Quito Travel Blog

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The most striking thing about Quito is its location.  It’s sprawled across a long, skinny valley in the Andes, and so Quito is a long, skinny city.  It´s only two or three miles wide but more than 20 long.  At 9200 feet, it doesn´t feel like a valley; it feels like a slightly flattened spot at the top of a mountain.  The city of 1.5 million is built up into the surrounding hills on impossibly steep angles (or so it seems to me; Nick, accustomed to San Francisco´s slopes, was less awed).  At night you look out in any direction and see lights sparkling high on the hills.

The difference between tropical, coastal Cartagena and alpine Quito is stark.  Quito is a paler city, but still colorful.  The buildings in Quito are an assortment of white and pastels -- light blue, yellow, green, and pink.  The people dress differently, too.  In Cartagena, women of all shapes and ages wear tight, stretchy, boldly colored clothing.  In Quito, the clothes are more sedate -- looser and muted.  Of course, the weather is much cooler in Quito, with lows around 50 and highs around 70 every day.

We spent most of our time in Quito in two areas, the old city and the Mariscal, a tourist ghetto.  We only went there when we needed particular traveler services unavailable elsewhere, like tour operators, ATMs, or Indian food.  The Mariscal may be undistinguished, but you can´t say it´s not useful.

The old city, where we stayed, has a European feel.  Lonely Planet says that in the old city, Quito distinguishes itself from every other city in the world, but to me the old city, with its narrow and hilly streets, is strikingly similar to Granada, Spain.  I almost wouldn´t have been surprised to see the Alhambra on the hills in the distance.  I´m not complaining, I loved Granada.

Our big complaint about Quito was the pollution. (You can´t really hold the altitude against it, because you acclimate after a few days).  I have never breathed such dirty air in my life. It´s worse than Bangkok, far worse than Los Angeles.  Part of it must be due to an inversion, but much of it has to be simply that the vehicles all seem to operate on diesel, with no apparent emissions standards.  All the buses –- and Quito is a city of buses –- leave behind nearly opaque clouds of soot.  You want to hold your breath until it´s gone, but if you did this you would asphyxiate because there are always more coming.  Within minutes of leaving the airport, my lungs and throat were burning.

Our hostel -– the Chicago Hostal -– was on a steep hill at the edge of the old city.  For our first few days in Quito, we got quite winded climbing that hill.  The climb aside, the hostel is a terrific little place.  The rooms are a decent size, in good condition, and we have our own bathroom with hot water.  Breakfast of fruit, eggs, croissants, and coffee was served every morning on the fourth floor patio, where we have a fabulous view of the city.  Our double room with private bath cost $15 a night, by far the best deal we expect to see during our trip.

We began our stay in Quito with something most travelers can only hope to experience –- a third world medical crisis!  Earlier that morning, before we left Cartagena, Nick complained that he was feeling weird (flashback to the massage women on the beach insisting that they sensed something wrong with him), in particular that his legs felt tingly.  I ungraciously accused him of making this up.  Tingly legs?  Seriously!  But by Bogota, he was feeling worse -- feverish and achy -- and honestly he didn´t look great either.  Despite my best efforts to prevent him from doing so, he read the health sections of our guidebooks, which indicate that nearly every scary tropical disease begins with flu-like symptoms.  By the time we boarded the plane to Quito, he was convinced he had malaria.  I thought this unlikely, as we were on anti-malarial medication and hadn´t really been bitten, but other tropical maladies were possible.  After arriving at our hostel and attempting to contact the English-speaking doctor listed in our guidebooks and having no luck (it turned out to be a holiday weekend) and calling the American embassy to get a list of other English-speaking doctors and again having no luck (would a pre-recorded list been too much to ask?), we took a cab to an American-run ER that was mentioned in our books.  Within half an hour of arriving, Nick had been thoroughly questioned by a nurse, examined by a doctor, and diagnosed with...an ear infection.  And no, not a special South American ear infection.  They gave him some antibiotics and ibuprofen.  Total cost for the emergency room visit?  Fifteen dollars.  Ten for the drugs.  They told him if he wanted a copy of the forms to submit to his insurance company, we´d have to come back during regular business hours.  We thought it would be impolite to laugh.

We took it easy for the next few days to give the antibiotics a chance to work.  Almost everything was closed the next day anyway, it being both Sunday and the end of the holiday weekend.  We did visit the Banco Central museum in the Casa de la Cultura.  We were almost the only people there, which we thought odd given that it was a holiday and also given that the museum is free for Ecuadorians on Sundays.  Maybe it was a solemn sort of holiday on which museum-visiting would be inappropriate.

The museum was supposed to be one of the best places to see notable Ecuadorian art.  The first exhibit concerned the origin of homo sapiens.  There were dioramas of cavemen and such.  “This has to be the wrong place,” I said.  But as we walked along farther, we saw that the exhibits were arranged chronologically -- and they, well, began at the beginning.  We walked quickly through the first few floors.  No disrespect to pre-Colombian ceramics, but that wasn´t what we were there for.  We did enjoy the top floors of Republican and contemporary art.

