Sunday, November 29, 2015

Quito's Quirks

I've definitely decided I'm far better at thinking up posts I want to write than I am at actually writing them. As a consequence, I'm only now writing a bit about Quito, even though we left there almost three weeks ago.

Quito has been our toughest bit of travel yet, and it wasn't even that bad. It's a bit more developing world than our other stops so far. And it's the first place we've been where none of us drank the tap water. We read mixed reviews on the water, so we decided to play it safe and drink bottled water. We were also more careful with some fruits and vegetables.

Also, petty crime can be an issue and there are numerous warnings about safety after dark. Even though my little iPhone 4S is old and outdated by iPhone standards, it's still an iPhone and definitely a wanted commodity among the thieves. As a result, I didn't get nearly as many photos as I would have liked. I felt like we drew enough attention to ourselves as relatively pasty white tourists just by being there and moving as a pack of four. I didn't want to draw more attention and add to our already distracted tourist look by insisting we stop to get photos of everything I wanted.

So really, it wasn't even tough travel - we were just careful with the water and our iPhones. That was it.

Even though Kerry and I were in Quito almost 15 years ago (before the kids were born) I don't remember much about it. I know I liked it. I know I ate the best fruit salad I've ever eaten. I learned letting your guard down for just a moment can lead to three days of sickness after eating fruit salad, no matter how delicious it was. I also learned that the Spanish word for diarrhea is the same, it just sounds nicer when said with a Spanish accent.  

I'm happy to report that on this trip, our time in Quito was far less eventful, and didn't include a dash to the pharmacy before catching a bus. 

These were my favourite things about Quito. While they are not all quirky or specific to Quito, some are. Besides, I liked the alliteration in the title.

1. Cotopaxi

There are not very many places where you can wake up in the morning and look out your window to see an erupting volcano. We found such a terrific Airbnb apartment to stay in that had such a great view of Cotopaxi. Most every morning we saw the steam and gases rising out it.

2. The Equator  

The equator is close and accessible. Though there's some discussion about where the precise spot of the equator is, I like how the Mitad del Mundo dealt with it -- they say there's a 5km band in which the moving equator lies. See, the monument is always within that 5km so it's all good.

Being just about at the equator brings a 12 hour day all year long. Doesn't matter what day of the year it is, the sun rises around 6 and sets around 6. I think if I lived with those hours for very long I'd stop sleeping in to try to make the most of the limited daylight.

3. The Elevation

You would think that being on the equator would bring warm and humid weather. Nope. With Quito being tucked away in the Andes, its elevation keeps it like spring all year. It's nestled in a nice little valley surrounded by mountains with an official elevate of 2,850 metres (9,350 feet).

Being in among these mountains brings along with it steep roads. It's been a long time since I've been to San Francisco  but I think Quito's hills would win a battle of the hills - especially when Quito also has the sharp corners, narrow roads, and crazy drivers. 

This road isn't very steep at all, but I don't have any other photos because
I mostly just closed my eyes when we zoomed up and down the roads.

4. Inexpensive Transportation

As a family of four travelling for so long, the cost of things are always on our mind. I took great delight in the cost of public transit, and the affordability and huge number of taxis roaming the streets. The cost of taking a city bus anywhere in the city is only 25 cents. We all rode the bus for just $1US. We took the bus to Otavalo - a city about two hours north of Quito where a large animal and handicraft market operates. For all of us to ride the bus there and back cost only $10US in total. The downside of this inexpensive transportation is the black smoke that pours out of the back end of the buses at the first hint of any acceleration.

And who doesn't love a bus with curtains?

5. Otavalo Market 

As for Otavalo, the animal market is only on Saturday morning. Even though it poured rain the entire morning we decided to go. So glad we did. It's not like any cattle sale I've ever seen in Canada. You take your animals, line them up and wait for a buyer to come along. There might be more going on that just waiting. It was hard to really watch because I was trying hard to not slip in the slippery mud. 

There were also plenty of pigs hanging around waiting to be bought. They were definitely the least co-operative when it came time to move. We didn't see any chickens being sold, but we sure saw a lot of live chickens being carried away by the legs.

The market for the handicrafts runs every day, but Saturday is the biggest day. (Un)fortunately, with the rain the crowds were thin. It made the market not very bustling, but also meant that the pickpockets weren't going to be out in force.

Lots of rain and tarps. Few people.

Lunch was quite delicious.

6. Tourist Police

Quito has a Tourist Police division. There are signs in the old town that you can report theft to them or other crimes, and they will try to help you, or help you replace passports etc. I have no idea whether this program helps anyone, but it is reassuring to see that help in English from an official source just might be available if you need it.

However, the best thing the tourist police division does is provide walking tours of old town with a police officer as the guide. This kind of community outreach is a bit hard to believe, but we all enjoyed the tour. Our guide was such a cutie-pie though, it's hard to believe she's really a police officer.

7. Traffic Police

Traffic police are everywhere during the day - even at corners with traffic lights. They blow this great sounding whistle (sorry, no photos or video available) and keep traffic moving. At first I thought they were totally ridiculous, especially at traffic lights, but then I saw them get an emergency vehicle through the lights at rush hour with ease. No way that vehicle would have made it so easily without the cop and his whistle.

8. Traffic Lights

This one is little, but made me laugh every time. The pedestrian walk light man is wearing a Panama hat. These hats are not made in Panama, but rather, Ecuador. Again, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, I don't have a great photo of the man. 

