South American Adventure

Liability….. Pfffft, this is Ecuador

  • February 28, 2008

At nearly 3000 metres above sea level, flying at close to 180 mph, carrying 300 terrified passengers whom have no idea what is happening as the aircraft decends below mountain peaks and into the cloud cover, and you’ve got to land a plane in the middle of a capital city. Due to the high altitude, you must maintain a higher velocity to keep the plane from ploughing into the buildings a few hundred feet below you. The runway itself has a ‘hump’ in the middle which means that when the wheels hit the runway you are going uphill and when you finally stop you are facing downhill. Although these are all constant, now throw a couple of variables into the equation and you have one of the highest risk airports in the world. Rain, hail and wind all make this a difficult piece of tarmac to land a few 100 tonne aircraft on, but when this is done at night…. it truly becomes exciting, The runway itself doesn’t have sufficient enough drainage so when it is raining, the pilots have to literally slam the aircraft into the runway to break the water tension and stop the aircraft from aqua planning off the runway into the residential and commercial buildings that surround the airport just past the perimiter fences.

Quito Airport, thanks to Airliners.net

After leaving Patagonia, we headed north to Quito, where all aircrafts enroute must land at Guayaquil (the port city of Ecuador). Delayed in Guayaquil, due to bad weather in Quito, we managed to work our way into the VIP lounge with some serious charming and a quick flash of some dimples where we were able to settle back and wait for the weather to clear at our final destination. After 3 long hours and many rumours that we were not going to be able to fly into Quito, the captain finally gave way and made an anouncement for all passengers to board as there was a brief break in the bad weather. All passengers quickly scurried aboard and as we were attempting to put baggage in the appropriate areas we were been pushed back, this was certainaly going to be a fun trip. 35 minutes later with only a faint orange glow of lights through thick cloud cover the plane slammed into a wet runway where many colourful words echoed through the cabin. We had arrived.

In all fairness, the pilots that fly in and out of Quito airport have many additional qualifications that they must have before even attempting a landing. However, in seats on a aircraft where the most control you have is the ability to put your tray table up or down, this is not a calming thought.

We left the airport, thankful to have our feet back on terrafirma, even if it was only for a week. We were ushered into a van with many other travellers where the driver delivered us to our various accomodations. Our home was to be a dark and dank room in the Secret Garden Hostel. At about 3am we came to the conclusion that this was not going to be a stay at the hilton, but for the price we would bare it….. bad move as Jayde’s cough was slowly getting worse and lack of sleep and a damp room does nothing for recovery.

Our first day in Quito, it became apparent that as sea level dwellers this was going to be some serious work, breathing became difficult and the feeling of nausea always seemed just around the corner. At breakfast we were informed that Quito has a increasing crime rate and more often than not, the target were western tourists. Given our past history, we thought it safe to air on the side of caution and play it safe with a trip to the Quito turkish baths. Within two minutes of leaving the hostel, we had yet again found ourselfs in a dodgy part of Quito. With the lingering tales from the hostel that corruption was everywhere including the police, we hastily made our way back down to the main street where we were able to take stock of our situation and attempt to orient the map from the lonely planet (our fist mistake). As quickly as we had gotten lost, we relised that who ever had drawn the map of Quito old town had never actually been here, the lonely planet was filed as a last resort paper weight. Finally we managed to find the turkish baths after walking past it three times (shops are not marked in the old town and the model plane collection in the entryway was by no means a give away), we were disappointed not to find turkish men and women in beige underwear ready to scrub our filthy backpacker bodies down with a brush. Making the most of the swimming pool, suana and spa, we kicked our shoes off and allowed our bodies to finally relax.

Day 2 found us looking for a quick way out of the town, and we found the perfect excuse, a trip to the Saturday Otavalo markets. These markets are held every Saturday and turn a sleeping town into a major market central where it is near impossible to navigate the streets in the fear of stepping on a young child or a pig. We found the Land Terrestre (Land Terminal, or bus terminal) where we proceeded to ask for our tickets not fully knowing where we were going to end up (this was an adventure after all). As we boarded the bus the driver gently navigated us to a chair the was nearly on his lap, telling us in some complex spanish (which we failed to understand, but could comfortably guess by the frantic gestures) to hang onto our bags and keep them on our laps for the duration of the trip (apparently bag snatching is not limited to tourist areas in Ecuador). 2 hours into the journey and still gripping our bags so that our knuckles were going white, the bus was boarded by a police officer, who proceeded to advise the bus that this was an identity and passport checkpoint (but we were still a few hundred miles inside the Ecuadorian border). We advised the the police officer that our passports where safely inside the hostel safe and that we did not have a copy. Half expecting to be turned around the police man proceeded to shake his head and walk past us. We were on our way.

