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LONDON – Various Shades, a set on Flickr.

Living and working in London often gets one into the drawl of things – complaints, whining, moaning – all about the weather, the journeys and everything that never seems right! – Story of an average Londoner.

Until, when one decides to give it a go and try capturing London’s various faces – and a different image emerges – medieval to modern to colourful to simply grey! Full of history, London amazes me!

Here is an attempt to capture sights as I see of the city. I will continue to update with fresh shots from time to time..

Cameras used – Canon EOS 5D and Fujifilm X E 1

Staying at the Santa Lucia in Cuenca is like going back a few decades in understated luxury. This hotel is one of the top boutique properties in town and is a visual delight.

Inside the Santa Lucia

Cuenca is an amazing city. The more we experience it, the better it gets. 4 rivers, 8 Universities and 52 Churches (one for every Sunday of the year!!!) – a tall order that is! The former Inca town of Cuenca (situated at about 2500 metres in the southern part of the Andes) was conquered by the Spanish in 1533 and founded in 1557. With a population of about 350,000 people it is Ecuador’s third largest city.

Colonial houses at San Sebastian Plaza

For its charming historical centre, the churches, the small cobbled streets and colonial houses with noble facades, prim balustrades, wrought iron balconies and red tiled roofs, it was declared as World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1999.

The four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin made by a confluence of rivers)are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, in order of importance. The first three of these rivers originate in the Páramo of Parque Nacional Cajas to the west of the city. Very interestingly, these four rivers are part of the Amazon River watershed. Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east.

From El Vado

Our first day in Cuenca started with a stop at the San Sebastian Plaza where a lot of Cuencan histry has been written. From there it was a walking tour of the city that led us to El Vado. El Vado is currently under renovation and the old colonial buildings lining this plaza add to the flavour of this place. The walk takes you to a part where you come across the studio cum living quarters of Laura and Yani. Entering this house will transport you to a different world.

The sitting room at Laura & Yani's

For decades the couple has collected antiques from the area and live with them in the house. Laura is a doll maker and Yani (of Dutch origin) is a restorer of antiques. Inside the house every corner is precious and a visual delight. Laura’s kitchen, their bedroom, the bird corner, the central courtyard and even the bathroom is something to look at. Wish I had the liberty to do up a little corner of my house to these specifications! Stepping out, the next door belongs to Prohibido Centro Cultural, the den of Eduardo Moscoso, a well-known extreme art protagonist who has worked on various traditional themes in the most extreme manner. Every corner is interesting and oozes dark brilliance. The central courtyard serves as a set up for local bands playing alternative sounds but forbids the use of drugs, alcohol and other narcotics. There is only a small corner for smokers. The founder and owner of this place, Eduardo Moscoso, has turned the place itself to an eccentric, paradoxical work of extreme art.

Dining Room at Laura & Yani's

Overlooking the Cruz del Vado is the Tomebamba River and the sprawling campuses of the University of Cuenca. Going up the meandering road we took the next stop at the 10 de Augusto Mercado. Markets are my special weakness. It is in these markets I get to see the locals in their true spirits, without pretences, getting a slice for their survival. The character of a town is often revealed in its markets. This being clean, organised, odour free

Locals huddle at the 10 de Augusto Mercado

and bustling with activity. The fresh produce is all organic which we struggle to afford in the UK – US$ 10 can fill up your baskets with fresh fruits and vegetables for more than week’s requirement of two people! The chicken is naturally corn fed and is the cheapest on the list followed by beef and pork. I feel energised visiting markets.

Naturally Organic

From the market it was the San Francisco Plaza and the new Cathedral of Cuenca. Walking through the square we reached the Carmelite Church which on a Monday morning was packed with believers. The flower market outside bustled with shoppers and school children concentrated around ‘Helado’ carts. It was already past midday. The skies looked a bit threatening and we didn’t want to miss the chance of a view of the city from Mirrador Turi. Postponing lunch we drove up the hill to Turi from where the real shape and form of this lovely city unfolded. Coming downhill, it was a stopover at Eduardo Vega’s Ceramic Studio. Eduardo Vega is an internationally renowned artist working with ceramics and has a few grand installations in Cuenca city. The reluctant visit turned exciting at the sight of his work. Once again the wish was to carry loads of his work back home – a dream that ended in a small purchase – just enough to fit into our holiday bags.

