Lead Adventure’s childcare program is unique in that it is located next to a trash dump in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. While the parents work at the dump during the day, volunteers and staff ensure that their children are given proper care.
This center is actually fairly new; it was opened by a larger non-profit organization in 2006. Besides ensuring that the workers at the trash dump have a safe place for their children to go, the organization also provides tutoring, club programs, and more. The childcare center is also fully funded by donations from people who really want to see it succeed and grow.
Because of the center’s east-side location, it takes about 45 minutes to get there. But luckily, Quito’s bus system is fairly convenient and cheap, so you only have to pay 25 cents for each ride. After that, volunteers work from 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM, leaving the afternoons and weekends free to explore all of Quito’s interesting sites.
The main thing that I liked about the center was that it wasn’t overcrowded with foreign volunteers. A huge issue that people often consider before volunteering abroad is the fact that it’s not always done ethically. However, here there is quite a decent balance between volunteers and their Ecuadorian staff. During the high season, they generally receive eight to ten volunteers while during the low season they have about four to five. Their staff has around seven people including a part-time pediatrician, two chefs, three teachers, and the coordinator. I appreciated the fact that they had plenty of workers on their staff to give the children professional care and stability.
Throughout the day, the staff and volunteers had specific activities planned, which were based on the children’s age group. While the younger children did simple tasks, such as identify which toys were yellow, the older children were doing activities such as matching pictures together on a board. What was said on the brochure was true; the daycare center wasn’t only about giving the children somewhere to go while their parents worked. They were also receiving a basic preschool education while they were there. However, despite the apparent simplicity of the lessons, the teachers were always there to help. Because of this, it didn’t seem as though there was too much pressure on the volunteers.
The building itself was fairly nondescript and isn’t too big, giving it a cozy atmosphere and making it difficult for any children to get lost. A couple of children tried to wander off a few times but they were quickly found and reined back in. There is also an inner courtyard where they could play games safely. Because the center is so close to the trash dump, I thought that it wouldn’t be possible for the children to get any time outside. But having this inner courtyard was the perfect way for them to get some air in a safe environment.
Inside, you walk into a large room with small parts sectioned off so that the children could have their own spaces for the different activities. The organized groups of high chairs and cribs showed that they center was well prepared to care for children of all different age groups. In the back, there is another room where children take their lessons.
The children are given lunch in the afternoon in addition to their two snacks. There wasn’t any prepackaged chips or pizza rolls here; the center’s amazing cooks made fresh food in the kitchen that even made me hungry.
The roles of the volunteers were fairly simple: help out with all of these tasks. This ranged anywhere from singing songs with the children to helping them clean up. They all seemed to be content with their role and seemed to have a lot of fun playing with the children. After all, with about 50 children attending the daycare center in total, there’s plenty of work to go around.
When people hear about programs in the Amazon jungle, they probably imagine rustic accommodations, sleeping in tents, or picking a tree for the bathroom. But when I walked into the kitchen at Lead Adventure’s volunteer site, the first thing I saw was a television.
That’s right. In the center, the volunteers had a television, Wifi, and tiled bathrooms. But living in this luxury didn’t mean that they were on vacation; in fact, this was one of the most impressive volunteer programs that I’ve ever seen.
The ethics of “voluntourism” is one that often deters people from going overseas to help out. All too often, young college students are found hopping on planes around the world to find that the only people truly benefitting from the work are themselves. Because of this, I always tiptoed around volunteer websites and recommendations with caution.
However, being at the animal rescue center was a completely different story. Here, the volunteers did real, meaningful work. There were boards listing the different tasks of each volunteer, and if it didn’t get done it mattered. Each person’s contribution truly made a difference to the center.
Purpose of the center
The overall purpose of the station is to rehabilitate animals that have been abandoned or mistreated. Local officials or citizens usually drop them off so the amount and type of animals varies. Each animal is placed in a separate quarantined space until they were ready to be moved to an enclosure. At the time I was there, they were even preparing to move a black caiman from the quarantine.
What I liked most about the center was that it’s run entirely on donations, money from volunteers, and visitor entrance fees. Because of this, the revenue really does go back into the local community, something that people don’t often discuss when it comes to volunteering.
I was told that the center could hold 15-16 volunteers in total but that they usually have 9-10 at a time (depending on the season).
What do the volunteers do?
Twice a day, volunteers gathered in the kitchen to chop up fruit and separate them into the appropriate buckets. Each group of animals had their own specific diet that they had to follow, so what each person worked on was important. Afterwards, the volunteers fed the animals themselves, allowing them to get first-hand experience.
