My Time in Quito

Over the past two days I’ve done what I could to explore Quito, the mountain-dwelling capitol of Ecuador. 

At 9,350 feet elevation, I don’t envy any visitors who come from sea level. While I had some silly idea that South America was going to be hot, I have been leaning heavy on my cold weather clothes, especially in Quito. While the my first day was comfortably warm at midday, the nights are cold, and today was much colder with the presence of rain. As I write, it is a chilly 50 F with 95 percent humidity.

As a city, Quito is beautiful. Surrounded by modest Andean peaks in all directions. 

La Mariscal, where I’m staying, is at the heart of New Town, the modern metro area also called “Gringoland” (for obvious reasons). If you are so inclined, La Mariscal is where you can sample international cuisine, cruise hip bars and shop at the same stores you can find in the U.S. and Europe. While Quito has a nasty reputation for crimes against tourists, I once again find the horror stories to be completely misleading. As long as you are not stupid, it’s rather hard to get yourself in trouble. 

My first day I explored the length of New Town. While, like Bogota, Quito has an impressive bike infrastructure, I didn’t get the chance to find a rental. The city has a bike rental program akin to the B-Cycle system in Denver and Boulder, but it’s only for residents. That said, the area of my concern was small enough for walking, albeit a lot of it. 

To the south, after sweeping through Gringoland, I found adjacent Parque El Ejido and Parque Arbolito. The parks are green, clean and very beautiful places to hang out. El Ejido is scattered with cool, custom-made playground equipment that made me want to be a kid again. That yearning was granted by one of the many public art pieces in the park, a giant white dome made of rod-iron. It’s a jungle gym for adults – totally unsafe by uberconservative American standards – and afforded me my first good views of the city at large. 

I headed back to La Mariscal for lunch at a very tasty vegetarian restaurant

Midway through my veggie burger a Spanish fellow named Daniel asked if he could sit down with me and I obliged. He turned out to have a PhD in media studies, teaching at an Ecuadorian university. Needless to say we had a lot to talk about, both on the topic of journalism and outside of it. 

After lunch I moved my bags to my new, much cheaper digs ($7/night). I then embarked on an ambitious walk to the Museo Guayasamin via the even larger Parque La Carolina. The park was busy with active Quiteños pushing strollers, playing with their dogs, renting paddle boats on the large canal. I can’t believe how modernized this world has become – and by that I mean we all live essentially the same lives, at least when it comes to urban dwelling. The park also has a huge skatepark that would make a few Danes I know drool.

From there I hooked east toward the museum. What the city tourist map did not show was that the respectable-looking walk also gained several hundred feet in elevation. That would explain the guidebook’s assertion that I needed to take a taxi. Not being one to turn down the road less traveled, I trusted my legs and sense of direction and found my way, saving a couple bucks in cab fare to boot.

Then came the reward. As an art major, I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Oswaldo Guayasamín, but I will surely never forget him. 

The Ecuadorean native, whose father was Quechua, was a painter and sculptor who became the visual voice of his countyover the middle to late 20th century. His wall-size paintings are largely influenced by indigenous traditions, often resembling the cubism of Picasso, but with much darker implications for humanity. His museum on the hill is divided into two parts: the house he lived in the last two decades of his life, and the posthumously built Capilla del Hombre, a “giant monument-cum-museum…a tribute to humankind, to the suffering of Latin America’s indigenous poor, and to the undying hope for a better world.” Needless to say, they guy deals with some heavy shit. His work is going to stick with me for some time.

After being awestruck by the Capilla del Hombre, I was treated to a one-on-one tour of Guayasamin’s home, where he housed a very impressive collection of pre-Colombian, religious and modern art. My tour guide, a young Ecuadorean lady, spoke even less English than I speak Spanish, but we managed to make it work with a little patience, humility and humor. The tour lasted at least a 30 minutes and I think she got about as much out of it as me. 

As La Mariscal began partying down, I drank a couple local brews, had a quick dinner and picked up my clean laundry

I took a walk, peeped the scene and returned to the hostel. One week into my journey, I find my head in a very interesting place. While I had some expectation that I would be partying a bit, a product of history and something that is sure to happen in the future, I have yet to do anything of the kind. I’ve gained so much already from the social and physical solitude traveling alone bestows on one’s self. As Quito got down and funky on a Saturday night, I easily preferred coming back to my bunk to blog, read my book and rest up for my next day of exploring. I have many weeks ahead of me, and much of this has to do with the fact that I haven’t met anyone who has really interested me, but never before have I been so content to be alone and in my own head. 

I awoke Sunday morning with the clear mission of exploring Old Town Quito, or Centro Historico

After a shower and disappointing continental breakfast (can’t expect much given the price) I was out there door, and back in the door to fetch my rain jacket, which has seen a lot of use already, between South America and the 100-year flood of Colorado. The taxi dropped me as close to Old Town’s Plaza Grande as it could, but I had to walk a bit because Quito closes the areas streets on Sundays for cyclists and pedestrians to take over for the day – it’s pretty cool.

I was a little disappointed to start. In the early hours of the morning Old Town is largely deserted, save for its loyal churchgoers. I wondered around, shot some lackluster pictures of old buildings and toured Museo Franciscano, a monastery housing a lot of gaudy Catholic art. I will give credit to the impressive moorish ceiling, held up by interconnected puzzle-pieces of wood.

I decided to get a cappucino at the tourist cafe below and ended up ordering very delicious plate of Ecuadorean empanadas – half made from bananas and half from potato (the latter had some kind of meat). By then the sun was coming out and so were the people. From the cafe I could hear the strings and flutes of Andean folk music and I followed it to find a large band performing live in the street. I am incredibly fond of this kind music, it really fits its surroundings, and I ended up buying one of their CDs after listening to several tunes. It was fun to see the locals letting loose and dancing in the streets. Just around the corner was a similar band, and throughout the town there were more. 

In the plaza there was a highly organized (and peaceful) protest against the president (I think). After observing what was going on I headed up a street to find a separate group, loudly chanting with drums and horns, marching toward me. They reached the plaza and yelled a bit at the first group before marching on. As vivacious and passionate as both groups were, they were markedly well-behaved and the police who were following them were laughing and very much at ease. I’m not entirely sure what any of them were upset about in the first place. Democracy is funny. 

My next task was to check out the towering Gothic style Basilica del Voto Nacional

On my way there I was approached by a young Ecuadorean guy named Francis. He was also headed to the basilica and we agreed to tour it together. Francis bought my ticket and we climbed up the massive structure to catch some amazing views of the city. Though he understood a little English, he was unable (or unwilling) to speak any, so our conversations were reliant on the creativity of my limited Spanish. Save for a few instances where I couldn’t figure out what he was saying, I was shocked with how well we were able to communicate.

Though an Ecuadorean national, Francis had never toured most of the major sites of Quito, and since we were both on our own, we spent the rest of the day together, checking out churches and walking around town. We had a proper (and cheap) Ecuadorean lunch – mine was essentially popcorn shrimp – and decided to visit El Paecillo, the humongous statue on a hill that overlooks all of the city. Since Francis knew how the public transit system worked, we saved a $4 cab fare (each way) and took the bus – 25 cents! After coming back down we walked back into Centro Historico where we eventually split ways. 

Francis is a good kid – 19 years old – and with plenty to talk about. Only after looking at pictures did I realize what an odd couple we looked like – he actually makes me look tall (and old). I’m sure we will never cross paths again (outside of Facebook) but I was so pleased to make such an easy friend, and if for just a day, be total companions.

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