Last fall I became inspired to try out my first tour with G Adventures, and after hearing about the experience of a “Local Living” tour in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, I booked it almost without a second thought. I had never been to South America, and although the Galápagos Islands and Peru and Machu Picchu are already on my bucket lists, the price and timing seemed like they would be just right- I had a break in my season of work, and wanted a little trip to explore another part of the world that was new to me.
Fast forward to the very busy and somewhat whirlwind months of March and April where I opened and closed a show, ended a long-term relationship, and moved out of my apartment of four years. By the time the trip was getting close I couldn’t even remember what was on the itinerary. I got the necessary travel vaccines, packed warm weather & water gear for the rainforest part and cold weather gear and hiking boots for the mountain part, and prepared to head south!
After a full day of travel, I arrived at the International airport of Quito at midnight in a rainstorm. I navigated through the extremely busy arrivals gate and customs areas, and was grateful to see my name on a G Adventures sign and driven the 45 minutes to the beautiful Ikali hotel and a room all to myself for the night.
I got to bed at about 2am, and fell almost immediately asleep which was lucky as I had ambitiously booked a full-day tour with G Adventures **and it began 6 hours later at 8:00am that morning**.
Breakfast was included at the hotel and a full and generous buffet spread included granola, cereal, toast and jam, fresh fruit, eggs and various corn and veggie dishes as well as cured meats and cheese. There was even a selection of local desserts. And fresh juice, coffee, and tea, of course.
I was able to walk to the nearby hotel where our “Old Town and Equator Line” tour was to begin, and jumped into a van with our guide and 15 other travellers, some on their last day of travels in this part of the world, and many, like me, on their first. There were folks from the UK and from the US, and a few Canadians as well.
We started at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, this incredible Neo-gothic and baroque combination of church design, with spectacular spires and gargoyles of animals- everything from turtles to gorillas to ant eaters (which were my favourite). It looks ancient but is actually one of the ‘youngest’ churches I have seen, only built in the end of the 1890s and the early 1900s. (Technically the basilica remains unfinished)
Walking inside the church had a familiar feel to many European Catholic Churches, although I immediately noticed huge arrangements of fresh roses everywhere: on the pillars, at the altar, on either side of the doors… it made the space smell like a flower shop, and then the morning sunlight streaming through the stain glass windows made it look like candied jewels were splashed all over the tall columns lining the sanctuary.
Every stain glass window told a different story or had a different theme, though my favourite was the star at the main doors where every sliver showcased a different flower, from roses to lilies, to tulips to lupins. There was a beautiful chapel at the end, and if we had more time I definitely would have taken the time and paid the $2 to climb up into the towers to see the upper levels of this grand space.
Our next stop was the Plaza de la Indepencia, a large square with fountains and trees and many benches, flanked by the Carondelet Palace (where the president resides), the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Grand Plaza hotel. This is clearly a great tourist spot and gathering place for many.
As we arrived, there were two older gentlemen standing by the main fountain reading to each other from weathered bibles with curling edges, young girls in school uniforms giggling as they played tag weaving around tourists taking photos and street dogs napping in the shade of the trees, carts of fruit juice were being sold by the bottle, some with carved young coconuts as an optional container, and I clocked one woman holding a large clear pan filled with three colours of ice cream and with pointed towers of sugar cones atop it wandering around the periphery, prepared to scoop columns of iced treats.
We were invited to try “mistelas” – thin shells of sugar candy filled with a local liquor that tasted similar to tequila. Once the entire group was given one we had planned to try them all at once, like doing a toast and/or a shot. One of the men standing next to me forgot and upon receiving it immediately popped the candy into his mouth, his wife gasping in protest and several of us nearby burst out laughing as he gently and sheepishly dropped the candy back out of his mouth and into his hand like a dog being caught with something forbidden in their mouth.
We wandered between colourful buildings, often with the view of the majestic Basillica in the far distance, and in addition to having tours of two different cacao factories (including tastings that included hot chocolate and brownies!), we wandered into several churches, some market areas, and the Old Square at the centre.
Throughout the streets there were people selling textiles like beautiful alpaca wool scarves, cooked corn with hot peppers, candy, salty snacks, and pages and pages of lottery tickets. There were also often a small bowl with Paulo Santo wood burning outside the churches like incense, and it reminded me of the smell of burning sage often used in smudging in Indigenous practices back home in Canada.
Part of our tour included going into the tunnels under the Church of San Fransisco and seeing some beautiful recreations of artefacts as well as many handicrafts of the area. It was a little tight to turn around and we were all careful not to knock the many sculptures perched on nails in these long narrow hallways.
We were given the option of seeing the inside of the Church of La Compañia, the façade made of gloriously carved volcanic rock, and the interior containing seven tonnes of gilded gold, and let me tell you, it was like being wrapped in a Ferraro Rocher foil. We were not allowed to take photos inside but this lovely photo from Wipikedia (below)gives you an idea!
What I found incredibly fascinating about the churches in Quito is the fact that the majority of the interiors are wood, and often gilded with gold, and real candles are actually forbidden inside every one except for the Basilica.
We then took the van up the switchback streets to the top of Panecillo hill where the Virgin of Quito statue (also known as the Virgen de El Panecillo) looks over the city. This beautiful figure is made of 7400 pieces of aluminum and is the highest statue in Ecuador, (and is even taller than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, which surprised me). With a beautiful halo of stars and long elegant wings, she stands on a dragon that is wrapped around the top of the earth.
There is a museum inside and you are able to climb up to a balcony at the base of the earth part of the sculpture, but our tour guide assured us that due to the trees along the top of the hill, the view of the city is mostly obstructed. She took us along a pathway along the hill below the statue and we could see the wide expanse of the city stretching from North to South.
Our next stop was the museum at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo where we learned that the ancient people of Quito knew where the centre of the earth was 2000 years ago, and a monument was erected where they believed the centre of the earth was, and using sun dials of various types to determine both the time of day as well as the seasons / time of year.
We learned about many of the local animals, traditional housing of ancient tribes, previous hunting techniques like blow darts and spears, and even of the traditional techniques that the Jivaro tribes of creating shrunken heads of their enemies that they used as trophies after winning battles.
We then visited the Equator line in the centre of the property, with a long red strip of tile deliniating the actual line. There we were given the opportunity to try balancing a fresh egg on a nail head (which one can only do on the equator), we poured water down a drain on either side of the line to see the water spin in opposite directions or drop directly down on the line, and even try to walk the ‘tightrope’ of the centre line with our eyes closed and not fall over on each side -as the centrifugal force of the earth spinning is strongest here- and you fully feel like you are failing a sobriety test.
It was also cool to discover that the most unique part about this section of the Equator line with the altitude of Quito, this is the furthest away from the centre of the earth you can possibly be at the Equator Line. (We were also informed that the actual furthest point on the planet from the centre of the earth is also in Ecuador, at the peak of Chimborazo, an inactive volcano about 4 hours south of Quito.) I also learned that there are 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 6 seconds in a day, which is why every four years we ‘correct’ it with the extra day in February!
We ate a delicious lunch at a restaurant facing the original monument (240 m away from the scientific Equator Line), and it looked to me like a post-apocalyptic statue belonging in a movie like the Hunger Games. I had fried pork and yucca pancake with platain, corn, avocado, and vegetables, and many of our table tried the mixed juice recommended by our tour guide: blackberry and soursop, which was perfectly sweet and tart and refreshing.
We then headed back to the starting hotel and I walked back to my hotel just in time for our first meeting with our week-long “Local Living Ecuador: Amazon Jungle” tour group!