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A Great Latitude
The remarkable Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s top tourist attraction and many trips to the islands start out from Quito. The city itself has plenty to offer the visitor. We were lucky enough to undertake a largely land-based Galapagos tour but gave ourselves a couple of days on the Ecuadorian mainland before and after this trip, predominantly to give ourselves some days in hand in order to make sure we could catch our connecting flights, but also because we wanted to explore the city and surrounding area. There are all sorts of day trips available in and around the capital when you visit Quito.
Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, located virtually on the equator and at an altitude of 2850m above sea level. If you’ve not spent time at that altitude it is really important to take it easy, even climbing a flight of stairs can leave you a little breathless when you first arrive. Many hotels in South American countries offer coca tea which is supposed to help with the effects of altitude sickness, although if you do feel ill make sure you seek medical attention.
When you visit Quito, the Centro Histórico is a great place to stay. San Francisco de Quito was founded by Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and the colonial architecture is considered to be so important that the city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site (along with Krakow in Poland). It also has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Our hotel had a good view over Santo Domingo Plaza, one of many colonial plazas.
It is very pleasant just wandering through the city.
Basílica del Voto Nacional – Basilica of the National Vow, a Roman Catholic church, is located atop a hill. Apparently it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas and is still officially unfinished. There is a local legend that when it is finally completed the end of the world will be nigh.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, known locally as la Compañía, is a Jesuit church which was completed in 1765. Its interior is decorated with wood carvings, gilded plaster and gold leaf in an astonishingly ornate style.
The Plaza de Indepencia is a focal point with its expansive square.
There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area but, notably, just around the corner from the Plaza is a chocolate shop which offers the most amazing chocolate delicacies. To be fair, there are loads of chocolate shops offering amazing chocolate delicacies (Central and South American countries are quite rightly famous for their chocolate), but it was in this one that we discovered Pacari chocolate. The chocolate isn’t cheap but it’s the best quality we’ve ever tried. The company is really ethical as well; a fair trade organisation they support local farmers in Ecuador by paying a good wage and working with them directly. The chocolate is also 100% organic and absolutely stonkingly delicious.
We brought home a multitude of different chocolate bars: the ‘pure’ choc – at 60% cacao – but also some of the flavoured ones. Many are flavoured with fruits: passion fruit and cherry really captured the flavours of the fruit, lemon verbena’s zing was a lovely contrast with the smooth, silky chocolate. We had enjoyed corn in various guises throughout our trip so toasted corn kernels in the chocolate added a satisfying crunch and the corn flavour also came through very well. Of course we had to try the chilli chocolate. It’s surprisingly subtle – the first flavour you taste is that of dark chocolate then, after a few seconds comes a gentle warmth (definitely not the fiery heat of a chilli) that lingers on the palette long after the chocolate has gone.
It is possible to buy Pacari chocolate around the world (they also try to offset their carbon footprint) but we’ve found that it is significantly more expensive than in Quito (and it’s pretty expensive in Quito, but emphatically worth every cent), so if you do find yourself in Ecuador, we recommend stuffing every square centimetre of spare space in your luggage with the chocolate before you travel home.
Visit Quito – City Tour
There are lots of city tours available when you visit Quito and most hotels will be able to put you in touch with a company that can suit your budget, whether it’s a group tour or a private guide. Some of the guides are very flexible and can adapt a standard tour to suit your interests so it’s definitely worth asking what options are available.
The Equator is one of the most popular tourist attractions (after all, the word Ecuador means ‘equator’) and it’s difficult not get excited at being able to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. There are two sites, located a short drive of around 25km outside Quito. Amusingly, the official equator site at La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) isn’t quite on the equator itself, thanks to an error by a French expedition in 1736.
