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Walking Tour of Quito

We skipped breakfast today because we were headed out to an all-day walking food tour of Quito. Breakfast is included with our room, and it’s probably a nice spread, but we decided to get a little extra sleep this morning. We ate late last night and really overdid it and we will probably be eating early and often on the food tour this morning, so eating breakfast would have been a mistake. Instead, we just met in the lobby of the hotel and then grabbed an Uber to take us to the center of the old town where we would start our walking tour of the city.

Quito is a stunning city. The streets are clean and filled with art. It’s also a very large city. We only walked through a few of the neighborhoods, on a route hand-selected by either our guide or the tour company, but everything we saw was really impressive. I really enjoyed the art along the streets and snapped a few photos as we drove. Little did I know we would be visiting an artists colony on our walking tour.

Plaza de la Independencia

We got out of the Uber and started our walking tour in Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) in the heart of historic Quito. In the center of the square is a tall monument honoring the heroes of independence of August 10, 1809, when Ecuador declared its independence from Spain. Like many other Spanish Colonial cities, the central square is lined with churches and important government buildings. The Spanish founded Quito in 1534 on the ruins of an Inca city. The Plaza Grande (as it’s known locally) has been the center of power in Quito since the early 1600s. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Quito a UNESCO world heritage site when they created the designation in 1978. They say Quito has “the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America.” Only twelve sites were included that year and Quito is number two. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty special place.

We went across the plaza and into El Palacio Arzobispal (the Archbishop’s Palace). It’ has been turned into a shopping mall with a different little shop in each of the old rooms. On weekends they even have live music (free concerts). It was pretty empty when we walked through and took a few pictures.

An Early Lunch

From there we walked down Venezuela Street toward the Basilica, but turned down Galapagos Street to find some traditional Ecuadorian food. Galapagos Street quickly turned into a walking-only street that went under some arches and down a few sets of stairs to our first food stop, Pilar Salguero. It was 10:30 am, which is a bit early for lunch, but there were already a few local folks eating. Would this be second breakfast? brunch? first lunch? I’m not sure, but after last night’s dessert extravaganza and this morning’s fancy hotel breakfast, I wasn’t very hungry. Each couple shared a small plate with chunks of pork, potato, a small piece of a corn cob, some diced tomatoes and onions, and a few bites of platanos fritos. They also gave us a bowl of orange sauce that we could spoon onto the food on our plates. It smelled like it was made from peppers, but there was basically zero heat to it. The flavors were nice and worked well together.

After that savory meal, we hiked up the hill to Venezuela street and over to the Basilica. We didn’t have time to go inside, but our guide pointed out the unique gargoyles around the top which are animals found in Ecuador. Each window is guarded by a pair of the same type of animal. We saw sloths, iguanas, turtles, crocodiles, jaguars, monkeys, and anteaters. I really like the concept of the local animals defending the church and the people inside it. The basilica is said to be “unfinished” because completing it would mean the end of the world.

Two More Lunches

We continued along Venezuela Street past the Basilica and then took a walking path down the hill into what looked like a neighborhood. We didn’t go too far before we came to lunch spot number two. 11:15 am is pretty early for second lunch, but it was really good, so nobody complained. I think the name of the place was Hueca Manabita El gato Numero 2. They serve classic Ecuadorian empanadas made from plantain flour and there were a couple guys in the back slicing and chopping up green plantains and potatoes to make the empanadas and other fried goodies. We all got shrimp empanadas and they were amazing. They also had a little bucket of hot sauce that wasn’t hot at all.

We went directly across the street for some juice drinks inside Mercado América. We sat down to third lunch at 11:35 am. This time lunch was a mashed yuca base with some fried eggs on top and more of the diced tomato and onion pico. It was a bit starchy for our fourth meal in 4 hours, but the egg with tomato and onion was really nice. They also brought us a little bowl of the now familiar orange pepper sauce (not spicy). We had several rounds of some fantastic juice drinks, which made it all better. I’m not sure how adding extra high-calorie drinks makes it better, but it did. We started with an old favorite, guanábana. On subsequent rounds we tried several new fruits that we hadn’t heard of previously. I really liked the naranjilla (a relative of the tomato, but quite sweet) and the babaco (a sweet, but mild cross of two types of mountain papayas).

Street Art of Quito

There was no way to eat anything else at that point, so it’s a good thing we had some walking to do. We headed to a street art colony and talked about the different artists who have come through from other countries, saw some of their work, and learned about their mission. A lot of the art was really fun and interesting. Some of it had strong messages. I really enjoyed it. Quito is filled with all sorts of art. A lot of it is street art. Some of these artists have helped create some of it. That’s pretty cool.

