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A few of us took advantage of a mistake fare to Quito last fall and visited just for a long weekend. Fun town. Be mindful of the altitude, which can adversely affect you.
Prasanna, a Washington, D.C.-based photographer who last wrote about Mexico City and Patagonia from the site, imported from baltimore, visited recently; here are his practical tips for visiting Quito if you have 72 hours to spare.
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It’s hard to tell whether you are short of breath because of the altitude, the views from the Teleférico, or the majestic architecture in the historical district – but regardless of the reason, Quito is a great South American city to visit for a weekend or for an extended stay. Situated high in the Andes between two mountain ranges, Quito offers spectacular views, unique regional dishes, excellent mountaineering and hiking, along with easy access to a variety of unspoiled natural beauty and landscapes.
Ecuador, named after the equator, has a temperate climate year-round and is flanked by beaches and the Galapagos on one side, and the Amazon basin on the other. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, has a small but growing tourism industry designed to serve everybody from backpackers on a budget to those looking for luxury accommodations, feasting on some roasted guinea pig while gazing at one of the country’s many volcanoes.
The city is split up geographically into three main districts, ranging from north to south. The southern part of the city is residential, where things are a bit cheaper but doesn’t offer too much for tourists. The northern part of the city is more modern, with high rise apartments, museums and a variety of nightlife and dining options. The Museo Nacional, located next to the Parque La Alameda, houses many impressive pre-Columbian and colonial works of art. This is where you can get your historical bearings of the region and shop for souvenirs.
After exploring the museums and the parks, you can wet your whistle in the many bars in the aptly named ‘Gringolandia’. It offers many western style bars and restaurants, ranging from everything from pizza and burgers to large German style beer houses – along with western style prices. There is a lack of a local flavor, but does seem to attract the city’s more upscale crowd.
La Ronda, which comes alive on nights, is one of the oldest streets in the city located in the historical district, offering a distinctly Old World Latin feel. Paved in cobblestones and filled with street performers, it was the home of many famous poets, artists and musicians. Signs mark historical sites and locations of important political events. Shops are open late, especially on weekends, and music and local crafts abound.
Not to be missed during the daytime, La Ronda is adjacent to the city’s main attraction, the historical district or the Old City. The majestic Quito Cathedral or the Iglesia de Compañía de Jesús vibes with the city’s historical and religious roots. Visitors can peruse the paintings and architecture daily, with local tour guides standing by on the street corners to offer a more detailed look into the historical and political significance.
The main airport, Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre, is one of the busiest in Latin America and is the gateway to Quito and the rest of Ecuador. Taxis are plentiful in the large cities, but buses are the best way to get around when traveling outside of Quito. The more rural parts of the country have less developed transportation infrastructure with challenging mountain roads. Local cooperatives operate 4×4 taxis for longer, rougher journeys and can be hailed either to your hotel or in the local village center.
Expect little English outside of hotels, but locals are patient with visitors trying to fumble through Spanish. Cell service is available throughout the country, but can be hard to find near the national parks or away from population center. WiFi is easy to find at local tourist hangouts. Ecuador uses the US dollar and ATM machines are easily accessible. Credit cards are accepted in most places, but if you are shopping on the streets, cash is always preferred.
The Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi, a mere 100 km from Quito, is one of the highest active volcanos in the world. The Cotopaxi National Park, which spans 130 square miles, offers hiking, mountain biking and mountaineering a short bus ride away from the city. Most of the park is above 3500 meters, leaving the landscape with sparse vegetation and scarred by the lava flows from eruptions.
The focal point of the park, the Cotopaxi Volcano, is joined by two other volcanoes: Runmiñawi and Sincholagua. On a clear day, all three are readily visible at most points in the park and along the major trails. Out of the three, Cotopaxi is the most popular, with its brilliant snow capped peaks and dozens of summit attempts each year.
Climbing to the summit requires a guide, many of which can either be hired in either Quito or Latacunga. Most tour operators take about two days, spending the first day climbing up to the mountain refuge at the base of the glacier. Summit attempts depart camp at midnight and arrive at the summit just after sunrise, making it down and off the mountain by early afternoon. The climb is popular due to to its non technical nature, but still requires training in using technical equipment and mountain safety. If you aren’t up for a technical hike, the snow and glaciers on Runmiñawi have melted, offering a climb no more difficult than a scramble. Nonetheless, it is still popular with locals and others looking to acclimatize to the altitude.
Day hikes around the base are also popular and are the only option for visitors when the volcano becomes active. A dirt road, accessible by 4x4s, leads to a parking lot on the Cotopaxi volcano, which is directly beneath the mountain refuge. To get to the refuge requires a short, but tiring climb at almost 5000 meters. The base of the glacier, which is the starting point for summits, is just another short hike from there.
More adventurous visitors with either a mountain bike or a 4×4 truck should consider going off the beaten path and exploring the rugged landscape. Spend enough time and you will eventually run into the herds of wild horses which are native to the park. Descendants of horses originally brought here by Spanish settlers often gather by the Lago Limpiopungo along with birds and other small animals.
Getting to the park is a fairly short drive from either Quito or Latacunga, which can be either coordinated through a tour operator or can be self-arranged. Latacunga is a popular starting point, but the north side of the park offers more isolation. There is only one modest lodging option in the park, with most of the other options surrounding it being a bit more upscale. Lower costs options for lodging and meals are easily found in Latacunga.
The Mindo Valley
A few hours north of Quito, Mindo offers a spectacular retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. The sleepy town, nestled in a cloud forest valley, feels reminiscent of a simpler time, with about 3000 inhabitants and about a half dozen roads that can easily be explored on foot.
Despite its small size, the town is a great destination for a weekend getaway or for an extended adventure. The Mindo Valley is a transitional area between the high altitude Andean region and the ocean, containing the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The temperate climate and elevation of 1300 meters allow visitors to see over 400 species of birds in the immediate area, making it one of the most dense birdwatching destinations in the world.
There are numerous tour operators in the area, ranging from a variety of tour lengths and prices. The multitude of trails around the river and immediate vicinity of the town offer excellent hiking and great spots to catch the sunrise or watch the clouds roll through the valley.
Not to be outdone by its natural beauty – a must-visit in Mindo is the El Quetzal de Mindo, a restaurant, hotel and, most importantly, a chocolate factory. Although the main cocoa producing area of the country, Guayaquil, is over 300 kms away, the small scale artisanal chocolate factory provides a great culinary and educational experience.
Daily tours go through the entire production process, from bean to bar and allow visitors to try samples along the way. The finished products are for sale in their shop and the restaurant offers local specialties with a sweet twist.
Mindo is located about 100 km from Quito and there are multiple direct daily buses in both directions. It takes about three or four hours, offering amazing views of the valley on the way in.
Sleeping options in the city range from luxury eco-tourism outfits to pitching a tent in the local football stadium. Food options range similarly, offering some middle and upscale dining options to local street fare.
Mindo at Night
About the Author:
Prasanna Chandrasekhar is a photographer who lives and works out of the Washington, D.C. area. He enjoys exploring new landscapes and capturing vivid images. You can see his work at imported from_baltimore.
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