They also had to help out with a variety of projects that could range anywhere from painting the walls to building enclosures. For more specialized work, the center brought in skilled professionals, easing my concerns about having volunteers do work that was too difficult for them. Sometimes they also had to observe the animals and record their behavior on ethographs, an activity perfect for students. But you didn’t have to have any special skills to that; the coordinators explain how to use it.
And there was plenty of work to go around. Although the center looks small, the paths actually wind between trees to extend far out to a large man-made lagoon where caiman are kept. In one walk, you can see monkeys, pavas, birds, tortoises, and more. This large amount of animals makes it a popular tourist attraction as well.
On the weekends, each person was required to work for at least one morning. This would be discussed and arranged at a weekly meeting. But when the volunteers weren’t working, they were free to relax, go to Puyo, or even visit Banos, a nearby place known for its affordable adventure activities. Playing cards was also a popular activity in-between work.
Visits to Puyo
Luckily for the volunteers, the nearest town isn’t very far away and it only costs 30 cents to take the bus there. Volunteers often stop by Puyo to pick up food or drop off laundry. If they bring back any food, there are separate cabinets in the kitchen where they can keep it.
Puyo is also the town that volunteers first arrive in. The ride from Quito to Puyo takes about five hours and a cab from the bus station to the animal center is about three dollars.
Volunteers were also required to help out with cooking and cleaning up. Like the other work, it was divided up so that everything was organized and efficient. Many of the volunteers were vegetarian (which made sense considering where we were), which wasn’t a problem at all. Whenever there was meat, there was also an alternative choice such as eggs or veggie burgers. For breakfast, food was placed out and the volunteers could help themselves.
While I was there, the coordinators had an additional fun project for us. Once a week, the volunteers were given a budget to go into town and get ingredients. With this, they could cook any meal they wanted.
Because the Galapagos Islands have so many endemic species, a trip there takes up space on many bucket lists.
However, for some people, living in the presence of sea lions, giant tortoises, and blue-footed boobies is a way of life. According to the Galapagos Conservatory, the islands hold about 25,000 legal residents and 1,800 temporary residents.
Lucky for us, the Lead Adventures staff has someone who was once one of these inhabitants. Elizabeth Gallardo, our sales local specialist, often helps our volunteers plan their trips from a local’s perspective. We decided to interview her about what it was like to live in a place that so many people only dream about.
How did you get a chance to live there?
The most precious thing for me is my family. So after seven years away from Ecuador, I decided that it was time to visit my grandparents, who live in the Galapagos Islands. I ended up staying there for two years.
How did your perspective of the Galapagos Islands change when you started living there?
The Galapagos Islands have animals in the air, in the water, and on the land. When you’re surrounded by that many rare animals, it makes you realize how important it is to take care of every creature and live responsibly. While living there, I was never able to forget this message and it increased my appreciation for the wildlife. I’m happy to work for Lead Adventures because I can make sure that the environment I lived in isn’t damaged by tourism.
How is living in the Galapagos Islands different than living anywhere else?
The islands are filled with impressive natural treasures. When you’re just visiting, you want to see as much as you can in the time that you have there. But when you’re living there, you have more time to breathe, take in the natural surroundings, and understand how peaceful it can actually be.
What activities do you do there in your spare time?
Now that I think about it, I never had much spare time while I was there. But whenever I had time, I loved lying down on the beach and looking for shooting stars.
What advice would give you to anyone who’s going to the Galapagos for a visit?
I would say that if you’re looking for a way to soak in as much as you can, do our Galapagos Experience program because it’s more land-based. When you’re on a boat the whole time you don’t get as much time to soak in everything.
A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station was one of the things that I was looking forward to the most. For years, I was captivated by the idea of seeing where scientists studied the one of the world’s most important ecosystems. The station has been around since 1959 and boasts a huge staff of scientists, 90 percent of which are Ecuadorian. To me, a visit here alone would have made the trip worth it.
So I was ecstatic that this was the first stop on my Galapagos Experience Program. But as I approached the station, I was confused at first. In my head, I had always pictured it as one huge sleek building filled with books and microscopes. Instead, I wasn’t even sure if I had reached it or if the signs and small cluster of tiny buildings were only the entrance. Around the signs, there was a maze of tiny paths lined with cacti and nondescript signs.
