After an entire day of flight delays, we finally made it to Ecuador! The nighttime drive into the city only gives tiny hints of what the city actually holds. We got ourselves immediately settled into the Secret Garden hostel so that we could wake up refreshed and ready for our first day in South America.
The best thing about Secret Garden is the amazing view from its rooftop terrace. You can have meals up there or just hang out and enjoy the view, and so that’s how we started our first morning. By the time we came back that night, we had walked from one end of the picture to the other. Quito is great for exploring on foot.
We decided a hostel breakfast wasn’t quite the experience we wanted for our first meal in Ecuador, so we wandered around the corner for a place selling desayuno (the Spanish word for breakfast). Most places have a fixed breakfast menu that comes with toast, cheese, coffee, juice and sometimes some eggs. However, we learned immediately that our poor Spanish-speaking skills were going to be a problem when we failed to actually order breakfast. Instead, we ended up with the non-breakfast menu, so we ate foods on top of french fries! This is a surprising Ecuadorian staple – you want chicken? Here’s a whole one, roasted, on top of some french fries. My first meal was two fried eggs on top of fries (fried eggs are how Ecuadorians make any meal vegetarian). It’s a delightful local habit that we were totally on board with.
Then it was time to put on our tourist hats. La Basílica del Voto Nacional is a gorgeous church that stands above most of the other buildings in Old Town. That made it a natural starting point for the day’s adventures, especially as it follows our two biggest travel guidelines: take the smallest path, and always go up.
La Basílica lets you explore it on every level, so we skipped the service happening downstairs in order to climb as high as we were allowed into the clock towers. You have to go across rickety beams along the church ceiling and up tiny vertical ladders to get there, and you’re rewarded with beautiful architecture and amazing views of the city.
From there we wandered through Old Town, stopping in various shops and grabbing ice cream to cool us down. The sun is relentless because you’re so close to the equator, and I got sunburnt almost immediately (Mike, who eternally wears hats, was much better off).
From there we went to the other landmark that dominates the skyline: El Panecillo, a large hill with a statue of the Virgin Mary that looms over the city below. We were there just after Epiphany, so a large and cleverly minimalist nativity was still on display. We paid the dollar entry fee to go up into the statue and learn some history – the statue is so unique, depicting a wing-wearing Mary at the time of the apocalypse defeating the dragony devil with a set of heavy chains. Way cooler than the stories they taught me in Bible School.
After admiring the statue, we wandered past the craftsmen and over to the tempting smells of the fried food vendors. We went for all the staples: empanadas stuffed with cheese and dusted with sugar, fried pastries full of sweet plantains. Mike also got all sorts of meats-on-sticks to try.
Then we took a bus despite having no clue where it went or where to get off: adventure! The young guys running the bus took pity on our foolish selves and helped us get back to the heart of downtown (always know how to get home from major landmarks, then you’re almost never lost!). Quito’s historic sights were even more charming at night, and it felt like we’d chosen the right country to explore.