Just before closing time..... It is nice not to have crowds sometimes

Arriving at the Otavalo bus station we navigated our way through the mass amounts of stalls and lost ourselves in the oozing culture of this town. Pigs walked the streets and the local dressed in traditional Ecuadorian dress as alpaca wool filled the stalls in various knit works such as socks, hats, gloves, ponchos, scarves, blankets, jumpers, cardigans, booties, ugg boots, jester hats, underwear, singlets, vests….. i think you get the general idea. After 4 hours of navigating the fabulous colours and people of the markets, we finally relented and purchased a couple of pairs of alpaca socks with llamas on them, and yes they are fantastic.

We left Otavalo unbeknown to us a passport check into Otavalo means a passport check out, this time, the police woman, didn’t think we were loco, and was incredibly serious, however, was distracted by a young boy peeing on the police box next to the bus and the bus driver quickly left the checkpoint whilst the police woman lectured the small boy.

After many days and hearing many stories of the fantastic churches of old town, we finally relented and went to church.

Basicalla del Voto Nacional

Our first stop was to be the Gothic which stands tall in the northeastern part of the old town. Built several decades ago (1926), the whole structure is open to the public (a small ‘donation’ to the church for certain areas). The money for the access that the basicalla receives is apparently not utilised to make it safe for the tourists that clammer the towers. To reach the first tower that you can climb, you must walk across a seemingly stable wooden walkway.

Seemingly safe walkway.... Now Nsthan load tested

‘Seemingly’ is the word that is most important in that last sentance, as I stepped onto this 50 metre walkway that spans the length of the basicalla inside the main roof which is 15 metres above the ground level, the creaking planks protested my weight and loud cracks could be heard throughout the basicalla. I took small step after small step and finally made it to the stone on the far end not thinking about the fact that I would have to go back the same way. Thinking that that was the worst of it was quite optimistic, as we rounded the tower on the other side, we looked up with rising anxiety as we relised that the stairs to the viewing platform were metal stairs that wobbled precariously with each step.

One slip and it is a long way down!

This was going to be a one person at a time exercise. The view from the first platform was nothing short of rewarding, however, it was quickly becoming obvious that great views must be work for here, the same as in Patagonia. Back across the walkway, heart pounding we preceeded to climb up the second viewing tower that would take us up to the full 35 meter height of the Basicalla. Our expectations of working for this view were not disappointed, with the ladders that were simply welded with a single spot weld and the slow was simple chicken mesh to stop you falling to the level below. Gracelfully straddling the steel cross beams, Jayde managed to make it to the top where she managed to get some great photos.

Rewarding view from the top...

After a brief stop in the coffee shop at the bottom of the tower, we walked back into the main part of old town where we walked from church to church admiring the individuality and uniqueness of each church. From here we finally managed to catch a cab (the majority of taxi’s in Quito, see tourists as walking ATM’s and use them as such, very few use their meters even though they are supposed to) up to the Virgen De Quito, where it is strongly advised to catch a cab as many tourists get mugged who opt to walk up there.

You can see the Basicalla in the background A larger than life Virgen De Quito

The view at the top was spectacular, however the cab driver decided that he didn’t want to wait and we were stranded. Fortune was on our side and we ran into a nice british couple who were staying at the same hostel as us and we left the Virgen De Quito it was clear that there was electricity in the air as sheet lightning streak across the sky in the distance. As we settled back at our hostel, which had a great view of the Virgen De Quito, I managed to snap a great shot of a lightning strike of the Virgen which the manager of the Secret Garden said that he wanted to put that on the wall in the hostel.

Lightning strike on the Virgen De Quito

After a good night sleep, the next day found us heading off to the middle of the world. Originally the French made a bit of a blunder and declared the equator some 200 metres off the real line, however with the help of GPS, we went to the real middle of the world.

The REAL equator :) we even did experiments to prove it

When we go back to Quito we continued walking through the old town looking at more churches and the Monasterio de Carmen Alto. The monastry is a fully functioning convent where nuns make various natural product including chocolate, shampoo and creams. Tours were run by school girls whom are currently studing tourism at school and have to do 185 hours of work that places them in front of tourists. Speaking only spanish, the 16 year old girl proceeded to guide us through the various back areas of the convent and out to the bell tower which towers high above the streets of old town. Again, with no safety barriers in place, the young girl in high heels and two Australians perched on top of a monastery there was excitement in the air.

Safety seems to be over rated in Quito

As we clamoured back down from the roof, Jayde felt that this trip could be a bit more exciting by slipping on the moss on the roof and missing a few steps, and giving the guide a heart attack in the process. It was time to get ready for our trip to the Galapogas Islands.