As always, traveling to a foreign land changed my perspective of the world and of my own country. My first trip to South America landed me in Ecuador, a country that features dramatic converging landscapes, creating some spectacular and awe-inspiring scenery. Our first stop was Ecuador's capital—Quito, the highest capital city in the world at 9,350 feet above sea level. Amazingly, this city is perched high in the formidable Andes mountain range. Just four days prior to our arrival, the Cotopaxi volcano (30 miles south of Quito) erupted, spewing ash seven miles into the air. This ash reached the capital, which forced residents to wear surgical masks in the city’s streets. Several hundred people living close to Cotopaxi were evacuated from the area. As I mentioned in my pre-departure post, Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s most active volcano and is considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of its glacial covering, which can result in lahars (mudflows) if a major eruption occurs. Luckily, there we no eruptions or volcanic activity while we were in the area. WHEW! We weren't consumed by ash, mud, and molten lava!
On a gorgeous blue-skied day, a guide took us on a tour of the city, where we saw the intricate architecture of the buildings and churches. It was interesting to see these structures with their Spanish and Roman Catholic influences. The Basilica del Voto Nacional in old town Quito was certainly a highlight of the tour. On the exterior of the church, there are several gargoyles of native Ecuadorian animals, including an armadillo, Galapagos tortoise, and iguana. Each of these animals is said to represent a specific characteristic of the church.
As we made our way through old town Quito, we passed by more historic sites. Quito's national bank, the city's library, and of course— more churches. Eventually we arrived at the Presidential Palace, located in the Quito's Independence Square. It was built in the late-16th century and is now a museum for the public. We even had some fun with the guards in front of the palace. They reminded me of the Queen's Guard of England because they were emotionless and virtually motionless, standing there straight-faced in their crisp uniforms. Our guide explained to us that the palace was converted into a museum in 2007 by current president, Rafael Correa. She went on, explaining that the political situation in Ecuador is a tumultuous one. Many Ecuadorian citizens want Correa out of office, as he is suspected of corruption and is said to be focusing on economic gain instead of the well-being of the citizens. This comes at a time when indigenous Ecuadorian tribes are protesting oil exploration in the Amazon Rainforest, which is destroying the natural beauty and ecosystem of this fragile and beautiful part of the Earth. I knew a good deal about this situation before departing for Ecuador, but hearing it from an actual citizen certainly put the gravity of the situation into perspective.
Another spot on our list was the Mitad Del Mundo or "middle of the world", the exact point of the equator. After all, we were in Ecuador! It was certainly an interesting feeling being at Latitude 0° 0’ 0”. As we toured this historic site, our guide informed us about the history of Ecuador and how the equator affects the gravity in the area. We then engaged in some goofy science experiments. For example, water was poured down a drain on the equator line, where it flowed straight down to the ground. Just six feet into the Northern Hemisphere, the water flowed counter-clockwise. Which way did it flow six feet into the Southern Hemisphere? You guessed it— clockwise. Pretty interesting stuff, I must say. Continuing the fun science experiments, members of our group were asked to attempt to balance an egg on a nail set in a stone. To my surprise, I was the only one in our group who completed the task *golf clap*.
My personal favorite of Quito was the site of El Panecillo, a 650- foot hill that sits atop the large city. An enormous Virgin Mary (Virgen de Quito) statue overlooks the city from this steep hill, and boy, does she have a spectacular view. As far as your eye can see, there are thousands of stone houses built into the hillsides— all of this surrounded by the dominating peaks of the Andes.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I discuss my experience living with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon Rainforest!