There’s a lot to be said for being met at the airport. It’s not something that happens to the lone traveller that often – and, in my case, never. Home-bound journeys are understandable, but to be met at the airport of an unfamiliar city, even continent, is a relief and a reassurance beyond measure. And so it was, that after twelve hours of my imagination getting the better of me during the flight from La Guardia via Miami in which every scenario ended with me mugged, kidnapped or left for dead, I touched down in Quito, passed through what surprised me as a clean, efficient Arrivals section (I don’t know what I imagined a South American airport to be like, other than it might feature livestock) and rounded the Customs’ doors, I was met by a sign. With my name on it.
At this point everything I’d feared and imagined about this trip dissipated in an instant. I was off, the adventure had begun and I could now enjoy it. The person holding the sign, unfazed by my relief and unaware of my fears, had been waiting an hour. Isabella introduced herself and told me she would be my guide for the next day or so. She asked me how I was, I replied in Spanish. She seemed pleased that I could speak Spanish, which she said in Spanish. And I replied that I couldn’t. In English. As we made our way out, the ‘scrum’ of cabbies and pickpockets I had been told to expect was near non-existent, save two small boys that hovered about me as we made our way to the car who soon peeled off when they realised we were slim pickings.
First seen from the air, Quito struck me as an intriguing, beguiling city – I still couldn’t get over this being my first trip to South America so, admittedly, I was wide-eyed in wonder for the most part (and circumspect and suspicious for the rest, but I’ll get to that) – nestled into the Andes, peaks poked through the clouds as the sun set behind them and then, coming into land, the lights of built-up areas only made it part-way up the banks of the mountains, understandably, as the city lights just seemed to end. Joining these areas, lit streets snaked their way around impenetrable hillsides, the lights of cars beating along them like pulsing fibre optics.
As we drove to the hotel, Isabella told me that, at 2,730m above sea level, built on a long, thin Andean plain, Quito is the second highest city in South America (after La Paz), a fact that became readily apparent as I soon noticed I had to keep catching my breath. Turning through the city’s downtown area, Isabella pointed out a couple of fancy hotels, including the much-lauded Swissotel, the opportunity to stay at I’d turned down on account of its $170/night price tag, something I immediately began to regret when I asked where my digs were, safe in the knowledge of the unlikely event that I’d be in the Mariscal, the area the Lonely Planet guide had advised me to steer clear of two weeks previously. “It’s in the Mariscal,” Isabella said, nonchalantly. I didn’t hear what else she had to say after that for the half dozen hideous scenarios that were now racing through my overactive imagination.
We soon turned into this no man’s land and, as I clutched my bag to my chest in anticipation of it being snatched from my person inside the car, I peered tentatively out of the window to at least get my bearings. Nothing seemed particularly alarming; I wasn’t witnessing muggings before my very eyes, buildings weren’t being torched and fights weren’t breaking out on every corner. In fact, the area appeared to have a rather bohemian feel, and I witnessed people walking about at leisure. What’s more, as we pulled into my hotel, the Mercure Alameda, I was struck by how inviting and civil it all looked. I put my nerves down to fatigue and, having assisted checking me in, I felt marginally more secure as Isabella bid me a good evening (I still wasn’t going out though) and we made plans for the next day.
My room was spacious and clean, with a chocolate on the pillow; most unexpected. The view from the balcony looked onto high-rises and building sites; most expected. I debated whether I was hungry or not – I couldn’t tell from the grazing on the plane and, besides, my body-clock was buggered. My watch said 8pm, however, and I was determined to at least do something with my first evening so I headed for the hotel eatery, the appetisingly-named ‘Spicy’. I knew I was unlikely to get any decent traditional Ecuadorian food – that section of the menu was overwhelmed by more European offerings – but I nevertheless ordered some empanadas and some sort of soup whose name escapes me but which featured plantain. Both were pretty dismal, really, even by my unexpectant standards. The empanadas didn’t have anything in them and the soup was more akin to flavoured water with some large chunks of potato therein. Judging from the absence of other diners, I’d wager Spicy was not known as a destination for culinary excellence in Quito. So, to bed.
The next morning, up with the larks, and grabbing a few quick breaths of air, my second glance off the balcony confirmed the backs of high-rises and building sites constituted my view but, refreshed and exuberant, I soaked it up anticipating the day ahead. Breakfast, it transpired, was served in Spicy but any fears of malnourishment were soon allayed as I was met with a buffet to rival any other, including plenty of fresh fruit and some national classics such as rice croquettes and bread pudding.