After a little thought, I realized that this setup made sense. If the purpose of the station is to help preserve the islands, why would the founders make a huge man-made structure that would disturb them? Instead, this was a space that let them study the environment while actually being in the environment.
Once I shook off my naïve confusion, I doubled back to get a closer look at the cacti that I had mistakenly passed over. As it turns out, the Galapagos Islands have a few different types. The most prominent species is the Prickly Pear Cactus (the scientific name is Opuntia Cactaceae). There are multiple types of Prickly Pear on the islands and they are an important food source for the iguanas and tortoises. Many of them sport tiny yellow flowers, which can eventually develop into thorn-covered fruits. These large-paddled plants can be found in multiple islands in huge numbers; the path on the way to the station is also lined with them.
After examining the rows of plants, I continued walking until I ran into a building with solar panels on the roof. This source of renewable energy was a good reminder of the Galapagos Islands’ dedication to preserving the environment. Just last year, the construction of a huge 1.5-megawatt solar energy power plant was finished in Santa Cruz Island. The decision to make this project came after 2007, when the Ecuadorian government created policies on renewable energy. As a result, many Galapagos residents no longer have to rely on a diesel power plant.
The last part of the visit included a chance to see the famous giant tortoises. Pictures of these tortoises have graced the websites of so many travel companies, making a trip to see them an essential part of the Galapagos experience.
Seeing these monstrous creatures chomp their way through piles of vegetables was truly a mesmerizing experience, on that I only tore away to watch two tortoises fight.
Because of their short legs and sluggish crawl, I had never really thought much about the idea of them fighting. But like every species, they have their own specific way of asserting their dominance. When two tortoises fight, they do so by raising their heads as high as they can. The “winner” is the one that manages to raise his head the highest. After this competition, the “loser” usually retreats. As they fought, a strange raspy sound gradually let its way out of their gaping mouths.
There weren’t as many tortoises at the station as I had expected, but then again there aren’t that many Galapagos tortoises at all. For about two centuries, these creatures were used as a food source for whalers and fur sealers while their oil was used to light lamps. This consistent use led to a loss of about 100,000-200,000 tortoises and the extinction of four of their species.
The most famous of the tortoises is most likely Lonesome George, whose name is plastered onto many souvenir t-shirts and key-chains. As the last surviving member of the Pinta tortoises, he was discovered in 1971 when the species was thought to be extinct. For a long time, scientists tried to find a breeding partner for Lonesome George, but he died in 2012 due to natural causes.
Hearing this information about the tortoises was slightly unnerving, but it didn’t do much to put a damper on the visit; in fact, it was comforting to know that the research station is there to help preserve the islands’ ecosystem. There are so many fun things to do on the islands, but a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station can help you understand your surroundings and why they are so strongly protected. Swimming, snorkeling, and hiking in the Galapagos Islands are fun, but you can do these activities in a variety of locations. What makes these activities different is the idea of being surrounded by plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.
During my time at the Galapagos Islands, I had the privilege of going to the biological research station that Lead Adventures volunteers work at. I was excited because I knew that it would give me a different perspective of islands. Instead of rushing through in a tour, I would be provided with an in-depth look at the islands’ plant life and see what it was like to live among so much vegetation. Luckily, the site didn’t disappoint.
The main goal of the research station is to eliminate invasive species and plant those that are endemic to the island, such as “poison apple.” But every day, the volunteers participate in different activities. One day they could be seen with machetes chopping down unwanted plants and the next they could be found removing weeds in the gardens. To work, the volunteers are provided with rubber boots and head nets. It was a bit muddy because it rained the previous night, but the boots did an excellent job of keeping out any moisture.
Besides helping out with the research station’s goals, volunteers were also required to help cook. Each person was assigned to help out at different meals and everyone was responsible for washing their own dishes. I was especially impressed with the food. From just looking at the rustic kitchen, you would never guess that such an abundance of delicious rice, meat, and vegetables would come out of it. It was also fun to eat with the station’s cat and two dogs running around at our feet. Besides these traditional domestic pets, the station also has quite a few chickens and horses running around. Even though the work there is based on plants, you definitely won’t be able to get animals off your mind.
The accommodations are quite basic but don’t lack any necessities. Although there was no Wifi at the station, there are lights in the kitchen, bathroom, and rooms. Volunteers only need to wear headlamps or carry flashlights to walk in between buildings at night. I was especially grateful for the good mosquito nets that cover each bed, easing my fears of waking up covered in bites. I heard rumor of the occasional huntsman spider, but they are said to be completely harmless.
