Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ecuador: Travels in South America

Note: Dear reader, we are out of sequence here. Though we traveled to Ecuador more than two years ago, the memories are fresh and the experience unique. Please enjoy this interruption of your (ir)regularly scheduled posts about China, Mongolia, Italy, and Croatia, and indulge me the details of our South American sortie.

"Taylor...wake up....how about Ecuador?"

It was 2 o'clock in the morning, and she was a little confused.

"What? Ecuador? Why?"

"Because tickets are cheap and I'm buying. Lets go!"

Thus began an adventure that would see Taylor (wife extraordinare) and myself traversing mountain-tops, tackling treacherous volcanoes, riding tiny horses, braving raging whitewater, and constantly wondering when...oh when?!...were we going to eat some barbecued guinea pig.

First, dear reader, you should be introduced to Taylor, as she has not yet made an appearance in this space:

Yes. She is really that lovely.

So how did we go from this:

To this:

It's quite a story.

We left Washington, DC on Christmas Day, long flights and no Chinese food making me a dull boy. Our destination? Fabulous Quito, Ecuador! The second highest capital in the world, and with an elevation of nearly 3,000 meters, not the type of place to take high speed, physical activity lightly...

Which is why as soon as we arrived we set off hiking into the mountains around the city.

Quito sits in a kind of basin formed by mountain ranges stretching out endlessly on either side. The city has low valleys and shallow hills mounted with high-spired churches. It is less cosmopolitan than other capital cities, and retains a lived-in, accessible aesthetic that made it feel almost instantly home-like.

We decided that we needed to get a more holistic view of the city, so we (very, very stupidly) decided on our second day to take the teleferico, a cable car that ascends you from 2850 meters to 4050 meters in about 9 minutes. Have you ever...been alive, at high altitudes before? It's hard right? Usually, when you are dealing with high elevations you take things slowly, you let your body get acclimated to the new situation and, after several days, you feel better, more clear-headed, and able to function.

You can do that responsibly.... or you can take a cable car 1200 meters straight up the side of a mountain, sort of like if you hopped into a jet, pointed it towards the sky, and just hit the ignition switch.

This was really stupid...wheee!

By the time we got to the top, and realized that a good portion of the things to do at the "top" were to hike even higher, we decided it may be a good idea to take it easy.

Okay I'm lying, we just went higher

Spooky buildings are usually on top of mountains

Eventually, our oxygen-deprived brains turned us around and sent us back to town.

Free ear flowers to everyone who survives rapid, entirely ill-advised elevation changes!

We decided that perhaps a few more terrestrial days would serve us well, so decided to follow our natural tourist-y instincts and visit Mitad del Mundo, or "Center of the World." Despite being misleading for a variety of reasons (no dinosaurs, don't enter through a volcano, not actually geographic center of anything) there is a big monument that theoretically shows you where the equator passes through Ecuador (quick: how did Ecuador get its name? Bam! Now you've learned something. Apologies). How big is the monument?

Eh...about this tall.

So that's what it looks like at the equator. I know, everyone thinks that they'll see water just spinning endlessly in pools without actually draining away...

At least...I thought it would...

but really, the only thing there was this real big monument. And also an insect museum. Not insects native to the equator, just insects. Of course, you have to pay for entry, I guess as many attractions as you can cram in make it worth maintaining the really big obelisk that people come to gawk at.

We spent another day or so in Quito, in Churches and on hillsides, taking in the variegated views that a hilly city in a basin provides. But soon, our itchy feet needed scratchin', and we were on our way to Cotopaxi, to see what this whole "volcano-climbing" business was all about.

This church....super tall..

In case you didn't believe me about the hills and stuff...here they are! Also that is a mega-big Jesus up on that hill, however the stairs to walk up to are so dangerous (because people will rob you) that you mostly admire it from a distance

This view makes the church look way more menacing than it really was

I should not have been sitting up here...

Taylor made it to the top, despite being totally (and reasonably) freaked out about the height, narrowness, and general absurdity of attempting to get to the upper-most part of nearly any church.