Quito, Ecuador, July 2016
So….ummm, Quito? WTF for??? Good question, glad you didn’t ask it. Three reasons, actually.
First of all, it was someplace we’d never been. I suppose that’s not an especially strong reason as I don’t actually know anyone who’s been to Ecuador. That sort of makes it a blanket reason. And a lot of folks pass through Ecuador on the way to the Galapagos Islands. But the reasons get better.
Secondly, American Airlines was running a sale for First/Business seats from many places in the US to Quito, as in the mid $800 range. That’s really cheap for the large amount of miles flown (AKA frequent flyer miles). I’m stupidly gullible for this sort of enticement.
But finally, and perhaps the most important was this:
The average high temperature in Quito in July is in the upper-60 degree range! In fact, it doesn’t change much over the entire year. It just varies in the amount of rainfall.
July and August are months I loathe. Everyone is on Summer break so there are crowds most everywhere. And the weather is stinkin’ hot. This double whammy usually gives me temporary agoraphobia, sending me into hibernation until Labor Day. I rarely venture out to anywhere of significance and just hunker down waiting for God damn Summer to end.
But Quito!!!? It was cool even in July. Sign me up! I figured the moderate year round temperatures had to do with it being almost exactly on the Equator, and maybe a little bit of elevation. Yeah, just a “little bit of elevation”, as in 9,300′ above sea level! Aircraft are only pressurized internally to between 6,000′ and 8,000′, so they would have to let air out of our aircraft after landing at Quito. I don’t know about you, but after all these years I’ve sort of developed a fondness for oxygen. But hey, it’s an adventure and the tickets were already bought.
In looking at typical airline flight pricing, the nastier the schedule usually the cheaper the price. This is indeed the American (Airlines) way. Convenient flights are expensive, inconvenient flights, cheaper. The typical route from LAX to Quito on American Airlines is by way of Miami, and the cheapest ticket would have us arriving late in the evening at Miami and not leaving for Quito until the next morning. That sorta sucked and on the surface appeared to be a total deal breaker as both Jeri and I are far too soft (i.e., smart) to deliberately overnight at an airport.
But then playing around with the available flights and looking at the schedule, I found something intriguing. If I increased the overnight time interval between arriving in Miami and departing for Quito the total cheap price remained the same. American’s pricing algorithm considered a schedule with such a sucky, overnight layover to be very undesirable and priced it accordingly. So with this in mind I was able to assemble a really sweet itinerary.
We could leave LAX at the wonderfully civilized hour of 11 AM and get into Miami about 7 PM. At that point we could take a free airport shuttle to an adjacent Holiday Inn Express and spend the night for free, thanks to a lot of hotel points I had acquired. Then we’d sorta sleep in and shuttle back to the airport for a 9:45 AM flight to Quito, arriving at 1 PM with a good half day left to fool around. But wait, there’s more!!
By going with this schedule it also worked out I could keep us on “big planes” for the entire trip. One of the things I learned early when we started ramping up our flying is that while there’s not a lot of difference between coach seating on different aircraft (or even different airlines), there is a huge difference when flying in the First/Business section. The most desirable are usually seats that “lie flat”, so even if you aren’t doing an overnight flight, you’ll be guaranteed a tremendous level of comfort.
On previous trips via Miami we’d often got stuck on smaller planes like Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s. And while the First Class section of one of these smaller aircraft is certainly much more comfortable than coach, even they get tedious on 5 hour flights. Also most of the smaller aircraft lack any sort of inflight entertainment system, and with my Prime Directive being to keep Jeri happy, I prefer to avoid these smaller aircraft, if possible.
So by overnighting in a “free” hotel in Miami I was able to get us into get us into a 777-300ER from LAX-Miami, a 757 onward to Quito, then a newly refurbished 767 from Quito back to Miami, then the same 767 on to LAX. And from this I was able to tweak it still a bit more.
The Boeing 777-300ER is currently American Airlines finest aircraft. The Business Class cabin of this gem is superb, much better than most First Class cabins of just a few years ago. And the First Class cabin, holding only 8 people, is to my admittedly non-worldly tastes just stunning. Through strategic use of frequent flier miles and free upgrades, Jeri and I have been wildly fortunate enough to have flown in the First Class cabin a few times to/from Europe, seat 1A being my absolute favorite place in the sky. So…… I burned the last of this year’s free upgrades to get us into the First Class cabin of the 777-300ER from LAX to Miami.
