Quito, Ecuador

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A bewildering succession of five presidents occupied Ecuador's Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) in Quito from 1997 to 2000. It was during this turbulent spell that El Niño devastated the country, the nation's largest bank collapsed, the government defaulted on its international loans, and the devaluation of the country's currency was the worst of all Latin America. Visitors from around the world found prices to be insanely, even criminally, cheap. In 2000, current President Gustavo Noboa stabilized the economy by making the U.S. dollar the only legal tender. Prices have risen a little since, but still, Ecuador remains one of the cheapest places on earth. Quito, Ecuador's capital and South America's loveliest city, lies just 14 miles south of the equator, but its pretty perch at 9,300 feet in the Andes ensures a refreshingly springlike climate for its 1.5 million inhabitants. Visitors enjoy the mild climate, too, and once in Quito, they realize the city is a superb base for day forays or weekend jaunts. (Why keep packing and unpacking your bags in a new hotel room every night?) They find a budget room and use the absurdly cheap public transportation system to visit Indian villages, crafts markets, Andean cloud forests, and hot springs, all within one to two hours by bus. Or from here, they easily book the best budget cruises to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands (see Budget Travel, Nov/Dec 2000).

Quito's historic center is a justly proud, church-filled, red-tiled, cobblestone, UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, set beneath the volcano of Pichincha (15,729 feet). The colonial gems of the Old Town anchor the new-a glistening tumult of white skyscrapers and green parks stretching to the north, where most of the city's best hotels, restaurants, cyber-cafes, nightclubs, museums and residential areas are found. The recent debut of an efficient trolley system allows quick, easy, and cheap movement from the historic center to the newer district.

Must-sees for little money

Strolling through old Quito's beautiful buildings and stunning churches is a must, and it costs little to view the quarter from a hilltop or church tower. To preserve the colonial feel, billboards and street signs are banned, and on Sundays so is vehicular traffic (visit then to experience a veritable step back through time). And of course, a short bus ride north to the ecuador (equator) itself is mandatory - where else can you comfortably have a foot in each hemisphere?

The Quitu people lived in Quito almost a millennium ago, but the Incas were in control when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1526; the Inca general Rumi¤ahui, rather than submit, razed the town, which explains the lack of pre-Columbian sites. The next best thing is at the Museo del Banco Central, housed in an unmistakable mirrored circular building at the corner of Avenidas Patria and 12 de Octubre near the south end of the new town. Here, $2 gains admission to Quito's archeology showcase, where stone fetishes, gold masks, obsidian mirrors, turquoise ear plugs, explicitly erotic pots, beautifully deformed skulls, huddled mummies, and scary surgical instruments are splendidly displayed. And go upstairs for a look at Ecuadorian art from colonial to modern. Arrive at 11 a.m. when an English-speaking attendant will show you around for free.

For best city views, most guides tout colonial Quito's Panecillo ("little bread loaf") hill, topped with a huge statue of a uniquely winged Virgin Mary. You can do better. From the Museo Nacional, grab a $1.50 cab to the Basilica, begun in 1926 and still not quite finished. No matter; adventurous souls pay $2 to climb up its three soaring towers. An elevator makes it halfway, and the route continues up ever-narrowing stairs, finally emerging at the church bell.

Beyond, a series of steep, slender metal ladders, protectively labeled with the word cuidado (careful!) and a picture of a figure falling, leads the visitor higher still, emerging at the very apex of the highest clock tower. Here, paneless windows allow access onto tiny outside ledges, 328 breathtaking feet above the street below. Hold tight! The view of the old town to the southwest and modern Quito to the north beats any to be had in the city. And you'll most likely have it all to yourself.

Once back to the relative safety of the cobbled streets, descend eight blocks southwest along Calle Venezuela into the Plaza de la Independencia, the heart of the colonial city. Two Nutcracker-like presidential guards prevent visitors from entering the Palacio de Gobierno, but underneath, a basement vault contains, of all things, an old-fashioned barber shop providing the public with $2 trims inside the country's seat of government!

