My travel mates for this portion of the journey are the Quintessential Maureen and the
Quick-witted Monica.  They would suggest I am Queen Wendy. 

We  arrived in Quito, Ecuador Tuesday night at their spanking-new airport. Apparently, the old airport was one of the 10 most dangerous for landing in the world (the city is situated in a valley between two volcanoes). Whew! First close call of the trip.

Quito is the second-highest capital city after La Paz in the world; and was the original UNESCO World Heritage city. We are staying in the cobble-stoned Old Town at the Casa Gangotena-- a repurposed 1929s mansion that is exquisite and situated on Plaza San Francisco-- the pigeons remind me of St Mark's in Venice without the canals. The Plaza and the entire area are quaint-- brightly painted buildings, beautiful churches, just lovely. Indeed, I stepped out the front door to this view:
Our first day of touring (fortified by coca tea to counter any possible altitude issues) had two parts-- we visited the Old Town and went north 20 km to the equator. That's where Quito gets quirky--keep reading.

Starting with Old Quito, our guide told us that 75% of Quintenos are observant Catholics--I can't imagine their excitement if the next Pope is Latino.  Our first stop of note was the amazingly magnificent Church of the Compagnia de Jesus (construction began in 1605 and was completed 160 years later!).  The Jesuits, by the way, assumed so much power in Ecuador that, at some point, the Spaniards threw them out. The church was built in the baroque style with Moorish touches. Most remarkable, though, is that the altar, door, and many other areas are gold. It is presumably one of the most magnificent churches in the Americas. Astounding, though some (I'm not naming any names) might say it's "over the top."

A quick aside about Ecuador, the Spaniards, and ancient ruins. The Spanish destroyed and built over any ancient ruins they stumbled upon which is why ancient ruins are not in the tourism circuit here.

We moved on to check out the rest of the Old Town, including -- but not limited to --Independence Square. Our next stop was the Equator. But, apparently, there is a wrong equator and a right equator.  In 1736, the French explorer Charles-Marie de Condanine discovered what was thought to be the equator here in the Americas, and a beautiful monument and museum mark the spot. 
Lo and behold, 270 years later, along came GPS and the right equator was identified as celebrated by the whimsically interactive Intinan Solar Museum.  The museum not only provides a clear demarcation where wacky Americans can pose ... also profiles the history of some of the local Andean indigenous peoples (many still around today and, if you thought Ann Padgett's captivating book ,The State of Wonder, is pure fiction, think again). The indigenous peoples' exhibits include an up close and personal display of the shrunken head process (don't ask), along with showcased Amazon creatures--one of which is particularly lethal to men who swim au naturel (this is a PG blog, so I won't say more). The other exhibits included an equatorial clock, demos of centrifugal force (including an egg balancing exercise) and some cute guinea pigs in an original residential structure. I think this spot is a "must not miss" for anyone going to Quito--campy, quirky , kitschy, educational and fun. As an aside, you may wonder... Why all the fuss about the equator here and not elsewhere? Well, apparently, there is a modicum of fuss elsewhere but the first extensive documentation (albeit for the wrong equator) happened here!

Lunch (ok foodie fans) was next. We had a traditional Ecuadorian meal-- they eat heavy at lunch--presumably light later, but that has not been our pattern so far. The food was fine -- nothing to rhapsodize over. Here was our menu: guanabana blackberry juice, crunchy snacks of grilled corn kernels, plantain chips, and beans with a spicy cream salsa, potato soup, frittata quitena-- fried pork on hominy with fried plantains and a salad (this is popular here but it was not popular with us). We finished up with patines en alimar-- tree tomatoes in syrup. The setting was truly lovely and the food was an adventure. Let's leave it at that.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. We ventured out to Zazu-- a hip place that came highly recommended.  Zazu was inconsistent, not amazing.  Language was a huge problem here – if you don't speak Spanish here and you're off the beaten path, you're sunk.  My Stone crab ceviche was fantastic as was Maureen's prawn bouillon soup and Monica's plantain crusted salmon – but the rest of the meal was not note-worthy.