The new Cathedral of Cuenca

It was already two hours past midday and the hunger pangs called for a visit to Villa Rosa. It was a grand meal of Locro Soup and a Churrasco (local steak with an egg, fries and avocado on the side). After the meal, it was a trip down the history of the Panama Hat and a visit to one of Ecuador’s premier Panama Hat making houses on the fringes of the city.

Cuenca from Mirrador Turi

PANAMA HATS (Paja Toquilla)– The History – Your Panama hat started its existence on the Ecuadorian tropical coast as a toquilla plant. The straw from this palm is processed by the locals to provide the fibre for the hat. This fibre is sold in bundles to the whole of Ecuador, mostly around the city of Cuenca. Although Montecristi in north-west Ecuador is the home of the original hat, Cuenca today is the centre of its final finishing. These hats have been traditionally woven by women and vary in quality from $20 to $1500. It is said the master weavers only use non-glaring light and weave only on cloudy days and/or in moonlight so as to see the fibres better, as this prevents errors. Working in the shade of large trees gives this option as well.

Weaving a Panama Hat

Centuries before Ecuador started exporting Paja Toquilla’s to Panama and the rest of the world, this type of hat was used by its population as a refuge from the strong Equatorial sun. In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, a recent immigrant from Spain to Montecristi, Ecuador, saw the potential that these hats carried and after some years of successful domestic business decided to begin exporting them to a public that would see them. Panama, a country flooded with Americans who furiously travelled west to California’s gold rush, was a guaranteed market. Within a few years, the demand for the hats grew and farmers of the Ecuadorean coast stopped farming cacao, coffee and rice and dedicated themselves to satisfying the growing hunger for Paja Toquillas’.

Inside Eduardo Vega's Ceramic Studio

In 1855, Phillippe Raimondi, a Frenchman living in Panama City, exposed the European audience to Paja Toquillas during the World Fair in Paris. Forgetting to mention their origin, these hats were quickly baptized as Panamas. Since then, Paja Toquillas have taken a life of their own, quickly shedding their humble origin. 220,000 hats were exported to California during the years of the Gold Rush.

Panama Hats waiting to be finished

50,000 hats were ordered by the United States government to be sent to the Caribbean to protect its troops during the Spanish-American war in 1898. In 1906, every Panama Canal worker owned one and a new fashion statement began when Theodore Roosevelt displayed his own during his visit to the canal!!

And that for you Ladies and Gentlemen – is the PANAMA HAT!

The Church of Balbanera at the crack of dawn.

Our stay at the Hacienda Abraspungo was very comfortable; although it was Saturday night we had to pack in pretty early. Sunday morning getting up at 4 am, we did make it in time for some fresh fruits and coffee and were on the road to Alausi at 5.30am. The 2 hour journey through the mountains so early in the morning was breath taking – the misty haze gave way to the rising sun and a glimpse of the communities waking up for their Sunday chores. Our first stop was at Balbanera, the oldest church of Ecuador constructed in 1534.

Dawn breaking in the valleys

On the train to the 'Devil's Nose'

Destination Alausi, a typical small Ecuadorian town which is currently the starting point of a touristy train ride to Sibambe and back. Aside from the train service, Alausí springs to life for market day on Sunday, when indigenous people come down from the nearby páramo wearing their best and most colourful clothing. You can get a closer look at the statue of Saint Peter and admire the panoramic views by climbing the Lluglli hill. Alausí’s train station, the goal of most visitors, sits behind the small plaza at the north end of 5 de Junio. The train takes you through the famous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) to Sibambe. After a stop of one hour at Sibambe, it is once again a climb back to Alausi – total 3 hours. The Devil’s Nose was one of the most incredible feats of railroad engineering when it was completed in the early 1900s. The train descends through a hair-raising series of switchbacks that are so tight the entire train has to back up momentarily to fit through. Just below the switchbacks, the train stops near Sibambe, turns around, and climbs back through the entire route. For the best views, sit on the right-hand side of the train if you can. Riding on the roof is now prohibited following the deaths of two Japanese visitors in 2007.