Within four blocks of here are seven colonial churches; Quito must have been a supremely religious capital in early days. Most churches charge $1 admission and all are worth a look; make sure to see La Compa¤¡a, which Quite¤os (locals) consider their most ornate church, where a reputed seven tons of gold was used to gild just about every available surface.

To head back to the new town, hop on an electric trole which for 20: whisks you north along Avenida 10 de Agosto. Modern Quito has a thriving sub-culture of cybernauts who crowd dozens of cafés to surf the Web for just $1 an hour, drink coffee, and swap stories. With tropical names like Papaya Net, these places are a dime a dozen along Calam and nearby streets, an area so jammed with popular cheap hotels, restaurants, and foreigner-aimed travel agencies that it's been dubbed gringolandia by the locals, although the real name is the Mariscal Sucre district.

High-altitude hotels, low rates Arriving at 9,300 feet, visitors feel tired, so a good hotel is essential while acclimatizing. The Mariscal Sucre district has over 20 hostelries crammed into a few blocks.

Mariscal Sucre has experienced a rash of muggings recently. Although policing has improved (private security guards have been hired to increase safety), most residents suggest using a taxi at night. Nevertheless, many budget travelers stay here, as do business people residing in high-rise hotels on the edges of the area - perhaps these folks are the ones whom thieves are fishing for.

Recommended places in Mariscal Sucre include the funky Albergue El Taxo (Calle Foch 909, 2225-593, hostaleltaxo.com) with artwork galore and comfortable old couches in the public areas. Dorms are just $5 per bed, and private rooms (shared baths) are $8 per person, most of whom are young international backpackers. Spartan but spotless, the nearby wood-floored Crossroads Cafe & Hostal (Calle Foch 678, 2234-735, crossroadshostal.com) is popular with river-rafting groups and backpackers. Rates are $6 in dorms, $10 and $15.50 for singles and doubles with shared bath, $13.50 and $22.50 with private bath. The café is inexpensive; or rustle up your own vittles in the guest kitchen. Another fave for budget travelers of all ages is Posada del Maple (Calle Rodr¡guez 241, 2544-507, posadadelmaple.com) with dorm beds at $7.25. Rooms with shared bath are $13.50 for a single and $22.50 for a double; a private bath will cost $15.50 to $20 for singles and $25 to $29 for doubles. Buffet breakfast is included, and rates are seriously discounted in the low season. Plus: A guest kitchen provides free tea and coffee, a rooftop terrace invites relaxation, and a cybercafé is next door.

To escape gringolandia, I recommend the residential La Floresta district, a 15-minute walk south. Several bus lines connect La Floresta with both the old and the new towns, and a cab will be under $2. Cheap, friendly, and funky, La Casona de Mario (Calle Andaluc¡a 213, 2544-036, lacasona@punto.net.ec) charges $6 per person in private rooms with shared baths in a rambling older house. The mainly young guests enjoy kitchen and laundry privileges, and crowd into the TV lounge or the garden. Nearby, the very secure El Ciprés (Calle Lérida 381, 2549-558, turisaven.com) has friendly owners who'll pick you up at the airport and who run an on-premises travel agency-facilities which make Ciprés popular with budget travelers of all ages. Rates range from $6 in dorms to $12 to $14 for singles and $16 to $18 for doubles with private baths and TV. Continental breakfast in the skylit dining room is included, and guests use the Internet for free. Best features are the fireplace (surrounded by Indian masks) for cold evenings and the hammock on the lawn for sunny days.

The colonial old town has dozens of ultracheap dives, most with nothing to recommend them beyond their cheapness. A notable exception is Hotel San Francisco de Quito (Calle Sucre 217, 2287-758, hsfquito@andinanet.net), a renovated colonial building two blocks from Plaza de la Independencia. Rates are $12 single and $20 double in clean rooms with small but functional private baths (all Quito's budget hotels tend to skimp on bathroom space) and a TV. Breakfast is included.