Surprisingly, there are also normal toilets and showers, although you should definitely remember to bring shower shoes. Because the reserve integrates quite well into its natural surroundings, I thought that the volunteers would have to duck between trees whenever nature called. However, there is no hot water, so it might be smart to shower during the hottest part of the day. But if you’re looking for a different way to cool down, there is a beautiful waterfall only a short downhill walk away. On humid days, the volunteers sometime go down there to swim.
After the volunteers completed their work, everyone had a chance to relax, read, or take a nap. No one seemed to miss having Internet, and I found myself forgetting about the importance of watching endless streams of Youtube videos. Instead, I took the chance to read a new book and swing in one of the many available hammocks. The reserve also has a bookshelf right outside of the bedrooms and plenty of them are written in English.
However, for those of you who are looking to practice your Spanish skills don’t worry. The coordinator at the time only spoke Spanish and a little bit of English-luckily one of the volunteers was bilingual and acted as our translator. But we had a lot of fun learning new words and laughing at people’s use of large hand gestures. The slight language barrier certainly didn’t stop anyone from having fun. At night, we piled up some wood and make some good old American s’mores, substituting the graham crackers for shortbread cookies. The volunteers usually spend the weekends in city, which is where they picked up the snacks.
Sometimes they head over to the house of a nearby resident at night. There, the owner has a small makeshift bar set up for the volunteers where they can purchase cheap drinks. No alcohol is allowed at the station though, so they aren’t allowed to bring any of it back with them.
Although I only spent a short time at the station, I could definitely tell that the volunteers had become close friends. There were a little less than ten volunteers when I went, but I was told that during the high season (usually around the summer) there are usually about 15 to 20 people. Whether it was from the lack of Internet or just the natural bond that comes from sharing a common travel experience, the atmosphere that the volunteers had created was a good one. I was grateful for the chance to work with plants, learn new things, and have a fun time. Volunteering at the station was a way of seeing the island in a new light.
My friend and I decided to take advantage of a holliday in Ecuador and get away from Quito’s ever-bustling streets. After comparing the prices and activities of different nearby sites, we settled on a small overnight trip to Otavalo.
Otavalo, a quaint city only about 2-3 hours outside of Quito, is one of the most common parts of the Ecuadorian experience. It is easily accessible by hopping on a bus at Quito’s Terminal Terestre Carcelen, which is in the north side of the city. The terminal is about 20 minutes away by cab and the ride costs around $8-$10 from La Mariscal. Alternatively, you can get there by taking the Trole or Metro bus lines for around 20-30 cents (although plan to spend about an hour on the bus line). The ticket from Quito to Otavalo is only $2.50 each way, which is why it was an appealing choice for our weekend trip. Its close proximity to the capital also makes it a popular day/weekend trip before or after many people’s Galapagos Experience Program.
Its indigenous atmosphere also helps make it a popular place for visitors. Like many places in the world, the city has adapted some modern features and boasts a renovated town center. However, approximately half of the town’s population consists of the indigenous Otavaleno people, so it is common to see traditional clothes and crafts on the streets. After stepping out of Otavalo’s bus terminal, we were surrounded by flowing traditional white blouses fighting for space with lines of sleek blue streetlights.
Because we were so close, we decided to stop by the famous markets before checking in at the hostel. The large market is probably one of Otavalo’s most famous attractions and is what most people think of when they picture the town. Many people go there just to hunt through the maze of vendors and find the best deals.
There, you can find blocks stuffed with artisanal crafts to bring home to your friends and family. Some interesting items include colorful hammocks (which can be as cheap as $12!), alpaca sweaters, and decorative backpacks. Years ago in colonial times, much of the population was pressured into working in textile workshops. Because of this, Otavalo still has some of the most beautiful textiles around and the weaving community is strong. And for those who love music, you can take your pick in the wide selection of charangos, a small Andean string instrument similar to a ukulele.
The market runs all week, but is the biggest on Saturdays, making it a popular day for tourists. On Saturdays, vendors usually begin setting up around 6 A.M. However, the market runs throughout the day, so don’t feel pressured to get up at the crack of dawn for a shot at the best items.
After weaving through the lines of artisanal crafts, we took a taxi up to the hostel, Hosteria Rose Cottage. This fairy-tale-like hostel featured a variety of fun amenities, such as a tennis court, a T.V. room, and a Jacuzzi (for $3 per use). My friend and I opted to relax for a little bit by sitting on the child-like swings and rocking ourselves to sleep on the hammocks. There was a large sitting area on the edge of hill, giving visitors an astonishing view of the mountains while they read a book or talked to other visitors.
