13.12.2005 - 18.12.2005
We arrived in Quito in the evening, and were picked up by the folks at our hotel, L'Auberge Inn. Owned by a couple of French expats, it is located midway between the old and new parts of the city, and is a good, quiet, and inexpensive option. We had previously been in the city 28 years earlier, and were eager to see how it had changed. Then it seemed exotic, with a large indigenous population, provincial, and somewhat isolated. Our first impressions now, was that it was much larger, and up to date, similar to other Latin capitals.
Quito is high, about 9000 feet, and surrounded by even higher mountains, such as Vulcan Pichincha at nearly16,000. The urban sprawl has spread further down the valley and up into the steep hills nearby, which is not surprising, given the number of years and the large population increase.
Initially, we walked to Mariscal, a tourist area in the new city, full of hotels and restaurants catering to foreigners, as well as tour agencies. Our hope was to get a deal on a trip to the Galapagos. We stopped at the Hotel Colon, which was one of the few upscale options during our previous trip to Ecuador. Though we never stayed there, it seemed to be located in the same place and had an updated look. Then, as now, it was the center of action for business people, and others willing to shell out the bucks to stay there. Most of the main avenues in Mariscal were wide, heavily trafficked, and appeared relatively prosperous. The side streets, less so, but there were many foreign restaurants, Indian, Thai, etc., espresso and juice bars, along with mountaineering shops selling the latest high tech gear. There were also hundreds of tour agencies, all offering trips to the Galapagos. How to choose? We checked out a few that were listed in our guidebook, but they didn't seem to have quite the bargains we had been hoping for. After a few hours, we decided to give it another day.
The next day we booked a trip on the Legend, one of the larger and more upscale boats. At $1200 US a piece for a five day cruise with air, it was not exactly a bargain, but seemed to be about 25% less than it would have been had we booked in advance. Paying for the cruise was an interesting process. There was steep credit card surcharge and our ATM daily limit was $400. We went to the bank to try and get the remainder of the cash we needed, but after waiting on line for a long time, were told that our debit card wouldn't work. They didn't tell us that there was a system problem. This put us in a bit of a panic and we trudged back to the agency to ask for help. Luckily Felix, one of the guides, spoke English fairly well, and said, most likely, it was a computer or connection issue, not to worry. When we got upset, it seemed our Spanish skills deteriorated. We went back later and the card still wouldn't work, but then I remembered I had a couple of thousand in travelers checks as an emergency stash. I didn't want to use them all, but perhaps we could pay half, and then use our ATM card to get more cash on the days before we sailed. This was acceptable to the agency, although we had to go to several ATM machines, all on different streets, before we found one that liked our card. All in all, a frustrating day, but just one of the hassles you have to put up with when traveling. It seems no matter how many fail safe methods you take with you to obtain additional funds, none is foolproof.
We had five days to explore the city before leaving for the Galapagos.
Hilly Side Streets of Old-Town
It looked less indigenous then it had in the past. Most people were dressed in western clothes, and looked mestizo.
Although there were some women with bowler hats and big packages on their backs.
The buildings and churches were as magnificent as I remembered, and in fact the whole area seemed spiffy, with new signs and clean squares and parks. Plazas Independencia, Grande and San Francisco with their cobblestones, cathedrals and government palacios all looked in really good shape. We were later told that the place had been listed as a World Heritage Site, just in time for the Miss Universe contest, held two years earlier. This was the reason for the face lift.
On a Sunday, it seemed as though most of the city was out walking the streets. There was an outdoor street theater, music and mimes, and everything was very lively.
We went to an art museum, with an exhibit of surrealistic oils, that were obviously a commentary about the social and ethnic divisions of the country. There had been several large Indian demonstrations over the past 10 to 15 years, so they were now a political force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, social and class differences remain extreme, and many areas of the city are quite dangerous, much more so than when we had last been here. The poverty was, if anything, worse then, so perhaps it is because the signs of wealth are more obvious to those who have nothing. We were told to take cabs everywhere at night, and not to walk up to nearby Cerro Panecillo to see the statue of the Virgen overlooking the city.
Asleep Under the Virgen
I wanted to do some climbing before we left Quito, and so I spoke to the French mountaineers who had a shop at our hotel. Although they were still doing Cotopaxi and some of the others, the weather was far from ideal at this time of year. This was already apparent in Quito, as we had rain and a couple of days that were cloudy and chilly. Technically easy, the big volcanoes of Ecuador are over 20,000 feet, and I was concerned about whether I had enough time to acclimatize. In the end, I decided on Pichincha, which was lower and closer, and could be done in under a day. That would be a good test of the limits of my acclimatization. Nanette decided that this was one she wanted to do as well, and although possible to do without a guide, we hired Felix and Roberto, from the same travel agency where we booked our cruise.
We left early on an overcast day. It took about an hour to drive through the city to get to the mountain, visible from most everywhere.
As We Approach
We gained another 3 or 4,000 feet of elevation by the time we got to the base, and there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the rocks. Our plan was to take the harder of two routes to the summit, most of which is a class 4 scramble. The snow made things much more difficult, and we felt the lack of oxygen. At times it was difficult to find adequate hand and foot holds that were within reach, but Roberto was always there to help, which was a good thing given the slippery conditions. There were a few, well let's call them interesting sections, where we had to jump or lunge forward over exposed areas. Despite my interest in hiking and climbing I have a fear of heights, so this was pretty scary. I have to have a conversation with myself to keep calm, and wondered as I have before under similar circumstances, what possessed me to do this. However there was really no turning around, as it is always more difficult to go down steep rock without a rope, than up. After roughly two hours, we got to the top and, as always, it was rush.
The intensity of the sense of being ALIVE was very strong, and it has a way of focusing my mind so that I was fully, totally, present.
With Felix and Roberto
Although there were clouds and volcanic fumes, we still got some distant views of the valleys and mountains beyond.
It was hard to believe we were just outside of a city of 3 million, here in this wild, high country. We stayed for a 1/2 hour, and then took the easy hour walk back down to the refugio. The climbing high lasted the rest of that day and into the next, after which we headed to the Galapagos.