Quito

10 Feb

 

We arrived in Quito, Ecuador on a gray Saturday afternoon. The city, sprawled beneath us in our descent, was a wide expanse of colorful buildings, a welcome splash of color against the dark palette of hills and clouds we saw from above.

I had been very worried about altitude sickness and how it might affect me. Even my first days in Medellín–which is only 400 feet shy of  a mile–were tough for me and my body. For some reason, I felt fine in Bogotá, which stands at 8,612 feet. Quito, the second highest capital in the world, surpasses even Bogotá, located at 9,200 feet above sea level, a beast of a capital city by most measures (but not by all measures…La Paz…).

BUT! We arrived and I felt fine! We ate a delicious dinner and I felt fine! I had beers and I felt fine!

But the next day, I felt it. So hardcore. Like a weight sitting on your chest, the altitude is just there. This would be the way we woke up almost every day, the early-morning pressure a reminder that we had to take care of ourselves while traveling in Quito. Typically, the effect wore off after we drank a bottle of water and ate breakfast, leaving us ready to take on the city (slowly and leisurely).

Our first day was spent walking around the historic center of Quito. The old city is supposed to be one of the best preserved colonial centers in Latin America, and it shows. Though there are certainly more modern buildings in the historic center, the majority are brightly painted colonials with big windows and entrances that open up into huge, stone-paved courtyards. While Quito has been experiencing an uptick in crime, of late, the colonial center is more safe than other parts, and we had no problems walking up and down the streets, dodging cars and traipsing over cobblestone roads.

True to its colonial roots, there are a number of churches and town squares, some dating from as far back as the 16th century. We spent the morning at one such church (San Francisco), admiring its stunning courtyard and taking in its museum of religious art which was full of gory and gaudy paintings of the crucifixion, monks “converting the savages” (“You guys are cool with smallpox and subjugation, right?”) and acts of various saints doing miraculous things. From there we panted our way (really, panting like crazy) uphill to the basilica and down to the newer part of town to buy a few fun things at the weekend market. It was only 5 miles round trip, but by the end we were ready to rest for a few hours.

I was supposed to dedicate the majority of Tuesday to working, but the hotel experienced a power outage in the morning, and so we opted to take a day trip to a town called Otavalo. The town itself is about ~2 hours outside of Quito by bus, and even though we slapped the particulars together at the last minute, we arrived at the station with 5 minutes to go until boarding (and arrived at the same, perfect departure time upon our return to Quito). Otavalo is famous [in gringo guidebooks] for its artisan market, where they sell all kinds of lovely handmade products, from everything alpaca (jackets, sweaters, blankets, scarves, etc) to jewelry, bags and beyond. Of course, it’s a tourist trap by most measures, but that’s OK. Ultimately, the money goes towards the local economy (I think), so it’s hard to complain about paying the “gringo price” (ie: inflated price) for goods that I want when I’m bartering back and forth with a woman who has three bottom teeth. Does getting her down to $30 for two blankets really make a material difference when the price is $33? Short answer: no.

The Otavalo market was also a site in which we were accosted by school children who wanted to interview us for their English class. I noticed we were being cased by a group of five young students in bright red sweater vests the moment we entered the market. They giggled and whispered amongst themselves as we worked our way through the mazes of cloth, and they would stop and linger five or ten feet behind us when we admired the works of various tables. Eventually, whenever we stopped, the gap between us and them closed, until finally they were right on our tails. When I made eye contact and smiled at one of the girls, she finally squeaked out an “Excuse me” and asked if we would help them with a project. They asked us questions that they read from hastily scrawled cue cards (“What ees yor nam?” “Where yo are from?” “Yo are married?”), videotaped our responses, and giggled frantically the entire time. A few minutes later, as we were bartering for yet another blanket, another red-vested girl came up to us, trailed by her mother, and asked if we would help her with a project. Knowing what to expect, we of course said yes and prepared ourselves for a halting conversation, but she was a pro! She had everything memorized, interviewed me with confidence and had a great accent to go along with her precise wording. She and her mother then hugged us, thanked us profusely and bought us ice cream. We sat on a corner, wondering at how the day had turned out, chewing on our melting mango and guanabana popsicles.

By the end of the day we had picked up:

  • three alpaca blankets
  • four scarves
  • one necklace
  • an awful bright turquoise and white jacket that I literally could not live without and I’m still not sure why. Also, I think I may be allergic to alpaca, but it’s technically hypoallergenic, so…I don’t know what [else] is wrong with me.

Independently, Greg has bought one sweater and two cardigans. We also bought a few woven finger puppets for our friends who are expecting. We are buying fools.

Perhaps our most important purchase so far has been Greg’s wedding ring. When we first got engaged, Greg bought me an absolute stunner of a ring, and it’s waiting patiently for me in the US (and I miss it!). But we weren’t able to find something perfect for Greg before we left. We made a romantic promise that we would find a ring somewhere in South America, buying it from an artisan who had been honing his craft for decades, creating beautiful, hand-wrought jewelry. And we found that! Sort of. We did happen upon someone in Quito with lovely handmade silver jewelry. His designs are based on indigenous cave paintings and symbols, ones that are very simple in their message but are lovely in that simplicity. On Sunday, when we met, he promised he would make one in Greg’s size and meet us in front of the statue in the main square in old town Quito on Wednesday. And he did! And it fit Greg’s ring finger perfectly. Mauricio also drew us a map of his home country, Peru, and gave us advice on where to stay and what to do when we did finally visit. We talked a bit about philosophy and parted ways. Mission accomplished!!

Other adventures included:

  • a trip to Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”) to visit the equator and take [stupid but obligatory] pictures with our feet on either side of the bifurcating line
  • days and nights spent walking around Quito, enjoying the colors and the architecture, watching the lights come on and the city close down
  • eating! Highlights of eating include a traditional potato+cheese+avocado soup and llapingacho, a plate of meat, avocado, a fried egg and a few fried potato and cheese patties
  • a tiny temblor woke me up Tuesday evening, and even though that should be scary (a colonial city is officially the 4th last place I want to be when an earthquake hits, preceded only by: 3. on a volcano; 2. on a bridge; 1. in an underwater tunnel) it was exciting, as earthquakes often are. It didn’t amount to much of an earthquake, but I’d rather not stick around to find out what else this city is capable of
  • speaking of volcanos, Greg spent half a day traveling to and riding up the side of the nearby volcano in a cable car. I had to work, and although I missed out on some spectacular views…I’m OK having missed out because volcano
  • enjoying breakfast with a view of the Plaza Santo Domingo, a nice way to start your day with some fruit and café con leche

Overall, Quito was a charming and lovely city that we are glad to have gone to visit (and not just for the alpaca goods!). It was a last minute trip, yes, but it was great for both novelty (EQUATOR) and historic preservation, alike. If we had more time, I would have loved to hike nearby mountains or travel further east to the rainforest; we could have spent weeks on the coast or found our way to the Galapagos; we could have traversed other Andean pueblos and coerced the locals into letting us buy an alpaca. But for what the trip was–a quick stop outside of Colombia–there was so much more than we expected.

FUN FACTS!

  • Ecuador uses the greenback as its currency
  • Quito was one of two cities to be named the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other: Krakow)
  • The capital city sits on the side of a volcano. Not, like, the way Olympia and Seattle are “near” a Volcano. Nope, on the side of, quite literally
  • Quito is the second highest capital after La Paz (in nearby Bolivia), but the highest legal capital, because Bolivia considers La Paz it’s “administrative” (read: boring) capital, while Sucre serves as its legal capital
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One Response to “Quito”

  1. Lea Anthony February 10, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    Send me a picture of the silver hand made ring that Greg bought. You two are just having the BEST extended honeymoon ever!!!
    Kisses, Mom

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