Sitting on the Equator in the highest capital of the world: Quito, Ecuador

View overlooking the City of Quito frm “El Panecillo”

Hello from Quito, Ecuador, the center of the world! Saturday, we woke up and had our first full day of activities in Quito. Here are a few facts about the city, taken from both Wikipedia and from our great local tour guide yesterday:

  • San Francisco de Quito is the formal name for the capital city of Quito, Ecuador. It was named for the Franciscan order, who were the first of the Spanish conquistadores to invade the city.
  • The city sits in the foothills of the Andes mountains at an elevation of 2,850 metres (9,350 ft) above sea level. For reference, our elevation in Columbus, Ohio is 902 feet above sea level, so this is quite the jump!
  • Quito is the highest official capital city in the world and also the closest to the equator.
  • It is located in a river basin, on the slopes of Pichincha, an active volcano in the Andes mountains. (Side note: today one of our teachers told us that indigenous Andean people are the only ones who live and sleep in peace, even surrounded by volcanoes, because the concept of death is so devoid of fear and so linked to a return to the land).
  • Pinchicha is also the name of this province (like a district or state) of Ecuador.
  • Quito’s most recent population, according to the 2014 census, was 2,671,191. Quito is the second most populous city in Ecuador, after Guayaquil, an important port city that serves as the gateway to many of the country’s beaches and the Galápagos Islands.
  • In 2008, the city was designated as the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations.

We were up and touring by 9 AM and went full steam til about 6:30 PM, visiting El Panecillo, a hilltop overview of the city with a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, a local Cacao factory and traditional toy shop, a Baroque cathedral and Gothic Basilica, and the home and museum of a modern indigenous impressionistic artist, Oswaldo Guayasmín.

Here are some of the pictures of our day touring around Colonial Quito:

La Virgen de Panecillo overlooking the city of Quito.
View from the top of El Panecillo.

This Chocolate was to die for. Did you know that while Ecuador produces only about 5% of the world’s chocolate, it is often considered home of one of the best, if not THE best chocolate in the world? World-famous chocolatiers, such as Lindt, have come to learn more about the Ecuadorian cacao bean and how it is processed here.

After sampling some of the best chocolate of my life and sharing the strongest, darkest mocha I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting, we moved down the cute little street to a toy shop to see how trompos, or traditional spinning tops, are made:

Some of the games that children play with these trompos to this day trace their roots back all the way to 1,000 BCE!

The Baroque cathedral that we visited wasn’t my style per se, but was definitely impressive. The entire choir loft and sanctuary were covered in gold leaf and the interior haciendas with beautifully kept gardens were lovely:

After lunch, we went to a beautiful Gothic Basilica (much more to my liking), which is still under construction. We were able to go up the bell tower which involved scaling some rickety, steep ladders:

Just hiking through the rafters of the cathedral to get up one of the towers!
View from the top of one of the Cathedral Towers. (El Panecillo — the city overlook with the statue of the Virgin Mary we visited that morning — is on the hill in the center in the distance):

We finished off the day by visiting the home and exposition of an Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasmín:

His work was heavily inspired by some of his compatriots of the time, including Pablo Picasso and Pablo Neruda. I would describe many of this paintings as a mix of cubism and impressionism:

He documented the plight of the many indigenous people who suffered under cruel dictators around the world, particularly throughout Latin America, and also completed a series focused on the love between mother and child, as his mother was the one who inspired him to become an artist.

Day 2, Sunday, in Quito was equally fantastic. We woke up and got started by 9 again, going to latitude 00.00'.00" to stand in two hemispheres at the same time:

The Museum of Intiñan was a really cool little place to learn more about the daily life of indigenous Andean people historically (and sometimes still in modern times). There were re-created homes with material artifacts such as musical instruments, cooking implements, weaving looms and more, which helped to paint a picture of what every day life may have looked and felt like for a typical Andean family with 6–8 children. It reminded me a bit of visiting historic villages like Colonial Williamsburg in the states. Fun fact: indigenous families often all slept in the same bed together; when someone asked about how intercourse worked in that situation, our guide told us that there is a belief that relations that occur in the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) result in more pleasure and fertility, so these things were done outdoors! We also saw a real shrunken head and learned a bit more about this ritual (more below).