Day One, Arrival
The flight in to Quito from Miami was uneventful and ontime. The landing descent was interesting to watch because we were landing in a valley whose floor was over 9,000 feet, and the surrounding mountains much higher. The landscape around Quito was mostly agricultural, and reminded me of Switzerland. In all, everything I could see looked prosperous.
The landing was pretty damn smooth considering it was a big jet at that altitude. And once the cabin doors opened and we entered the jetway we got our first surprise. It was cool and dry! This is my kind of tropics!
We got through immigration pretty fast and popped to the front of the terminal to grab a cab. To make things easier for me when in non-English speaking countries, I often print out the street address of our hotel on credit card sized slips of paper and keep them in my wallet. Then, if we need a cab, I can just hand the printed address to the driver and we don’t have to struggle over pronunciation. So that’s what we did, and off we went.
And went. And went. It seemed like it was taking an excessively long amount of time to get into town and I was getting concerned our driver might be trying to pad the bill. Oh, wait, the meter wasn’t even running. Is that good? While I had checked out the route into Quito from the airport on a map before we left home, it gave no sense of the massive ups and downs the road had to take over the terrain. The region is a series of ridges or plateaus within a massive valley. The net result is that the airport is a very good distance out of town. It’s brand new and was built that way. After about 40 minutes we crested a final plateau and entered the fringe of Quito proper. Another 5 minutes and we were at our hotel with a fare of $25. Considering the distance and time, that was reasonable.
I belong to several hotel loyalty plans but I’d say we usually stay with some element of the Hilton chain, typically the cheaper end. But the Hilton in Quito wasn’t towards the cheaper end, and actually a little pricy. So I had a look at my fallback, the IHG hotels. I noted there was a single Holiday Inn Express hotel in Quito, with reviews equal to the Hilton. Checking the pricing, I was amazed to see I could book four nights for a total of only $160 (!!) and some IHG points, of which I had tons of. So that was an easy decision.
It turned out that the Holiday Inn Express hotel in Quito was outstanding. They put us on the 11th floor with views to downtown Quito. The staff service was better than anything I’ve yet experienced in the US. The included breakfast was very good, again much better than what’s typically offered in the US (Bacon every day!!). The surrounding neighborhood was easily walkable, safe and with many restaurants. So we ended up really liking our hotel a lot.
After settling in, we went out walking to explore. It being a Sunday, not much stuff was open, not even the markets. This was a little problematic as we wanted to stock our room fridge with drinks, so no luck there.
Deciding to range out a bit further, we took a taxi to Old Town and the Mercado Central. Whenever Jeri and I visit someplace new, we always make stops at markets to get a flavor of how the locals live. While we do this with supermarkets, we also love checking out open air street markets, and enclosed, central markets. The Mercado Central was of the latter sort, a large, two story building with many individual vendor stalls. The food court area was fascinating, and although we were a bit hungry the choices were just a bit too intimidating.
Returning to our hotel we found the Sunday closures presented a bit of a problem. Most restaurants in our area (the financial district) were closed or otherwise didn’t look like a place we wanted to eat. Eventually we stumbled upon a very nice steakhouse in the over-the-top nice Marriott across the street from us and had an excellent dinner as the restaurant’s only occupants. Very weird, but no less tasty.
Day Two, Free Walking Tour
Somewhere on TripAdvisor I came across mention of a “free walking tour” in Quito. These things are available in many cities, and primarily serve as advertisements for other paid tours the various tour companies offer. The guides do these free tours for tips, but hope you might sign up for a paid tour. That said, these free tours can be very good, and this particular one in Quito was highly rated on TripAdvisor, so why not?
At 10 AM about 25 of us gathered at the tour company’s office, in old town, just a block away from the mercado we had visited the previous day. In fact, the mercado was our first stop, which was a pretty fast walk-through. Jeri and I were glad we had spent more time there earlier, but we did have many of our food questions answered.
The initial, time-sensitive, destination of our tour was the Plaza Grande, in front of the Government Palace. Every Monday, which it was, at 11:00 AM there is a changing of the guard ceremony. The Ecuadorian president, along with assorted dignitaries, observe the ceremony from the palace balcony and wave to the crowd, rain or shine. This is a big thing in Quito.