Having got my affairs in order, I was promptly met by Isabella and given the schedule. I had her for five hours and we were to go to the Middle of the World – as dramatic as that sounds – followed by a tour of the Centro Historico. The ‘Middle of the World’ is not overstated, I might add. As was later explained, since Quito sits on the equator and its longitudinal coordinates represent the only quartile not at sea, it’s able to make this assertion. Come to think of it, they didn’t, the French declared it so back in the 18th century, so it must be right.
The drive was a good chance to see Quito by day and, more’s the point, a first taste of Quito not for tourists. To get to the ‘Mitad del Mundo’, we had to pass through suburbs, and some impoverished ones at that. It was throughout this drive (and the whole day, come to think of it) that Isabella barely paused for breath in her relentless commentary befitting a tour guide. So much so, whenever I asked a question (I mean whenever I could get one in) the timbre of her voice switched to that of conversation. Once answered, a brief beat, and then back to the ticker tape tour guide intonation. So I learned not just the history of the city in two and a half hours, but the socio-economic shifts of the suburb we were driving through, the fiscal and political idiosyncrasies of the current administration, the background to the revolution and the shift to independence, and the role of the church in contemporary Quitoan society. The woman was a walking encyclopaedia.
Thirty minutes later and not too far out of town (having passed the venue of the Miss Universe contest from 2006 – not on the tour map), we shot straight past what I thought was the Mitad monument and into a gravelled car park for something entirely different; something that looked more like a tribal village. “That was the old middle,” Isabella told me, “this is the new one, having been calculated by GPS.” And here, rather than something demonstrating the equatorial line was, indeed, a living walk-through of indigenous Ecuadorian Amazon culture. Native huts contained creature exhibits, living interiors and ceremonial displays – all very interesting but I had no idea what all this had to do with the middle of the world. It was only when our guide – Isabella had tacked me onto a Canadian tour group as we came in – rounded a funeral display that I spotted a thick red line painted on the ground and a sign showing our latitude as 00’00’00. And here, too, were ranged a series of displays explaining what the equator was and how it worked; there was a clever basin/plughole demonstration – the one where the water drained clockwise or anti-clockwise either side of the line and then straight down when it was placed exactly on the equator – the guide then balanced an egg on a pinhead and also performed a neat trick where she easily pulled my clenched fingers apart on the equator but couldn’t elsewhere. The extraordinary properties of the earth’s magnetic field, ladies and gentlemen. What a load of nonsense. At least, I believed her until I was later told it was all for show. Still, a fun morning.
Back in the car and Isabella resumed her incessant commentary – literally picking up from where she’d left off – and we set our course for the Centro Historico, our route taking us up and along the side of the Pinchica volcano, with terrific views of the city, and then down the unbelievably steep streets of San Juan towards our destination. As we came down the historic Benalcazar street we ran aground in rush hour, arriving just as the schools emptied. It took 30 minutes to get 30 yards, jostling with other vehicles as one would on a crowded street, but we eventually parked up and began the tour on foot, continuing down Benalcazar, dressed on either side with some of Quito’s oldest houses, into a small square that marked the founding of the city.
Our walk began officially in the Plaza Grande, Independence Square, dominated at this time by an exhibition declaring Quito the ‘Home of South American Culture 2011’. Standing in that square, it’s a claim – official or otherwise – that could certainly hold weight. On the one side, the Carondelet Palace, the main government building, makes it plain who’s in charge – noted, curiously, for its recessed alcoves available for hire to the city’s shop-keepers. Perhaps the only country in the world to have such an enterprising governing body. Being the heart of the city, in the square the government building is balanced by the second keystone of Ecuadorian society, the church.
