My first visit to Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, was some eight years ago. I remember back then the immediate effects of the high altitude on my breathing and how I kept having to take deep controlled breaths just to…er…breathe! Well, I was a smoker back then and although the same thing happened this time I’m sure it was not quite as bad.
Quito is the highest ‘official’ capital city in the world, nestled at 2850 metres above sea level in the Andean mountain range. I say ‘official’ because while there is no doubt over Quito being the capital of Ecuador, there is some ambiguity as to whether the Bolivian city of La Paz, which is higher than Quito, is a capital or not, as I blogged about last year.
Not much has changed in Quito since 2007, neither on the ‘shopping’ front nor in the country as a whole. Rarely making global headlines, Ecuador seems to just get along with no real fuss. Once you’ve acclimatised to the thinner air it’s a pleasant place to be – nothing spectacular but with most of the modern day trappings any expat could hope to find while on assignment.
The supermarket environment is dominated by the Megamaxi and Supermaxi chains, both owned by the same company and selling the same brands at the same prices. The difference is that the several outlets of Megamaxi are indeed mega selling pretty much anything that you’d want to get your hands on: from a rice cooker to the latest 3D curved screen television or from jasmine rice (to put in the rice cooker!) to tennis balls and everything in between, except clothing. For clothes you just have to head to one of the city’s many modern malls to find an array of popular international designer brands.
Located in the Andes, the surrounding hills and peaks give a dramatic backdrop to every angle of the city and if trekking is your thing then there are abundant options for any adventurous expat wishing to get away from urban life for a few days. Some 25km north of the city is the middle of the earth – quite literally! ‘Mitad del Mundo’ is a rather grandiose monument erected for tourists and locals alike to come and straddle the equator, the imaginary line which gives the country its name. The rather amusing point to this tourist attraction is that it was built (and the ‘line’ painted) some 35 years ago but in the intervening years the advances in GPS technology have confirmed that the true equator is actually 200 metres to the north! With this knowledge in mind I took a little detour from data collecting to head to the ‘real’ equator. And sure enough they did the ‘water going down a plughole’ demonstration on the line. This is where on the equator the water goes straight down the plughole with no swirling but a metre either side in the southern and northern hemispheres the water swirls clockwise and anticlockwise respectively. Well, it may be a bit of a myth but it’s fun watching people’s reactions nonetheless.
Leaving the heady heights of the Andes behind me I flew south to Ecuador’s large neighbour, Peru. The capital, Lima, is situated on the coast so my lungs were able to revert to their usual work rate. This was my first visit to Peru, a country I’ve always wanted to visit to explore the Inca sights and walk the Inca Trail up in the Andes. Alas, that will have to wait for another time as there were more pressing activities at hand, like collecting grocery prices!
I was very surprised by Lima. It’s a huge city, the second most populated on the continent behind Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the suburbs seem to sprawl endlessly. I was expecting what I call a ‘halfway’ sort of city ie one that’s neither developed and Western nor particularly poor and undeveloped. Well, I’m sure that some neighbourhoods are a little run down, as in any large city, but not where I stayed in the areas of San Isidro and Miraflores. These are very popular with the expat and consular communities and for good reason. The areas are highly developed and, while some districts of the capital are considered dangerous, San Isidro and Miraflores are safe and offer all that you’d hope for. In fact, the supermarkets, such as Vivanda and Wong, are some of the most upmarket I’ve visited in the world – and I’ve seen my fair share of global supermarkets!
Peru is the 20th largest country in the world and around two thirds of it is covered in rainforest. There are also abundant mineral deposits in Peru, making mining an essential part of the country’s economy. It is in the top five global producers of copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc and lead – a fairly impressive stat! It’s also where the ever popular potato is from. It was first domesticated in the region over 7000 years ago and brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors after conquering the Inca Empire in the 16th century. So, next time you tuck in to a packet of crisps or munch on some French fries remember you have Peru to thank. Besides an abundance of potatoes in the supermarkets, I also came across a new fruit which I’ve not seen before. Pictured to the left, please let me know if you have any idea what it is!
One final nugget of knowledge from Peru which I found amusing is that of their New Year’s Eve traditions. While some nations will sing Auld Land Syne, set off fireworks or make resolutions for the coming year the Peruvians prefer instead to…give yellow underpants to their family and friends!