Exploring El Refugio in Calacali

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The day after Christmas, we headed 18 miles north of Quito to the town of Calacali. The drive takes about 40 minutes depending on traffic and which part of the city you leave from. But even with the relatively short distance, the landscape changes dramatically.

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Quito’s green-topped mountains and lush parks give way to arid high altitude desert. You’ll spot Pululahua, a dormant volcano surrounded by a national park.

We passed Mitad del Mundo and the Intiñan Museum, both of which are first-visit must-dos, but we’ve all been there multiple times, so we skipped them.

[If I need to state the obvious: Ecuador takes its name from its geographic location at the center of the earth, aka the equator. The Mitad del Mundo campus is a monument and museums to Ecuadorian culture and history. The line was first measured in 1736. Centuries later using modern GPS units, it was discovered that they were off by 240 meters. But STILL! They had no modern technology, using math and the stars and best guesses were able to come very, very close. When my dad’s company first got GPS units for the airplanes in the 90s, we took one out there for fun. Yep, it was off, and we trekked out into the field near the Mitad del Mundo and giggled that we’d found the “real” middle of the world. Today, that area is occupied by the Intiñan Museum, which explores the fun little physical quirks of either side of the equatorial line. We didn’t do it this time, but you should.]

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We were headed for Hacienda El Refugio, an outdoor adventure training and retreat center.

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My sister and brother-in-law’s organization runs the place, and they wanted us to see it.

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The grounds are lovely, so we spent some time wandering and enjoying, but we headed pretty quickly up the eucalyptus-lined trails winding up the mountain on either side of a ravine. There was some stick gathering and throwing.

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We passed the rock-climbing wall and the zip-line, and headed straight for the top and the tree house.

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This is the stuff Swiss Family Robinson Dreams are made of.

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Ladders, bridges, platforms, trap doors all strung between fragrant eucalyptus trees with peeling trunks.

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Hiking at that altitude when you aren’t used to it is taxing, so we relaxed while the kids played.

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While the tree house stretches over a drop of more than 100 feet, we felt totally secure letting the kids climb around. The whole structure is encased with netting and everything is anchored really well.

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We finally made our way down the dirt trail to the retreat center, after more stick and rock collecting along the way, and we made sure to stop and spot the llamas.

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Then, with our tummies rumbling for lunch, we piled in the cars to head for a friend’s house for Christmas leftovers.

That was something we could all agree made us happy.

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World’s Highest Nativity: Panecillo at Christmas

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This lady rises above the city of city from the peak of her round hill. The hill reminded the Spanish of a bun, hence the name “Panecillo”. According to my history teachers, the hill was the former site of an Incan temple and possibly a burial ground when the Spanish laid eyes on it.

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Apparently she’s made of aluminum.

The woman on top crushes the head of a serpent which she drags by a chain. Some say she’s the only Madonna in the world with wings. According to a plaque on the statue, she’s supposed to be the woman of the Apocalypse from the book of Revelation.

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In any case, she’s the personification of the spirit of Quito, and whenever I arrive and spot her figure from the plane, I feel nostalgic.

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My favorite view

To get to the Panecillo, you wind up the tight spiral of road until the crest of the hill. There’s usually plenty of parking if you drive or a taxi will take you up for a couple of dollars.

You can get your tourist handicrafts at any one of the stalls.

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Or there’s always the option of lunch or dinner.

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As you can see, these are popular with the locals.

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Entrance to the area is free, but there’s a small fee to climb the old metal staircase that circles around inside the base of the statue. From there, you can take in views of the city from Mary’s feet. We usually skip that and opt for the equally stunning views from outside the statue.

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This year, there was a guy there with and iPad and a drone who would take a 30 minute video of you or your group at the top of the statue with Quito as your backdrop. For $8! What a unique keepsake. I totally would have done it had it not been a few minutes after sunset and the family dispersed all over the hill when I discovered the drone man. Also, I was kinda worried about one of the kids stepping on the drone.

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Pichincha thought it was a good time to let off some steam. The crater is that craggy area to the left of the smoke.