Upscale budget lodging

A step up is the well-placed 52-room Hostal Plaza Internacional (Plaza Leonidas 150, 2505-075,hostalplaza.com), just two blocks from the U.S. Embassy or the Museo del Banco Central and a few blocks out of the Mariscal Sucre. Rooms are cozy but clean, with TV, phone, and private bath; the staff (some English-speaking) is helpful, and there's a restaurant. What more could you want for $26 single/$36 double? A similarly good-value choice ($26 single, $36 double) is the intimate, family-run Hostal Charles Darwin (Calle La Colina 304, 2234-323, ecuanex. net.ec/hostal_darwin), with an inviting garden. It's on a quiet side street in the aptly named La Paz ("Peace") district, a few minutes east of Mariscal Sucre.

Quito cuisine

Coffee and people-watching come first. Café Amazonas, at the corner of Avenidas Amazonas and Roca in Mariscal Sucre, is one of several sidewalk cafes on Amazonas. It's always full during daylight hours, with regulars holding court and visitors writing postcards. A coffee buys you the right to sit for hours.

And then, your meals. For tasty low-cost lunches ask for an almuerzo or men£ - the weekday set lunch ordered by local office-workers (almost every establishment offers one); ordering & la carte costs twice as much. Because the high altitude slows the digestive system, Quite¤os eat a large lunch but a small supper. A typical inexpensive set lunch of a vegetable soup, light main course served with rice, and a juice or fruit dessert, costs $1 to $3, depending on how classy the place is.

Sightseers in the old town find few culinary delights, and most head back to the new town for decent dining. My advice: the time-tested "eat where the locals eat." One locally popular place is Chifa El Chino (Calle Bol¡var between Venezuela and Guayaquil) with almuerzos for just over $1. Chifa means a Chinese restaurant, and though you'll find the usual cheap - and - filling heaps of noodles and rice, you can also ask for a local churrasco, a slice of grilled beef with an egg, french fries, beets, and rice - you won't leave hungry.

In the Mariscal Sucre district, I like La Casa de las Menestras (Calle Lizardo Garc¡a 356), where $1.50 buys a meal in pleasantly bohemian surroundings with few tourists. (In fact, anything with menestra - bean stew - in its name is probably going to be cheap.) More upscale is French-run El Para¡so Perdido (Calle Baqueadano 409, 2506-630), also in Mariscal Sucre, where the recommended men£ ejecutivo sets you back $2.50.

For all the classic Ecuadorian dishes, but at a low, low price, the place to go for decades has been Mam Clorinda (Calle Reina Victoria 1144), in Mariscal Sucre, popular with gringos and locals alike. Seco de chivo (goat stew) or llapingachos (fried mashed-potato pancakes) are my favorites, but less-adventurous chicken, beef, and fish dishes are also available. Big lunches or early dinners (it closes by 8 p.m.) are $4 to $6.

Vegetarians favor Windmill (Calle Col¢n 2245), less than a mile west of Mariscal Sucre and adjoining a health-food store. At the south end of Mariscal Sucre, Super Pap (Calle Juan Le¢n Mera 741) celebrates that most Andean of vegetables, the potato. You can have a baked spud stuffed with anything from chili to chicken-filling, delicious, and never more than $2.75, depending on the stuffing. Both open for lunch and dinner.

Quitting Quito Any pink-striped bus marked "Mitad del Mundo" traveling north on Avenida América, on the city's west side, will reach the equator for 35:. In 1736, Charles-Marie de La Condamine's French/Spanish/Ecuadorian expedition made measurements here that gave rise to the modern metric system. (It's exactly 10,000 kilometers - 6,700 miles - from the equator to either pole.) A 98-foot-high monument marks the spot; admission is 50: or another $3 if you wish to ascend the monument and inspect the ethnographic exhibit of regional tribal groups. In my mind, the 35: bus ride is more fun than the museum, but the equator is the equator - don't miss it.