Day two of touring took us two hours north of Quito to the marketplace in Otavalo  where the indigenous people sell all matter of crafts.  Along the way, we stopped first in Calderon, where they create masapa– bread dough-based figurines and ornaments (the same concept as the lacquered breadbaskets circa 1970). We continued to Imbabum province -- known for its scenery and indigenous peoples.  We stopped at a spectacular setting--Lago de San Paolo, surrounded by several active volcanoes.
Next stop, the market. Our guide had told us that the proper etiquette before snapping a photo of the Otavalo people (known by their dress and their long flowing black hair – regardless of gender) was to buy something. There were many such photo ops, so I am now the proud owner of several Octavalo tchotchkes and great people pictures-- grand total spent $10, reflecting extensive negotiating.  Yes, they use US money here; after their currency tanked, they underwent a dollarization. A word about the market itself-- it featured a wide range of silver jewelry, alpaca knit attire, blankets, tapestries, hats, paintings, and more. The culture was better than the cache. 

By this point, it was time for lunch. So, we headed to Le Mirage in Cotacatchi--one of Money Magazine's top destinations for American retirees. It's a small, secluded town where the weather is perfect, the costs are low, and you don't have to watch MSNBC all the time or worry about Cubs' results.  Actually, we ate at an award- winning small hotel where we had a lovely three-course lunch with some touches of Ecuadorian cuisine such as a delicate amuse-bouche quinoa roll served in a music box, plantain soup, and tropical fruit sorbet.

After a two and a half hour ride home and a little over an hour to gather our wits (and work on our appetites), it was time for another meal! We went to Theatro-- close by and absolutely wonderful--truly blog-worthy, our best meal so far. We're talking 5 courses here and that was not the tasting menu. We started with an amuse bouche of one bite each-- a cheese ball and a ball of fried risotto (sounds strange but it worked-- and doesn't everyone eat two amuses-boucher in one day-- ouch!). My next course was grilled Ecuadorian prawns lovingly nested in avocado foam with tomato garnish; Monica had the curried cream pumpkin soup with a crab cake. This course was followed by a palate cleanser of frozen strawberry Popsicle in celery juice. My main was roasted sea bass with fried peppers on a bed of crunchy quinoa. It was outstanding. Maureen had tenderloin with garlic potatoes and perfectly sauteed vegetables and Monica had chicken. Dessert, which I had to force on my dining partners, was baby Ecuadorian bananas in filo dough garnished with chocolate soup and three favors of sorbet -- vanilla, banana, and coconut. Did I mention this meal was great? It is now definite that I did not pack enough elastic waistband pants.

We leave Quito in the morning; here are some closing thoughts...

What was quaint:  The charming old city, the bustling market, the adorable children, the fact that sweets counteract altitude sickness along with the coca tea, the notion that sellers in the market can actually be nice and not aggressive, the guinea pigs (maybe I should call them qu-ute, not quaint)

What was quixotic:  The notion that the massive rebuilding underway to revitalize the city and the steep streets (most torn up) in the Old Town will actually be done anytime soon. The fact that the indigenous people actually build impressive looking homes yet live in quite modest abodes alongside them

What was quirky: Eight varieties of corn, 3000 of potatoes (in Bolivia ,Peru and Ecuador), 27 different nationalities in a country the size of Colorado. When you stand on the equator, you weigh 2.2 pounds less!  Two seasons – dry and rainy, yet four seasons in one day.  Guinea pigs are sacred for the indigenous people. They can sense people's energy levels – If the guinea pigs make cuy noises when you enter the room, that's a bad sign. Run for the Andes! Note: Cuy (pronounced coy) is how you spell guinea pig in Spanish and it is the actual squeaking sound they make.

Tomorrow we're off to Guayaquil-- then we'll be the galavanting Galapagos gals-- where we'll add Betsy, Irene, and Marita to the mix. Not sure about connectivity there so it will be a few days before you hear from me again.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this leg of the trip as much as we did.

Adios for now with hugs, wendy

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