We arrived in Quito, Ecuador 9 days ago. Amazingly, it was a wonderfully uneventful trip (except for that moment when our son decided to dash out of the airport through an emergency exit, setting off alarms and causing all of the nearby agents and security guards to run in our direction). The plane ride was quick, our luggage (now greatly reduced in weight and size from the first leg of the journey) arrived without problems, and a driver met us at the airport with a cheery demeanor and an adequate vehicle. No seat belts, of course, but hey – we feel like seasoned travelers now and took that all in stride!
The Quito airport is FAAAAAR from town. I was told that the last airport (closed last year) was in the middle of of the city, and there had been a few close calls with tall buildings and what not. I met a nice gringo lady on the plane and we struck up a conversation about it. She had served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador about 20 years ago, and was returning to visit her old village and then to pick up her teenaged daughter who was studying Spanish in Cuenca for a month. She told me that she learned how to pray the Hail Mary desperately in Spanish while flying into that old airport, which made me not so cranky about the hour ++ ride into town.
It was dusk as we drove through a dusty and sprawling valley on our way towards Quito. The colors, buildings and people reminded me of Panama City. Vibrant splashes of bright greens, blues and reds on concrete buildings. The weather reminded me of springtime Wisconsin, all fresh breezes and crisp temperatures. There was no humidity, but there were a sprinkling of volcanoes, some covered in snow, forming a tall circle around us as we made our way through the suburbs.
As night settled, we reached a long and steep cobblestone street. It was clogged with drivers descending into the valley while we climbed our way into a fortress of buildings and stone walls. I felt like we were climbing into a fairy tale of castles high up on protected mountains. A surprising number of bicyclists weaved their way down the hills in between the legion of four wheeled commuters. My driver told me that the stones on this street were original, and had been driven on in one way or another for hundreds of years.
My first impressions of central Quito were of ancient streets meeting frenzied modernity. Throngs of people packed the sidewalks. Rows and rows of food vendors parked outside of green spaces serving sizzling and smoking foods off of hot grills. Out of necessity and desperation, we had booked an apartment for a week near the touristy Plaza Foch, and we were stunned by the number of people packed into sidewalk seating and milling about with the drunken walk of people enjoying vacation in a place where drinks are cheap. It was Wednesday, but no one had told these party-goers.
Our apartment had an amazing view, and an amazing amount of noise. Single pane windows, even 7 stories up, meant that we heard every every drunken vomit, every terrible karaoke rendition of an 80s song best left in the 80s, every corner drug deal, every pimp working out a vacation special with a tourist. The kids slept through every minute of it, but my husband and I watched with rapt interest and lost a lot of sleep during the next week.
We contracted a family bug a couple of days later, whether food borne illness or viral I’m not sure. My daughter was the only one to escape unscathed, but the rest of us suffered though fevers, sleepless nights, and lots of time in the bathroom. In between all of this, we still managed to get out and explore our new city.
We fell absolutely in love with Quito. Like head over heels, nothing you will say will change my mind, I see no negatives in love.
Mostly, I think it had to do with the sidewalks and parks. Loads of them, perfect, stretching for miles. Such a contrast to our last spot which seemed bent on dissuading this family of walkers from venturing too far from home. Quito allowed us, invited us, begged us even to explore, wander, get lost. And we did.
We found big parks, little parks, gigantic parks, parks with playgrounds, parks with crafts markets, parks with lagoons you could boat around in, parks where you could ride horses, parks with little kiddie cars to rent, parks with nothing but grass and lots of people standing on it. Even where there wasn’t a park, Quiteños found a way to be outside. There were outdoor art installations, outdoor theater performances, and outdoor free concerts.
And bicycling! Never in any city south of Madison, Wisconsin have I seen such a large and supported community of bicycle enthusiasts. There were bike lanes on every major thoroughfare separated from the buses and taxis and errant drivers by large protruding, protective bumps. There were racks of bikes for rent in front of parks and government buildings and malls. There were entire streets with store after store of bikes, bicycle safety equipment and accessories.
We awoke our first Sunday morning in Quito to the sound of…silence. No cars, no thundering buses or speeding taxis. Looking out the large picture window onto Avenida de las Amazonas – a major north/south street in the city, we realized that the only traffic was of the two-legged and two-wheeled variety. Our landlord explained to us that from dawn until late afternoon every Sunday, the street was shut to all traffic. Not just this street, but 20 miles of streets all throughout Quito. This was no twice a year “ride-the-drive” type thing. This was an EVERY SUNDAY occurrence! In a city of over 2 million people, shutting down 20 miles of major streets literally in the middle of the city is no small feat. We were duly impressed with what the Quiteños call “Ciclopaseo”.
What else did Quito seduce us with? Churches and views.
We aren’t religious types, but architecture affords a glimpse into the soul of a nation. 80 churches indicated to me that Quito was a fairly devout soul. In the space of that first week, we dragged the kids to Colonial churches, old churches built over Incan palaces, a Gothic basilica, and scores of other churches that were beautiful – but I didn’t have the chance to learn anything else about them. Stunningly beautiful churches are as ubiquitous in Quito as Starbucks are in LA.
This may be my Anthropology background peeking through, but I see language, food and public spaces as the trifecta of clues into any culture. If this is true, Ecuador felt like an impossible but functioning mix. Modern and old. Spanish and Indigenous. Highlands, coast and jungle. Maybe because the city isn’t known as a huge tourist spot, or maybe because we were trying to settle in as temporary residents and not just as visitors dashing through, the overriding impression Quito made on us was an authentic city. A giant, real city, perched high in the mountains of a small little country straddling the Pacific and the wilds of the jungles, filled with people who have one foot in an ancient world and the other in modern civilization. It felt both exotic and familiar, and we absolutely loved it.
So, we rented an apartment for six more weeks here. I’ll let you know how it goes…