Through word-of-mouth, we heard about an hour-long walk that looped back to the hostel and provided great views of a nearby lake and chapel. We decided that this would be a refreshing way to stretch our legs after being so stagnant on the bus and hammocks.
We were greeted by a large view of one of the famous Mojanda Lakes right after the first cobblestone hill. These set is comprised of three large lagoons: Carichocha (male lake), Huarmicocha (female lake), and Yanacocha (blood lake).
Like many other attractions in Ecuador, these sites are steeped in legend. It said that Carichocha Lake and Huarmicocha Lake were created as a result of a love affair between an Incan prince and princess. According to the story, the couple fell in love but was forbidden to marry. Together, they created a large crater, which in turn created the two bodies of water.
The nearby Yanacocha Lake also has an interesting background. Years ago, it was the location of a long bloody massacre between the indigenous people and the Incan armies. Before the Incan took over the area in the 15th century, many different linguistic groups inhabited the area. Fortresses around a nearby volcano were shown to support this story.
Though these attractions may not be as famous as the Otavalo market, many visitors choose to spend a few nights camping out next to the water. For those who choose to do this, it is important to bring warm clothes, cozy sleeping bags, and a sturdy tent; at 3,800 meters above sea level, the area around the lakes can get very cold at night.
Although we had a stunning look at the lakes from our short little walk, many people choose to get a better view by climbing the nearby Fuya Fuya Mountain. The whole trail is about 1.92 km long and takes hikers up 1,750 feet. It is known to be dotted with cactus plants and tall grass. Once at the top, successful hikers are offered a look at both the Mojanda Lakes and nearby volcanoes. However, don’t be daunted by the walk; the trail is not known to be difficult and takes about two hours to complete. Helpful signs line the trail so you don’t get lost.
After exploring the area around the hostel, we headed back to hit the hammocks again. A friendly traveler from the United Kingdom was also taking the time to relax and he told us about other attractions that he had visited in Otavalo.
One of his favorite destinations was the Condor Park. It is only about 2 kilometers outside of Otavalo’s town center and sits at the top of a large hill. This park allows visitors to see a huge variety of birds such as condors (of course!), eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons. There are also daily flight demonstrations at 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M.
Because the Condor Park did not take him long to explore, he went to a roam around a market soon afterwards. However, unlike the one in Otavalo’s town center, this one is not stuffed with artisanal crafts and alpaca sweaters. Instead, this is a market filled with animals. Visitors can weave in and out of the stalls of unusual ware for a chance to purchase creatures such as cats, guinea pigs, and chickens. There are cages of cats and boxes of dogs scattered around in staggering numbers. Generally, the stalls are separated by animal species so it’s easy for visitors to find the kind they want to purchase. Many of these animals are sold for cooking purposes while others are sold as domestic pets. Similar to the artisanal craft market, this market starts at around 6 A.M. However, it may be better to come here just to browse and soak in the unique atmosphere; taking an animal back on the bus might be a bit difficult!
The next morning we decided that the far view of the Mojanda Lakes was not enough, so we took a 15-minute taxi ride to get an up-close look. Because we hadn’t taken the altitude into consideration we wore very thin jackets and were very cold! If you go, the taxi will take you so high that you won’t know if the wet droplets are made of rain or parts of the surrounding clouds.
Despite the freezing temperature and the moist air, we were glad that we took the time to ride up the mountain. The lake was huge and surrounded by an ethereal mist. All around the water, people huddled in tiny tents and clutched warm drinks. We were exceptionally lucky because we got there just when a large cloud was making its way over the water. Although relaxing on the hammocks had been the best way to enjoy the fresh country air, visiting this lake was the highlight of our trip.
For anyone who’s looking to get a quick look at Ecuador’s countryside before or after their Galapagos Experience program, a visit to Otavalo is the way to do it. And the Mojando Lakes, Condor Park, artisan markets, and animal markets only make up a small portion of the available activities. With more time, watch gallons of water cascade down from a tall waterfall and discover the mysteries of a sacred tree called El Lechero. Otavalo is jam-packed with fun things to do, and its close proximity to Quito makes it perfect for a weekend trip! Just make sure to save some space in your backpack-you’re sure to come back with souvenirs to remind yourself of this quaint little town!
