Cradled by snow-capped Andean peaks, Quito is a metropolis of many vistas and more than just a gateway to the Galapagos Islands.
I travel on the old, single-lane Conquistadors Road up to the capital of Ecuador, a less-traversed route that suddenly reveals the high-altitude Quito, which rises 2,800m above sea level.
A city of skyscrapers and spires, Quito is the second- highest capital in the world after La Paz in Bolivia. Like many visitors, I have taken altitude sickness pills in preparation.
Quito was also the first city to be declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1978. Its historic centre is filled with churches and plazas that conjure up its Spanish colonial past and its dream of independence.
In the Plaza Grande, the heart of old Quito, I pause at a sculpture of a wounded lion, which represents Spain. Quito is known as the Light of America (Luz de America) for its courageous role in pushing for independence in 1809 and inspiring other Spanish colonies in South America.
Also within the cobblestoned historic quarter is the La Compania de Jesus, a Jesuit church built in the Baroque style, with geometrical Moorish elements.
South of the old town, on the Panecillo or “bread roll” hill, is a 45m-tall aluminium sculpture of the Winged Virgin which overlooks Quito benignly.
After gazing up at the Virgin, I swivel to admire panoramas of the capital and the Avenue of Volcanoes, a chain of perpetually snowy peaks rising more than 5,000m, including the Cotopaxi.
Quito also sits on the equator and is nicknamed the Middle of the World. Ecuador itself is named for the equator.
At the Intinan Museum (en.museointinan.com.ec), on the Quito outskirts, tourists pose for pictures, with one foot on either side of the equator. Fun experiments abound. The museum maintains that it is possible to balance eggs on the heads of nails at the equator, but I do not manage that mini feat.
This eclectic outdoor museum is also peppered with replicas of tribal huts, where I pick up a bit of indigenous culture and see frightful shrunken human heads. In the past, the Shuar tribe shrank and preserved heads of enemies as trophies.
For a little more serenity, I visit the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve in the vicinity. From a lookout platform, I gaze down at a caldera or volcanic crater which is inhabited and cultivated with maize, potatoes and fava beans.
Mist drifts over the crater and I wish there is time to wander down a green trail to the crater, perhaps to spy some wildlife.
Eventually, I do peek at some wildlife in a little Vivarium inside Quito’s La Carolina Park on the Amazonas River Avenue.
The Vivarium specialises in reptiles and amphibians. Somehow, I stop being squeamish and find myself impressed that Ecuador is such a mega-diverse country that even in Quito, a city of two million, wildlife flourishes.
I look at a green tree frog, with a pouch on its back for babies. The frog is a Quito native and hops around some of its parks. Nature lovers are working to declare the tiny amphibian the emblem of Quito. I also see the False Coral Snake, Quito’s very own too.
Before leaving, coaxed by the manager, I hold a snake that seems docile, though it slithers a little. It is an odd little adventure. But then Quito, a place swimming in contrasts and surprises, compels a visitor to experience the world quite differently