This train journey is managed by the Ecuadorian government and 20% of the ticket money goes to the local community of Nariz who mingle with the visitors and give them a taste of their culture, music and dances at Sibambe. So even if you are not too keen on this ride, remember your 3 hours and a few dollars could add to the economy of a very impoverished community!

Alausi

Once back at Alausi, we bade farewell to our companions for the last one week – our guide – the very knowledgeable and pleasant Giovanny Reinozo and our driver – the quiet but witty Armando. We were greeted by Xavier our guide for the next phase of the journey and Giovanny, the driver. Driving further south, our next destination on the way to Cuenca was the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. We stopped off at a point to have a good view of Alausi and carried on to Ingapirca on a long and winding road that took us through villages and truck stops dotted with colourful markets and eateries. The dirt track to Ingapirca was full of rustic charm.

Saying goodbye to Giovanny and Armando.

Ingapirca firmly stands at 3230 meters as Ecuador’s most impressive and most significant site of Inca ruins. These ruins are set in the rolling green hills of the Southern Andes region of Ecuador, about 90km north of the major city of Cuenca. A complex network of stone structures that surround a circular sun temple, Ingapirca displays both the Inca and Canari cultures’ mastery of stonework and their keen awareness of solar patterns. Set in an agricultural zone with a rich indigenous history, Ingapirca also evidences the fertility of the soil and the unique interaction between the warring Inca and Canari peoples during the pre-Spanish 15th century. The most important characteristic of this site is the Canari moon temple standing side by side with the Inca sun temple and a part of the original Inca trail passes here! We had a family of Huarizos (cross between a male Llama and a female Alpaca) giving us company at these ruins and it was interesting watching these creatures grazing the fertile grounds.

Ingapirca - The Inca sun temple from the Canari moon temple

Huarizos stand guard at Ingapirca

After a sumptuous lunch at the Posada Ingapirca we were once again on the road – to our final final destination for the day – Cuenca. En-route we passed through small communities and watched congregations enjoying a game of Ecuavolley – an improvised form of volleyball which is a craze only after soccer in this country of 15 million people.

Ecuavolley from the car

It was 2 hours more on the road and with a mix of dozing off and taking in the sights on the way we were atlast in Cuenca – another UNESCO World Heritage City of 4 rivers, 8 universities and 52 churches! Our stop for the next 4 nights is at the very colonial boutique hotel – Santa Lucia. More later.

After a good night’s rest at the Hilton Colon, Quito, we started off on our journey to the Cotopaxi National Park on a Friday morning. With a slight struggle and few nudges we were able to leave the city and on to the Pan – American highway once again. I will do injustice to the efforts of the Ecuadorian administration if I do not mention the quality of the road surface that we encountered till now on the highway. It is indeed a pleasure to be on the road, with proper markings, crossings, directions and continuous developments. The colourful array of shops and

Fruits sellers on the Pan-Americano!

habitations on both sides enhanced with the Andean landscape make this highway very different from the monotonous drives on the motorways of Europe.

By now we were onto our third province of Ecuador, having already driven through Pichincha, Imbabura. Cotopaxi province is named after the volcano. After crossing the town of Lasso we hit a dirt track entrance to the Cotopaxi National Park – leaving the double peaks of the volcano Illinizas on the right. The path is currently undergoing up gradation and will be a metalled track till the main entrance of the park by the end of this year (2012). The local guide Maria joined us at this point and the ride for the next half an hour was an interesting drive through the cloud and the natural habitat that has sprung on the lava paths of the Cotopaxi. Our first stop was at 3600 metres from where walked for

Silhouettes - through the clouds

an hour through the forest of this park – an occasional humming bird and some rabbits crossed our path. The clouds came head on covering the ravines from our sight but the silhouettes gave us an idea of the topography. We hit a point at 3800 metres where the next ride was to the valley at the lake Limpio Pungo. The vegetation changes drastically and suddenly the clods seemed to vanish as we neared this glacial lake. Our trek around the lake took us through the foothills of the volcano Ruminahui – actually the climb to Ruminahui starts here.