It was quite an interesting and fun experience. Although the plaza was fairly jammed with people, our guide got us positioned for good views. For reasons unknown to us the president was off on other business and the vice president was doing the duty. The dress of the soldiers was outlandishly retro, but probably no worse than the British with their silly fuzzy hats. I did note the “weapons” carried by some of the soldiers were bamboo pikes tipped with steel blades. While some might jump to the conclusion that this event was thus totally underguarded, our guide pointed out the various sharpshooters with serious weapons posted on the surrounding rooftops, keeping an eye on the crowd.
After about a half hour watching the show, we moved on to an assortment of churches and the old central bank. Strangely, the US Dollar is the official currency of Ecuador, and has been since 2000. This was done as a successful attempt to stop the runaway hyperinflation at the time. Ecuador gets its money from the US Federal Reserve, and pays a substantial premium to do so (who knew?). In effect, it’s borrowing money from the Federal Reserve. However dollars spent by tourists come with no premium and are thus worth quite a bit more to Ecuador. This has resulted in Ecuador doing all it can to support tourism, especially from the US. Jeri and I did more than our part.
The next few hours were spent wandering around the old part of Quito with a running commentary from our guide. While we didn’t actually spend much time going into any one location, it served as an excellent overview if we wished to return. By the time we were done, we knew our way around Old Town and what things we wanted to return and take a close look at.
Jeri and I took our leave of the tour around 3 PM and headed off to the Basílica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow). This large church, built around the very early 1900s, interested me for a specific reason: You could climb up to the roof for a panoramic view of Quito.
The interior of the church was quite nice, if perhaps a bit unfinished (The local legend holds that when the church is completed, the end of the world will come, so maybe it’s a good thing). There were roses everywhere and the smell was amazing. Roses are one of the major “crops” of Ecuador (providing about a third of the US’s roses) and are fairly inexpensive.
Climbing to the roof was a lot of fun, despite the rarefied air. Of course we could have taken an elevator most of the way, but where’s the challenge in that? The “second” level of the climb ends at a balcony overlooking the interior nave of the church. The next level up is where things get interesting as the route travels along a narrow wooden plankway that’s resting on the upper, exterior surfaces of the nave, but still under the roof. It’s sort of the attic of the church. From there it’s a climb up a two story ladder to an exterior circular balcony where you start to grasp just how high you now are. At that point there’s a final two story climb up an amazingly exposed ladder/stairway to the final tower about 300 feet up. There no way the public in the US would be allowed on something like this last, crazy bit, so yay, Ecuador! Jeri took one look at the last exposed section of the climb and decided she wasn’t stupid enough to do it. I, on the other hand….Anyway, fantastic view of Quito, as advertised.
After getting back to the sweetness of the ground, we left the church, headed across an adjacent park and caught a cab back to the hotel.
Day Three, Into The Rainforest
On the basis of a recommendation from someone Jeri knows, we had scheduled an all day tour to a rainforest “eco-lodge”. A small bus picked us up at our hotel at the too early hour of 6:30 AM and drove us almost two hours to a remote lodge high in the rainforest. The last few miles in were on pretty lousy dirt roads, and the ability to get even a small bus in was rather impressive. Once there, they fed us breakfast and around 10 AM we started off on a guided tour of the lodge’s trails with a naturalist. While it was interesting to see the rainforest, we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. At the lodge itself were a collection of bird feeders so there were a lot of birds, especially hummingbirds, to be seen, but not much else. I suppose that’s just the luck of the moment.
After a couple of hours of hiking the trails, we returned for lunch and then just sort of end up hanging around the place. It was organized sort of haphazardly and it wasn’t really made clear to us where we needed to be and when. So we ended up just staying around the lodge until the bus left for the return to Quito around 3 PM.
Overall, this was probably the only less than stellar experience of the trip. It cost a fair amount of money to do, involved far too much driving to get to our destination and we really didn’t see much. I think there are a number of other “rainforest tours” offered that are much closer in to Quito and wouldn’t involve so much time in a fully loaded shuttle bus.
But it did allow us to get out of Quito and see the surrounding countryside, which we really liked. We went past the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) which is a funky monument to the Equator. It’s an elaborate installation to draw tourists to see the ACTUAL Equator!!! I suppose if you are thrilled by the man-made arbitrariness of the Four Corners Monument in the US, you’ll love the Mitad del Mundo. For us it just seemed very strange, as there was nothing exceptional about this specific equatorial spot, and we in fact had been repeatedly crossing the Equator on our drive to the eco-lodge.
We got back to our hotel around 5 PM to a bit of rain. Seems like it rains almost every day in Quito, but not for long. After two days of getting up early and having to move, we looked forward to crashing early.
