After the dramas of New York, all we wanted when we got to Quito was somewhere quiet to hole up and regroup. The Galapagos Islands tour we’d booked months ago started on September 26th, so we had four nights to kill in Quito before it started. Most accommodation is located in either the Old Town, or Centro Historico, or in the New Town, Mariscal Sucre. However after a glowing recommendation on hotels.com we opted for somewhere out of the centre, precisely because it was described as quiet, relaxing and out of the way.
It was the right call. Our arrival in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, gave us the biggest amount of culture shock we’ve experienced on this trip to date. After more than three months in Western Europe and New York, it was quite jarring to be in such a sprawling, crowded and different city. Throw in the fact that our Spanish is very wobbly and English is not widely spoken here, and all we wanted to do was crawl under the covers and think of Australia…
Of course we didn’t feel that way for long. The guesthouse, Chez Elena, is more like a home than a hotel and we were made to feel very welcome immediately. Elena and Paco left us alone when we wanted it, but also gently encouraged us to speak Spanish in conversation as much as possible. Breakfast and dinner (and even lunch on our first couple of days) were shared with the family, along with any other guests who were staying. The meals were simple and tasty, usually comprising a soup followed by a main of meat with vegetables or salad, and they were a handy introduction to Ecuadorian cuisine.
After a couple of days rest we decided to head into Quito proper, but with some clearly defined missions. We needed some new clothing, footwear and medications in preparation for our trip to the Galapagos, and hoped that we would find all these things in the New Town (we did). The other major task was to visit the South American Explorers Clubhouse and get some ideas about where else to visit in Ecuador. The South American Explorers Club has been around for decades, offering oodles of information and advice to travellers and also providing meeting points at their clubhouses in Quito, Lima and Cuzco. We were given membership to the Club as a wonderful joint engagement present from some of our close friends back in February, and we had been keen to use it once we finally hit South America!
Apart from booking our major trips to the Galapagos and the Inca Trail, we had done very little planning of other things to do in South America. We were looking forward to getting up-to-the-minute advice about various options at the Club and we weren’t disappointed. The manager there, an Englishwoman, was extremely knowledgeable and helpful and pointed us to various resources to help us make our plans. We ended up spending hours there on two successive days and decided that the Quilatoa Loop plus a trip to the Amazon were the top must-do trips within Ecuador. Possibly along with visiting the relaxing tourist town of Banos, plus heading to the coast for some beach action and whale watching… so many options! We didn’t commit to anything specific at this time but used the Club to whittle down the choices to a key shortlist. We decided we would make some final calls while cruising around the islands.
We didn’t do any sightseeing in Quito during this period, apart from wandering the streets of Mariscal Sucre. What we saw of Quito during this time wouldn’t win any awards for prettiness, but it was pleasant enough. The other aspect of Quito we discovered is that when it rains, it pours. The typical weather pattern for this time of year is clear and bright mornings with good sun and blue skies. But by mid-afternoon the clouds move in, and usually the heavens open with a deluge worthy of a tropical rainforest. One afternoon we were being driven back from the New Town to our guesthouse by Elena when the storm broke with extreme ferocity. Within minutes the drains were full to overflowing, some parts of the road were flooded, and bolts of lightning struck frequently around the city. We subsequently found out (via two of the people we met on the Galapagos tour) that some flights into Quito that afternoon were diverted due to the intensity of the storm, which did not surprise us in the least.
On the night before our flight to the Islands we transferred to the tour hotel located in the Old Town. The character of this part of Quito is much dodgier, with numerous beggars on the streets and a rather menacing air even in the daytime. At the pre-tour briefing that evening the tour agent said that walking around after dark in central Quito is not recommended unless you’re in a large group, even if you only want to go a few hundred metres – a taxi is strongly advised. We were not surprised by that advice.
Unfortunately on that day Kristen was suffering a particularly bad bout of food poisoning, severe enough for her not to be able to attend the tour briefing. We both fervently hoped that it would pass before the flight to the Islands the following day, as the alternative was simply unthinkable. I’m happy to say that all was well the following morning, and we headed off with high expectations that the Galapagos Islands would be one of the best places we’d visit all year 🙂