Foothills of the Ruminahui

After an hour and a half, the clouds lifted briefly for a glimpse of the Cotopaxi – and awesome it was indeed. The scenery included groups of wild horses grazing with the Cotopaxi as a back ground!

Lago Limpio Pungo

Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times, which created the numerous valleys formed by lahars (mudflows) around the volcano. Cotopaxi poses a high risk to the local population, their settlements and fields.

Cotopaxi’s most violent eruptions in historical times occurred in the years 1744, 1768, and 1877. There was a major eruption in 1903 through 1904, and some minor activity in 1942 as well as 1975 but it did not produce any major events. The main danger of a huge

Volcan Cotopaxi

eruption of Cotopaxi would be the flow of ice from its glacier. If there were to be a very large explosion, it would destroy most of the settlements within the valley in the suburban area of Quito (pop. more than 1,000,000). Another city which would be in great danger is Latacunga which is located in the south valley. In 1744 and 1768 an eruption destroyed the colonial town of Latacunga.

Wild horse grazing

Wild horse grazing

After the day well spent we headed for our night stop at Hacienda La Cienega, another very old property. A good night’s rest and we hit the road again on Saturday morning, south to the Chimborazo national park. We passed by the market towns of Salcedo and Ambato and stopped for some amazing deals on scarves, ponchos and sweaters. We entered our fourth Ecuadorian province – Chimborazo and hit the park around eleven. As we got the first glimpse of the Chimborazo we were reminded about its height and special position. The Chimborazo is the tallest Ecuadorian peak standing at 6310 metres at the tallest and is an extinct volcano. Chimborazo – is also the closest to the sun by virtue of it being on the equator (the centre of the Earth)- closer to the sun than

Vicunas graze in front of the Chimborazo

the Everest is! The arid landscape at its foothills is home to the vicunas and pumas. We passed these herds (?) and reached the Chimborazo base camp Estrella del Chimborazo. An amazing set up owned by the famous Ecuadorian climber Mario Cruz, this place provides us with a hot meal and a very warm welcome from its resident guard Whymper the German Shepherd.

Whymper

Whymper

We drove further south and hit the town of San Juan from where the community of Palacio Real came into sight. A detour brought us to this community of 80 families that farm and weave for a living. Fani and her son Fricson from the local community took us for a walk (roughly an hour) through the fields and provided us with a little history of the place as well as some insight into their lives. All this while in the background the mighty Chimborazo played its daily game of ‘hide and seek’ with the clouds.

We bade Fani and her son goodbye and moved on towards Riobamba – the capital of the Chimborazo province. Riobamba is a vibrant town of 160,000 people and an important base for commerce in this region. Strolling through the city on a Saturday afternoon as fun. Families, children, lovers and the retired took to the streets in hoards and gave it a festive feel. Live bands played in a few parks that we passed and the city pulsated with their beats!

Riobamba - the cenral square

Riobamba - the cenral square

Our day ended at the Hacienda Abraspungo, on the outskirts of the city. An early meal, some good Chilean wine and a cigar rounded off the day’s experience. Early start next morning – 5.30 am for Alausi and the train journey to the ‘Devil’s Nose’. Good night!

After the few days in Quito we hit the road to Otovalo at 8.30am on a Tuesday morning. It’s Saturday evening and I could only clear my ‘blogger’s block’ today – what with awesome landscapes, some amazing experiences, hikes, local people and of course the wine and food – there was a fog which seem to have just lifted!

Masapan figurines - Calderon

The journey from Quito to Otavalo is on the Pan American Highway travelling north of the Capital. Starting early we made a stop at Calderon, a small town off the highway , famous for its Masapan (masa – dough, pan– bread) or bread-dough sculptures. This is the only city in the world that makes these figures. As always, there may be some imitations out there like there is for almost anything, but there is nothing quite like the figures of Masapan! These make great gifts if you’re looking for something small but original and unique. If you are wondering what I am referring to – you may have seen these while decorating your Christmas tree.

