“Where ya’ goin’?” the taxi man asked me with a couple of raised eyebrows and a quizzical frown on his face.
“Quito,” I replied, as we as sped towards the airport.
“Where?,” he asked me again. “Quito,” I repeated. “It’s the capital of Ecuador. In South America.”
“Oh,” he said looking slightly baffled, before adding, “and why are ya goin’ there?”
I suppose, to be fair to the man, it was perhaps an understandable question given that this wasn’t your usual destination for people travelling from Dublin Airport on a wet January morning.
I was heading south to meet an old buddy who, having backpacked around the world, had settled in the Latin American city to make his life there.
Kevin Sheehy is a former Milltown man who now runs the famous Finn McCool’s Irish bar in the city after establishing the backpacker Uncle Ho’s restaurant just around the corner a few years back.
He now lives among the verdant mountains that surround the city where an international expat community has made this part of South America a home from home.
Having Kevin there obviously helped us to decide when the idea came up to escape the winter rains and, having somewhere a little bit different and exotic to go to, just added to the adventure.
Me and my buddy Robin in the historical centre of Quito
Ecuador has always been known as a jumping off point for its most famous attraction, the Galapagos Islands, but on this occasion we decided to leave the well-known island chain for another time and explore what the country itself had to offer.
And we were not disappointed. Over a couple of short weeks we found that Ecuador is well worth the trip in itself. From sun-kissed beaches and lofty mountain ranges to exciting volcanoes, virgin jungle and beautifully preserved colonial towns, this, the fourth-smallest country in South America, punches way above its weight when it comes to its bigger continental neighbours.
With its UNESCO World Historical centre, boasting old worlde charm and buzzing backpacker quarter, the capital Quito is now hitting the top spots on various ‘must go’ lists.
Last year Lonely Planet declared Quito the second best city in the world to visit in 2016 after Kotor in Montenegro and just ahead of my own fair city, Dublin, which came in third.
It is set in a majestic location, among lush green hills and towering volcanoes and our first sunrise at Kevin’s house, having landed late the night before, revealed views of sweeping tree-covered hills that swept down to the valley below.
At the middle of the world..kinda
Relaxing in the glow of a warm South American summer morning we were relieved to have made it at all after a snow-bound Atlanta necessitated a detour to New York for one freezing night before we made our connecting to Miami International Airport. But after that it was a quick four hour jaunt down to Quito.
We were soon caught up in the fiesta life of the lively city with its fun bars and restaurants and as Kevin is something of the man about town we were not short on ideas of where to hang out.
Apart from the obvious home base of Finn’s and Uncle Ho’s were we treated to the VI P section of the local nightclub, Bungalow 6, a hot spot for locals and tourists alike but after a few hectic nights on the town we settled down to have a proper look around.
Founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an ancient Inca city, Quito is one of the only capital cities in the world that is threatened by an active volcano. The city wraps itself around the haunches of the glowering Volcán Pichincha, a very much active presence that glowers down at the city below.
Messing around on the slopes of Volcán Pichincha
Despite a series of rumblings over the years including a serious explosion in 1999, life in Quito for much of its two million inhabitants carries on regardless. And in fact, one of the prime attractions for locals and visitors alike is to take a trip up to the summit at Cruz Loma in the telefériqo, one of the highest gondola lifts in the world, which whisks visitors from the edge of the city centre up to nearly 4,000 metres above sea level.
At the top there are welcome rest areas including restaurants, coffee bars and shops for those who may feel a slight pang of altitude sickness but for those with a bit more stamina there is a further three-hour hike rising to a dizzying 4,680m to Rucu Pichincha, with its main amazing views over Quito.
Be aware though that even on a clear day the views can suddenly disappear as the mountain can become suddenly enveloped in fog, especially in the mornings.
Back on ground level we took a spin over to another ‘hill’ near the centre of the city to check out the gleaming aluminium statue of the Virgin of Quito in all of its 134-foot high grandeur.
Rising from the evocatively named El Panecillo ‘Bread Loaf Hill’ this 1976 monument created with over 7,000 pieces of aluminium, one of the largest sculptures in the world that features the Virgin Mary with wings, is a gleaming beacon that can be seen across the city.
Of course, no visit to Ecuador is complete without finding the Equator and a fully equipped theme park 26km north of the city celebrates how the country got its name.
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) boasts the 30-metre-tall Monument to the Equator that was built to commemorate a French mission in 1736 that conducted experiments to find the exact location of the equator.
Me, Robin and Ruadhan at the ‘real equator’
Every year half a million tourists come here to have their picture taken as they stand on a line drawn at the Earth’s midpoint, but the actual location identified by more recent GPS technology reveals that the actual line lies about 240 metres north.
Thankfully the Inti Nan museum, which is about five minutes’ away, celebrates the “real equator” and, compared to the austere monument built by the Ecuadorian government, this is a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It’s great fun to come here and take part in various equator fun challenges like balancing an egg on the head of a nail, and falling over sideways as you attempt to walk the line with your eyes closed.
With only a few weeks to explore this fascinating country it was time to hit the road to see what else this amazing country had to offer. After our hectic city exploring we felt it was time for some well-deserved R n’ R so we headed off to the main beachside attractions in Ecuador, the coastal town of Montañita.