After a wonderful week in Colombia, I had been on the road from Cali since early morning, so I wasn’t quite paying attention to the time. I know I got to Tulcan on the Ecuadorian side of the Rumichaca border crossing, sometime in the afternoon. The border was crowded and the line snaked outside the immigration area for several metres. It looked like it would take an hour just to get to the building entrance.
Most people crossing here seemed to have suitcases. Many suitcases. There was a family of 4 that had 10 suitcases between them! I felt like I’d missed a memo while I waited in line with my carry on sized backpack. Despite the obvious delay, everyone was cool, calm and collected. I even noticed a cat, just hanging out in a bag.
Once I finally got to a counter in the immigration building, things were moving a lot faster and it was pretty hassle-free. I didn’t even have to fill in an arrival card and the officer seemed kind of amused and sort of flattered that I’d tried to speak to him with my absolutely horrid Spanish. Upon exiting the building, I was treated to a lovely view of a river in the valley below.
I had booked the bus all the way through to Quito, so I was able to get back on the coach after passing immigration. I was a bit worried that I had taken too long, but it turns out that there were still people from my bus that hadn’t made it through yet. I took the opportunity to change my remaining Pesos into US$. There are many people wandering around offering currency exchange services, so as long as you know what the rates should be, you won’t get taken advantage of.
From the border, it was still another 250km or 4-5 hours to Quito, but there was some lovely scenery to look at along the way. I arrived in Quito after dark. As I’d been travelling for the whole day to get there, I made a beeline for my accommodation in the old town. The old town looked absolutely lovely and the people at the hotel were extremely patient and helpful when answering my 30 million questions. I walked around the old town for a bit after I checked in, because I wasn’t quite ready for bed. What I saw was beautiful, quiet and peaceful. I couldn’t wait to explore the city in the daylight!
Quito has 2 claims to fame, it is the closest capital city to the equator and it is the second highest capital city in the world. Besides that, it is a city with an amazing amount of character. The old town is awesomely well preserved, owing in part to the fact that it was one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites to be declared by UNESCO in the 70s. It truly feels like you’ve stepped into another time!
It is a fairly low rise, sprawled out mountain city with a hill in the centre. El Panecillo, as the hill is known locally, is home to a 7000 piece aluminium statue called Virgen de el Panecillo. This monument looks like an angel looking over the city and can be seen from almost anywhere in the old town. It is even lit up at night!
While Quito may be a decent size city, it feels more like a big country town. Everyone there is so laid back, friendly and helpful. The grid-like construction of the city makes it very easy to find your way around. As much as you may want to, it’s almost impossible to get lost there. Another element of Quito’s charm is its copious amount of green spaces. Among the several parks in the city is Parque La Carolina. A huge inner city park between two roads that form a partial border between the new town and the old town.
Aside from being where all the cool kids get their exercise on during the weekends, it’s also somewhat of a cultural area, with regular art exhibitions and performances happening. It was a great place to sit and reflect, but probably my favourite thing about this city is that there is chicken everywhere! It’s also quite cheap!
Walking around the city, in both the new and old town, you will find that hole-in-the-wall stores like this one, as well as open grills under canvas shelters are quite common. They also seem to trade until quite late, so you could never go hungry in Quito.
Middle of the World
As I mentioned earlier, Quito is the closest capital city to the Equator. ‘Ecuador’ is actually the Spanish word for ‘equator’, so as you could imagine, calling the spot where the equator runs through the country ‘Ecuador’ could get confusing. The locals prefer to call it Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world.
Getting to the middle of the world is easy. Quito has an extensive network of buses that can get you there within an hour. The first part of the journey involves catching a bus from one of the raised bus platforms along one of the city’s main roads. That bus terminates at the Ofelia depot, where you can catch another bus to the road in front of Mitad del Mundo. Your bus driver can indicate where to alight if you ask nicely, but if you’re keeping an eye out, it’s pretty obvious where the site is.
Knowing that it’s a bit of a tourist attraction, the city’s government has of course capitalised on that and built a kind of middle of the world theme park around where Latitude 0º0’0″ was originally calculated. Unfortunately, that means that you need to pay to enter. The fee is US$2 if you just want to get inside, or $5 if you want to see the museum dedicated to indigenous history and culture located inside the monument.
You may have heard that this is not the actual equator, as the method used to locate it predated GPS. The advent of GPS has shown the actual equator to be around 200m away. If you want to see this ‘real’ Mitad del Mundo, you can walk a few minutes down a dirt road and pay $4. But considering that my GPS often shows me 100s of metres from my current location, can it really be trusted?
The area you pay the entrance fee for is manicured and aesthetically beautiful. There were almost no other people around when I was there, so I was able to have a look around with no annoyances. There are some souvenir and craft shops in the area, as well as some Llamas, just hanging out.
Back in Quito, people had set up their own roadside markets where they sold some curious looking paper mache figurines. Some were downright freaky, while others were stylised as superheroes.
Do you know what they’re for? Find out in my next post, where I continue my journey to the south of Ecuador.