As we continued along Benalcazar, I popped into a shop for a bottle of water and as I came out I was suddenly struck by a beautiful Baroque façade opposite. We made our way over. Standing in the portico, I was silenced by its huge imposing doors adorned with wood carvings and flanked by spiralling columns, this was the Church of the Compania de Jesus. That, however, was just the start of it. The interior, ornately carved and gilded over virtually every surface, takes your breath away. I forget the figures but I think Isabella said it took 180 years to build and 60 to gild, the latter being made up of some 60 tons of gold, an agonisingly time-consuming process involving brushing the gold lead onto wet plaster that’s overlaid the ornate carving, the detail of which for the altarpieces and cornices are remarkable in their own right. What’s more remarkable is that its construction, for the most part (and certainly the ceiling) is wood – the arches of the ceiling are fashioned with cedar, dampened and bent into shape. The whole result rivals anything to be seen in Western Europe and if this is, simply, one church that doesn’t even feature in a main square, it’s no wonder that this was one of the first cities to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Nothing else that followed could come close to that interior – and just as well because time was against us. Already an hour overdue, we’d barely touched the surface; such was the detail of Isabella’s commentary, delivering facts like an overactive telex machine. We breezed through the new library (a converted church) and made our way swiftly to the next great ecclesiastical monolith, this time from the Franciscans – Isabella was nothing if not fair in her equal representation of Catholic denominations – the eponymous San Francisco church. Being the first to arrive in Quito, it’s no surprise the Franciscans lay claim to the oldest, and largest, church in the city. Located in another open plaza, at the junction of the four main roads through the historic district, the church is reputed to have been built on the site of the palace of the ousted Inca king, Atahualpa. The historic significance accounts for it being a meeting point and market centre for indigenous Ecuadorians, who were in evidence aplenty, hawkers peddled scarves and shoe-shine boys weaved among the tourists, looked down from up high by the huge statue of the Virgin Mary atop El Panecillo in the near distance.
Alas, time constraints meant that we could only give the Franciscans ten minutes – partly on account of me mentioning at least thrice that I was hungry. Such trivialities weren’t fazing Isabella, however, and I felt like a petulant child bleating in the back of a car as the telex machine rattled on. The interior of La Compania made San Francisco seem like a provincial chapel but then again it was undergoing some significant restoration from what looked like some serious charring on the walls. I asked Isabella if there had been a fire – no, she replied, this was soot from the candles of decades of penitents cleansing their sins.
Time was up, we could eat at last and we called into the cafe below San Francisco. Being the patron saint of travellers, this seemed fitting. I had been angling for a certain ‘fritada’ snack ever since Isabella had mentioned this was what people had for lunch three hours earlier. Which, incidentally, should justify my infantile whining. It was 4pm and the last thing to have touched my lips was a slice of pineapple at seven thirty. What arrived – roast pork on mote (boiled white corn) and plantain – was wolfed down as soon as I’d taken a mouthful.
Then it was back to the hotel and I was on my own for the evening. It was only as I was dropped off that I noticed the permanent police presence outside the hotel – perhaps Lonely Planet was right after all – I shall have to be on my guard henceforth. Isabella, too, reiterated to me not to go out after 9pm unless I was in a taxi. It was 5.30. I had three and half hours.
A quick stop at the artisan market three blocks away and the purchase of a $15 panama hat later (a better one of which I discovered for a tenner in a shop in West Sussex – there’s a lesson there) and I then considered my options. I’d only eaten an hour before so I decided to continue down Juan Leon Mera right through the heart of the Mariscal (which only that morning confirmed my fears that we were in the least salubrious part of town) in search of the Mariscal Foch and Plaza del Quinde – a destination recommended to experience the soul of the city. It’s amazing how one’s confidence is restored once one addresses a fear, because the walk down Leon Mera felt less ominous in actuality than when we’d driven down there that morning. And, as I walked, my step developing a certain spring, I kept humming Lemon Jelly’s Rambling Man and the line “Ecuador!” that’s called out during the song.
So, on the advice of Isabella for what to do of an evening in Quito, I wandered the ten minutes from the hotel to the zoo that is Plaza Foch. Doesn’t sound very South American, I hear you interject. It isn’t. For one, it’s named after a German. And, for another, it’s like Leicester Square on acid. When it was pitched as the beating heart of the Mariscal, I was expecting quaint tapas bars in historic surroundings with mariachis doing the rounds. What I was met with was a cacophony of gaudily-signed bars banging out eurotrash in a bid to outdo their neighbours, if not by decibels than by how prominently they could advertise their “2×1” cocktails. El Ristorante Mas Tipico de Quito had evidently been replaced by Sports Planet, Mixx and El Happy Gringo. In the square itself, set around a traffic confluence that hadn’t yet been pedestrianised (I wonder what the death toll was per square metre), packs of youths flaunted their wares in shiny jackets and shinier hairstyles, hawkers touted sweets and cigarettes and a smattering of predatory-looking individuals eyed inebriated and unsuspecting tourists and waited for nightfall.
