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Discover Colonial Quito’s Charm

Article Summary:

Colonial Quito, Ecuador is splendor on a budget, and some Americans don’t leave.

Photo Credit: Brian Hampson

Original Article Text From Chicago Tribune:

Colonial Ecuador

With its sometimes stunningly low cost of living for expatriates, Ecuador has long welcomed U.S. retirees, but it’s also worthy of a trip for vacationers thanks to its divergent geography and a colonial past that survives in magnificent churches and quaint cobbled streets.

Whether scouting Ecuador for retirement or knocking an exotic destination off your bucket list, here are three visiting options.

Quito: This is the world’s highest national capital, at an elevation of 9,350 feet, and it has one of the best preserved colonial centers in the Americas, brimming with art and culture, fine dining and night life. About 2.5 million people live in the high plateau ringed by five volcanoes, including the active Pichincha.

You can appreciate the Andes here with a trip via cable car up Pichincha to 13,287 feet. There are trails for hikers and bicyclists who don’t want to take the easy way down in the cable car. Another geographic marker that calls out for a visit is the Mitad del Mundo, the place just outside Quito with a monument and painted line marking the path of the equator as determined by French scientists in 1736. But about a dozen years ago, it was discovered via GPS that the marker was off. The real line is about 600 feet away. There, tourists can visit the Intinan Museo Solar, where guides demonstrate experiments such as water spinning clockwise versus counterclockwise and the balancing of an egg on a nailhead.

Spend a day or two in the colonial center, wandering the streets and checking out the abundance of churches, such as the San Francisco church complex, dating from the 1500s. Don’t miss La Ronda Street, lined with pastel-colored colonial buildings housing shops and restaurants.

Day trips from Quito are plentiful, but my favorite was a visit to Otavalo, sometimes billed as the largest indigenous market in the Americas. I don’t know for sure about that claim, but it’s certainly a spot for fine local handicrafts at bargain prices. Bargaining is expected, but with the prices here, you don’t have to work very hard.

Cuenca: In the southern highlands, Cuenca, a town of about 400,000, is a favorite with U.S. retirees. A big draw is the weather. With an elevation of about 8,000 feet so close to the equator, the city enjoys year-round springlike temperatures in the high 60s or low 70s.

Cuenca is a university town with a well-preserved historical center that makes it feel like a smaller city. It seems that nearly everyone spends time walking or sitting in one of the central squares, whether it’s old men reading newspapers or indigenous women wearing bright skirts and Panama hats.

And about those Panama hats: They’re from Ecuador. The hats first became popular outside Ecuador in the early 20th century. Ecuadorean hat-makers shipped them around the world via Panama City, and the hats arrived in large crates marked Panama. The name stuck.

If you visit Cuenca, you can tour the Homero Ortega hat factory and museum to learn the history. It’s not a bad place to buy a hat, though you can get cheaper ones in souvenir shops. Prices range from about $20 to as much as $2,000 for the finest quality hats. You would pay double or triple that outside of Ecuador.

Visitors can get a feel for the dollar-stretching that is part of Cuenca’s draw. And it is the U.S. dollar that’s being stretched. It’s the official Ecuadorean currency. In Cuenca, you can take the local bus around town for 25 cents, buy a gallon of gas for about $2 and a dozen roses for $3.

Tren Crucero: The Galapagos Islands are to Ecuador what Machu Picchu is to Peru: a wonder of the world and tourist magnet. Many tourists come and see very little else of Ecuador before or after. But a new rail venture from the government-run Tren Ecuador could change that.

As of Tuesday, Tren Ecuador is offering an introductory price for a four-day, three-night luxury train excursion from Quito to Guayaquil (and reverse) that gives you a chance to see the cities and the countryside aboard a renovated vintage train. For departures this year, the all-inclusive Tren Crucero journey costs $990. That includes meals, three nights’ lodging in haciendas and stops along the way at rose and cocoa plantations, visits to indigenous markets and a meeting with Amazonian tribesmen. It’s a bargain price because it includes not only meals and lodging but also transportation and activities.

The coaches are luxurious; two have assigned seating with tables arranged in front of wide windows for optimal viewing. Another car houses a bar, where you can order cappuccinos, beer or something stronger. The last car has an open-air viewing area great for taking photos.

Over the course of the trip, riders are treated to mountain highlands, cloud forests and high grassland terrain before moving into the tropical areas of the coast. At each spot, you pass through small cities and tiny villages, where waving children are happy to watch the train go by.

You leave the train each day for excursions and elaborate lunches and for dinners and overnight stays in three haciendas. The overnight accommodations are uneven, but each place has a highlight that makes the stay worthwhile.

On the last day of the excursion, a band is brought aboard for a final fiesta as the train makes its way to Guayaquil, the end of the train journey and the major starting point for most trips to the Galapagos. But that’s another story.

Link to Original Article:

From Chicago Tribune

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