That night, having nothing else to do, we cabbed it to a multiplex for a movie.  We ate at the McDonald´s in the shopping mall.  Give me a break, it´s not like there are a lot of options on a holiday Sunday.  We shared a Dulce de Leche McFlurry, so it´s not like we didn´t try something local.  We saw Ocean´s 13 in English with Spanish subtitles, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I think Nick enjoyed as much as he was able to, still being under the weather.

We had noticed the night before that our cab driver wasn´t stopping for red lights, and we confirmed on Sunday that this was a common practice.  “Are the red lights just suggestions?” I asked.  The cab driver paused, probably wondering if it was possible the gringa was making fun of him.  “Yes, they are just suggestions to stop,” he said.

On Tuesday I ventured into the Mariscal to scope out tour operators while Nick rested.  We´d come to Ecuador without any particular plan as to what we´d do once we got there.  We´d heard it was great place for exploring the outdoors, so we figured our trip would involve some type of tour to a remote location.  It was really hard to choose -- there were coastal lowlands, volcanos, hotsprings, lakes, highlands, a cloud forest, the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, and snow covered mountaintops.  In the end we thought that the jungle would be the place most different from anything else we´d ever seen before or would be seeing later on the trip.

Every trip has one unbelievable coincidence, and what I´m sure will be the coincidence of this trip happened while I was browsing brochures at one of the tour operator offices.  A young guy came in and sat down near me.  He asked where I was considering going and we started talking.  He worked in DC for a Senator doing environmental policy.  I said I´d worked at an environmental organization in DC after college, and he asked which one.   “The Pew Center on Global Climate Change,” I answered.  He made an odd face, which I assumed meant he hadn´t heard of it.  “It´s a really small place,” I said, not wanting him to feel bad for not knowing it.  “I know,” he said, “I used to work there too.”  Turns out this guy -- Arvin is his name -- worked at Pew shortly after I did, and left when the balance of power in the Senate switched last year.  I wasn´t kidding before, the Pew Center is really small, maybe 20 people.  And he was probably the only person who worked there after I did that I hadn´t meet on subsequent visits back to the office.  I should mention that I´ve talked to three other Americans, excluding Nick, on this entire trip.

After visiting what felt like every tour operator in the Mariscal (though this was impossible, as there must be a hundred), I swung back by the hostel to pick up Nick, and we made an unsuccessful attempt to eat lunch at a restaurant listed in our guidebook for its great views.  Our cab driver was adamant even after having been shown a map that the place was inaccessible by road.  We knew this was untrue but decided not to insist and instead headed directly to our next destination, the Teleferico.  


The Teleferico, a tram that runs to the top of one of the hills surrounding Quito, is Quito´s big new attraction.  At the bottom of the tram (which is still high above the city) is an arcade and amusement park, along with several restaurants.  We grabbed a bite at a pizza place, where Nick and I ordered the exact same thing but were served completely different pizzas.  I would attribute it to my Spanish except that the only difficult thing I had attempted to convey was that mine should be without cheese.  (In America, this sometimes merits a raised eyebrow.  Here, they always say, “You mean with only bread, sauce, and toppings?” as if to make sure I realize there really won’t be any cheese).

We bought our tickets and boarded the tram.  The gondolas are small, each holding four people.  The climb to the top of the mountain takes about ten minutes.  Although you rise a considerable height (to 13,400 feet at the top), it is a lot less scary than the Sandia Peak tram because the line follows the hill closely and you´re never very far off the ground.  It was chilly down in Quito, so it was downright cold at the top, but the views of the city were magnificent.  Back down at the base of the tram, we stopped for some hot chocolate at a place called Chocolatte.  It was rich, thick chocolate -- like Burdick´s in Boston, and it absolutely hit the spot.  If you had asked me before the hot chocolate if I was tired, if I was cold, if I was in poor spirits, I would have said no, but I felt so completely restored by the chocolate that there must have been something wrong with me beforehand.

Having decided on two excursions –- a daytrip to the cloud forest, and a five-day trip to the jungle -- we spent most of Tuesday in preparation.  In an attempt to ingest some more vegetables, we had a so-so lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in the Mariscal.  For dinner, we didn´t want to chance it, so I suggested we go to Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan version of KFC that I´d once tried in Northern Virginia.  I´d seen one somewhere, but I couldn´t remember exactly where, so we jumped in a cab.  The cab driver chuckled, apparently because we´d asked to go to Pollo Campero, but in fact because Pollo Campero was two blocks away.  He did drive us, we gave him a dollar, and we all laughed about it.

On Wednesday, we got up early to take a tour to the town of Mindo, located in the cloud forest.  Our guide’s name was Fernando (yes, I had the ABBA song in my head all day) and he had just turned 70.  He picked us up in a blue Toyota LandCruiser, which in keeping with every cab we had taken in Ecuador did not have seatbelts in the backseat.  I don’t understand the phenomenon –- I mean, cars come with seatbelts.  You have to do something active to disable them.  Have you ever heard of one just breaking?  Anyway.  We started the long drive north out of Quito, which was already clogged with pollution at that early hour.  I began to feel sick to my stomach, which I attributed to the pollution and lack of breakfast, and I was this close to asking Fernando to pull over, but the feeling passed. 