Visitors who walk through the north side of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, are bombarded by brand-name clothing stores and fast-food chains. But take a quick bus ride over to the south and you’ll feel like you’re in a different city altogether. Quito’s southern “Centro Historico” is stuffed with buildings that retained their original architectural features. These are so well preserved that they helped Quito become the first city in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. As a history buff’s dream, this district will allow you to experience hundreds of years of Quito’s past in just one walk.
Those who are more architecture-savvy may notice that almost all of the buildings in Centro Historical are Spanish colonial rather than Quitu. Although the Quitu people were the first ones to colonize the area, Incan armies eventually invaded them in the 15th century. Less than 100 years later, Spanish invaders came and conquered the city.
Logically, shouldn’t many of the buildings have retained their Incan architectural features in addition to the Spanish colonial ones? This might have happened if the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar did not have every bit of ancient architecture destroyed. He did this not only to annihilate any symbolism that the city had for its inhabitants, but also to look for a hidden treasure.
Previously, Incan General Rumiñahui, whose name means “Face of Stone,” razed the entire city in an attempt to prevent the Spanish from gaining any advantage. Supposedly, this powerful general had every valuable item in the area rounded up and hidden outside of the city. Many people have endlessly searched different places outside of Quito, such as in the crater of the Guagua Pichincha volcano and in the Llanganates hills, but this famous Ruminahui treasure has yet to be found.
Now there are pleasant street vendors and friendly tourists in place of the fighting conquistadors and stone-faced generals. But don’t let the quaint restaurants and elegant theaters distract you. One glance at the Spanish colonial-style stucco-clad walls will be enough to remind you of hidden treasure and torn-down buildings. Here are some must-see attractions to help you envision what it was like in Quito’s historical days.
1. Plaza de la Independencia
This plaza is great place to sit, relax, and soak in the sights. In the 16th century, it was used to house bullfighting matches and a large market. Although trees and benches have since replaced the fights and vendors, this is still an area of great importance because it is literally surrounded by important buildings on all sides.
While you’re sitting, take a look to the north. Here you’ll see the Archbishop’s Palace. This grand white building stretches along the entire block and was the residence of the bishop for many years. If you wish, you can have lunch in one of the cozy restaurants on the first or second floor.
Afterwards, take a glance to the east, where you’ll find a long similar-looking building. This is City Hall, and it is still the location of the Municipality of Quito.
The Quito Cathedral is on the south side of the plaza. It is one of the oldest churches on the entire continent. Although it was difficult to build this cathedral in a place with deep ravines, the building still managed to survive two earthquakes during its lifetime.
On the last side of the plaza, the west side, sits the Palacio del Gobierno. This white building topped with the colorful Ecuadorian flag is where Ecuador’s president works. The changing of the guards also makes this a popular attraction. If you’re interested in going inside, visitors can see certain rooms with a guided tour, which can be done in either Spanish or English.
2. El Panecillo
For anyone coming to Quito, a visit to the El Panecillo is a must. Although “El Panecillo” directly translates to “bread roll,” the sight you’ll see is miles better than a doughy pastry. At the top of this hill sits a huge statue called the Virgin of Quito, also known as “Quito’s Madonna.” From far away she only seems to be a small speck in the sky, but as you come closer and closer her intimidating 148-foot height and 7,000 aluminum parts will have you craning your neck up in awe. She is perched on top of a globe and is stepping on a snake, which helps increase her already impressive height.
This majestic statue is actually a recreation of a smaller version sculpted by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734. The original statue is known as “the dancer” because it shows Madonna in movement, which was an unusual and original idea at the time. Many people claim that this representation of Madonna is the only one in the world that has the wings of an angel.
To get a view of Quito in its entirety, visitors can climb steps to reach the base of the statue, which is on top of a 36-foot pedestal. You can also get a great view in a wide field past the line of food and clothing vendors.
3. Basílica del Voto Nacional
Have you ever seen St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan or the Cathedral of Notre Dame? The architecture of this basilica often makes people compare it to these cathedrals while its size makes it the biggest Gothic cathedral in Latin America. But instead of traditional gargoyles, this Ecuadorian church has little turtles and iguanas peeking out at its sides. Their colors help them blend well into the grey stone, so make sure to squint a little for a chance to see them. Inside, the ceilings are covered in colorful stained-glass windows. And don’t overlook the small chapel off to the side; the altar of Mary and mosaic tile floor makes this tiny space worth a lot more than it seems.