From Calderon, another hour or so and we did a brief stop at a small café with a great view of the Volcano Imbabura and the Lago San Pablo at its foot. The Imbabura is referred to as Taito (Father) Imbabura who fought with the Volcano Mojanda to win the love of Mama Cotacachi! That is local legend. Volcanoes are revered in this part of the world, irrespective of the threats of eruptions; the people are at peace with them. This is the start of the Imbabura province. The view of the Andes is spectacular from every angle, but with these majestic volcanoes and the associated folklore, it makes the experience even more surreal. Getting a glimpse of the peaks of these volcanoes is quite a challenge – no matter how bright the sun shines, there is almost always a tuft of cloud cover on the peaks  – you get to see them if you deserve to! A green carpet of vegetation all over gives the surroundings a soothing feel about them.

Volcan Imbabura and a part of the Lago San Pablo

In the valley between these volcanoes lies the peaceful but very important town of Otovalo. This is by far the most important indigenous market town in the highlands. The indigenous Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, usually made of wool, which are sold at the famous Saturday market. Although the largest market is on Saturday, there is a very wide range of wares available throughout the week in the Plaza de los Ponchos, and the many local shops.

During the market’s peak, almost one third of the town becomes full of stalls selling textiles, tagua nut jewellery, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods and spools of wool.

Otavalo is an area made up principally of farming communities due to the rich volcanic soils in this area, but with the growth of tourism, the town has begun to focus more on the making of handicrafts which have made the Saturday market a popular stop with visitors to Ecuador.

An Otavalena at the Otavalo Market

Our next stop was 20 minutes up the road from Otavalo, at the 300 years old Hacienda Pinsaqui, where we spent two absolutely fascinating nights. Built on acres of fertile land at the foothills of the mighty Imbabura, the Hacienda still has a portion of the original gravelled Pan American Highway as a part of it. This Hacienda is a treat – for those who love history or don’t, it will be very difficult not to love this set up. Simon Bolivar ‘El Liberatador’ and the hero of South American independence from the Spanish Empire, spent many a days in Room 1 of this Hacienda, where he would be accompanied by his lover Manuela Saenz. It is believed that the ‘ghosts’ of Simon and Manuela still come down to oversee the Hacienda’s working on some nights!!!!

The evenings at the Hacienda are made interesting by the personal touch of Victor Montalvo, the General Manager, who makes it a point to explain the history of the place and the many stories associated with its existence! The music of Waukis, the local Andean Band from the nearby village of Iluman and rounds of Canelazo, a mixture of hot water, sugarcane alcohol, lemon, sugar, and cinnamon – typical of the Andean region, build up a tempo that is rounded off with a handsome ‘Lomo Pinsaqui’ – the local steak and a glass of Argentinian Malbec.

La Hacienda Pinsaqui

Walking on the grounds of the Hacienda one comes across elegant horses that are winners of several equestrian events nationwide and in other South American events. The bar here is called the ‘cave’ and is literally like a cave forming the basement.

An early morning ride to a farm high up on the slopes of the Imbabura brought us to the base of our hike through this landscape on the second day. Here at the farm Cecilia greets you with a warm hug and enthusiasm. Owner of acres of land that was once part of the Hacienda Pinsaqui (her family owns the Hacienda), she is cultivating potatoes and beans and rearing 280 sheep for wool. Cecilia took us up to the mountains for a few hours hiking and interaction with the Andean flora. The hike started with a prayer to the ‘spirit of Imbabura’ as the locals would do and the ‘Shamans’ would advise you to do.

The second half was dedicated to another walk around the Cuicocha National park where we walked up to a height for a view of the Cuicocha crater lake with two islands. On the way back, it was a visit to the town of Cotacachi (named after the volcano). This town is famous for its leather goods. Mark my words – you will not get it cheaper and better anywhere else! How does $70 for a nice leather jacket sound?

La Hacienda Pinsaqui - One of the sitting rooms

The next morning, we were once again on the road to a town further north – Ibarra. Ibarra is also known as the ‘white city’ as it is predominantly a mestizo town. Known for its wood works and sculptures, it is quite fascinating to see the galleries which serve buyers from distant towns and cities. From Ibarra it was down towards Quito. Rose plantations are a big contribution to Ecuador’s economy, and this part of the country is full of them. Stopping off at a plantation to see the source of some of the roses we buy in England, we had another great experience of visiting an old colonial Hacienda, where the owner showed us around and sat us through an authentic Ecuadorian lunch. The Hacienda Campania is part of the rose plantation and is strewn with roses of 72 varieties that it exports to the US and the rest of the word. Quite a sight – it almost gets better at every stop!