Day Four, Walkabout
This being the first day we didn’t have any commitments, we mercifully slept in and had a leisurely breakfast. Our plan was to take a cab back to the Plaza Grande and wander around Old Town checking out the various places pointed out on our earlier walking tour.
One of our first stops was a church whose interior that was almost fully covered in gold leaf, La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. It was pretty impressive. And pretty gold.
When we do our wanderings, we often experience a bit of serendipity by making up our travels as we go, and it was fully on here. While in the church we noticed an exit into what appeared to be a museum, which it was, and then some. It was a combination of the City Center Library and Cultural Museum. Most of the museum was devoted to a temporary exhibit involving the surveying of the Equatorial line through the area in the 1700s. In addition to old maps, drawings (and later photos) of Quito, there were all sorts of ancient surveying equipment. I had a fine time gawking at all that stuff, and even Jeri found it interesting. It was a wonderful find to stumble across.
After spending an unexpected amount of time looking at old surveying crap, we headed off to look at other churches. Unlike Europe, where access to churches seems to be usually free, there was always a small admittance fee in Quito. That was actually fine with us because in most cases there was hardly anyone in these churches. Along the way we stopped at one of the numerous bakeries (very French-like and good) and indulged. Even found a shop or two selling Ecuadorian chocolate.
Eventually we decided to move on to phase two of the day. We grabbed a cab, and instead of going back to our hotel, we went past it to the very large La Carolina park. In addition to a lake and massive sports fields, it’s also the home to Quito’s botanic gardens. This was also another wonderful find for us.
The botanic gardens turned out to be very nicely done. I suppose one could argue, “how hard could it be, everything grows in Equador?” but it was still a great place. As with the churches, almost no other visitors were there so we almost had the place to ourselves. They even had a butterfly house where it was just us and the butterflies.
Finally, having walked our asses off all day, we walked the half mile back to our hotel to get ready for our very early flight out the next morning. Our flight was scheduled to leave Quito at 7:00 AM, and given the 40 minute drive to the airport, we had to get up around 4:15 AM. Ugh!
The Trip Home (What? Do I look like a terrorist?)
Getting to the airport went smoothly, if early, and I was feeling pretty good…until we checked in and I got my boarding pass. I had tried to check in online the night before, but I couldn’t, which I attributed to it being an international flight back to the US. But now with my boarding pass in hand, I saw why. On my pass was printed the dreaded “SSSS”. Ooohhh shit!
Since some of you won’t know what this means, it’s the one thing you never, EVER want to see on your boarding pass. “SSSS” stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, and it means the bearer, is well…fucked. While it is sometimes used for random selection, it generally marks someone on the “We’ll let him fly but let’s anally probe him first” list. It usually results in a lengthy interview by security screeners, detailed luggage searches and enhanced pat downs. Besides being quite the violation it also eats up a lot of time. Since the SSSS was only on my Quito – Miami boarding pass, I guessed/hoped it was just random. But I did note the TSA PreCheck was missing off my Miami – LAX boarding pass, which could make the usually crappy Customs/Security clearance in Miami much more so. Despite Jeri’s close association with me, she wasn’t apparently considered any sort of threat as her boarding passes were all pristine and pure.
I was surprised when we went through security that I wasn’t taken aside. In fact, we both passed through very fast. That couldn’t be right? We plopped down at the gate and waited for boarding thinking I had dodged a bullet. Then, just before boarding was to begin, I hear my name called. OK then, let the fun begin!
I got led over to a table behind the gate desk and was first patted down by a nice lady who clearly wished she was doing something else. Since she didn’t speak much English, and I less Spanish, they had to drag over another person to translate. By this time the Business class section was boarding and I waved goodbye to Jeri, saying I’d see her….someday. My two inquisitors then turned to my small carryon, which was pretty well crammed with Ecuadorian chocolate. My obvious support of their economy failed to impress them and they pulled out a rather sinister looking machine. The machine issued some sort of little wipey thing which they proceeded to wipe along strange parts of my body (my ankles, really?) and all over the internals of my bag. Um, I mean luggage. They inserted their magic wipe back into the sinister machine and it apparently cleared me of everything beyond chocolate trafficking. They seemed disappointed, as anyone marked as SSSS clearly must be hiding something, right? To their credit, as soon as they realized I was a worthless catch they marched me over to the head of the now long boarding queue, had the gate agent scan my ticket, and cast me down the jetway. Jeri was already seated and seemed pleasantly (I think) surprised to see me so soon. I hunkered down, relieved it went as smooth as it did, and stewed about what might yet await me ahead.