And the story of the Ruminahui treasure isn’t the only one that haunts this city. The basilica isn’t fully constructed yet and legend says that when it is finally finished the world will end. Some also say that the heart of Ecuador’s past president, Gabriel Garcia Moreno, is hidden somewhere in one of the hallways.
Daring visitors can ascend the nerve-wracking climb to the top, which is complete with steep stairs and a walk across a wooden plank. If that’s not enough for you, go up an additional round of stairs and a spiral staircase to reach the clock tower. The top is also accessible by elevator for an additional fee; however, don’t rely on this route too much because it is not always functioning.
4. San Francisco Church
Although Quito is home to a plethora of beautiful churches, this was the first one built in the historic city. This behemoth of a building takes up almost two blocks and holds court at the head of a large plaza. In front of the church, there is a small market where visitors can purchase clothes, hats, and other small goods.
The construction of San Francisco Church started in 1535, only about a month after the Spanish conquered Quito. But despite it’s quick beginning, it took over 100 years to finish. To get inside, you have to climb massive stone steps because it was actually built over an Incan temple.
And of course, this church wouldn’t be complete without it’s own mythical rumor. It is a known legend that Cantuna, a builder, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for help to complete the church on time. Right before the deadline to complete the church, Cantuna took out a single stone from the building so that it would not truly considered finished. This crafty idea helped Cantuna keep his soul and outwit the devil. In the Museum of the Convent of San Fransisco sits a small model of the church complete with figurines representing this legend.
5. Calle La Ronda
This street is fantastic for anyone who loves art or just wants to take a fun stroll through a vibrant atmosphere. Here, you can shop for traditional Ecuadorian sweets, listen to upbeat music, and eat at an amazing cookhouse. This place has a bohemian atmosphere and used to be considered a refugee for many artists and artisans. Some of the houses have signs that detail facts about the previous inhabitants. Inside, there are many small hidden courtyards, a popular feature of Spanish colonial buildings.
A particularly popular spot here is the House of Arts of La Ronda. It is a great place to visit and reminisce about the street’s past artistic inhabitants. This beautiful cultural center hosts many fun art exhibitions and workshops on a regular basis.
Although a lack of maintenance caused this street to become damaged and broken over time, a few years ago Ecuador’s municipality started to revive it. But this historical street definitely hasn’t lost its artistic touch; many artisans set up shop here to create beautiful works of art out of materials such as wood, chocolate, and textiles. If you’re looking for a place to get great souvenirs, this is definitely a street worth considering.
Because Ecuador translates to “The Republic of the Equator,” a trip to the beautiful country would be incomplete without seeing the Middle of the World. Each year, about half a million visitors trek their way over for the chance to straddle the famous equator line and stand in two hemispheres at once.
This phenomenon was discovered in 1736, when a French expedition team led by Charles-Marie de La Comdamine set out to see whether the earth was bigger at the equator or the north and south poles. According to “Measure of the Earth,” a book about this trip by Larrie D. Ferreiro, the findings from the expedition helped prove that the earth bulges at the equator. However, although the group was known to work in the nearby Andean mountains, there is no official indication that they really did visit the place where the current monument stands.
This iconic mission was commemorated 200 years after its conclusion when the Government of Ecuador produced a beautiful monument to recognize the anniversary of this expedition. Then in 1979, it was replaced by a 30-foot tall tower capped with a globe, which is what travelers flock to see today. The massive tower has letters on each side to mark north, south, east, and west. Everyone took pictures on each side of the massive tower and zoomed in on the intricate details of the giant globe.
But in spite of the giant monument, the excitement of all the visitors, and the line of shops selling souvenirs, we discovered that the actual equator, the one that is truly at a latitude of zero degrees, is actually about 200 feet north of the painted line next to the tower.
This disrepency occured because the original monument was built with measuring techniques that were not as accurate as the ones we use today. A park official told the New York Times a few years earlier that because the real equator inconveniently crosses a ravine outside of Quito, builders were unable to construct a new monument in the correct location. But even though there is no other large monument, there is another área that people visit that is considered the “real” middle of the world, which was discovered with the help of modern the GPS instruments. Because of this discrepancy, we were able to stand on the middle of the world…twice.
After we visited the monument in the “wrong” place (and had fun pretending to stand in two hemispheres at once), we headed over to the next location. There, we were able to see a line that also represents the “middle of the world.” Instead of a 30-foot monument and globe, this line is accompanied by a small yellow and red sign that reads "Ecuador en la mitad del mundo. Latitud: 00 degrees 00'00"" calculada con GPS" to confirm that this was indeed, the middle of the world.