The day ended at the Hilton Colon, in the new part of Quito. This part of town is very well organised with no eye sores. There are modern buildings, universities, grand parks and open spaces and bistros lining its streets. Quito does have a good feel about it.

Hacienda La Campania

 

With a night’s stopover it’s on to the Cotopaxi National Park early next day. I will come back with more from there.

ECUADOR – Facts

Before I go onto the story of the last few days in Otavalo region, I guess it’s worth sharing a few facts about Ecuador – for those that may consider this as a destination one day.

Flag

A land of 31 volcanoes, this country borders with Peru in the South and the East, Columbia in the north and the Pacific Ocean in the west. Chimborazo is the highest volcano at 6267 metres, while Tungurahua is the most active with the last known eruption earlier this year (2012)! With highly fertile soils as a contribution from its volcanoes, the main produce of this land includes a variety of fruits and vegetables and of course Corn of several varieties. Corn forms part of the staple diet including beef, pork, guinea pig (cuy) and seafood in the coastal region.

Location of Ecuador

Ecuador’s economy has heavily depended on exporting resources such as petroleum, fish, shrimp, timber and gold. In addition, it has rich agriculture: bananas, flowers, coffee, cacao, guayusa, sugar, tropical fruits, palm oil, palm hearts, rice, roses, and corn. The country’s greatest national export is crude oil.

The Andes run north to south forming the middle territory or the highlands. Through a succession of wars and marriages among the nations that inhabited the valley, the region became part of the Inca Empire in 1463. 2011 estimates put Ecuador’s population at 15,007,343. The CIA World Factbook gives the following statistics: “mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 65%, Amerindian 25%, Spanish and others 7%, black 3%”.Ecuador’s population is ethnically diverse. The largest ethnic group (as of 2007) is the Mestizos, the descendants of Spanish colonists and indigenous peoples, who constitute 65% of the population. Amerindians account for 25% of the current population. The unmixed descendants of early Spanish colonists, called “Criollos” independent of their ethnic Iberian or Mediterranean origin, as well as immigrants from other European countries, account for about 7% of the population. Afro-Ecuadorians, including Mulattos and zambos, are also a minority, largely based in Esmeraldas and Imbabura provinces, and make up around 3% of the population. This is a great place to experience the indigenous Amerindian people and their cultures on a non-touristy level.

Ecuador is one of 17 mega diverse countries in the world according to Conservation International, and it has the most biodiversity per square kilometre of any nation. In addition to the mainland, Ecuador owns the Galápagos Islands, for which the country is best known. Since 2000, the US Dollar is the official currency (legal tender), and this makes things a lot easier for tourists. Things are reasonable priced and the peace loving population make it a real pleasurable experience to be here. The pan American Highway cuts through the country from the north to the south and connects Columbia in the North to Peru in the South!

Spanish is the official language spoken by one and all.

ECUADOR – Quito

London – Madrid – Guayaquil  – Quito (24 hours door to door)

Twenty-four hours of continuous travel in the 21st century sounds like one fraught with delays and cancellations or simply bad planning! That was my first reaction when faced with the itinerary to Ecuador. But intense research for an alternate journey plan from London to Quito – came up with the only other option of flying Iberia direct into Quito from Madrid saving three hours at the most – AND  that too on REAL out-dated aircrafts – Iberia (the Spanish national airline that now partners the great British Airways) still does not offer in-flight entertainment on your seats, with no movies on demand on a 12.5 hour flight, and this comes with a  huge propensity of misplaced luggage! The choice was obvious – London to Madrid – 3 hours at Madrid and then on LAN to Guayaquil (12 ½ hours). The last bit from Guayaquil to Quito was 55 minutes and we reached the hotel at 11.30 pm, (4.30 am UK time) – exactly 24 hours since we left home the day before.

