|We used Quito
as a hub for our Ecuador travels but never spent much time there
-- just a few late afternoons and evenings. It was sufficient to get a
feel for the city, but certainly not to cover more than a fraction of
its interesting sights. We spent most of our time just wandering around
the old center, admiring its plazas and colonial architecture
(photo 1) and enjoying the pleasant urban Latin American scene. A
highlight was our visit to the enormous neo-gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, complete with Marine Iguana and Frigate Bird gargoyles. A system of steep staircases, ladders, and rickety boards
(photo 2) has been set up, allowing tourists with enough nerve to
ascend two of its towers for excellent views of the city (photo 3).
We planned our trip so that we'd be in Quito on a Saturday, within striking distance of the weekly Otavalo market. We always enjoy looking around regional markets, and this one was reputed to be unusually large and interesting, even drawing sellers from neighboring Colombia. We were concerned it may have transformed itself into a tourist market (we've seen that happen elsewhere), but our worries were unfounded. Yes, there were plenty of stalls selling pan flutes and other Andean trinkets, but locals far outnumbered tourists -- there were exotic fruits & vegetables, roasted hogs, live guinea pigs, and a wide variety of colorful woven textiles (a specialty of the region). Many of the sellers wear traditional dress (photos 4 & 5), and musicians and other entertainers wander around, making for a lively affair. Tim & Emily demonstrated just how much they've changed: In years past they loved going from market stall to identical market stall, spending literally hours selecting doo-dads on which to blow their small souvenir allowance. Emily did make a few purchases this time but they were quick; Tim spent most of the time behind his lens.
Next we spent three days at the El Monte Lodge in the vicinity of Mindo. On the way to Mindo, we crossed the equator for the fourth time on the trip. This time we stopped at an equator-themed tourist trap complete with entrance fee, line on the ground, large monument, and innumerable shops and cafes. Modern GPS readings show the line and monument to be about 800 feet off, but that's pretty close given that it was determined a few centuries ago. We also pulled over around the corner on the actual equator to secure photo 6, to accompany the longitude-zero photo we took in Greenwich in 2007. (Only Photoshop or a serious adventure will give us the zero-zero reading, since it's somewhere in the Atlantic.)
The El Monte Lodge is a superbly located, all-around great place. The region is cloud forest: essentially higher-altitude rain forest, meaning fewer insects and cooler temperatures, but still dense jungle and tropical birds -- what a deal! The lodge itself is tastefully done and super-eco, with wonderful owners, guides, cabanas, and food. It's on a huge nature reserve, adjacent to other nature reserves, and the lodge is reached only by a hand-pulled cable car over the Rio (river) Mindo. Activities run the gamut, and we sampled most of them: