Instead of sending my characters off to exciting places, I decided to have an adventure for myself. COVID be damned, I went out to see the world. First stop: Ecuador. This is part 2 in a series of 4 posts recapping that trip along with any helpful tips I can offer to others planning an adventure.
(I’m not affiliated with any of the linked businesses below – just linking for your convenience and mine when I return to Ecuador. Most are links to my reviews at Tripadvisor.)
Quito (August 29-31, 2021)
We stayed three nights at Casa de las Culturas San Marcos. It’s a classic Spanish style home with rooms around an enclosed central courtyard. The place is a work in progress and felt very homey, complete with pet cat and dog. I informed the owner that we’d be arriving late at night, and he was there to greet our taxi, which he’d arranged for us. The accommodations are simple but comfortable, and the included daily breakfast is big and delicious. We loved trying the local dishes and fruits. And the location is great – on a quiet road in easy walking distance to the Plaza Grande.
Day 1: City Tour
The original plan was to only be in Quito for one full day. To make the most of our time, and taking into account safety concerns in a city we were unfamiliar with, we booked a private city day tour with Let’s Go to Ecuador – highly recommend them. It was such a fun day with Angela and Jamie. They customized the itinerary to what we most wanted to do and provided transportation all day long. They were happy to work in the out-of-the-way visits that we requested.
After a breakfast feast of fresh Ecuadorian fruits, amazing Ecuadorian coffee, and San Marcos’s signature empanada, we exited the guesthouse to see Angela and Jamie smiling and waving from their car. They whisked us through the streets and a busy local market, sharing #Quitofacts along the way. Our first stop was at the Museo Franciscano del Padre Almeida, a church and convent that began construction at the end of the 16th century. This is not a typical stop for tourists and is usually closed on Sundays, but a few days before we left on our trip, Angela checked in with them and arranged special permission for us to enter.
This small church and convent was a great introduction to Quito. It’s in the oldest part of the city and the front plaza offered great views of the Virgen del Panecillo. The rooms, courtyards, and tiny church are plain and humble compared to the magnificent cathedrals we’d see later in the day, but that made it all the more intimate and charming. Works from the famous Quito School of Art hang throughout the rooms, and recently discovered frescoes are being uncovered and restored in the halls.
It is now time to confess that the reason we wanted to visit Padre Almeida’s place so badly was to see the Last Supper painting in which our Lord and Savior and his boyz were served cuy (a/k/a the South American delicacy of guinea pig). This had become rather a quest because the year earlier (the dreaded 2020) we’d hoped to see a similar painting in the Catedral de Cusco. Imagine our joy when we discovered that we could have a parallel experience in our new destination of Ecuador. (This does not quell, however, our desire to see the painting in Cusco.)
The tour included a look at daily life in the convent (or monastery—I’m a little confused on that point. Was it always a convent or a monastery back in Almeida’s day??), with a stop in the dining hall, complete with a pulpit for preaching during meals, and a stroll through the kitchens where meals were prepared. This former lunch lady enjoyed having a stir with the giant spoon and pot from an earlier period. Religious artifacts are also on display, like presses for shaping the Eucharist. In one of the rooms, we were told the legend of Padre Almeida as we stood in front of the crucifix he used to climb to sneak out at night. This was a legend Angela had heard many times while growing up in Quito, and it was a thrill to see how excited she was to be standing in that very place.
We met the choir as we crossed their balcony—while they were singing during Mass. When we crossed back again after they were finished, they were so friendly and didn’t seem to mind our earlier transgression at all. And our guide led us all up very narrow steps to the church rooftop, where we were blessed with a spectacular view of Quito and its surrounding mountains. I’ve yammered on for 5 paragraphs about only one stop, and I hope you’ll forgive me because it was our very first experience in Ecuador, and it was an excellent one, so I hold it extra close to my heart. But we did see other things that day…
Old Town & Churches
We parked in the Old Town and walked along the quaint La Rhonda Street and made our way to the bustling Plaza de San Francisco, where Angela and Jamie gave us a guided tour of the gorgeous Iglesia de San Francisco. The Virgin Mary statue at the center of the magnificent wall behind the altar was used as the model for the aluminum Virgen del Panecillo.
We next stopped by Yumbo’s to learn about chocolate making and taste all kinds of chocolates. We got lucky that day, and they had a fresh cacao pod, which our delightful chocolatier cut open for us to sample—the trick is to simply let the pulpy pit sit upon your tongue to taste with no biting! The gift shop of Yumbo’s chocolate shop features a balcony with a stunning view of Plaza de San Francisco. Next to that is a charming cafe, which I’d love to set a spell in next time I’m in Quito.