Here starts our third journey in Latin America – 16 days in Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands

QUITO: Sitting pretty in a valley at 2800 metres above sea level, on the eastern fringes of volcano Pichincha, Quito is a city to soak in. The Old city – is full of flavours, colours and colonial leftovers. The weather in March is a lovely 11 – 22 degrees Celsius that gives no reason to fret except for the sudden bursts of rainfall, though very short spells. Walk the streets of the Old City and meander through the undulating streetscape – it could leave you breathless at times – the sheer altitude and of course the sights!

San Francisco Plaza - Old City

 

Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, the first one in Latin America. To quote UNESCO’s World Heritage site “Quito, the capital of Ecuador, forms a harmonious ensemble sui generis, where the actions of man and nature are brought together to create a work unique and transcendental of its kind. With its historic centre and its buildings the city is an outstanding example of the Baroque school of Quito, a fusion of European and indigenous art.”

Starting at La Plaza de la Independencia , the walk around the old city on a Sunday was full of local charms – Quitenos congregate in San Francisco Church, La Compania de Jesus Church, San Augustin Church – the prominent churches amongst many in this part of town. After the Sunday service, it’s a party on the streets! Families indulge with Bands, food stalls, indigenous wares, street entertainment of other sorts and simply loitering in the Plaza – Independencia and San Fransisco. It was indeed a feast of colours, smells and emotions!

Monday brought about some more experiences and surprises –

One – an early morning run on the streets of the Old City brought in glimpses of Quitenos on the move – children rushing to school, trolley buses filled with commuters to work, nurses in uniform rushing for their morning shift, workers heading to the church – to seek blessings before starting their day at work and the early morning odours of a city steeped in history!

Plaza de la Independencia

 

Two – the presidential palace at the Plaza de la Independencia, where the incumbent President of Ecuador resides and works from turns out into a colourful parade venue. The ‘Change of Guards’ ceremony is officially attended by the President or by the vice-President, in his absence, only on a Monday. We were in the crowd. A few thousand Ecuadorians, school children (the best behaved and dressed I have seen in a while – I live in the UK!!!) and tourists lined up the square for a view of this colourful event and a glimpse of the President. The national anthem was sung with much pride – the look in their eyes and the smile on their faces spoke of a nation content and at peace! The President was there and so was the vice-President – after years of corruption and mismanagement, Ecuador seems to have a stable leadership – this is what the locals told me.

While in Quito try doing the following:

  1. Soak in the Old City
  2. Try not to miss a few museums
  3. Spend some time inside the La Compania de Jesus Church – one of the best examples Baroque Architecture in Latin America
  4. Get onto either the El Panecillo or San Juan hills for a spectacular view of the Old City
  5. Visit the Mitad del Mundo (Centre of the world – Equator)
  6. Try a run in the Old City at 6.30 am
  7. Eat a proper Ceviche in an Ecuadorian restaurant
  8. Drink the Ecuadorian Pilsener beer
  9. Try to be here on a Monday – for the ‘Change of Guards’ and a glimpse of the President
  10. Stay in the Casa Gangotena – right on the Plaza San Francisco

Presidential Guards marking time at the 'Change of Guards'

 

CASA GANGOTENA

This is a splendid property that has been able to impress a very observant and ‘fastidious’ ex-hotelier. With 31 brilliantly appointed rooms, this is a very successful attempt at converting an old family home into a boutique hotel. A lot of thought and detail has gone into the facilities, including colour schemes, staff uniforms, ‘eye for detail’, menu planning, room appointment, amenities and overall quality. It does reek of a luxurious colonial experience!

The hotel located right where it should be – provides fantastic access to the city attractions and ever accommodating staffs (at all levels) goes out of their way to suggest options – be it a tour or a meal.

For those who love the hum of the city and want to watch the day unfold at the Plaza San Francisco from their handsome French windows, eight gorgeously appointed Plaza View rooms await! Believe you me, you can spend hours just watching life go by!

Casa Gangotena - Plaza View room

 

With Quito done for the time being, we hit road to Otavalo tomorrow morning – Otavalo is a small city of 50,000 people and is the most famous indigenous market in Ecuador. More from their tomorrow – if the wine doesn’t get the better of me!

Buenas Noches!

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