Our flight to Miami was on a refurbished 767 with 1x2x1 seating, and we both had single window seats. This was MUCH better than doing Business class in a 737! Thinking things over I was feeling optimistic my Miami – LAX leg wouldn’t result in any additional screening, but Jeri still had her PreCheck but I didn’t. That could be a problem going through security in Miami.
We got into Miami pretty much on time and headed off to Customs. We both have Global Entry so reentering the US, using the kiosks, is a quick and painless affair. Five to ten minutes is typical for us to clear Customs, and most of that is walking time. I held my breath as I slide my passport into the scanner hoping it wouldn’t puke and send me over for enhanced examination. I think I let out a rather loud sigh of relief when it spit out the usual receipt. With my luck running hot, we quickly left Customs before any minds were changed.
My luck continued at the security reentry. As is typical for Miami, they had their transfer PreCheck line closed, and PreCheck folks were just mixed in with the normal people, although they were given cards so they didn’t have to take out liquids, take off shoes and the usual nonsense I now had to do. I must admit it’s been so long since I went through a usual US security line I had trouble remembering the drill. In any event, the overall line was surprisingly short (about as short as we’ve ever seen in Miami) and Jeri and I got through almost at the same time. Once I was back inside the “sterile area” of the airport, I was golden all the way back to LAX. And we did it on the very same 767 we had flown in from Quito on.
After getting home and doing a lot of research on the dreaded SSSS, I believe what hit me was just a random, shit happens sort of thing. Indeed, on boarding passes issued to me since the Quito trip, I’ve received all my usual PreCheck clearances so I guess I’m not a terrorist. I also found that I probably could have gone to an American Airlines ticket desk before going through security in Miami and had my Miami – LAX boarding pass reprinted. It would have likely had my PreCheck restored to it. An important pro tip I did not know.
Overall Impressions of Quito
Jeri and I REALLY liked Quito and are looking for any excuse to return. It’s clean, safe and has nice weather all year round. Oh yeah, and good, beefy types of foods (sorry vegans!). Many good bakeries, coffee shops everywhere and vast quantities of locally grown chocolate. In our travels we didn’t see a lot of slums or desperate poverty such as exists in other Latin American countries. It looked like there was a substantial and thriving middle class. Most folks we ran into spoke at least some English, and hey, anyone living in areas such as California should be able to scrape together enough Spanish to get by. Currency isn’t a problem since they use US dollars. Very, very nice vibes to this country. The only downside I saw was that the altitude of Quito Will. Kick. Your. Ass.
I think for any future trips we’d want to get out of Quito and explore the surrounding countryside. The roads looked decent and I don’t see driving as an issue. There are several volcanoes not far from Quito that would make an excellent destination. There are also tours of “rose plantations” where long stem roses are grown. Maybe I’m odd (and I am) but I think I’d find that interesting. And Quito is a major jumping off point for tours of the Galapagos Islands, something we need to do someday. So yeah, we’ll probably go back.
As a totally geeky final note, Jeri and I were able to really test our new Google Project Fi cell phones while in Quito and they rocked! Project Fi is Google’s attempt to totally disrupt cell phone service. It uses special cell phones designed for Google that run on any of three cell providers, T-Mobile, Sprint or US Cellular. The phones monitor the three networks and switch on the fly to whichever is strongest. When at home, all calls and data are routed through the user’s home WiFi and there’s no charge for anything passing via WiFi. Pricing is only $20 per month per phone for unlimited calls and texts, and data is $10 per Gigabyte. No contracts or minimum terms. When traveling internationally (130+ countries), voice calls are only 20 cents per minute, and any data just comes out of the user’s normal data amount. So it’s now possible to cheaply take your home number along while traveling internationally.
But wait, there’s more (I sound like a friggin’ Google commercial). Each user can get up to 9 free data SIMs to use in any sort of iPad, tablet or other cellular enabled device. Any data used by these other SIMs gets taken out of the users data account.
We had been on Verizon for a number of years, with iPhones. Switching to Project Fi cut our monthly cellular bill by more than half, lets us use our Nexus phones for travel and frees us from the benign (??) dictatorship of Apple. The combined coverage of the three networks is close to the same as Verizon, so we haven’t noticed anything lacking there.
So given the Overlord choice of Apple or Google, we’re throwing in with da Google.