Fourth Lunch

We walked along some of the streets filled with art on our way to the Parque El Ejido, which is a park where a lot of art gets displayed and sold. Just outside the park, we stopped for our fourth lunch. The timing actually made sense on this one. It was 12:30 and the place was packed with locals. We were having seafood. It was mostly fish with a few prawns thrown in for good measure. All of the fish was filleted so the only heads or skin we saw were on the prawns. It was really good. The fish was cooked perfectly and the sauce was excellent, but we were so stuffed that it was difficult to finish. Somehow we all found room when the bartender started whipping up babaco drinks for us. Oh man, that is really good stuff.

Tropical Fruit Tasting

There was another long walk between lunch four and our final food stop. I needed it. We made our way to Mercado Santa Clara for some fruit tasting. We are not the usual group of tourists. I think our guide was somewhat surprised several times today when he expected to introduce us to something wonderful (like guanábana) only to hear us tell him it was one of our favorites. That trend continued in a big way at the fruit stand in the mercado. We got to “try” lychee, chirimoya, fresh cacao beans, and a few others. I think he was especially surprised that we already loved granadillas and were well versed in how to open and eat them. We went one more place for drinks to wrap up the tour. Once again we surprised our guide when none of us wanted a coffee or tea. Instead we got some lemonades and fruit juices.

Volcán Pichincha

That was the end of our walking tour. Thankfully, we wouldn’t have to eat again for a few hours. We realized we had enough time to take the tram to the top of a nearby mountain and enjoy the view from the top, so we grabbed and Uber and headed on over to the TelefériQo Cruz Loma. The tram basically goes straight up a very steep slope of the Pichincha Volcano. The last major eruption was in 1998, but it is considered safe to climb. The tram takes you to a mirador where you can look out across the city and see the really big volcanoes (Cotopaxi, et. al) on the other side. On a clear day you can hike from there up to the peaks – Ruku Pichincha and Guagua Pichincha. It was too late in the day to consider the 4 hour hike up and back and we could see a pretty good storm rolling across Quito. Either would be enough to keep us from climbing. Both at the same time made the choice easy.

The view from the top of the tram was pretty great, even with the clouds rolling in. The storm blocked our view of the big volcanoes behind the city (one of the main reasons people go up there), but there were still interesting things to see and do at the top. We wandered around a bit to see it all. This is a very touristy place. Almost all of the tourists seem to be from South America, but we did run into some of the first white people we have seen in Ecuador. We waited our turn to swing on the giant swing set overlooking the city. It’s pretty fun to swing at 13,000 feet. From there we wandered a little ways up along the trail that goes to the summit until we came to a little restaurant shack on the side of the mountain.

Hail of a Good Time

I’m not sure we would have gone in except for the fact that it was starting to rain pretty hard. So we ducked under the corrugated steel roof and ordered some plantain chips. We had the place to ourselves and we expected the rain to pass pretty quickly. We were so wrong. Almost as soon as we sat down the rain turned to hail. Lots of hail. And it just kept coming. It must have hailed for 30 minutes or more. The people who had ventured up the big mountain were not happy. The trail was slick mud and they were getting pelted with hail as they tried to stay standing while hurrying back down and into the shack with us. The llamas outside the shack were basically frozen in place. I’m sure they have seen some interesting weather before, but they sure didn’t seem to like the hail. The hail just kept coming. Soon the shack was packed and basically standing room only. We had one of the few tables and felt like we should continue ordering drinks and food so we wouldn’t feel bad hogging the table. We got some good stuff, too. I think we had some hot naranjilla drinks, some platanos fritos with cheese (interesting and quite good), some soup. I don’t remember because we ordered three or four times, and let’s be honest, I was much more interested in watching all the hail. It just kept pounding. There were several inches of hail by the time it slowed down enough that we decided to leave. I was really glad I had worn my new Terrex hiking shoes (to make cobblestone streets a little softer). They were really nice while trying to get back to the tram through the rivers of ice and mud at 13,000 feet.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

We walked down from the base of the tram to where regular streets and traffic were flowing before grabbing a taxi back to the basilica. We wanted to go inside and there was just enough time to make it happen. It’s the largest non-gothic basilica in the western hemisphere. The official name of the basilica is La Basílica del Voto Nacional (The Basilica of the National Vow). There is a giant heart above the main doors and it looks pretty cool. The name and the giant heart are meant to be a perpetual reminder of the consecration of Ecuador to the Sacred Heart. We didn’t have a ton of time before closing, but I think we used it well.

Eating Well

After they kicked us out we went back to our hotel. It was time to figure out dinner and it needed to be good. We used Google Maps to find the highest rated place near the hotel. We found Chios Portugal, a hamburger shop right around the corner from our hotel. It has 4.9 stars after almost 5,000 reviews. That’s an incredible record. We had to try it. Maybe we ordered the wrong things. Maybe nothing would have been good after a day filled with eating all the great Ecuadorian fare around Quito. But in the end none of us were impressed. Nothing was bad, but nothing was great either. So we nursed ourselves back to health by dropping by our favorite dessert shop once again. And when they didn’t have some of our favorites (from last night), we decided to try a few desserts from our hotel. To say this was a big calorie day is the understatement of the year.

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