quito, which she found to be surprisingly charming, friendly, and full of historical and fascinating sites.
I left Philadelphia on July 18, flying via Miami to board my flight for Quito, Ecuador on LAN Airlines. I landed in Quito later that day. The first word that comes to my mind to describe Quito is magical, and here’s why.
As my plane descended, the city came into view. It’s nestled in the valley of the Andes Mountains. Once you step outside, you see the magnificent mountains and snowcapped volcanoes, including the still-active Mt. Pichincha, surrounding the city.
|A glimpse of the Andes Mountains from the valley Quito sits in|
No matter which direction I looked, there was never a bad view or an obstructed one. The mountains just towered over the city. The blue skies and white clouds made it seem like I was looking at a postcard. Because it’s in a valley, it puts Quito over 9,000 ft. above sea level, making it the second-highest capital city in the world.
Knowing this fact before I booked the trip, I was nervous about getting altitude sickness. Luckily, I worried about nothing. When I got off the plane I wasn’t nauseous and didn’t have a headache, but my breathing was a little labored. I adapted quickly to the change in altitude, and my heavy breathing disappeared relatively quickly.
From the airport I settled into my room at the Sheraton Quito Hotel. It’s a lovely hotel where the food was outstanding. I highly recommend the salad bar, it was top notch. The hotel is located right in the heart of Quito’s shopping district and is convenient to almost all the major attractions.
|Statue of Virgin of Quito overlooking the tight streets of Old Town|
I only had two days to spend in Quito, so I set out right away to sightsee and shop. Now in Quito there are two main parts of the city, the old and the new. The new town looks like most modern cities, with high-rises, multi-story apartment complexes, restaurants, and more.
The section I fell in love with was just 20 minutes away — Old Town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site where I spent a lot of my time. The Spanish influence on Old Town is evident in the colonial architecture that overwhelms every tightly packed street I strolled down. The colorful buildings and churches date back to the early 1500′s when the Spanish founded the city. And it seems that at the top and bottom of every street you see the Statue of the Virgin of Quito overlooking the city.
I also walked through the Plaza de la Independencia. It’s the beautiful main square of Quito that is surrounded by the 19th century Iglesia de la Cathedral, city hall, the archbishop’s palace, and the government palace. Here I got to see the changing of the guards.
The following day I was off to the Otavalo market where I spent a couple of hours. It’s a well-known market in Latin America that is famous for selling alpaca blankets, sweaters, and all kinds of products laboriously handmade by the indigenous Otavaleño Indians.
Otavaleños are one of the only tribes, if not the last, in Ecuador who still make and wear their traditional dress. The women vendors wear intricately embroidered blouses with lots of beaded necklaces, all of which are handmade. And the men have long braided hair, and wear calf-length white trousers, ponchos, and sandals.
Unfortunately, my shopping spree at the market was cut short. My guide reminded me that I should leave room in my suitcase for the beautiful leather products that I intended to purchase at our next stop on the itinerary, the beautiful little town of Cotacachi. It’s named after the Cotacachi volcano, which is located close by.
Here I found numerous shops selling handbags, shoes, belts, wallets, and other items, all made by the indigenous tribes people, and very inexpensive. Not too far from Cotacachi, we stopped at Peguche, another small town inhabited by the local tribes. I was fortunate to see one of the few remaining loom weaving workshops in the home of a local family. Beautiful tapestries, shawls, and blankets are all handmade without the aid of any patterns or templates.
|One foot in each hemisphere|
The next morning, my journey took me about 45 minutes from Quito, where I visited the Mitad del Mundo, which is Spanish for “middle of the world.” This is where the Equatorial Monument commemorates the exact place where Charles Marie de la Condamine established the equator.
I felt like a real tourist that day when I took a picture with my one foot in the northern hemisphere and my other foot in the southern hemisphere.
By the time I was done hopping between the hemispheres it was time to leave Quito for the Galapagos. I was disappointed that I didn’t have more time to explore the city further and to travel north to visit the Amazon rainforest (that’s the next stop on my wish list), but I was excited and looking forward to seeing the Islands that Charles Darwin explored almost 200 years ago.
In my next post, I’ll tell you about my trip to Santa Cruz island, and what it’s like jetting around from island to island on a the Islands’ ferries. I’ll also share with you the lengths that the Charles Darwin Research Station takes to protect the breeding of the indigenous Galapagos tortoise from the invasive species that were brought to the Islands hundreds of years ago by pirates and explorers.