Quito and the middle of the world

Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the start of our adventure in the southern hemisphere.

We arrived by plane from Guatemala to the first city (along with Krakow) to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oldest capital in South America, founded at the end of the first millennium, is situated at 2,800m (9,350ft) above sea level. Whilst researching Latin America we’d read horror stories of travellers being hit with altitude sickness who had been unable to function for several days, in rare cases the height had been fatal as it caused swelling of the brain and/or fluid in the lungs. Symptoms include; dizziness, confusion, severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, convulsions, swelling of the extremities and shortness of breath. Not wanting to be bed-ridden or end up six feet under we took the precaution of buying some Diamox (altitude sickness pills). Thankfully however our three-day stay in the elevated capital produced no ill-effects.

The allure of capital cities in developing countries has never been appealing to us with a mixture of poverty, crime, congestion and dirt all being repellents. But in Quito, we were pleasantly surprised.

We landed around midday and after passing through immigration, baggage and customs we were confronted with a lively wall of merciless taxi drivers. The most persistent of them had us haggling until an agreeable 7* USD** was reached to take us to our hostel.

We stayed in the new town, which was saturated in tourist comforts with western food being the staple.

Heading away from the familiar we went into the colonial centre which had countless Christian churches their interiors engulfed in gold, small dirty-faced children with palms outstretched, huge skewered cuy (guinea pig) grilling on the roadside, a storyteller surrounded by a captivated crowd, a man of God screaming about the end of days and a strong Spanish presence in the architecture.

San Francisco Church [Quito, Ecuador]

The Presidential Palace adjacent to the Plaza de la Independencia [Quito, Ecuador]

A day trip away from the hustle and bustle took us to the Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world). Although the tourist attraction (and also live-in village) had gigantic monuments, a museum and a hatful of information about being situated on the equator, science has proved otherwise. The real location of the equator lies roughly 200m from the impersonation.

Mitad del Mundo [Ecuador]

Unsurprisingly, equidistant between the North and South poles lies another museum, the Intinan. Although unlike the previous one this offers interesting experiments; balancing an egg vertically on a nail (which Alicia successfully did), proving the Coriolis effect – water disappearing down a plug hole three different ways – are just a couple of enjoyable things to see. Also there were replicas of native’s homes, an attention-seeking alpaca and a camera-shy sheep.

We left Quito the following day wishing we could have stayed a little longer, there were still city parks to be explored, duck boats to be ridden and other sites to be seen but we moved forward onto Banos, which for us, was the adventure capital of South America.

© John Brownlie 2012

Click here to see some of the photos that didn’t make the cut.

* This was the most expensive taxi ride so far outside the U.S. but is not an indicator of one’s daily budget; as both public transportation, food and accommodation could be had for $20-30 here.

** In January 2000 the U.S. Dollar became the national currency of Ecuador.

Getting to the colonial centre and Mitad del Mundo is made easy with the public transport. From new town (tourist area) to the centre takes 15-20 minutes by frequent bus for about .50c. New town to Mitad del Mundo can be done in about one and a half hours for $1.50. There are agencies that will organise it for you at an inflated price.


Crossing Borders: Mexico to Guatemala

The small city of Palenque, Mexico was suffocatingly saturated in tour agencies offering identical excursions at equally identical prices. Collectivos (small mini-vans) predatorily patrolled the streets looking for gringos to extort. Slamming hard on the brakes when they found their prey, the van would screech to a halt, a head would emerge from the passenger side and hang precariously out of the window shouting tourist attractions in the hope that someone would take the bait. We’d shake our heads and wave away their invitations.

In a town like this, hunting for a good price was straight-forward enough, however finding a trustworthy agency to get us across the Mexican – Guatemalan border into Flores was not. We spoke with several unscrupulous and unsavoury characters before settling on Tulum Transporta to provide transport and safe passage for just 300 Pesos (£14/$23).

Early the following morning we were picked up outside our hotel in a tall collectivo. The ensuing hour consisted of four more stops to gather passengers before heading down the worn way to Guatemala. The arduous roads ahead were badly riddled with potholes and speed bumps that our driver was having a hard time avoiding. Consequently, we were flung around as the van swerved, stopped and started to get to where we wanted to go. After an unfaltering two-hour onslaught the driver ceased and we took a welcome break with some food.

The $5 buffet restaurant served a tipico Mexican meal with rice, beans, eggs and tortillas. The basic spread when doused in hot sauce and followed by thick black aromatic coffee was enough to revitalise the inanimate.
Getting our fill we re-boarded the bus for another round of abuse. Moving onwards to the border we watched a light mist rest on the landscape and slowly evaporate as the sun climbed to its peak. Small abodes dotted the highways as the children played. Sullen skinny dogs laid in the middle of the worn road wearing a lethargic and empty look. And intimidating military checkpoints carried equally intimidating machine guns.
We soon arrived at a wide clay coloured river. Below us a buzzing port sat on the muddy banks. Small boats were traversing up and down stream, picking up people and dropping off others. The small pier had children aged no more than four or five trying to sell passengers their wares. Of these boats, one of them would ferry us upstream towards the Guatemalan border.

We found the right boat and boarded it with difficulty, having an additional 70lbs in baggage transforms one’s grace and agility into clumsiness and gigantism. We piled all of the bags at the rear of the boat, which also happened to be the guide’s place. With his head peeking over a man-made mountain the ferryman steered the boat out of the port and upstream.
The reddish-brown river was slow-moving and the bright-blue sky was cloudless. Aside from a nerve-wracking unscheduled stop in the middle of the river we arrived at our destination port in a dry 15 minutes.

Upon disembarking, clones of the children we had left a quarter of an hour downstream were swarming around our feet. Hands full of beads and embroidery were shoved to our faces, prices were being shouted at us in Spanish. A couple with wads of cash were trying to get us to change our Pesos for Quetzals. Explaining that it was our last chance to change Mexican dinero, the pair hounded us up a steep hill and continued to badger us until another money-filled boat docked. At the hilltop sat a small light-coloured hut and a bus waiting to move us onto immigration.

The small blue office was five minutes away on the plagued roads, isolated in nowhere. Manned by three thumb-twiddling officers, keeping them company; a chicken, pig and a pump-action shotgun.

Pulling into the policed area we were surprised to see the same pestering couple eagerly waiting for us. Not knowing where they would appear next on our journey we surrendered our remaining Pesos on their terms.
Inside the small dimly lit office, the officials were pleasant enough and we passed the standard checks easily. After giving them $5 (£3) exit tax we received another stamp in our passport.

Leaving behind the troublesome two for Guatemala’s next guests we continued on down the bumpy road onto Flores.

© John Brownlie 2012