Markets, volcanos, and hot springs

Few things beat an Andean market for sheer color, with thousands of Indians bartering in murmurs and gentle gesticulations - yelling is out of order! Thursday is market day in the village of Saquisil¡, where half a dozen plazas are packed with produce. My favorite is the animal market, with strings of piglets topping the bill. Feeling dry? How about a basket of 50 small tangerines for the ubiquitous dolarcito ($1). Or 10: for a greasily yummy llapingacho hot off the griddle. Reach Saquisil¡ by a two-hour dawn bus ride from Quito's terminal terrestre to Latacunga ($1.40), and transfer to a local bus (25:). That fabulous snowcapped volcano looming over the route? It's Cotopaxi (19,348 feet), Ecuador's second-highest peak and the world's second highest active volcano. (Several other glaciated peaks are seen on the ride as well.) And if dawn bus rides aren't your thing, Latacunga has a dozen hotels well under $10.

Papallacta, two hours east by bus, is the country's hot-springs capital. From Quito's terminal, take any bus ($2) to Lago Agrio, Tena, or Baeza and get off at the sign for Termas de Papallacta (2557-850, papallacta.com.ec). A gravel road leads a mile uphill to this comfortable resort in the high Andes. On a good day, Antisana (18,892 feet), one of Ecuador's remotest, mist-shrouded peaks, puts in a stunning appearance. Pay $3 for an all-day pass to the superclean hot-springs complex with glacial river-water plunge baths, steaming waterfalls, and half a dozen other pools. Or stay in the basic Hostal Antisana (6320-626) immediately outside the resort, where beds are $7 and meals are available.

Birding - and then Otavalo Between coast, Andes and rain forest, tiny Ecuador has more ecosystems and wildlife than do most of the world's countries. Birdwatchers are enthralled by over 1,500 species (twice that of the U.S.), including 120 species of hummingbirds. An excellent place to see them is Mindo, a sub-tropical cloud forest village two hours below Quito on the western slopes of the Andes, an area identified by the Nature Conservancy as one of the planet's ten most diverse bioregions. Birders will spend a night because the best animal activity is in the few hours after dawn or before dusk. Stay at the seven-room Caba¤as Armon¡a (2765-471, mindo_mundo@hotmail.com), where rooms with shared baths are $6 per person, or $12 in cabins with private baths, including breakfast. Two of the owners, Efra¡n Toapanta and Hugolino O¤ate, are trained local guides and arrange (multilingual) guiding for $12 per day for small groups (fortunately, even the Spanish-speaking guides know the birds' names in English).

Your trip is over, bar the final shopping spree. The Otavale¤o Indians have that covered. The men's signature calf-length white trousers and black ponytail, and the women's embroidered white blouses and golden, blown-glass bead necklaces, are recognized the world over. The crafts market here is the most successful on the continent. It's a two-hour ($1.60) ride from Quito, but many visitors elect to stay overnight in one of dozens of lodgings. Recommended are the quiet, family-run Residencial El Roc¡o (Calle Morales 11-70, 6920-584), where rooms are $3 per person with shared hot baths, the century-old Riviera Sucre (Calle Garc¡a Moreno 3-80, 6920-241), with a flower-filled courtyard surrounded by units with shared and private bath at $5.60 and $9 per person, or the Indian-run Hotel El Indio (Calle Sucre 12-14, 6920-060), with modern rooms at $10 per person and one of Otavalo's most authentic restaurants.

Saturday is Otavalo's main market day, when streets around Poncho Plaza are clogged. Check out the food and animal markets as well, and wander down to the main plaza dominated by a huge bust of Rumi¤ahui (the Inca general who razed Quito). The proud Otavale¤os were horrified by a recent suggestion that he be replaced by Simon Bolivar!

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