Chances are, travelers will need to stop or connect flights in Quito and Guayaquil on a trip to the Galápagos Islands. It was nice to experience the difference between these two mainland destinations and gain an understanding of Ecuadoran culture and history before traveling to the islands. Quito was particularly memorable and I would highly recommend visitors stay there at least two days. There is much to do, see and learn, so if you do not have time constraints, a mainland visit broader than Quito would be wonderful.
La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World)
If you ask a driver in Quito to take you to the equator, you might be asked “Which one?” This site is where the large monument stands (along with several other notable statues in the plaza). This is known as the “Old Equator” because since GPS technology has been employed, it was identified that the monument does not actually lie on the true equator – it is really ~200 meters off to the side. It is still nice to view and a minimal entry cost (parking plus admission).
Don’t be fooled when you hear this is a museum! It is also where you get to see the “New Equator” and a site you do not want to miss. It is really an outdoor science museum with some unique learning opportunities…but in the coolest way possible! The guides are fantastic and you will be taken in very small groups though the sites. This is well worth the small entrance fee (~$4 USD per person). The accurate equatorial line has been drawn here through GPS use and there are a variety of science experiments the guides walk through which will convince you beyond a doubt. This was such a fun place to visit. Did you know you can balance an egg on a nailhead on the equator? How about that water drains straight down (without swirl) on the equator? If you move a sink just a few feet in either direction, the water will drain with a swirl either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on which hemisphere it sits. Truth. Another little known fact: two times each year for three minutes only, you can stand on the equatorial line here and cast no shadow.
This is the area where you will find the beautiful cathedrals and colonial architecture, great for visits in the daytime. There are good coffee shops and restaurants in this area too. You will not be allowed to take photos in the basilicas. Old Town is the one area where tourists are wanted to be careful with your belongings. It is recommended to keep your items close and secure and avoid displaying mobile phones, computers and cameras. The climb to El Panecillo has been documented on numerous sites as being prone to violence and thievery so we skipped this experience and opted for a quiet cappuccino instead.
The cable car/tram system offers beautiful views of the expansive capital city, but it is not for people with a fear of heights. If you have visited Monserrate in Bogotá, this is very similar but the teleférico here is more…rustic. At the top, there is a gallery and when we visited, there was an artist/sculptor preparing for a show that weekend. The work included beautifully painted hummingbird statues. I am not sure how we talked our way into a prescreening, but we were allowed in to quietly view and photograph while they dried. The photos hardly capture the beauty of each of these pieces.
There are numerous volcanos in Ecuador and Galápagos. Pulalahua is an inactive volcano where you can view the crater and beautiful surrounding area that has since been converted into agricultural land. It is just a few minutes from the museum and worth the drive.
My splurge meal was a delicious experience in Old Town Quito after a full day of touring. Ecuadoran grilled pork was presented with local maize, tomatoes, plantains, red onion and fresh avocado – fantastic.
- Wearing shorts is against cultural norms in Ecuador, regardless of the temperature, unless you are exercising, in the Galápagos or on a beach. To show respect, be sure to cover your legs with pants, jeans, leggings or a longer skirt.
- You will likely want to speak Spanish with the locals, both out of respect since it is a more formal destination than the islands and also because few locals there speak English.
- Listen to the locals. If they warn you not to go to a certain area or walk after dark, take their recommendations. El Panecillo, for example, can be a dangerous area and Old Town is not a smart area to be after dark.
- Generally speaking, Old Town is known as a higher crime area. Protect your belongings. Do not reveal technology items. Consider locking your daypack zippers or wearing it front-style.
- Use only marked taxis from reliable locations. When in doubt, have a hotel bellman arrange a taxi (even if you are not staying there) or find the designated taxi stand that will be clearly identified. Taxi prices are modest – you can get most places across town for $4-$5 USD. Hotels can also arrange a taxi to spend the day with you and take you to several sights. You may pay $50-$60 USD for this concierge type of service but it could be well worth it for a traveler with limited time.
- Find one of the local ice cream shops. They make special fruit ice cream that is closer to a gelato in nature. So delicious! Three cones with two-scoops each plus little dipping cookies will run you about $4 USD total so you can treat your driver, too.
- Quito is very high altitude (~10K feet elevation in areas). Some travelers recommend taking a baby aspirin and some research suggests avoiding any sleep aids at these heights. It is important to stay hydrated. That said, know that there are some nuisance symptoms that are experienced by well hydrated travelers at high elevations as in Quito. It might be worth reading about how altitude affects the body before traveling to these heights to avoid any surprises.