It seems it was the Incas who, several centuries earlier and without the use of GPS, managed to locate the correct location for the equator so we headed over to the Intiñan museum which is just a few minutes away from the incorrect official monument. The museum has an official equator line and also some exhibits showing traditional culture. You can also undertake various activities such as looking at the Coriolis Effect (whether waters swirls down a plughole clockwise, anti-clockwise or straight down depending on which hemisphere you are in – it won’t make a spot of difference), balancing an egg on a nail or walking along the equator with your eyes closed. It’s all ridiculous and hugely touristy but it’s enjoyable fun nevertheless.
Anyway, whether you are standing on the real equator or not, it’s great to take photos astride a line – whichever one it is.
We made a brief stop to view the Pululahua Crater. It’s a caldera (from an extinct volcano) although you can still see a couple of volcanic cones. The area has plenty of fertile soil so farming here is profitable. It’s possible to walk in the area – the caldera is about five km across – but we only really had time to enjoy the view.
Back in Quito, the Teleferico offers a cable car lift to the top of Cruz Loma which affords fantastic views across the city as well as ‘Volcanoes Avenue’, a splendid vista revealing fourteen peaks across the Andes… if the weather is co-operating. Otherwise it’s a nice ride up and down a mountain in a cable car! It’s located in Pichincha and the site also offers an amusement park, restaurants, a shopping centre and other activities, so there’s plenty to do if the views aren’t spectacular.
A slightly more unusual stop was a visit to the Fundación Guayasamín Museum, the house with an adjacent art gallery of local artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, widely considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. The house is located on a hill overlooking Quito in the Bellavista neighbourhood and has been left as he lived in it. It contains many artworks; his own as well as an impressive collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art, and you can also see his studio. We were invited to watch a video about the artist so that we could learn about his life and works. The adjacent gallery, known as the Chapel of Man, has an exterior on the form of a massive cube with a conical dome atop. Inside it offers multiple levels in which to explore a range of artworks. Guayasamín’s art is big and bold and very much reflects Ecuadorian landscapes and culture. He was also particularly interested in the inequalities in society and many of his works are powerful – and moving – representations of injustice. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the gallery.
Visit Quito – Day Trips Further Out
There are loads of day trips to explore the area surrounding Quito. Again, your accommodation will likely be able to help you find and book a trip that suits your interests, even if it might be at quite short notice. (We arrived from the airport late in the afternoon and managed to organise a day trip for the following morning.) Many companies offer coach trips that can pick you up from your accommodation (and a whole bunch of other tourists up from their accommodation, so bear in mind that the first hour of the trip could well involve sitting on a coach collecting people – which was fine for us as we could doze for a bit to catch up with the jetlag). But the greater the number of people that join the excursion, the lower the cost, and it’s often nice to have company on a day trip as well. Full day trips usually include lunch at a local restaurant.
Quilotoa Crater Lake
This was a full day trip, primarily to see the crater lake, which is located some 180 km from Quito. The journey takes a couple of hours direct from Quito, so other activities were incorporated into the trip to break up the day.
First stop was a market where we could see local produce for sale…
…And then onto the lake itself. It’s a caldera caused by the collapse of the volcano when it erupted in 1280. The crater filled with water over the years and now forms a lake, some 3km in diameter. It is possible to walk around the rim on a trail (it’s about 7.5 km) but we didn’t have enough time for this, so there’s a pleasant half hour stroll to the lake itself. It’s worth remembering that you are at altitude so the hike back up to the rim may take longer if you have not yet acclimatised. Also bear in mind that the sun is strong, even on a cloudy day, so make sure you have sun protection. The caldera itself is beautiful.
We also stopped off at Tigua to visit a local family home.
And in the late afternoon, as we headed back into Quito to do the reverse of the hotel pickups, we just happened to pass by the Cotopaxi volcano at sunset so the driver stopped off to let us all have a photo stop. Well, with a view like this it would have been rude not to.
It’s also worth noting there are lots of trips and activities at Cotopaxi – from climbing up it to mountain biking down it (at vast speed) as well as horse riding and jeep tours. Local tour operators and hotels will be available to find something that suits.