Two things that stood out to me at this museum were the burial rituals and the ritual of creating shrunken heads.

Apparently, in Incan culture, important people were buried with all of their servants, still alive, and all of their belongings. The more important you were, the more people were buried with you and the more material objects were added to the tomb. People were buried in the fetal position (see below, left) inside of large pottery jars or pots, because they have the same shape as that of of a pregnant woman; this seems to be a metaphor for the cycle of life. It was considered an honor for the servants to be buried with their masters, and the servants were given a hallucinogenic beverage made from yellow cactus (called peyote in Mexico), for up to a week prior to the burial. There was a belief that the master and servants would be reborn together and this was a desired outcome.

Now, I’m absolutely sure that this is a simplistic explanation that grossly over-generalizes the belief structures and cultural practices at play, so please forgive my attempts at translating the details from Spanish.

The shrunken head ritual (above, right) was equally fascinating. One tribe from the Amazon was known for practicing this way of creating a war trophy out of the chief or shaman (the most knowledgeable or skilled individual) of the defeated tribe. The idea was that you could absorb the knowledge, skills, and humanity of this knowledgeable individual and, in so doing, become more human yourself. It is unknown how exactly the shrunken heads were made, apart from the fact that the bones were removed, some kind of preservation process happened, and the mouth and eyes were sealed closed to prevent the spirit from escaping to seek revenge. These days, it’s very difficult and generally frowned upon to obtain or display a shrunken head, as they are often represent an oversimplified tokenization of what was, in reality, likely a complex and meaningful cultural practice.

The last thing that was super fun at this museum was playing around with things like water patterns and the ability to balance an egg on its end with one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and the other in the Northern. I remember we were challenged to try balancing an egg on one end on an equinox in 8th grade science class, and, try as I might, I could not get it to work, but I totally did it yesterday, and got a certificate to prove it:

Also, I finally got a definitive answer to the question: “Does water really flush in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere?” Answer: no, because toilets are mechanistic and the flow of water is forced. However, that said, it is totally true that water flows in opposite directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in naturally occurring situations such as cyclones or even when you dump a bucket of water down a sink (which we did, on each side of the equator!)

After a visit to the museum we hopped in our little “buseta” and started the trek to Otavalo, where we will be staying for 8 days and studying (Ecuadorian) Quichua (AKA “Kichwa,” not to be confused with Quechua, which we’ll be learning in Peru…something I just realized yesterday. Yep, I will be learning TWO indigenous languages on this trip — wow!). Along the way we stopped at a beautiful little lake to have a late lunch in a restaurant that was packed for Father’s Day, and we even got to take an unexpected boat ride (in the rain, hence the red fleece ponchos):

Once we checked into our hotel for the next 8 days or so in Otavalo, we went to the Centro Yawar Wawki Yarina y Vieja Fábrica de Cobijas, which is an old textile factory which sat empty for a long time after closing in the 1960s. Just recently, in the past several years, it has been taken back by the indigenous ex-factory workers who labored there under harsh working conditions and and they have re-opened it as a living museum (museo viviente) and cultural center for the arts, promoting and maintaining traditional Andean music, weaving, offering quichua (aka kichwa) language lessons and serving the community at large, transmitting their oral histories to the next generation.

Our welcome was called a “peña” and it was an intimate gathering just for our group and a few locals, filled with beautiful, original Andean musical pieces. The main ensemble that performed for us was a world-renowed group called Yarina (who you can look up on YouTube!) Yarina is a band made up of a family of 11 siblings whose mission is to transmit their culture, promote pride in their Kichwa heritage, especially among the young people of the Otavalan community, and participate in meaningful cultural exhcange through sharing traditional music with Kichwa lyrics which they arrange themselves. The group is actually based out of Boston now, so definitely look them up and, if you get the chance, try to catch a live show. You may not understand the lyrics but you will understand the sensations and emotions behind the music:

After debriefing back at the hotel, I fell into my bed and was sound asleep in minutes. Tomorrow, we head back to the Centro to get a tour, learn more about its history, and begin learning Quichua! I’m equal parts excited and nervous but I’ll definitely report back!

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Also, note that you can see pictures of my travel here:

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