Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Our first trip to South America- Ecuador

After a fairly seamless yet lengthy day of travel we have finally made it to Quito, a city that will literally take your breath away. Okay, too early for cliches? There is nothing better when you arrive to a large new city at midnight than being picked up by a friendly face and Diolo was that for us ($20 from the new airport - old airport is closed- to Mariscal). What a warm welcome to Quito and with Josh's rumbling stomach, he even let us stop for food!

We decided to stay in the neighbourhood of Mariscal which is a very trendy area with a lot of shops and cafes. We might have preferred el Centro (old town) with its beautiful buildings and quirky artsy streets but we found the prices more economical in Mariscal ($40 Airbnb suite). Our suite was in a beautiful converted home that has been in Beatriz's family since it was built and it gave us the perfect opportunity to explore Quito. 

Although we arrived weary and hungry at midnight our mood quickly improved upon meeting the dynamic Beatriz who was eager to help us plan an itinerary and to have us meet Hope and Jason who currently live in Vancouver. Staying with Beatriz we learned quickly that nothing makes her happier than bringing people together. We debated about accompanying our fellow Canadians on a trip to Otovalo the next day (noteworthy market on Saturdays) but as morning came and the altitude hit us, we decided to have a more tranquilo day. 

Quito is the epitome of a colonial city and is beautiful with its sprawling colorful homes and mountainscape backdrop. With an altitude of 10,000 feet we were feeling slightly lethargic but honestly better than we thought we would. We planned to drown our altitude sickness in water and I think that helped a bit although I admit to popping the odd ibuprofen for a headache. After finding a cute cafe for breakfast (Ave Amazonas is full of cafes that are better priced and more delicious than any near Plaza Foch), we ventured off to el Centro (Taxi $3 not on the meter) to step in to another time.

Josh and I have spent some time in colonial cities in Mexico and have always had a fondness for town squares or plazas and found our passion renewed in Ecuador. We started there and did a bit of an independent walking tour to some of the top sites although we later discovered that there is a free tour starting at 10:30am Mon-Fri (see under attractions on TripAdvisor) and I think this would have been enjoyable. Seeing so much history makes you crave knowledge and I felt that we were lacking in specific information about each site. 

Sights we recommend in el Centro: 

1) Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus was spectacular with its gold altars and beautiful columns. It was built by the Jesuits in the 1600s and is considered one of the best examples of baroque architecture in South America and the most beautiful church in the country by many.  It is the most expensive church at $4 a person. 
* not allowed photos 

2) The Centro Cultural Metropolitana was a highlight to wander through and see the various exhibits featuring sculptures, paintings, and interactive art displays. 

It's rich in history itself from a pre-Hispanic site of a palace to murder scene of revolutionaries and is a beautifully restored building.  After seeing the pouring rain outside we hunkered down for a cafe americano at Diosoplay and enjoyed the people watching in the small plaza. 

3) Plaza Grande - I loved the experience of overlooking the square with everyone bustling around accomplishing one thing or another with the dramatic scenery of colonial churches and presidential buildings all around. Most taxi drivers will drop you off here and it's the perfect place to start your tour. 

4) Plaza de San Francisco is a nice sight to see with its cobbled stones and backdrop of the Iglesia de San Francisco and monastery which we did not endevour to see but have heard good reviews.  

5) Calle la Ronda is an amazing street full of quirky artistic shops and cafes.

 Music resonates from street performers and the eateries all joining to create a pleasant cacophony of music and excitement. We would have loved to spend more time here and would highly recommend spending an evening having dinner or drinks. Security is no problem as there are many police officers around. 

6) La Basilica was literally breath taking. 

The cost was $2 per person to go inside the church and another $2 to climb the tower. Seeing the inside was interesting with fantastic stainless glass windows however those travellers who have been inside many churches may not want to go inside. 

Climbing the tower was my absolute favourite attraction in Quito as I love scenic views. If you have a fear of heights this may not be a good option as the ladder climb up was very steep (worse going down!). 

Seeing the endless rows of colourful and characteristically Latin American homes with the back drop of the Virgen de Quito and the mountains was incredibly picturesque (see first photo). 

We returned to Mariscal in the early evening and with more energy than we expected we headed to Plaza Foch which is a somewhat westernized tacky tourist square with many bars and restaurants. We actually had a lot of fun despite our reservations and we found the perfect hole in the wall place that offered 2 mojitos for $5. Despite being only a five minute walk away we taxied home due to the risk of muggings on any of the off streets near Plaza Foch. I'm not sure if this is exaggerated but for $1 taxi, there is no sense in taking the risk. 

The next day we woke up earlier with a lot of ideas and plans failing to realize that Sunday in Quito is fairly mellow and many things are shut down (it is also a "dry day" so if alcohol is important to you, buy some at the supermarket the day before). Word to the wise: if Sunday is one of your days in Quito research which museums are open. For example we missed out on two top attractions, La Capilla del Hombre and Museo Guyasamin as a result of poor planning but we may see them if we return to Quito at the end of our trip. 

We headed off to the Teleferico which is a fairly new attraction that takes you up a gondola for ten minutes so that you can access amazing sights of the sprawling city. 

Unfortunately we were not lucky and our views were mostly obstructed by thick fog and we were unprepared for how cold it would be. Although we were chilled we did a small hike up and felt the effects of the altitude as we huffed and puffed. 

I think this attraction would be amazing on a clear day and if you were prepared for the altitude and had proper hiking gear you can hike about 3 hours up to see the crater of Pichincha. It is only recommended to do this if you have already spent at least 2 days acclimating in Quito. Honestly, I would skip this attraction if its a cold and rainy day. I'm not saying we didn't enjoy the ride up but it is expensive for Ecuador ($8 per person) and we were unable to find a reasonable taxi back. 

After realizing that the museums we wanted to see were closed we spent the rest of the day touring around el Centro and saw some of the sights listed previously. We arrived back to Mariscal early to meet Hope and Jason for dinner and we braved a quirky restaurant in Plaza Foch which was a disappointment to all of us. Despite the poor meal, it's like Hope said, "it's great to meet B.C friends in Ecuador!" The world can seem so small sometimes when traveling! 

Off to Papallacta in the morning for some indulgence and relaxation! 

A note about taxis: 
Taxi rides should be on the meter during the day but are rarely at night. We simply negotiated the price before taking off instead of arguing about the meter. Taxi crime is rare but it does exist where you can be driven to another location and mugged. To prevent this, have your guesthouse or restaurant call a taxi or go to a legitimate taxi stand. If you have a cell phone it would be easy to call for a reputable company. Alternatively, if you need to hail a taxi on the street look for a taxi seguro ("safe taxi") sign on the vehicle near the driver's door and other things like the telltale security cameras and meter at the front. To be honest we mostly hailed taxis on the street and everyone was great. We ended up in a seemingly non regulated taxi once and although chances are that everything would be fine I was extra vigilant to watch where we were going and I hid some valuables on my person just in case. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Thalia Meets Malaga

After all of our teary goodbyes we bid our family goodbye at Malaga international and hopped on the Renfe train to Malaga Alameda Centro Station (1.60€). This quick and nifty train leaves from Terminal 3 and drops you not in the heart of the old quarter but about 20 minutes away.

It was a beautiful sunny day so we opted to walk it, though with Thalia and gear it was a bit of a hike with many hills and a few wrong turns as Siri got her bearings in the windey streets. 
Arriving at Malaga Alameda Central Station is at first glimpse not Malaga's best side. Malaga's River Guadalmedina is mostly dried up and is now a swamp
bed of sorts with graffiti tags lining the walls.
However a short walk on and the city evolves into a beautiful seaside city where old meets new in the most fantastic and fun way.

Malaga has had a reputation in Spain as being a grungy port town but thanks to a 100 million Euro investment in building restoration and tourism infrastructure over the last 10 years and incredibly sweet and friendly locals Malaga became one of our favourite cities in Spain.

With its 3 km ocean boardwalk full of cool cafes, beaches and playgrounds for the kids, a chic harbour, and bustling old quarter complete with Alcazaba (Moor Fort) and Roman Theatre, Malaga is a treat for all. 

And if that isn't enough, the Pompidou Center, Picasso Museum (he was born and lived here until age 10) and Fashion and Car Museum will definitely impress. 

And being here at Christmas we had the added bonus of witnessing the citiy's new investment from Illumanacion Ximenez, a Spanish lighting company from Córdoba who is responsible for providing Christmas lights from New York
to Tokyo. The Municipality hired this lighting company to design lighting for the holiday season and it did not disappoint! The streets are lit up with literal tunnels of lights and an array of different shapes and artistic designs.

Malaga is magic because it blends what you expect and don't expect in perfect harmony. 
We stayed 6 nights so had ample opportunity to really take in its soul and left feeling like we may have stumbled upon Spain's most underrated city.

Additionally, we had an extra good time as we met up with my aunt, uncle and cousin from The Netherlands for a reunion which meant they could meet Thalia for the first time! 

She took to them instantly! They stayed in Malaga with us for the first 3 days of our stay and good
times were had! 

Here is what we did and recommend:

1) The Alcazaba

This walled fortress created by the Hammudid Moor dynasty in the 11th centuries is an unrivalled fort both for how well intact it is and how impenetrable it was. It has two outer walls, one higher up on a hill where the palace and many gardens are and one is lower at the base. It's numerous towers and its altitude are main reasons it was such an impressive stronghold. It was difficult to sneak up on this dynasty!