9. Dangerous, but Awesome, Playgrounds

Not that I'm against safety in playgrounds, but when rules and regulations are nonexistent, kids have so much more fun. Take a look at this zipline in a local park. Meaghan was at the upper age of users. Basically, if you could sit and hang on, you got a turn.

10. Sundays

Eamon playing soccer with an Ecuadorian family - he's standing in between the dad and grandpa.

Sometimes on Sunday we have a hard time knowing what to do. The usual busy places are sometimes not busy at all. Or we come across a normally dead space that is suddenly alive with activity. It's been very hit and miss. In Quito we headed to the local park and WOW. What a hit. Families were out in full force, and usually with grandparents in tow. The street food vendors work nonstop offering up meat on a stick, cut up fruit and home baked goods. We did give a miss to the cut up fruit and home baked goods, but the meat on the stick was quite delicious. Eamon easily found a family to join in a soccer game. The grandpa and dad were quite wonderful to Eamon in including him and making him feel part of their team - even though they spoke not a word of English. Quito is a good place to be on a Sunday.

11. Big Ideas

Someone in Quito has some grand ideas, but sadly, they just don't seem to work out.

This isn't the fail part of the cable car, but rather the stunning (and totally surprising to me) view on what's on the other side of the mountain at the top.

The first we noticed was the cable car up the side of one of the mountains. The cable car itself was fantastic, and busy. But the numerous empty buildings at both its base and top reveal big plans that just didn't work out. At the base of the cable car there's Volcano Park (a theme park with rides) down a dodgy looking escalator that wasn't working, and a couple of shops. Despite the line for the cable car and the people coming down, no one lingered and hung around. Instead we all headed straight to the taxis. I didn't even take any photos of these failures - mostly because the view from the top, and the bit of the walk we did was quite spectacular.

So much potential for La Ronda. I hope what we saw was just bad timing on our part.

Also, in the old town, there's La Ronda - nice old buildings that have been fixed up and now house restaurants and handicraft/artisan shops. There are some signs that explain the name and give some history. It's an adorable street, but there are no tourists, or even people, to be seen. We headed there on a Sunday. The main part of old town was busy. But about three blocks from La Ronda we turned back because there was not a person in sight and the creep factor climbed steadily. Even the lone nun we saw walking didn't make us feel safe. We headed there again mid week. Some of the shops and restaurants were open. The tourist police "station" was open. But there weren't any people or tourists. Adding to the sniff of impending failure are the tagged and graffitied information signs.

Finally, I understand there was a plan to move the handicraft sellers off the streets into buildings with facilities. Some sellers have moved into these buildings. Every now and again you see a strip of handicraft shops, all of which seem to sell roughly the same things. The one thing I found in common with each of these was the lack of tourists. It's a nice idea to have shops together to give the tourists a place to flock, but there just doesn't seem to be any flocking.

I admire big ideas, but am a little sad they don't seem to be taking off in Quito. Whether these failures are the result of corruption on some level or something else, I just don't know.

12. Chinese Imports

This may appear to be an odd thing to like, but if you saw a shop selling washers, driers, stoves, electronics, and motorbikes, you might take note too. Kerry asked someone about it. Seeing all these things in one shop never struck this fellow as odd, but he could see maybe why we thought it was. I think he was being polite. Turns out, these items are all in one shop because they are the inexpensive Chinese imports.

There was also the office furniture store that sold toys and musical instruments. No idea why. Figuring out these connections is like one of those games where you need to figure out how three seemingly random people are actually connected to each other.

13. Living the Life of an Expat

In the jungle we met a European family that has just moved to Quito. He works for a multinational corporation. They invited us over for lunch, and in a surprising move, I said, 'We'd love to come!' Those of you who know me have likely gasped audibly. Can you believe I agreed to that? This is part of my "Be Bold" motto for the year.

But I'm so glad we went. What a different life they lead than what we had seen. We move in the tourist circles, with our tourist clothes, and know that we aren't seeing or living real life wherever we go. For them, they are settled in a home for the next number of years and have everything they own with them. They too stand out because of their fair skin and hair. But the precautions they need to take to stay safe are so different from our own.

They have routines, private school uniforms, and a variety of other tiny details in their lives that reveal them to be foreigners with money, making them targets. Maybe not targets for big violent crimes, but certainly a quick kidnapping that a visit to an ATM for a big withdrawal might fix.

As a result, they live in a gated community with a guard at the front. Then within that community they have a fenced yard with a guard at the front of their gate too. I'm certain that at least one, if not both, of these men are armed, but maybe I'm just being dramatic. 

Inside their fence is a beautiful home with a lovely yard - truly an oasis for them where they can feel safe and secure, yet experience living in a wonderful country and soaking up everything it has to offer. Visiting with them and seeing their home truly revealed a part of Quito that we would never have otherwise seen. I'm so pleased we accepted their kind invitation.

Anyway, we enjoyed the time we spent in Quito. It changed a lot over the last 15 years, and will undoubtedly continue changing over the next 15 too. While it might not be my first destination of choice in South America, I would certainly return given the chance.


  1. What a great post! It made me tear up and get nostalgic for our summer in the Netherlands. I regret not blogging whilst there, that's for sure. "Quito is a good place to be on a Sunday" - love it.