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Friday 27 Dec 2013
Quito, Ecuador

Urban adventures

Ailsa had organised a day trip for us through Intrepid’s Urban Adventures.  We met our guide for the day, Santiago, at the Intrepid office, only a few blocks from our hotel.  The taxi driver was unimpressed at getting such a short fare, so ‘accidently’ missed it and had to drive around the block the long way to get back again.  He wasn’t even subtle about it and then tried to charge us double what we knew the journey should cost.  I refused and we settled in the middle.  It was only a couple of dollars but it was a matter of principle.

There was only one other person on the tour, an Australian lady named Angela, who had just got back from the Galápagos.  When she arrived, we were driven up to Itchimbia, the crystal palace, on a hill at the edge of the old quarter.  The palace is a cast iron structure, which used to stand over the Mercado Santa Clara before the market outgrew the square.  It was moved up to Parque Itchimbia and the sides were glassed in using a clever matrix of steel wires.  It is now a cultural centre.

Santiago ran through the agenda for the day while we admired the view over the city towards Pichincha.  One of the big attractions for us on this particular trip was the opportunity to go into a local family’s home, watch them cook traditional food and eat lunch with them.  However, as this was Christmas, it turned out the families they usually work with were on vacation so we would be eating in a restaurant instead.  We were unimpressed that they hadn’t bothered to tell us this even though they’d known in advance.  We’d spent 15 minutes with Santiago and his boss at the office waiting for Angela and they hadn’t mentioned it once.  I let Ailsa take charge and she spoke directly to the boss on Santiago’s phone.  The result was they arranged for us to visit a chocolate shop and a restaurant kitchen to watch empanadas being made.  This type of empanada is known as an air empanada, because it puffs up when cooked.  Unfortunately it was made of wheat flour so Mum and I had to watch the others eating, but we did get to try some delicious fruit juices.  They actually did well to pull these things out of the bag at short notice, but it is sadly becoming typical of Intrepid to drop things from the itinerary without notice and to substitute them only when they are forced to.  It also seems to be the local projects and interactions that get dropped, when that was what used to make Intrepid stand out from the other tour operators.

Santiago turned out to be a very knowledgeable guide.  Even though we revisited several places we’d already seen – the main churches, the President’s palace and Independence Square – we learned a lot more about them.  He also took us around the fresh produce section of the indoor market and introduced us to a range of exotic fruits and vegetables grown in the area.  After a long walk through some different parts of the old quarter, we ended up back in San Francisco Plaza at the same café we’d had drinks in a few days ago.  Lunch here was good, but again, eating late meant we were ravenous by the time we finally sat down to eat.  

After the trip, Santiago dropped us off at a hat shop so Dad could have a look at Panama hats.  The name is a misnomer, they are actually Ecuadorian straw hats made from a particular type of palm leaf grown only in certain parts of the country.  They became known as Panama hats after they were provided to workers building the Panama Canal to shield them from the sun and rain.  A top quality Panama hat should have no holes when held up to the light, be woven tightly enough to carry water and yet be sufficiently supple to roll up and fit through a man’s wedding ring and still spring back into shape afterwards.  Those ones were a little out of our price range, even though prices here are a fifth of what it would cost in Europe.  Dad and I both got traditional shaped Panama hats, while Mum went for a round hat with soft black and white feathers poking out of the band.   We couldn’t have looked more like tourists if we’d tried, but who cares?!  We were very pleased with our hats.  Thank you, Dad!

After rushing about for the last week, we were all ready for a gentle day.  We headed up to the botanical gardens late the next morning and wandered through the narrow pathways.  There were some beautiful plants outside, but the best part for me was the orchid house.  There are hundreds of orchid varieties in Ecuador and these greenhouses must have contained at least 50.  Some were bright big flowers, while others had delicate tiny petals.  We watched a hummingbird with a long tail flitting about the fuchsia trees.  The café was closed, so we walked up through the park to a shopping centre and found the food court.  This time we had just a light lunch so we could enjoy a proper meal in the evening. 

Ailsa and I watched the final of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, which I’d been able to download.  I’d caught the introductory episode before I left for the US, so I knew who’d been paired with whom, but I’ve missed the whole series.  Even so, just watching the last four couples compete for the glitter ball trophy put me in a festive mood as it has become something of a tradition over the last few years.  This time last year, I had packed up my office and returned the phone, laptop and said goodbye to friends and colleagues.  I’d then moved everything out of my flat and into storage, before driving down to Ailsa’s with a box of goodies and a bottle of Champagne to drink while we watched the final.  I wonder what I’ll be doing this time next year…?

We finally had dinner outside the hotel, trying out a steak restaurant two blocks up the road.  We walked up there, but there were a lot of people hanging out on the corner that made us nervous of walking back again.  We all had steaks and shared a lovely bottle of Malbec.  My rib-eye with grilled prawns was probably one of the best steaks I’ve ever have had.  It may have been a day or two late, but this felt like a perfect Christmas dinner.

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #3 Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

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This is the big highlight of the year. Joined by my parents and reunited with Ailsa, we'll spend Christmas in Quito, then travel to Galápagos for New Year, celebrating in style with a week on the Queen Beatriz catamaran visiting the southern islands.

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