Scenic Tours have been kind, and not ‘pushed’ us too much in our first few days of the tour. As we all get acclimatised to the higher altitude, we each have different reactions to the extra couple of thousand feet to what we are used to. However, higher altitude has been promised after we return to the mainland from Galapagos Islands so that will be interesting. ‘Plenty of water’ and ‘take things slowly’ is the key, they say. I’ve never drunk so much water for years and my bladder is telling me so too – I got up 6 times last night to relieve the poor old thing.
Our first appointment after breakfast was to meet our Scenic Tour Director. Her name is Roberto and comes from Brazil but lives in Australia. She comes across to South America 3 or 4 times a year to make sure everything goes well for us and that the tour providers don’t let us down. From reports from a previous Tour Director we had in Africa, she will be excellent. She speaks both fluent Spanish and Portuguese so that makes things lots easier on the group. I tried to prepare myself for this trip by taking up Spanish lessons earlier in the year but found it difficult to hear the lecturer with a strong Mexican accent, and to remember the vocabulary being taught. Age can be blamed on a lot of things in life.
Today, after another great breakfast, we took a walking tour through the ‘old’ Quito. Quito is a very narrow city running 70 km north to south and has a population of about 1.7 million. The Old Town was the first city to be protected as a Cultural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. We stopped at the Cathedral Metropolitana, which overlooks the city. It has been damaged by earthquakes several times and the result, after a series of reconstructions, is a strange mixture of architectural styles. (Some of us are counting the number of churches and cathedrals included in the tour.)
We then had quite a long visit to the Santo Domingo Convent. Santo Domingo church and monastery represent one of the most important religious structures in Quito. Its history is characterized by fortune. It began in 1880 with the arrival of a group of Italian priests who began a modernization process that included aesthetic changes in the temple. They changed the church color, altered the baroque altarpieces and pictorial themes. On the other hand, its neoclassical reforms responded to a new cultural idea brought from Europe. In one room, converted into a place of worship, the dominant colour is red. This is unusual as the dominant colour of the Catholic Church is purple.
From here, we walked through some of the narrow streets of the city and came to a shop where spinning tops are made and sold. We had a demonstration from the maker of these tops that proved of interest to us all. He had made different shaped tops to do different tricks, for what reason, I don’t know.
The public transport system is buses and trolley buses. With such narrow streets, there are no ‘lanes’ even in the one-way streets. During the day, ‘busy traffic” is the word. The side-walks are very difficult to walk along without ‘watching your step’ as they are in real need of repair. Perhaps it’s because of the regular earth rumblings that crack up the surface of the ground and the costs of maintenance would be very high.
Our lunch was a set meal in the elegant Café Plaza Grande next to the main city square and right beside the Presidential Palace. The externals of the old style buildings have been ‘spruced up’ and renovated to accommodate the living style of the ‘now’ population.
After lunch, it was time to take a view of the city from El Panecillo. El Panecillo is a 200 metre high hill. In 1976, the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras was commissioned by the religious order of the Oblates to build a 45-metre-tall stone monument of a madonna which was assembled on a high pedestal on the top of Panecillo. It is made of seven thousand pieces of aluminium, and is said to be the Virgin Mary, but with wings. According to a bronze placard affixed to the monument, the woman represented by the statue is the Woman of the Apocalypse written about in Revelation.
Quito is surrounded by volcanoes and we can see one from our room billowing volcanic ash into the atmosphere. On August 15, President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency over increasing activity in the Cotopaxi volcano nearby and officials evacuated a few hundred people as a precaution. There are very few big cities of the world that can claim a backdrop of an active volcano.
Our day finished with the traditional Scenic welcome dinner where we ate at the elegant La Belle Époque. This overlooks the main city square. A special surprise came during the meal when two famous opera singers sang to us, well known pieces from opera and the stage.
Tomorrow, we have an excursion to the Equator.