Quito Day 3: Volcanoes, birds, and middle(s) of the Earth
Day 3 started early, as we were heading out of town to the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ to the north of Quito. About an hour’s drive just outside the bounds of the city was our first stop, the Pululahua crater viewpoint and geobotanical reserve.
As ever there were lots of unique flowers growing with medicinal and edible uses. You can take a walking trail or horse-ride around the crater’s edges or down to the bottom. There’s a hotel and some hot springs, so it’d be a pretty nice place to stay a night. I was excited to spot a couple of hummingbirds flitting about, but there were far more to come later!
We had lunch at the El Crater restaurant near the lookout point. This is a pretty swish place with amazing views over the rolling green hills and valleys and the crater itself. The food was very tasty, as well. I do love the Ecuadorian style of giving you a little bit of lots of thing on the same plate: some grilled veggies, a tortilla (this is a small fried corn or potato cake in Ecuador), fried plantain slices and toasted and steamed maize kernels, served with spicy-creamy-salty salsa to slather over it all.
From Pululahua we headed west to Bellavista Cloud Forest, a huge private nature reserve and eco guest lodge which is especially known for exotic flower and bird spotting. Unfortunately though, there had been a landslide in the night and the only road to the cloud forest was completely shut off to traffic so we couldn’t drive to it. Instead we went to a smaller reserve called Alambi which we’d passed on the way.
I can’t compare it to Bellavista, but I really loved Alambi anyway. It’s the private home of owner Fabian, and he’s built a lodge for visitors on the little piece of land. In what’s basically his backyard he hung lots of sugar water feeders and planted sweet flowers, which mean hummingbirds flock there in droves.
It was quite amazing to see so many hummingbirds from so close – I was maybe 1m away. I think I sat watching them for about twenty minutes before being taken on a tour of the small reserve.
Positioned on the edge of the rainforest, there are more interesting plants here, like the ‘dragons blood’ tree which oozes red liquid when you cut the bark. It turns into a white cream when you rub it into the skin and is said to be an insect repellant.
Fabian also has orange, guava, lemon, coffee and mandarin trees, so you can grab a sweet snack while spotting butterflies. This was a really lovely place, I’d like to come back and stay the night sometime.
The next stop is kind of an Ecuadorian must-do: a visit to 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds latitude, ie the horizontal centre of the earth. There are two big tourist attractions set up around this point – but unfortunately neither are particularly good!
The first one, the Intinan Museum, claims to contain the real geographical centre as calculated by GPS. They’ve built a little outdoor museum around it but it’s pretty kitsch and quite poorly done: a couple of llamas and snakes in too-small enclosures, some rather random displays about indigenous cultures, and some reconstruction totem poles. Kind of cheesy and not worth bothering with in itself.
The 0,0 degrees line itself is quite nicely marked and an obvious must-do photo op. The guides give various demonstrations about phenomena that supposedly happen around the equator – water draining in opposite directions, balancing an egg on a nail, your strength and balance becoming weaker – all of which I was a little skeptical of and had my suspicions confirmed by Googling afterwards. It’s nearly all faked: the Coriolis effect is not strong enough to pull draining water in opposing directions (the guide pours from different angles), you can balance an egg anywhere with a bit of effort, and the strength test must be suggestion. Weirdly I did find it really hard to walk straight along the line (supposedly due to centrifugal forces pulling you) but I can probably put that down to suggestion too. So yeah, it was all a bit silly and fake but at least this is (pretty much) the genuine 0,0 line so that in itself was quite cool and worth seeing.
The second site is about 200 metres away and much grander, yet unfortunately utterly inaccurate. Built in the 1970s, it was decided to build the resort here as a result of French scientists’ measurements. Sadly it’s definitely not the real 0,0 spot, though there’s nothing at the resort to tell you that! You can see why they’re carrying on the pretence though – it was obviously an expensive development, pretty much a mini village with shops, restaurants, an observatory and even a bullfighting ring (used for concerts and events since bullfighting is now illegal here). The big monument in the centre is quite classy, and there’s a pretty interesting exhibit inside about the indigenous people all over Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. So even though I was a little disappointed by both sites, they are both worth visiting for one reason or another.
Back in Quito for the evening I took myself out for a little wander around the old town as it was my last night staying here. The half-hour before the sun starts to set is a really beautiful time, the light streaming down from the sky before sinking below the mountains; even a short rainfall is a nice relief from the heat.
I’d done a bit of research on vegetarian restaurants and walked down the lovely cobbled San Marcos street to find La Cuchara de San Marcos. I think the name means cul de sac, as appropriately it’s tucked away at a dead end at the very end of the street. (Amusingly I thought I found the place as I was walking down San Marcos street and it took ten minutes’ chatting to the waiter and chef in broken Spanglish before I realised it wasn’t the right place. By that point I felt like I had to stay for a bit, so I ended up having a very tasty michelada and little place of tacos en route. Two dinners for the win!)
Anyway, the real Cuchara is tucked up a staircase which leads to a pretty fairylit courtyard and a cosy restaurant-bar. The menu is Ecuadorian food given a veggie makeover: soy, potatoes, cheese and vegetables take the place of meat in classic local dishes. i had ricotta empanadas followed by a peanut stew with soy protein and potatoes.
They also have some local craft beers; I had an Andes red ale which was really tasty and got a couple more bottles to bring home. I got chatting to the co-owner, an American ex-pat from San Francisco (hence the beer knowledge), who explained to me how he came to open the place. He also brews small batches of beer on-site, though sadly the next batch was still fermenting on my visit. I was really pleased I ventured out and found this place: it’s generally recommended that tourists, particularly women, don’t walk around alone after 9 or 10pm but I didn’t feel unsafe while walking there and back (pre-9pm but definitely dark). The old town is well-lit and as long as you stick to the larger streets and plazas I think it’s OK to have a wander.