This line is also located inside a quaint museum called Museo de Sitio Intinan: Camino del Sol. The museum turned out to be so much more than a place that houses the equator line; the staff provided so much information about Quito’s history and indigenous cultures that the visit would have been worth it even if the equator wasn’t there.
One of the most interesting parts of the museum included the presence of two large cabins. These large cabins actually represented ancestral cultures from Ecuador. The museum signed an agreement that allowed them to build these original structures in 2007.
One cabin represented the dwellings of the Waorani, who are well known for their amazing hunting skills. Our knowledgeable guide showed us replicas of their sharp and deadly-looking hunting tools. Generally, they limit their hunting to birds, monkeys, and wild peccaries (wild mammals that resemble boars). The Waorani are also particularly adamant about not hunting anacondas-they believe that these large snakes stand in the way of the path to the afterlife, making it taboo to kill them. The guide emphasized this belief by showing us a large replica of an anaconda that lived on the wall of the reproduced cabin, which leered it sharp teeth at the group. The Waorani also have a deep connection with the jaguar. They believe that they were a result of the mating between a jaguar and an eagle. Those who became "jaguar shamans" were said to be able to telepathically communicate with other Waorani.
The other reproduced cabin represented Quichuan culture. Years ago, this group of people migrated from both the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest. But although they accomplished this amazing feat, they were actually among the earliest groups of people that were captured by the Inca empire. After the Spanish conquered the Inca emperor, the Quichuan population received a drastic blow. Many of them inter-married with the Spanish afterwards, making it very difficult to find anyone of pure Quichua descent.
Our guide explained that the presence of these huts are so much more than just showing a visual display of Ecuador’s cultural significance. She told us that these are important because the equator interconnects the four regions of the country: the Galapagos, the jungle, the coast, and of course, the Andes Mountains. By displaying these huts, the museum is able to show archaeological representations of people who lived in all these different regions.
After we wandered through these cabins and examined their collection of hunting tools, the group reached the ever-famous equator line. Our guide told us that because the gravity is different at the equator, everyone there weighed less than they did before. To show us the interesting effects that can only be found at the equator, she showed us a variety of fun experiments to prove that we had finally come to the right place.
First she demonstrated the Coriolis effect using a basin of water and a drain. The Coriolis effect is based on the idea that, because of the curvature and motion of the earth, free-moving things in the Southern Hemisphere have a tendency to turn to the left, and those in the Northern Hemisphere turn to the right. To prove this, she dropped some leaves into the basin of water and pulled the drain to show us that, on different sides of the equator line, the water does swirl in different directions. And when she placed the basin directly on the equator line, the water drained straight out without swirling in any direction at all.
She further demonstrated this effect by allowing us to try balancing an egg on the head of a nail. Supposedly, this was supposed to be easier to do on the equator because of the lack of Coriolis effect. Everyone lined up in groups of two to step on the stone slabs and try their hand at this trick. Although I wasn’t able to accomplish this interesting feat, many people in our group were. Each person who managed to do it was presented with a cute card at the end of the tour to commemorate the event. Afterwards, she also had us try to push each other’s hands down while on the northern side of the line, the southern side of the line, and on the line itself. As people did this in each different place, they discovered that their strength was much weaker while standing directly on the equator line.
The last experiment that we did was walk on the equator line with our eyes closed. Our guide instructed us to put one foot in front of the other and splay our arms out like an airplane to help us try to keep our balance. This is supposedly more difficult to do while on the equator because of the difference in gravity. One by one, each person took a turn stumbling and wobbling along the line with their eyes closed. None of us were particularly adept at this trick, although I probably would have trouble with this even if I weren’t on the equator!
The need to take two trips to see the real equator might sound like a hassle to some, but it actually proved to be a really great feature of our trip. Although the large monument isn’t in the correct place, it is still something worth visiting and seeing while on your trip to Ecuador. And while some people may only choose to see one place or the other, I truly recommend that you take the time to see both! You can even get your passport stamped with an original Middle of the World stamp, which is something that you can’t get anywhere else. The misplacement of the tower and the need to build a museum only means that you have more exciting things to see! Without the misplacement, we wouldn’t have had the chance to stand on the equator while also receiving a tour on fascinating Ecuadorian culture and the significance of the line. Don’t miss out on your only chance to do these cool tricks and learn about the different indigenous cultures that make Ecuador’s equator line so special and unique.
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