Though it wasn't as impressive as some others in Spain in terms of its aesthetics. The fact that the original fortress exists is incredible and walking through its winding citadel passages from serene garden to garden and admiring its numerous towers is an amazing experience and lends to why it took Isabel and Ferdinand longer to conquer this Moor stronghold than any other in Spain. It finally fell in 1487. It's easy to access as its in the old quarter on the way to the seafront. You can't miss it as the Roman Theatre rests directly in front of it.

It's 8€ but free on Sunday. Walk up the hill for great views of the city and sea.

2) The Automobile and Fashion Museum

This museum gets rave reviews on TA and honestly even with this I was still quite unsure about it as it felt like a strange combination for an exhibition and seemed to not fit with our theme of site seeing in Spain. But this is precisely why it was so great! 

This private collection is run by an artist who very historically and artistically walks you through the eras of fashion and how the invention of the car became like an extra fashion accessory.

Let me be clear, even if you don't have any strong interest in either fashion or cars, this museum manipulates the sense of vision so well with its impressive cars and fashion collection that it was a highlight. 

Take the 16 bus from Alemeda (right by the McDonalds). It's €10 entry per person. No free entry days.

3) The Picassso Museum 

This museum opened in 2003 in a renovated palace and the 89,000 sq ft houses a large number of paintings and sketches donated by Picasso's daughter in law and grandson. And though this cubist legend moved away at the age of 10 the residents here feel ownership of this great talent and have an impressive collection (though not his most famous works). It is a nice sized collection that won't give you art burn out after finishing. Plan about 2 hours to wander and enjoy. 
It's 9€ per person. Museum is free after 4:00 pm but expect long lines at this time even in low season.

4) The Pompidou Center

This sister Center to the one in Paris
is hard to miss when walking the harbour front.

 El Cubo (the cube) shaped structure that houses works from the orgiinal Center in Paris as well as a superb temporary exhibit is a treat to visit (fun a little bizarre and thought provoking, a good mix with contemporary art).

 It also has a children's area where kids of all ages including as young as Thalia (11 months) can explore art through designs, colours and shape play areas. 

It's 15€ to enter and is located on the harbour front. 

You can't miss the muti-coloured cube rising to the clouds off the water.

5) The Puerto Malaga and Beach

Another one of Malaga's investments was its harbour where an art nouveau boardwalk was built with a bike path to boot. 

There is a family friendly outdoor amphitheater with a bar, local art displays and DJ's spinning day and night on the weekends. The "canas" (beers) are affordable (1.50€) and you can dance on the waterfront while watching the city stroll along the boardwalk. 

We enjoyed this areas immensely as it allowed us to enjoy beer and tapas while allowing Thalia to enjoy playing with other kids.

Further down the boardwalk and bike path are many more bars, cafes and fancier restaurants that offer everything from traditional Spanish eats to Indian food. 

There is a fun and clean "art playground" for kids beside the Pompidou Center where we enjoyed a beer while gazing at the sea and watching hand holding roller bladers zip by. 

It is delightful place to spend half a day or more with baby. If you head under the pedestrian walkway you will hit new 

Malaga where the boardwalk continues parallel to Paseo de la Farola. This stretch is lined with Malaga's great city beaches that also have numerous play areas that cater to children 3 and up.

You can also enjoy the waterfront residences and cafes that dot the walkway. 

In total we spent a whole day wandering the harbour and boardwalk while fitting in beer and tapa breaks for us and baby! Highly recommend!

6) The Old Quarter

The old quarter in Malaga is comparable to many of the old quarters in Spain's south. Though some of the buildings are not as restored as those of Sevilla or Barcelona what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in authenticity and the pleasant lack of tacky tourist shops.
Starting at the Roman Theatre and walking North you can get lost but never really lost in this spectacular labyrinth of romantic and twisting streets. Around every corner lies a warm cup of cafe con leche or a hot chocolate and churros and beer and tapas won't abandon you anywhere. Additionally the old quarter is lined with local artist shops selling everything from paintings to organic T-shirts. 

And if bigger names are your thing, Calle Marques de Larios is a pedestrian splender of shopping and people watching. This street is not to be missed at Christmas as the most magnificent of light displays hovers above your every step!

Tip: check out Mercado Merced in the old quarter. This indoor food and drink market is baby friendly and offers all kinds of Spanish delights for a reasonable price.

Malaga's locals are incredibley friendly and welcoming and its under the radar identity make this small city a charmer particularly in the winter months when temps of 20 C are common.
With its drive to attract travellers creating a plethora of attractions and a fun laid back coastal vibe. Malaga was high on our list for baby friendly cities to take a load off and unwind.