Our quest to venture south of the equator for the first time took us to Ecuador, and its capital city, Quito.
Actually our visit to this metropolis of over two million souls was a bit of an unexpected bonus, as we envisioned it being not much more than a stopover on our way to the Galapagos Islands.
Quito has the distinction of being the world capital that sits closer to the equator than any other.
After heading just outside the city to fulfill our goal of being both northern and southern hemispherical -- simultaneously at one point -- we ventured into the heart of the Quito.
This became a rather arduous journey once our bus hit the incredibly steep and narrow streets of the old town. At a crowded intersection we decided it would be quicker, and certainly less nerve-racking, to get out and walk.
Quito's Colonial Center is perhaps the largest and best preserved historic center in the Americas, and was the first New World city to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
With that in mind, walking seemed like a better way to see things anyway.
We made our way to the Plaza de la Independencia, or Plaza Grande, a huge square surrounded by fantastic colonial buildings, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace, the Municipal Palace, the Plaza Grande Hotel and the Palacio de Carondelet, which is the official seat of the President of the Republic.
Street shot: This lady was sweet enough to let us snap her photo - and sent us along with a blessing.
As we moseyed around, taking in the surroundings and mingling with the local folks, we happened to notice a bit of a commotion at the front door of the Presidential Palace.
We were just in time for the changing of the guard.
Soldiers in full dress uniform were ceremonially switching shifts as the protectors of the entrance, and seemed to have no problem with allowing us, and anyone else in the public to observe from only a few feet away. Hmmm...
Afterwards we attempted a peek inside the doorway, but that was where they drew the line. Oh well, off to find our first real Ecuadorian meal.
The magnificent Plaza Grande Hotel happens to have a very nice, yet reasonably priced, restaurant on the square, so we made our way into the Cafe Plaza Grande.
Now we had heard tell of some interesting dining options high up in the mountains of Ecuador, and at over 9000 feet, Quito certainly is high, so we thought we'd check.
As much as alpaca (a type of small llama) and cuy (guinea pig) are common dishes up here -- we even saw a poster of a guy happily ready to chow down a whole guinea pig on a stick earlier in the morning -- this was not that kind of place.
So we settled for goat stew. It was some good damned goat, so we could truthfully declare we got our goat.
Goat stew and the fanciest chips we've ever seen. Plantain, yucca and yams.
At the end of the meal we got quite a surprise. Not only was our ice cream served in crazy fog-producing miniature cauldrons, but the staff was suddenly decked out in traditional ancient costumes that looked like Druid monks.
Amazing what a little dry ice and a few yards of cloth can do for a dessert.
From the cafe we made our way to the first of the two churches we would see that afternoon, the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus.
Often referred to as the most beautiful church in the Americas, the interior is gilded with a mind-numbing amount of gold leaf. Over two thousand pounds of the stuff by some estimates.
WATCH: A day in Quito - with dry-iced ice cream!
Our next church visit was equally as interesting, but for a very different reason.
The Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco has an enduring legend -- the story of Cantuña -- that has been told for over four centuries.
Cantuña was a native hired by the Spanish as a stone mason. According to the story, he had been paid in advance for his work but had not finished by the deadline. If his task was not completed by sunrise, he would be imprisioned.
That night the devil came to him with a deal; his minions would finish the work in exchange for Cantuña's soul.
Cantuña accepted the offer but stipulated that the entire church must be finished - or no soul for Lucifer. As the devil's imps completed the structure, Cantuña cleverly removed one stone, outsmarting the devil and nullifying the deal.
We looked all around but couldn't spot the missing stone.
View from the steps of San Francisco church and convent
Another highlight of the San Francisco church is the famous Virgin of Quito.
The sculpture by Bernardo de Legarda sits on the main altar and portrays a winged virgin stepping on a serpent's head. Dating back to 1734, this unique version of the madonna that looks like an angel became a symbol for the city.
So much so that in 1976, a huge version of her was commissioned to be placed on a hill overlooking the old city. Agustín de la Herrán Matorras created the 140 foot high aluminum replica of the original statue which sits atop El Panecillo, which means bun, or small bread.
We had seen her looking down on us all day, so the top of the bread hill was our next destination.
El Panecillo rises about six hundred feet above the city, so the views are nothing short of spectacular.
In the shadow of the huge virgin we could not only see Quito in its entirety, but several of the active volcanoes that surround it. In fact, the little loaf on which we stood is a volcano that might not be finished erupting.
Snow covered volcano, Pichincha, peeks out over the clouds at 15,000 feet. Snow this close to the equator? WOW.
The possiblity of an eruption made us think it was time to descend and perhaps pursue something less dangerous.
Like finding a guinea pig to eat.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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