Published on May 16th, 2011 | by Simon


Hola Ecuador

Quito is by far the prettiest of the Andean capital cities I’ve seen, not that it gets much competition from Lima or Bogota. The old city has been mostly left alone, and probably has had to be since it got one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Site awards. Just think big squares, imposing two storey Spanish style architecture, and a church every three blocks. 
 Presidential Palace
The Cathedral at night
Most of those churches are extremely lavishly decorated with much gold in evidence (presumably what was left over after the Spanish carted the rest off to Europe and had some stolen along the way by English privateers – which is to say state-sponsored pirates).
For the first few days the altitude killed me until I decided to use the internet to seek a cure. At 9,000 feet Quito is the second highest capital in South America and the oxygen in the air is at about 50% of sea level, so you need to suck in way more to survive without the symptoms of a monster hangover. Talking of which…
 I just loved the lack of anonymity of this notice 

Unfortunately only time can acclimatise you to the altitude (and maybe that’s part of the reason the local people are so seriously short at around 4 foot max), so Ibuprofen had to do the trick – and it did, though I think I’ve consumed as much as I normally would in a year. My other brush with medication was more by way of a precaution. Yellow Fever isn’t very prevalent any more, and even then only in the Amazon basin, but neighbouring countries all want to see a vaccination certificate before they let you in. So with the owner of the hotel I wandered off to the local vaccination centre. Some 15 minutes and zero dollars later I had been jabbed! But then I had to shell out $10 for the certificate (pretty clever really as only tourists or the local rich would need a cert). In any case this compared pretty well in efficiency and cost with New York where I was quoted $200 for exactly the same thing!

My room overlooked a trolleybus route which led to some rather alarming shaking if one came past at speed and if it stopped outside my window, the wifi to the room cut out (lots of electric radio energy in a trolleybus I guess). Anyway, someone decided that a horn on these things was too severe or maybe should be reserved for regular buses, but the trolleys had a little Andean melody sounding as if it had been created on a childs electronic keyboard – quaint until you have heard it a thousand times. However, two of the trolleybuses had their own melodies – La Cucaracha (presumably for the cockroach bus), and – Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer (a bus called Rudolph?). Someone at the factory must have had a sense of humour.

And so by shared taxi to a market town called Otavalo…


Woke up this morning to only a dribble of hot water. Aha I thought, everybody has used it up. But then I discovered no cold water too, closely followed by the realisation that there was no power. A quick look out of the front door of the hotel revealed guys up polls cutting down power cables. 

My thoughts turned to breakfast and so I wandered off towards the main square in this small town, only to discover the whole town had been turned off. Nothing like the absence of breakfast to make you crave it even more. But then I happened past the little hole in the wall place I had seen yesterday which serves up roast pork pulled (quite literally with the fingers of the server) off a whole roast pig. Not my first choice for breakfast but this was truly magic. In the words of Anthony Bourdain – “yes my friends this is the real thing; pork as tender as it comes and crackling that can only be perfected with years of experience”. Accompanied by crispy potato cakes, raw Spanish onion, spicy salsa and some white vegetables that look like small beans. A bottle of water and all done for $2.50.

It is a beautiful sunny day, and I am dressed for colder weather so I am changing in my room and hear the unmistakable sounds of a procession (big drum and off tune trumpets, played slow march time). Sure enough Maria is out for a walk with a small group of locals and friars who are taking turns carrying the statue. I join in and we are led by a police truck around the town, past a church which is clearly favoured by the indigenous people and back to the church in the main square whence Maria came. I love this stuff.

As if that were not enough, right in front of said church is the main town square (I swear the Spanish had one plan for all the main town squares in their empire), where an orchestra (well 20 musicians and a conductor with everything from guitars to glockenspiel and trumpets to tambales) has set up to present a one hour concert of local music. Turned out to be a little like sophisticated Mexican style. 

Thankfully, there were no pan pipes, though I heard plenty of that yesterday (actually Yesterday and Knights in White Satin seem to have replaced El Condor Passa as the tune of choice to be played with an Andean accent).
Aside from the music, yesterday was Saturday Market in Otavalo. This town is about two hours north of Quito but has retained all the local dress from the various tribes hereabouts. I’ve been here three days and in truth it is more real on the non-market days than Saturday when Quiteno’s and tourists decend. But even then it’s not until after 10am when they get here and before that there is the animal market, the like of which I have never seen before. You can view the pics but that doesn’t truly convey the amazing reality of all of this.
The 6 or so gringos present wandered around looking a little overwhelmed and trying not to interfere with the business of buying and selling livestock. No llamas, but a raft of pigs, cows and bulls, sheep, chickens, and one dressage horse (as in Andalucian Stallions). And set above this amphitheatre are multiple food outlets serving such a raft of hearty meals with every bit of the animals present in living form below. All the evidence is that the farmers and herders really appreciate a major breakfast and like what they get. The range of costumes is amazingly varied, and just so typically Andean. A wonderful experience worth getting up really early for.
So then everyone takes a slow walk back to the main square and the multitude of surrounding streets which are crammed with stalls selling mostly local clothing. There are some with tourist items but mostly it seems to be aimed at the local people. And hats everywhere because almost everyone wears one – usually with a carefully tied pigtail poking out of the back (the same for both men and women).

So as I write this, I am wondering what to do about lunch and then a group of loose friends turns up and they have decided to inflict chilli con carne and US dips on the locals, and I get invited in. And to add to that, two of the locals are classical guitarists and have their instruments (one a guitar but the other a local mandolin kind of thing where the sound box used to be made of the shell of young armadillos (complete with head and ears around about where the fret begins).
And finally, just for fun, here is an icecream street seller, and a Mothers Day cake display – though one would think they might be a little stale after a week in the window…
Now I have made my way to the coast – down 3000metres and up about 10 degrees in temp. Loving it already, though Quito airport could learn a thing or two about organisation. Monitors show either the flight time or the checkin time on a seemingly random basis with no indication as to which is being displayed. And telling me the flight departs from Gate 17 when there are only 4 gates in the terminal is not very helpful  – in fact 17 was the stand the plane was at – and you could reach it only on a bus from Gate 2 which was nowhere mentioned in the departure lounge. Anyway, my first ride in a wind-up aircraft for quite a while with sandwiches and hot drinks all served on a 35 minute flight. The airplane food cart advertised Sony Vaio and said they recommend Windows XP – a pretty old cart I would say…
More from the Ecuadorian Pacific coast at Puerto Lopez…

And from Cuenca high in the Andes…


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