Bellavista Cloud Forest
We had long wanted to visit a cloud forest and booked directly with the organisation. They arranged a pick-up from our hotel in the central district – very early in the morning – to take us and a group of other people on a drive to the cloud forest that took a couple of hours. After breakfast at the lodge we embarked on a guided walk. Unfortunately the best time to see the birds is around 6:30am – about the time of our Quito pickup. Some people stay overnight in order to be able to take the early morning walks in order to get a greater chance of viewing the birds. It’s also worth noting that we found the experience to be expensive. Still, the walk was lovely and the guide knowledgeable. These are actually colour photos but the forest was so wonderfully cloudy they have an evocative black and white feel to them.
It was also nice to be able to see gorgeously colourful and beautifully iridescent hummingbirds, and other birds, using the feeders that were located around the lodge, flitting, darting and hovering.
Even if the Galapagos are your primary reason for visiting Ecuador, there are loads of activities in the area when you visit Quito – whether wildlife, activity or cultural – and it is definitely worth incorporating these into your itinerary if you have time.
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Hewn From the Living Rock
When planning our visit to Ethiopia it was Lalibela’s rock churches that were top of the ‘must-see’ list. Lalibela is located in northern Ethiopia and you can fly direct from Addis Ababa, although we had spent some time exploring Gonder and the wonderful Simien mountains beforehand, so flew in from Gonder.
The town is named after the late-12th and early-13th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty, who was highly revered and was reputed to have commissioned the construction of the churches, but it is more likely that they were built over several centuries. Although the devout claim that holy angels played a part as well.
The churches, which were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down and then carved from within. There are three main groups: northern, eastern and western. It will take more than a day to explore them thoroughly so make sure you factor in enough time. You need to purchase a ticket at the main office – this is valid for five days. It’s not cheap but is definitely worth the price. You need to make sure that you keep your ticket as you may need to produce it when you enter each church. It’s generally okay to take photos (keep an eye out for signs indicating if photography is prohibited) but if you are taking photos of someone (and we found that many of the priests encouraged us to do so) it is polite to tip them. We also recommend getting a guide as they will be able to tell you the history of each of the churches as well as point out some of the more interesting features. The churches are open from 8am-5.30pm, but are closed for two hours at lunchtime, around midday.
These are very much living churches, highly revered by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and a place for pilgrims to visit. We were welcome to join the services.
We explored each cluster of churches in turn. The churches within each group are linked by subterranean passages.
The Northern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Biete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, at approx 33 metres long, 23 metres wide, and 10 metres deep, is home to the Lalibela Cross. It has five aisles and its name means ‘Saviour of the World’.
Biete Maryam may be the oldest of the churches, named for Mary.
It has an incredibly deep pool outside which is believed to grant fertility to any woman who bathes in it.
Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela himself.
The Eastern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
It is thought that some The Eastern Group may have been used as royal chapels or palaces.
Biete Amanuel (House of Immanuel), possibly the former royal chapel.
At Biete Abba Libanos you can see how the church was carved downwards from inside the rock.
Biete Lehem is the house of bread.
The Western Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Last, but by no means least, Biete Ghiorgis, the church of St George, which takes a cruciform shape, and is the most beautiful of the churches.
You cannot see it on your approach, so well is it hidden. (Actually you have to be careful not to fall into the courtyard.)
It also appears to be totally inaccessible but there is a passageway carved into the rock behind the church and you walk through a tunnel to arrive at the main entrance.
Day Trip from Lalibela
While you’re in the area, it’s also possible to visit Yemrehanna Kristos which is located around 20km from Lalibela. This would make for a pleasant morning or afternoon trip.
The church here is built inside a large cave on Mount Abuna Yosef. The church is named for Ethiopian king Yemrehana Krestos who reigned in the 11th Century.
The area is known for its honey. There is a legend that Gebre Mesqel Lalibela was surrounded by a swarm of bees shortly after his birth. Apparently his mother believed it to be a sign of his future greatness. Whether the legend is true or not, make sure you get to taste the local honey, it is absolutely delicious.
And if you want a tip for a good restaurant at the end of the day’s sightseeing you can’t go wrong with Ben Abeba. The building has a highly unusual design and you can either sit indoors or outside – we recommend the latter as there are some splendid views, especially if you time your visit for sunset. The food on offer is slightly unusual – of course, you can have Ethiopian food, but somewhat surprisingly there are a number of Scottish dishes on the menu! The restaurant is run by a very friendly Scots lady who now lives in Lalibela.
You can explore the Lalibela churches online via The Zamani Project who can offer several digital tours, including maps, photos, panoramas and 3D models of the site.
Kutná Hora is an easy day trip from Prague, located just over 100km from the capital, pretty much right in the centre of Czechia, and is well worth a visit. There are loads of tour operators that can arrange a trip and it takes around an hour and a half to reach the city from Prague. Many tours offer a package that includes a local lunch.
The town was established in 1142, marked by the construction of the Sedlec Abbey. Silver had been discovered some decades before and mining became a significant part of the town’s heritage and contributed to its growing wealth. Indeed, it provided serious competition to Prague economically and politically for several centuries. Like Prague, it is a very beautiful town.
The remarkable St. Barbara’s Church, which began construction in 1388, has the qualities of a cathedral. St Barbara, appropriately, was the patron saint of miners and hence the obvious choice of saint for a town built around the silver mines. It is a gothic church which took many centuries to reach completion and the style evolved over the years.
It is an impressive, imposing building that also has some frescoes reflecting the mining heritage of the town.
The Italian Court was another building of historical importance as it was the location of the Royal Mint. In keeping with its location close to the silver mines, it was also the residence for the king when he visited the area. Its name was derived from Italian specialists who provided expertise on the workings of a mint. Coin-makers worked in the courtyard.
The Kutna Hora Bone Church
The main reason for us wanting to visit was to see Sedlec Ossuary. We have long admired the work of film-maker Jan Švankmajer – the animator of Prague – whose animations originally captured our attention when we were students. His films often use a combination of live action, puppetry and stop-motion animation and are surreal, challenging, sometimes funny and often shocking. They are always fascinating and utterly compelling.
We first saw Švankmajer’s terrifyingly beautiful 1970 ‘documentary’ The Ossuary many years ago. On its original release the original soundtrack for the film was banned by the Communist authorities for subversion and replaced by a largely musical affair, a Jacques Prévert poem with solo female vocals in a light jazz style. (Turn the subtitles off and just enjoy the audio-visual experience.) These days you can also hear the original soundtrack, that of an irritable and slightly overbearing guide who insists that she isn’t a guide – ‘I’m not a guide’ – who threatens visitors with a 50 crown fine if they dare to touch any of the bones.
The Kutna Hora bone church contains around 40,000 skeletons. After Kutná Hora’s abbey had been established, one of its abbots, Henry, visited the holy land in 1278, and brought back some earth from Golgotha, scattering it on the ground around the church. As a result many people desired to be buried there, particularly wealthy people, from all over central Europe. The Black Death and the Hussite Wars in the 14th and 15th centuries added to the numbers of burials.
Woodcarver František Rint was commissioned to do something with all the bones in the 18th century and set about decorating a chapel using the skeletons that had been buried there.
There are 4 pyramids of bones inside the main chamber.
There is a chandelier that is comprised of at least one of every bone from the human body.
Additionally, there is a coat of arms for the Schwarzenberg family (one of the noble houses of Bohemia, who commissioned Rint to create the ossuary)
Jan Švankmajer’s film, with its Dutch tilt camerawork and snappy editing, depicts the Ossuary as a truly macabre place – frightening and full of sadness. But thinking about it, Švankmajer can make anything look terrifying – even a jar of jam. In reality, The Ossuary was a peaceful church, particularly when the light flooded in. Yes, it’s macabre, but it’s also strangely beautiful.
If you would like to see the film, along with many of Švankmajer’s other wonderful animations, you can buy a DVD.
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