Riding with us were two other tourists.  One was a man who I would estimate to be in his mid to late 60s; he was from Virginia but said he had been living in Quito for the last two years.  Yet he spoke no Spanish.  There was a woman sitting next to him who might have been 35.  She was from Quito but spoke excellent English.  For the first half hour of the ride, they said not one word to each other.  I didn’t realize they were together until he reached down and pulled something out of her bag.  We talked for a while with the man, who said something about once having worked for the CIA.  I asked why he had decided to move to Ecuador.  He said his son had showed him an article in the paper about it.  Well, of course. 


We stopped for breakfast outside of town.  Breakfast was inedibly overripe bananas, cheese empanadas (the tour operator had assured me that they’d have cheese-free food for me), and croissants.  Nick generously shared half his croissant with me, but they were insubstantial. 


As we left Quito and its pollution behind, it became clear that not all the pollution was coming from outside of the vehicle.  There were also gasoline fumes venting directly into the cabin.  We asked Fernando about it, but he seemed unconcerned.  As we drove along, it seemed to be getting stronger.  I was sitting in the back right next to the gasoline tank, and I was only able to get breathable air by leaning my head out the window like a dog and even then only when the air current went the right way.  Nick was in the front, where the fumes had diffused, but he had it just as bad because he wasn’t allowed to put his head out the window because of his ear.  The scenery along the drive was pretty, I think, but honestly I’m not sure we were fully conscious.


By the time we reached Mindo and the cloud forest, two hours outside Quito, we were both feeling quite ill.  We resolved then to find another way back regardless of cost.  After a few minutes of fresh air, we felt better and truly enjoyed our first stop, a hummingbird garden.  The garden is in the backyard of a house outside of Mindo and is maintained by a German-Ecuadorian couple.  They have four or five hummingbird feeders, which attract something like 12 species of hummingbirds.  These are not the plain American hummingbirds we all know.  There were big ones and small ones, and they came in bright, shiny, almost metallic colors.  My favorite was a tiny green one with little white puffs on its legs that looked like cotton balls, and another white puff at the very tip of its tail.


Next up were a butterfly garden and orchid farm in Mindo.  We suffered the gasoline fumes into town because it wasn’t far.  Both were disappointing –- the butterfly garden only had like six butterflies, and apparently it isn’t orchid season.  At least at the butterfly garden the owner was able to tell us where and when to catch a bus back to Quito.  We stuck around for the lunch that Fernando had packed -– congealed lentil paste, lettuce without dressing, squash, and carrots.  In order to catch the bus back, we had to miss the main event of the trip, a hike through the cloud forest to a waterfall. 


Our first stop back in Quito –- after a blissfully fume-free bus ride back -– was to the tour operator who organized our Mindo trip.  The woman there seemed genuinely surprised to hear about the gasoline problem and asked us what we thought would be fair.  I asked for a refund of one of our tickets, to which she readily agreed.  I realize now we might have gotten more, but I don’t think it was a great deal for them either.  So the trip was an all-around disaster, but you have to expect some of these when traveling.  In fact, if you travel for too long without any problems, you don’t appreciate the good parts as enough.  A few downward departures from the baseline do you good.  Still, after three days of Nick being sick, I think we were both hoping that it was our time for an upward departure.


While I’m looking for silver linings, I can find two more.  First, we crossed the Equator four times on Wednesday.  I personally found this thrilling (Nick, not so much).  Second, we used our refund to finance dinner at a nice restaurant on the old town plaza.  We sat on the upstairs patio of an indoor courtyard and ordered a variety of tasty traditional Ecuadorian dishes.  We also tried Ecuador’s national beer, Pilsener.  Slogan: Refreshes your life.  Nick asked me whether I could tell the difference between Pilsener and Colombia’s Aguila.  “Well, I feel like this one refreshes my life but not my passion.”  Sorry, couldn’t resist.


After our trip to the jungle, which I’ll cover in another post, we returned to Quito for another night and day.  We walked around the old town and stopped at a café on the Plaza de San Francisco.  We’d really been craving non-instant coffee (all the hostels have instant with breakfast).  We shared a last real Ecuadorian meal there -- ceviche, an empanada, and a “plato tipico” of chicken, maize, avocado, and plantains.  For dessert we went to an ice cream parlor that has been in business since 1858, where I tried a flavor called “taxo” for which there was no English translation.  Wikipedia says that it is a type of “banana passionfruit.” 


I was a little sad to leave Quito, because I liked it a lot and yet don’t imagine that I’ll be back.  It feels like a real city where real people live, in a way that Cartagena didn’t (Cartagena has other virtues).  Its setting is remarkable.  It has enough nice restaurants and cafes and plazas to keep a traveler happy for a few days.  It’s affordable, it’s manageable, it seems knowable.  I’m glad to have seen it.  But with its pollution, and maybe someday this will improve, Quito is worth one visit, but probably not two.

Tales from the jungle and an explanation of the term “Ecuadorian Amazon” to follow shortly...

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