Thursday, June 4, 2009

Catching our breath in Quito

At 13,500 feet, looking down on Quito

Flying in to Quito, Ecuador from Boston left us breathless, literally. Going from Boston (sea level) to Quito (10,000 feet) had us wheezing as we lugged our backpacks up one measly flight of stairs so we could collapse into our beds at our hostel. Deciding that we hadn't challenged our lungs quite enough, the very next day we took the TeleferiQo (gondola lift) up another 4000 feet into the mountains surrounding Quito to enjoy spectacular views of the city. After only an hour at that elevation headaches and a chilly breeze chased us back down into what felt like deliciously rich oxygen in Quito.

Supposedly on either sides of the equator

Quito's blustery foggy nights and ring of towering mountains almost made us forget that we're only 25 miles from the equator. Luckily, it's a quick 30 minute drive out of the city to celebrate and learn plenty of fun facts and fiction about the equator. There are two rival tourist traps to visit here, each entertaining for wildly different reasons. 30 years ago La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) park was built on the site where the equator was thought to be. This park commemorates 0,0,0 latitude with a giant obelisk, trinket shops, restaurants, a miniature recreation of Quito, and a surprisingly informative ethnographic museum detailing the many indigenous Ecuadorian peoples. Once GPS technology could exactly identify the location of the equator (about 200 m away from La Mitad del Mundo park), Museo Solar Inti Ñan, a smaller quirky park, sprung up to compete. According to Google Earth however, Inti Ñan is not on the actual equator either, but who knows. This cactusy park offers a bizarre smorgasbord of information on native peoples, a real shrunken head, giant pythons preserved in glass barrels, and plenty of cleverly faked demonstrations. We really don't know how they did this, but they 'demonstrated' how the Coriolis effect causes water to drain in different directions on either side of the equator, balanced an egg on its end (supposedly only possible directly on the equator), and showed how our muscles were weaker on the equator than off the equator. Impressive, but we're pretty sure the demonstrations were all fake.

Acrophobia inducing view from one of the Basilica's towers

We also spent an afternoon exploring Quito's beautiful Old Town. It is packed with several churches per block, indigenous folks selling Chiclets and handicrafts, and a couple of lawsuit-worthy opportunities if this were the US. The gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional towers high above Old Town, complete with grimacing gargoyls, giant stained glass windows, and delicate towers. For just $3/person, you can climb up to the highest points of two of the Basilica's towers. After crossing rickety wooden plank platforms, climbing rusty rebar ladders, and scaling almost vertical stairways, we were rewarded with great views across Quito, unimpeeded by pesky safety barriers or railings. Once we were safely back on firm ground, we wandered through several other old churches, admiring the gold filigree and bloody crucifixes. After the sun set, Old Town was beautifully lit by streetlights. By chance we stumbled across a dance and music performance of traditional Ecuadorian arts. Sponsored by the Foundation of Art and Culture, the performance ranged from ancient fertility dances to more recent Spanish influenced waltzes. The dances were all accompanied by the bright live music of guitars and flutes and complimented by gorgeous costumes. We next head to the chill mountain town of Baños to soak in the hot springs and enjoy the views of volcanoes and waterfalls.

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