One of the things that I love about traveling to South America is that you don't have to spend endless hours on a plane to get there – my flight to Quito was less than 4 hour from Miami – and since you're traveling more north-south, rather than east-west, you don't experience jet lag either. So, with that in mind, I was ready to truly get started on my Ecuadorian adventure this morning – well almost. Because Quito sits at an altitude of 2800 meters (9186 ft), upon arrival, your body needs a bit of time to adjust to the thinner air. That means keeping the strenuous activities to a minimum for a day or two, while you acclimate to the altitude.
While I am eager to get on with the mountain biking, volcano hiking, and other adventurous activities that I'll be doing in a few days, I thought I'd take the opportunity to explore some of Quito's amazing history and culture while my body adjusted to life above 2800 meters. Since the city's history dates back more than 1000 years, there is plenty to see and do in the area, so I knew I'd have plenty to keep me busy on my first day.
My first stop was a visit to the San Francisco Church, an amazing structure that dates back to the 16th century, and took nearly 150 years to complete. As a result, it is an interesting mix of various architectural styles, all blended together from the decades it too to complete the massive building. Inside, the church is equally impressive, with dozens of paintings and sculptures, and enough gold leaf to make the interior glow brightly. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take photos while in the building, but trust me, it was an impressive site.
Fortunately, I did get special dispensation to take photos inside the next church on the schedule, and it was even more impressive than the first. It was the magnificent La Compañía Church just down the block, which features not only the best examples of Baroque art in all of Ecuador, but it also glimmers with gold. Lots and lots of gold. In fact, La Compañía has more than 200 kilos (440 pound) of gold leaf spread across its awe inspiring interior. This impressive display of architecture took even longer to build (160 years!) than the San Francisco Church, and when you're inside you understand why. There are so many intricate carvings, details paintings, and finely crafted sculptures, that it is a marvel that it only took 16 decades to finish. The shimmering gold leaf, which is in the process of being restored, just adds even more to the wonder.
After leaving the churches behind, it was time to take a stroll through Independence Square, Quito's most popular outdoor plaza. At the center of the park sits a towering monument to the country's hard-earned independence, which was won from Spain back in 1810. The monument commemorates that historic moment, while also paying tribute to the heroes who gave their lives for Ecuador's freedom.
From there, I moved on to the near-by La Ronda neighborhood, a trendy location in the heart of the historic district that has attracted a slew of artists, craftsmen, and musicians, along with some wonderful restaurants. This part of the city dates back to the 16th century, and the traditional architecture shows through, but it is also undergoing a renaissance that makes it a fantastic place for visitors to explore Quito's traditional roots, with a very modern sensibility. While there, I met a man who has been creating fine works of art out of metal for nearly 40 years, and another who has been crafting toy tops for Quito's young – and young at heart – for 5 decades.
After grabbing some lunch in a lovely cafe that provides breathtaking views of the sprawling Quito-cityscape, it was on to the Chapel of Man, an art gallery dedicated to the works of Guayasamin, an Ecuadorian man who gained world-wide fame thanks to his powerful, and soulful, paintings. The museum was a moving monument not only to his works, but also the struggles of man to be more understanding and tolerant of others. The art on display there is raw, heartbreaking, and incredibly moving, and will stay with you long after you've left the building. Guayasamin's home is nearby as well, and serves as a good counter balance to the Chapel. It shows a man who enjoyed life, and the fortunes that it brought him.
With the art gallery behind me, it was time to head over to the race headquarters for the Huairasinchi Explorer, the adventure race that is hosing this year's AR World Championship. I needed to pick up my press credentials for the next few days, when I'll be attending the race briefings, and the actual start of the event on Sunday. Unfortunately, those credentials weren't ready yet, so I'll have to try back tomorrow. But while I was there, I did get a chance to see the adventure racers preparing for the event, and much like me, they were taking a day or two to get acclimated to the higher altitude. Still, the HQ was a hive of activity, with teams getting their gear sorted and organized, putting their bikes together, and preparing for the start of the race.
Tomorrow, race organizers will hold the official opening ceremonies, and the teams will get their first idea of what the course is going to look like. I've been told that there are plenty of surprises to be announced yet, and that the teams should expect the unexpected. I don't have any insight into what that all means, but we'll all learn more tomorrow, ahead of the 5:00 AM race start on Sunday.
That wrapped up my first full day in Quito, and I have to say that it was an extremely interesting outing. The city if filled with wonderful monuments and historical sites, and yet the most impressive thing I saw today were the friendly people. If Day 1 was any indication of what the rest of the trip is going to be like, this will certainly be a memorable experience from top to bottom.
Tomorrow, I'm off to higher altitudes to get even better views of the city, and then heading to the "middle of the world" at the Equator. After that, it's back to Quito for the official launch of the AR World Championships. I can't wait to see how it all plays out.