Amid the maelstrom I spied an understated white table-clothed eatery offering ‘tapas y vinos’ but, for reasons still unbeknownst to me, having done a quick lap of the square to get its measure, I veered towards Azuca. I think it was the ‘2-4-1 mojitos’. It wasn’t yet six, after all, I wasn’t hungry and I was in no mood for civilised repast. I wanted mayhem.
I sat next to a table of the shortest-skirt wearing waifs (less out of desire than distraction) and perused the menu. Well, this was straightforward. I selected a ‘passionata’, not so much for future designs on the waifs next door but on account of it featuring maracuja – and I’d never had a drink with maracuja before. What came back was the most sorry-looking offering I’d ever seen. Near-blackened mint (had they barbecued it?) swilled about in what can only be described as dish water and window-dressed by a slice of limp star fruit. Halfway through my first the waiter had the audacity to ask if I was enjoying it. “Lovely”, I smiled, without a hint of irony. And then someone behind me farted. It was time to leave. Almost at that moment, the ominous mass of cloud that had been gathering over the Andean hills in my view shot forth the most spectacular bolt of lightning that hung in the air for what felt like seconds. If ever there was a cue, this was it. I paid, winked at the waifs and went in search of some culture. And, just as I left, the heavens opened.
Back at the hotel, I dried off and weighed up venues for dinner. This was the culmination of my one night and I wanted something to mark it out. A brief consultation with the concierge and I settled on La Ronda, largely on account of being told they had live music and I needed to exorcise The Final Countdown from La Plaza Foch. I asked how far it was to walk – it looked about twenty minutes on the map – I had an appetite to work up and still had time before zero hour but she looked at me as if I were mad and hollered to the doorman for a taxi. Just as well, really, the map I had was primitive at best and with every road in Quito being named after a significant date of the revolution, I wouldn’t have known whether to come back on 9th October Street and do a left down 12 December Avenue – or was it left on 6th December and then down 27 April? I put my faith in the cab driver and was soon pulling up outside what looked more like a Swiss chalet than an Ecuadorian restaurant. Inside, through an inviting hallway, the Swiss decor continued with a pitched wooden ceiling and heavy-set furniture. Mine was one of three tables occupied. The sullen waiter offered me a menu and I noticed a three-course ‘prix fixe’ option which included the curious ‘fanesca’, a picture of which met me on an advertising board every time I stepped into the lift at the hotel. Isabella had told me previously it was a traditional Ecuadorian Easter dish of a multitude of beans and pulses broth made up of 12 ingredients, designed to represent the 12 apostles. With shrimp ceviche to start, I couldn’t have gone more native.
As a pair of complimentary empanadas were brought out to accompany the Pilsner I’d ordered, the band, dressed in ponchos and felt hats, entered and piped up over at a table of bubbly Europeans – German, I think – and began entertaining them to much applause, the hollow drone of panpipes completing the Andean experience. What began as a pleasant, authenticating accompaniment to my meal, however, would soon evolve into the Ecuadorian equivalent of water torture. There are, after all, only so many panpipe covers of Simon & Garfunkel one can handle of an evening. I did bring it on myself somewhat, though, admittedly. As the shrimp ceviche was served, the mariachis made their way over to the other occupied table and here, in the only way a polite Englishman can, I began to show interest in their playing and, I think, may have even made eye contact with one of them. A token offering of a coin or two into their hat at the end of what I thought was their set – a tip which they must have mistaken for encouragement – sealed my fate. My experience of eating fanesca – very much an acquired taste, I should add – was accompanied by five poncho’d mariachis now surrounding my table and giving me a fifteen minute rendition of The Sound of Silence. If only they knew the irony.
In many ways I wish I could have stayed longer – in Quito, I mean, not La Ronda – and, certainly, it’s a long way to go for 24 hours, but the city was not the principal reason for the trip. That was to come. As if I needed any less sleep, I had a 4am start with the telex machine the next day as Isabella, my delightful and selfless travel company rep – and as effervescent as ever at that hour – met me to accompany me to where we’d first greeted, the airport, to see me off this time from Domestic Departures. As she kitted me out with tickets, luggage checks, official passes and stamped documents, I drew the line at her having to wait with me at Security. She looked knackered. So, with a parting hug suggesting a bond forged over longer than a day, I waved her off and waited, staring in disbelief at the destination on my boarding pass: