Some tips on Quito’s Metrobuses

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A map of Quito’s Metrobus system

While we were in Quito, we took Metrobuses everywhere. The MetrobusQ system is easy to navigate, since it’s an official city system and not a collection of collectivos. It’s also fast because buses have their own dedicated lane on most streets, freeing them from the usual traffic snarls in rush hour. And it’s cheap–while a taxi costs $2.00 to cover a few kilometers, the bus costs $0.25 per ride regardless of distance (as of December 2016). Since the Metrobus system is so awesome, below are 3 tips to help you get started using it:

  1. Quito’s Metrobus lines are on Google Maps: This makes trip planning on the metro system super easy. Just go to Google Maps and type in your destination, then select the public transportation option.
  2. The official bus lines mostly travel north or south: Quito is a narrow city that stretches north(ish) and south(ish) because it’s situated between mountains. Bus lines primarily travel on major streets along this long north-south axis. This means it can be difficult to head east or west using the Metrobus. You’re better off walking or catching a cab in these cases, unless you can figure out the less formal bus routes.
  3. Riding a bus across the city takes 2 hours: A route from the southernmost stop for buses (Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe) to the northernmost stop (Terminal Terrestre Carcelén) takes 2 hours, while riding a bus from the Mariscal Sucre/Plaza Foch area to either of these places takes about 1 hour.

Happy traveling!

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Posing with my favorite Metrobus station. Seriously, say the name out loud and try not to smile. It’s SO HAPPY!

New Year’s Eve in Quito

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Crowds gather to celebrate and admire floats depicting scenes from the old year on Av. Rio Amazonas

¡Feliz año nuevo!

New Year’s Eve is a big holiday everywhere, and Quito is no exception. From massive floats illustrating scenes of the old year by day to fireworks exploding and cross-dressers panhandling for beer money by night, Quito’s New Year’s festivities don’t disappoint. Below are photos we took in Quito’s Plaza Foch/Mariscal Sucre area on December 31, 2016.

By Day

During the day, the Av. Río Amazonas in Mariscal Sucre was transformed into a fairground with floats depicting important issues in Quito and the events of the previous year. There were floats lampooning politicians, calling for conservation of water in the city, and honoring firemen who rescued citizens during disasters (such as the 2016 earthquake in Manabi province). The street was full of pedestrians, while vendors hawked everything from rainbow mohawk wigs to fake breasts to neon-colored children’s toys on the side of the street.

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A man watches as workers assemble a float referencing Game of Thrones for the New Year’s festivities
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An elderly man looks over at a float honoring the firemen of Ecuador
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People stand in front of a float condemning corruption in the Ecuadorean government
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Superheroes entertain children in the crowd
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A man sells masks and wigs along Av. Rio Amazonas
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A boy stands mesmerised by bobbling children’s toys along Av. Rio Amazonas

The nearby Parque El Ejido also transformed into a massive market, selling souvenirs, trinkets, and snacks for the celebrations. We sat on a bench and watched families slowly amble past, adults trying to keep children from running off in every direction. Other individuals hurried past, rushing to complete their shopping in time for evening festivities. The air was thick with the smell of sugar and steaming sweet corn, alive with the shouts of children and laughter of friends. Even in this warm atmosphere, a contingent of officers stood in a line, waiting to guide traffic and keep the peace once night fell.

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A woman rushes to complete her shopping at the market in Parque El Ejido
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Officers stand awaiting inspection and deployment to keep the peace on New Year’s Eve in Mariscal Sucre and Plaza Foch

By Night

Once darkness fell, the real party in Plaza Foch got started. The families disappeared. Vendors switched to selling fireworks and roman candles. And the streets re-opened to vehicle traffic—sort of. Cars were stopped every few blocks by another feature of Quito’s New Year festivities: the viudas. Masquerading as the ‘widows’ of the old year, these men stop cars and pedestrians to beg for beer money while dressed in ridiculous costumes.

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Viudas blocking traffic in Mariscal Sucre
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A viuda collects money from a driver in Mariscal Sucre. Note the effigy of a pony tied to the top of the car.
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A viuda stops a taxi in Plaza Foch
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Posing with a viuda

And then there are the effigies themselves. Clothes stuffed with newspaper, propped up in chairs, and wearing masks, these dolls represent the old year and are destined for a fiery demise. Some are dressed as political figures and fearful creatures, while others are references to pop culture such as My Little Pony and Minions. All are meant to be burned to bid farewell to the old year, but the ‘fiery demise’ bit didn’t seem to be something done around Plaza Foch. When we asked shopkeepers about burning the effigies, they seemed slightly embarrassed and suggested we leave the city center and visit one of Quito’s suburbs—apparently it’s now more of a family affair.

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An effigy with the face of Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa
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A security guard and an effigy watch revelers from a window in an office building
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An effigy outside of a bar threatens to “go after the missing ones” this year

As with any good New Year’s celebration, the fireworks, drinking, and celebrations went on far past midnight. It was a long, ebullient farewell from Quiteños to the old year, which hadn’t particularly been kind to Ecuador. But the next day was the start of a new year for them.

Hopefully the hangover wasn’t too bad.

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A couple lights Roman candles in Plaza Foch

Explore Nature Around Quito with Mindo’s Waterfall Hike

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An aerial view of the waterfall hike and surrounding forest from the gondola

The small mountain town of Mindo is a perfect getaway from the city of Quito. Located only 2 hours away, it boasts amazing hikes, a bird sanctuary, an orchid garden, and chocolate tours. For those of you looking for a nice half-day hike, look no further than Mindo’s Santuario de Cascadas, which leads you through tropical cloud forest to several beautiful waterfalls.

Getting There

There are two main ways of getting to Mindo: booking transportation with a tour, or taking the bus. In either case, prep for the trip by bringing hiking shoes (this hike is a real one so don’t just come in flip flops and then slip and fall to your death), a swimsuit, some food, and some cash.

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Waiting to ride the gondola across the valley to the waterfall hike

The tour option: This is better if you want to do multiple activities in Mindo and you’re short on time, since it will work on your schedule. You can book a tour to at nearly any agency in Mindo, but I’d recommend Gabby Segova’s Ecuador Family Tours; we booked our Galapagos cruise through her and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful person to help us.

The bus option:  The bus may not work for those on a tight schedule, but it’s cheaper ($3.10 as of December 2016) and great if you have a couple of days to spend exploring Mindo. There are a couple of bus lines that run to Mindo, but all but one drop you off outside of town and you have to flag a ride to finish the trip. Only the Flor de Valle line, which leaves from Terminal Ofelia, goes into Mindo itself. It departs Quito->Mindo and Mindo->Quito only a few times a day, so double check the schedule at Terminal Ofelia. For those of you planning a day trip to Mindo with the bus, the ride takes 2 hours; if you’re on the 8:00 am (first) bus out, you have 7 hours to explore Mindo before you have to catch the last bus out. Buy your ticket for the last bus in advance (i.e. when you first get into Mindo), because it can sell out.

It’s a 15-minute ride from the town to the entrance to Santuario de Cascadas. Pick-up trucks here double as taxis, so flag one and ask to go to “Tarabita y Santuario de Cascadas Mindo” or just “Cascadas del Mindo”. It’s not a cheap ride ($6.00 in 2016), so share it if you can.

The Hike

The hike is only accessible by gondola, which costs $5.00 a person to cross — that includes the trip back, so don’t worry about paying again when you return. At busy times you might find yourself waiting for 20-30 minutes for the gondola. The ride itself takes only a couple of minutes, and while the picture below might seem scary, this type of transport is fairly routine in mountainous parts of South America. If you’re afraid of heights then sit, don’t stand, and definitely don’t look down.

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Riding the gondola

There are two hikes you can do from where the gondola drops you off: a 45-minute hike with one waterfall (left when facing the gondola building) and a 1-3 hour hike with six waterfalls (right when facing the gondola building). We chose the six-waterfall hike because we wanted a longer walk, so the rest of this post will focus on that hike.

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Hikers make their way down the steep trail

The first part of the hike was a pretty steep downhill trail with semi-formed stairs that can get pretty slippery when wet. It was mostly packed earth when we visited, but workers along the trail were building new safety rails and steps, so it looks like either the locals or the park service is investing in improvements.

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Workers lay rebar for a railing along the trail

The first five waterfallswere the most crowded so we hiked on through to the last waterfall and had our own private swimming pool. When another group finally caught up with us nearly an hour later, we packed up and worked our way backward, visiting each waterfall.

None of these falls are Niagra or Iguazu, but each has its own personality formed by the flow of the water around the rocks. For those completionists out there (like me), here’s a list of the waterfalls from closest to furthest from trail start:

Cascada Nimbillo

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This is the busiest waterfall, with a dedicated (but somewhat run-down) changing area. We saw a lot several families swimming and playing near this waterfall.

Cascada Ondinas

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A small waterfall that has a small wooden seat near the edge. The pool is shallow, so it’s better for having a picnic or relaxing than getting wet.

Cascada Guarumos

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This waterfall had a fairly deep pool, but I don’t remember seeing anyone swim here. It’d be a great place to check out on the next trip.

Cascada Colibries

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This shy waterfall is veiled by canyon walls, but if you wade upstream a bit you can get a great photo opportunity. It’s popular with visiting locals for photos, so you may have to wait for a few minutes to get your shot.

Cascada Madre

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The penultimate waterfall is surprisingly busy for how far it is from the trailhead. It’s got several easily accessible and deep pools, so it’s popular for swimming and soaking in.

Cascada Azul

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This waterfall is the least busy, since most people stop at Cascada Madre. Several pools around the area are deep enough to soak in, although there’s not much space to swim. We had this waterfall all to ourselves for an hour before other hikers showed up.

The Wildlife

I’m a biologist, I can’t help myself. Here here is some of the amazing wildlife we found on our hike:

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A shield bug (Pentatomoidea) on a leaf.
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Mushrooms grow from a woooden post along the trail
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A caterpillar on a leaf
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A longwing butterfly (Heliconius, probably H. melpomenes) drinks water from a concrete post along the trail.
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Tiny white mushrooms grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor.

You Gotta Try This: Spiced Poached Figs with Cheese

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Somewhere in the streets of Quito’s old center, lost between a cathedral and an arts market, we found something that smelled like everything you’d want of a winter treat. Pulling back a lid, a vendor released a warm fog scented with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and fruit from her oversized cauldron. We peered inside and found scores of figs simmering gently in syrup. We had to have one. Or maybe two.

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Okay, we ended up having three. But in our defense, these fig sandwiches are AMAZING! In exchange for $1, the vendor made us a sandwich filled with the poached figs, some slices of fresh cheese, and a few generous spoonfuls of the fig syrup on a crusty sandwich roll. Taking a bite of it blends all of the flavors – the sourness of the figs melts into the slight sharpness of the cheese and the burnt sugar on the syrup melds with the earthiness of the figs, while highlights of cloves and cinnamon dance on your tongue.

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Google searches after the fact revealed that this dish, poached figs with cheese or “Dulce De Higos”, is a national pastime in Ecuador. It’s readily available in nearly every dining establishment, to from the family table to the local restaurant to the country’s hautest eateries. And while it’s served as a sandwich on the street, it also takes the role as an appetizer or dessert in other places. Seriously, if you find yourself in Ecuador, you don’t have an excuse to not try this dish.

For those of you unable to find your way to Ecuador, never fear! Further Googling turned up what appears to be the only recipe for Dulce De Higos on the whole internet (psst, the recipe is in this link). It’s from Ecuadorean food blogger Layla Pujol, so I’m betting it’s pretty legit. It’s also ridiculously simple to make, although a bit time consuming (~3 hours of work spread over 2 days). Some thoughts on the recipe:

  • Panela is a raw semi-processed sugar sold in giant bricks or cones at Latin markets. If you can’t find this, you can substitute light brown (more sugar flavor) or dark brown (more molasses flavor) to your tastes.
  • Fresh figs can be hard to come by, but they’re probably a necessity for this recipe. If you insist on trying this with dry figs, you may want to puree the figs after boiling and create a preserve instead.
  • Layla’s recipe calls for “cinnamon, cloves, and other spices” but doesn’t list how much. I’d start with 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks and 6 to 12 cloves for the recipe’s final volume (4 to 6 cups), which are my estimates from making applesauce and chai tea. A few cardamom pods or star anise might also make great additions.
  • These figs pair best with a fresh but somewhat firm cheese, and Layla’s recipe calls for quesillo or queso fresco. She mentions mozzarella too, but I’d worry about a texture clash since that tends to be more rubbery. If you can’t find queso fresco, a ricotta cheese would also work well. Or you could make your own queso fresco!
  • If you absolutely must have some kind of bread/crust with it, this would probably also make an amazing pie/galette/dumpling filling.

I’m filing this recipe away until we return from our world travels, but if you try it in the meantime let me know how it turns out!

Scenes from Quito in the dusk of 2016

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Birds flock over the Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador.

Set high in the mountains, Quito was a sharp contrast from our experiences in Colombia. People were friendly, but more withdrawn and less cheerful. Markets were busy, but not bustling. Streets and thoroughfares were sometimes entirely empty. The whole city was still beautiful but it felt subdued and almost somber, as if the energy had been drained from its inhabitants.

The likely culprit behind this is economic depression. Since 2002 more than 40% of Ecuador’s export revenue had come from crude petroleum and it was one of the few exports keeping Ecuador’s international import-export balance in the green. During the boom years, as oil surpassed $100 per barrel, Ecuador brought in billions of dollars that it used to finance social projects throughout the country. Then in 2014 the price of oil crashed to $50 a barrel, collapsing in in January 2016 to a mere $30 a barrel. The oil revenues dried up, government spending slowed, and unemployment rose. The U.S. dollar (Ecuador’s official currency) also gained in value, further slowing Ecuador’s economy .

Couple these problems with a devastating earthquake that hit the north-west region of the country in April, killing nearly 700 people and and injuring a further 16,000, and the atmosphere of subdued worry makes sense. It’s been a bad year for Ecuador.

Below are photo from our visit to Quito during the end of December, in the dusk of 2016:

 

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A view of El Panecillo from a street near the history city center.
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Men wait for a shoe shining at La Plaza de la Independencia.

 

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The statue of the Virgin that overlooks the city on El Panecillo. 
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The view of the Basilica de Voto Nacional from El Panecillo.
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View of hillside neighborhoods of Quito from El Panecillo.
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A view from the top floor of El Centro Commercial Espiral.

As in previous countries, we met so many wonderful and brilliant people here in Quito that we can’t help but root for Ecuador. The Ecuadoreans are resilient and they’ll recover, but it will take time.

Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional

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Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional

If there’s one thing that South American cities have an abundance of, it’s religious landmarks and Quito is no exception, boasting several churches and cathedrals. The Basílica del Voto Nacional is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas, with stained glass and altars to more than a dozen holy figures and saints. Entry into the cathedral is $1, and you can buy candles for prayers to the saints from vendors outside.

Once inside, the first striking thing is how dark and quiet the cathedral is. The stones muffle the sounds of traffic outside and most light passes though immense stained-glass windows, dimming it to near nothingness.

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Stained glass from the inside.

Some windows are patterned, while others depict Bible scenes or saints. Some have been damaged and replaced with whatever was handy at the time—one saint now has a torso of abstract art:

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Scenes from the Bible in stained glass
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Repaired stained glass windows showing more abstract designs.

Then there are the saints’ altars lining the walls of the cathedral:

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The altar for the crucifiction of Jesus.
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The altar for the child Mary.
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Saint Miguel, patron saint of education.

The crypt lies at one end of the Basilica, with large marble tombs adorned by bronze statues, dedicative plaques, and fresh flowers:

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A statue in the crypt to Father Julio Maria Matovelle.
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A cross on a wall with bricks bearing people’s names. For many years construction of the church was funded by laying bricks with donors’ names.