Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sidetrip Report: Ecuador, Days 3 and 4


We started our third day in Quito by having breakfast with our old friends Marleen and Fernando. We met them in 1990 when we traveled to Ecuador for a year-long study-abroad program and Marleen directed the program in Quito. It was wonderful to see them again after so long, and incredibly it seemed as if no time had transpired since we had seen them last.

In the previous post I mentioned that our hotel was fortuitously located, and so it was. The La Mariscal district of Quito is the tourist area par excellence of the city and, catering to travellers as well as being near the business and hotel district (along Av. Amazonas), it has lots of funky restaurants and cafes, and bars and nightclubs. I've already mentioned Mama Clorinda and La Boca del Lobo. Well, each of those were but three blocks from our hotel on Calama street. The Magic Bean, where we met Marleen and Fernando, was two blocks further down, and most of the places mentioned in this post are also within walking distance.

Anyway, from breakfast we caught a cab to one of Quito's "must do" attractions: the Teleférico. The Teleferico -or TeleferiQo, as they spell it- is a gondola cable car up the side of the volcano that abutts the city of Quito, the Pichincha.

When we got there line was long as the place hadn't yet opened despite it being an hour past the posted time. There were several busloads of young kids waiting and they were all very excited to be going. Clearly for most it was the first time, and was the adventure of their young lives.

The gondolas, which each hold six people, rise from 2950 meters (8850 ft) to 4100 meters (13,400 ft) in about 10 minutes. At the top most people are likely to find themselves short of breath, and there are signs warning visitors to not try to run and to take it easy.

The views are spectacular but the place can get quite cold and windy. Fortunately there is a large enclosed observation deck with a restaurant (which was closed when we were there). There are also coffee shops and souvenir stands. I can tell you a bit of caffeine and sugar did help with the adjustment to the altitude.

The view from the observation area atop Pichincha

The volcano itself has two peaks. The extinct Ruco (old) Pichincha which is nearest the city and to which the Teleferico climbs, and the ocasionally active crater of Guagua (young) Pichincha behind it. From the Teleferico stop there are trails that go up to the Ruco Pichincha, and perhaps beyond, but for most people 13,400 feet is high enough.

The Ruco Pichincha

After descending, we headed back to the hotel to rest up a bit, but feeling a bit restless I decided to walk three blocks up to Av. 12 de Octubre to visit the bookstore of the Abya-Yala publishing house. Abya-Yala is probably the foremost publisher on the continent of materials relating to indigenous communities and their issues. I always enjoyed browsing their shelves and this time was no exception and I came away with a few books to add to my shelves.

Liz and Susana had accompanied me, and while I browsed, they walked a block or two over to the Catholic University, where Liz and I studied. Susana, however was feeling the altitude, and quickly returned to the hotel to lie down.

Liz and I, meanwhile, took the opportunity to visit Abya-Yala's small but excellent Museo Amazonico. The museum houses a collection of artifacts, both ceremonial and utilitarian, from Ecuador's diverse jungle nationalities, such as the Shuar, Achuar, and Waorani, including a couple of real shrunken heads (tsantsas) produced by Shuar warriors.

Múseo Amazónico


There is also a large display of photographs documenting environmental damage caused by petroleum drilling and transport activities in the Ecuadorean Amazon by Texaco.

All in all, the Museo Amazonico is well worth visiting on any stop in Quito.

That evening, we wandered around La Mariscal looking for a place to eat -none of us had had lunch beyond a couple of pastries shared atop Pichincha. We were having a disagreement as to whether to go Mexican, Mongolian BBQ, or Argentine steak, when we stumbled onto Plaza Foch.

Plaza Foch, named by being on the corner of Reina Victoria and Foch, is a lively little area with several 24-hr joints, and numerous cafes and restaurants, and -from what we could tell- frequent live music.

We had passed through Plaza Foch before and not paid it much heed, but now we were looking at it through new eyes and a place that caught those eyes right away was Latitud tapas and wine bar. For a prix fixe per head we surrendered ourselves to an unending sequence of tapas and wines. I think we sat there for close to two hours eating, drinking, and enjoying the atmosphere. We finally had to tell the waiter to stop bringing food as we were full. A little later we stopped the wine as well. I think it was the best meal we had in Quito and as we sat there we could think of a number of cousins and uncles in Lima who would've dug being there with us that that moment.

After dinner the kids headed back to the hotel and Liz and I caught a cab into the old city for a visit to the famous and charming Calle La Ronda. La Ronda, so named because it once followed the path of Quito's old city walls, has been cleaned up and restored to its old grace. There is a large police presence to discourage crime and automobiles are banned from it.

The street is lined with old-style shops and restaurants, some of which looked quite fun and made us sorry we'd already eaten our fill. Periodically, along the walls, there are signs detailing the history of the street, and noting important events and personages which have graced it over the years. For example, it once housed a "clandestine" speakeasy, El Murcielagario, frequented by intellectuals, poets, musicians, and other noted bohemians.

Following La Ronda we walked around and came out next to the Church and Plaza of Santo Domingo, where we caught a trole back to La Mariscal.

Not ready to go to bed yet, Liz and I then walked a few blocks down to listen to some live salsa and cumbia for a bit at a club on Juan Leon Mera. Liz was in the mood for dancing but, unfortunately, I was too afflicted by my still-going strong flu or cold to be much use in that department.


On this day we had but a few hours before we had to head to the airport, so we spent them on breakfast (back at the Magic Bean for pancakes) and then to an obligatory (for me, anyway) visit to Quito's foremost bookshop, Libri Mundi. I used to spend hours in Libri Mundi and I could still -even though they've gotten rid of their upstairs bargain section- but, I didn't have hours to spend. Nonetheless, and to no one's surprise I'm sure, I did walk out with several books under my arm.

We spent a few minutes browsing in an excellent craft gallery right next door which offered perhaps the most exquisite Ecuadorean and Peruvian crafts we'd seen (really!). Alas! we were heading in the wrong direction. If we had been going to Lima we'd probably have bought some to decorate the apartment.

Then it was off to the airport and home.

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