We were there because it was a few days before Christmas and the Panecillo was all decked out with a manger scene of lights. According to my sister, this is the world’s highest manger scene (nearly 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters above sea level).

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In all my years of living there, we’d never been to that particular event, though it’s entirely possible that it didn’t exist 20 years ago.

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That cell tower definitely didn’t exist 20 years ago.

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South Quito by twilight

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The evening mist creeping over the mountains toward the valley

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Our tour guides and chauffeurs

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Two of the “kings” from the nativity scene and the food area in the foreground.

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I already mentioned this deliciousness in the food post.

There were special food vendors on the south side of the hill, picnic tables and a stage set up under a tent with heaters and a choir singing Christmas songs.

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It also happened to be the night of the Christmas parade featuring men and women in traditional dress as well as Mary, Joseph and the baby on stilts. And a camel, I’m pretty sure.

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Why were they on stilts on cobblestone? We’ll never know.

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Side note: The manger scene took me a bit to figure out. There were 3 tall figures with crowns (aka: the wise men or kings). Strung between two poles was a hammock-looking thing that was the baby (see the second photo in this post). But I kept asking Kelley: “Where’s Joseph?”

“Right there!” she’d say, over and over.

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Finally, I got it. See the faint white round shape to the right of the statue, aka Mary? Yep, that’s him. As my sister said, “Smaller, subservient and pushed to the side.” The Madonna is the big deal in this country. Forget about the other characters.

Before long, it was cold and the kids were ready for bed. But it was a fun evening enjoying Christmas at the Panecillo with my beloved Quito in the background.

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Quito’s Oldest Church: Guápulo

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On a foggy day, the church in Guápulo is completely hidden by the mist that covers the valley like a pot lid. But if you dare to descend the Camino de Orellana that winds through the village like tightly-spun yarn, you’ll be rewarded with the stately sight of the Sanctuario de Guápulo.

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The church is Quito’s oldest colonial church, founded by Spanish explorer Fransisco de Orellana in 1541. The plaza in front of the church bears his statue. And also, a few guys shooting the breeze on a bench.

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The colonial churches in Quito always amaze me with their attention to detail.

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And this grand old woman has recently been restored.

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One of the caretakers was busy giving this lady a bath with a scrub brush and a bucket.

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He told us we’d missed out, though, because while we were playing in the park, they’d taken down the gold statue in the centerpiece of the altar to clean it.

(Side note: my sister is pretty.)

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But our bellies were rumbling and the kids were whining. As beautiful as it was, it was time to go.

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Old Quito

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We rushed down one evening to the old city to stroll along La Ronda, Quito’s oldest street, and find some empanadas.

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I could wander around that area for ages, but between the narrow streets, the traffic and the cobblestone, it’s not something we wanted to do for long with the little people.

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We ran into a Christmas parade, with a high school band playing off-key and loud Christmas tunes.

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The kids loved watching and dancing to the beat.

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La Virgen watches over the city from her perch.

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On another hill, colorful homes cling to the side while the museum of the eternal flame stands proud (but sometimes the flame is out).

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And the building tops were lit with the last rays of the sleepy sun.

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Restless children were persuaded to briefly pose.

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Empanadas procured, we took in some music.

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And charmed the band into teaching the kids some tricks.

Hearts and bellies full, we piled back into the cars to head for home.

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More Love Letters to Quito

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We spent a lot of time in parks while in Quito. The city is dotted with them, the kids enjoyed exploring, running and playing, and it was a good way to burn off the energy.

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Also, Ecuadorians really value family, so all the parks had facilities for kids, including this fun one at Parque Metropolitano.

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And how lovely was it to be able to enjoy the outdoors in December?

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The seasons north of the equator are beautiful, but I must say, I sure do appreciate a life without winter and the oppressive heat and humidity of summer.

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Quito has seasons, but they’re rainy season and dry season. The temperature ranges between 45 degrees (8 C) to 65 degrees (19 C) the whole year.

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In my book, that’s pretty much perfect.

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And leaves room for lots of sweet cousin time (and father-in-law/brother-in-law time).

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