Leaving Yumbos, as we neared the main plaza, we came across colorfully dressed dancers from the north doing a traditional dance. At the corner of the plaza, Angela noticed that the El Sagrario church was open, so we peeked in there. At Plaza de la Independencia, we were once again so appreciative of being with Angela and Jamie as they explained the significance of all that we saw. We learned that up until 2021, only one Ecuadorian had ever won an Olympic Gold Medal, so larger than life images of the 3 Team Ecuador gold medalists in 2021 hung on banners off a building at one corner of the plaza. Go Ecuador!
We walked more streets in the historic district, sampled Mora and other ice creams, caught a glimpse of the far-off towers of Basilica de Voto, admired the Iglesia San Augustin, and took a break at Heladaria San Agustin, where we enjoyed a fantastic almuerzo—that included mojitos! The waiters even moved a table to create a window seat for us when Angela requested it. We had such a good time chatting with our ambassadors to Ecuador while we dined. We thought lunch was over and started our way down from the top floor only to be stopped by our waiter on the second floor as he was bringing us unexpected desserts.
Expedition to the Equator
After lunch, we returned to the car (and to prove that Angela is the hostess with the mostest, she came prepared with tissue for us to use in the parking lot bathroom, which did not, as is typical in public restrooms in Ecuador, have toilet paper). Jamie, who forsook a mojito at lunch, drove us north to the Museo de Sitio la Florida, the second of our extra special requests for the custom tour. We learned about what anthropologists had learned from excavating tombs from an ancient Quitian culture. We viewed artifacts found in the tombs and then went out to see the acutal tombs, with recreated bodies positioned as they’d been discovered.
After that, we ventured further north to stand on the equator at Museo de Sitio Intiñan. Turns out, Incans had pinpointed a spot awfully close to the equator long before it had officially been marked (somewhat incorrectly at la Mitad del Mundo monument) by a French expedition. Intiñan is on the actual equator, which was definitively identified when GPS came about. It’s a pretty silly guided presentation at this site, but I’ve rarely felt more validated than when my egg-farmer heritage coursed through my veins and I balanced the experimental egg within literal seconds. Even our sitio guide seemed genuinely impressed and slapped me an enthusiastic high five. I’ve got an official certificate to prove that I performed the feat.
What a great day! After everything we did and arriving late the night before, we were happy to take the advice to not venture out of our hotel after dark.
Day 2: On Our Own
The next day, after 24+ hours adjusting to the altitude, we took the TeleforiQo up another 4K feet up the side of the Pichincha volcano. My daughter was determined to get her Instagrammable photo on a mountain swing, and after Baños de Agua Santa was axed from our plans, she was thrilled to learn of the swing at the end of the TeleforiQo. With so many people afraid of travelling these days, there was NO line for the swing, and we were even able to swing side by side for a while with nobody else around.
We only hiked up a little farther from there so as not to punish our flatlander lungs so early in the trip, but the views were still stunning. I never expected to get that immersed in the natural world so close to such a huge city. Before boarding the teleforico and heading back down the mountain, we stopped at the Cruz de Lomo cafe for hot chocolate and tea, and more magical views ensued through the giant wall o’ windows.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
From the TeleforiQo, we had the taxi drop us off at the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Its stoic Gothic styling is so different from all the other churches we saw in Quito. Be sure to look up at the gargoyles that are shaped like Ecuadorian animals. We paid the basic admission to see inside the magnificent church and went up the northwest tower (to the left as you’re facing the front of the basilica) until we reached a bar. A woman there offered to sell us another ticket to keep on climbing, but we said the magic word “cerveza” and she welcomed us into the bar and gave us seats on the balcony with spectacular view across the city to Virgen and beyond to the mountains. We drank a local beer called Lizama, and it was heavenly (get it? Because we were in a church? But really, it was tasty).
A stroll to the other end of Old Town took us just past the plaza to an outdoor artisan market along the sidewalk where Mia bought some earrings. We then took Jamie’s advice from the day before and grabbed a fresh juice and a bite to eat at Jugos de la Sucre. On our walk back to the hostel, we picked up some empanadas, chocolate Biri Biris, and little bottles of wine for later. In our room, we chillaxed, checked into our flight for the next day, took icy showers, and feasted on our groceries.
Final Morning in Quito
On our last morning in Quito, we discovered a downside of travelling during COVID times—the Catedral Metropolitana was temporarily closed because of the pandemic, so we weren’t able to see the alpaca in its Nativity painting. But don’t worry, we have the cuy, humitas, and chicha served at the Last Supper at Padre Almeida’s to keep us happy. I don’t understand why this particular church & museum were closed when so many others were open, but whatevs. We enjoyed the beautiful morning in the Plaza Grande and toured the impressive Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus instead.
Before we leave Quito for Cuenca, I’d like to give a shout out to the Quito airport. It’s SO nice! Beautiful design, incredibly clean, and a pleasant place to kill time while waiting for a plane (or COVID test results).
Next stop: Cuenca
Or backtrack to Ecuador Overview.