Quito: Alpine to Tropics

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS EVERY GUIDEBOOK WARNS YOU ABOUT IN QUITO IS THE ALTITUDE. At 2850m (9350 ft) it is the second highest capital city in the world, and I expected to feel a little breathless here. To my pleasant surprise I have never noticed the thin air. Given the altitude, you might expect it to be cold, but the city is only 23km south of the equator. The combination of altitude and latitude make for a very comfortable climate – shirtsleeve weather during the day, and maybe a light jacket at night.

Quito is tucked in a valley between two parallel mountain ranges, the Coridillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental, which run north-south and effectively divide the country in two. The German Explorer Alexander von Humboldt coined the phrase "Avenue of the Volcanoes" to describe this section of the Andes, and it's a fitting description. The range is dotted with numerous spectacular volcanoes, including such famous peaks as Cayambe (5790m), Cotopaxi (5897m), and Chimborazo (6310m) - the highest volcano in the world. Quito itself sits directly in the shadow of Volcán Pinchincha (4794m), which has been active in recent years. In fact, just a couple of days after I arrive Volcán Tungurahua (5016m) erupts, spewing blankets of ash over much of the central highlands and causing the evacuation of thousands from their homes. Volcanoes are a way of life in Ecuador, and most people seem used to the occasional eruption.

Cotopaxi Volcano (5897m/19,350 ft.) rising above Quito.

I decide to get a different perspective on the city and visit the Teleférico, a gondola-style ski lift that whisks you up the side of Volcán Pichincha to an altitude of 4100m (13,400 ft.) where you can look down on the city. In addition to the requisite tourist shops and restaurants there are hiking trails to some spectacular viewpoints, and it's a great place to see the surrounding mountains. To my amazement I still don't feel the effects of altitude, though in fairness I have been living at 2800m for about ten days, so maybe I am already well adjusted to the thin air. For those that find the atmosphere a bit thin for their liking, an oxygen bar is conveniently located in the visitors center, complete with a selection of fragrant aromas to choose from.

Unfortunately, the day I visit turns out to be quite rainy and I spend several hours in a coffee shop trying to convince myself that I am enjoying machine-brewed Nescafé while writing in my journal. About an hour before sunset the clouds finally move aside long enough to get a beautiful view of the city as well as the evening light on Volcán Cotopaxi in the distance.

Quito has a great public transportation system. Two parallel transit lines, called the Trole and the Ecovia, run north-south through much of the city. Although the vehicles are basically large, articulated buses, they operate more like a light rail rapid transit system. To board either one you enter an elevated indoor station along the street, paying as you enter the station. Each bus has multiple sets of doors, like a subway, and the elevated stations insure that the doors of the bus are exactly level with the floor of the station, just like a train platform. When a bus arrives you step on or off just like a train, with the bus remaining at the station for only 15-20 seconds. During the week I find that I typically wait less than five minutes for a bus to arrive. Both the Trole and the Ecovia have dedicated lanes that are not available to other vehicles - in fact, in most places there is a physical barrier separating them - insuring that they can zip past most traffic without stopping. And at 25 cents per trip it's tough to beat the price.

The Ecovia has stations like a light rail system.

Exploring the city is a contrast of old and new. The southern part of the city, the Old Town, showcases the Spanish colonial history of Quito. Narrow, cobbled streets and wide plazas are lined with colonial-style architecture and tiled rooftops. The area is home to many beautiful churches and important government buildings such as the Presidential Palace. You would be forgiven if you momentarily forgot that you were in South America instead of Europe.

A typical street in Old Town Quito.

A short ride to the north on the Ecovia takes you to New Town, a bright, modern area of glass office towers and shopping malls with broad, tree-lined boulevards, department stores, restaurants, and internet cafés. One area in particular, the Mariscal Sucre, is known locally as gringolandia, owing to the fact that there are probably more tourists there than there are Quiteños. It's a good place to connect with other travelers or to book a trip to the Galapagos, but it's the worst place to visit if you want to get to know the real Quito because almost everyone you meet is from somewhere else.

I did find  a good coffee shop, but it's right in the middle of the Mariscal. I guess I won't be able to avoid the area entirely!