By Kathleen Kemsley, (c) 2021
To tour or not to tour, that is the question. For independent travelers, planning a journey to a foreign country involves decisions. The most important is, to what extent will you engage in the services of professional tour guides? Organized tours guarantee that you’ll see the big ticket items, check them off your list. The downside, of course, is that when some place draws you closer, you’re unable to linger because the guides urge the herd of tourists to keep moving. The bus is about to leave.
In Quito, my solution to the tour / no tour conundrum was to alternate days. One day with a group, the next day on my own. In this way, I got to visit several attractions in the surrounding countryside – traditional Otavalo, tropical Mindo, serene Papallacta Hot Springs, and stunning Cotapaxi volcano. Yes, I was with a group – but it was a different group each day. The groups were small, anywhere from two to seven people. Headphones drowned out the droning sing-song narrative when I tired of listening to the guide. All I really paid for on each trip was the transportation to the desired location. Once there, I was free to walk away from the others, and explore on my own.
In between these jaunts outside the city, I reserved unplanned days to wander and explore Quito on my own. One day, I rode a bus to Plaza Grande, then embarked on a walking tour of historical Old Town. Along the way, I detoured off course to duck into a museum, where I studied a pictorial display about the devastating terremoto (earthquake) that flattened the city and killed 70,000 people in 1868. I snuck into a church service for a couple of stealth photos of the ornate 17th century interior. And I sat at a sidewalk restaurant in the plaza, watching life unfold for the local people: traditionally dressed Andean women selling food or souvenirs, shoe-shine guys touting their business, school children giggling as their teacher herded them into the Palace of the Governor, and old men gossiping as they sat on wooden benches under the trees.
Once in awhile I glanced surreptitiously at my guidebook, but remained conscious of not appearing to be a lost tourist. Up and down I walked the steep narrow streets, rubbing shoulders with pedestrians who moved twice as fast as me, unbothered by the 9,000 foot elevation of Quito. After a long jaunt downhill on Venezuela Street, I reached the Basilica de Voto National, a massive church built over several decades starting in 1892. Instead of gargoyles, figures of turtles and iguanas protruded from the building’s façade, providing a uniquely Ecuadorian slant on the church’s Gothic theme.
Another day, I took a taxi to the northwest side of the city to reach the famous TeleferiQo, an aerial tram ride which takes people to a viewpoint called Cruz Loma above the city at 12,000 ft. While standing in line, I met Jose, a local man who wanted to practice his English, and encouraged me to answer him in Spanish. Thus we passed the 30 minute wait for the cable car communicating like a couple of three-year-olds. Mangled grammar and lots of hand waving and laughter. Once we rode the tram to the top, he took off for a long hike to Volcano Pichincha, while I chose an easier loop walk past a corral of horses for rent, a swing that sailed out over the cliff, and a platform where tourists could take a selfie with the entire city of Quito spread out below.
Returning to the city, I moved from the hostel to a nicer hotel one block off the Parque Ejido at the center of town. My new digs, the Hotel Lef, was intended to be my headquarters for about a week in downtown Quito. You can never really tell by looking in a guidebook or a website, just what a hotel will be like. Is the neighborhood safe? Is there anywhere to eat? In the case of Hotel Lef, I lucked out, as it turned out to be extremely clean, quiet and friendly. The owner spoke no English, but thanks to the Google Translate app, and my halting Spanish, we managed to communicate. He even used his personal vehicle one day to run me across town to meet a bus for a day trip to Volcano Cotapaxi.
Once settled in, I walked to the park. Since it was Sunday, hundreds of city residents had flocked to the park for a family day. I walked past hastily erected food booths, studying other people’s plates before deciding on a cheap traditional meal of barbecued chicken, rice, corn, and a huge fruit cup, all for about $1.50. Andean music drifted across the grass, so after lunch I went to find it. On a platform near the bathrooms, a dance performance by students of the Intihuasi Dance School was underway. Dressed in colorful costumes, children as young as seven completed complex steps. Older couples whirled and spun to traditional pan flute music. Their exuberance was dizzying and intoxicating. At the end, they passed a hat through the crowd of onlookers for donations. I happily threw in a couple dollars.
Early the next morning, I left my hotel before dawn, clad in running shorts, and covered the distance of one block to Parque Ejido. In the gathering light, I ran circles around the outside edge of the park, but I was not alone. Other joggers joined me; also walkers, some with dogs on leashes, followed the perimeter trail. I passed one section of the park where several homeless people were sleeping in cardboard tents. No one looked up, and I avoided cutting my eyes into their territory, demarcated with stacked cement blocks and pieces of wood. Around the far side of the park, vendors had set up carts, offering bowls of traditional rice-based breakfast stew. Well-dressed young professionals hurried to waiting busses, and the traffic thickened as I rounded the park for the fourth time. Proud to be able to run (albeit slowly) at 9,000 feet, I enjoyed fitting in with the locals who exercised in the heart of Quito.
Research before I left home had provided me with the location of an English-speaking chapter of a spiritual group of which I was a long-time member. When the day arrived, I caught a taxi across town to attend their morning meeting. Eighteen people eventually showed up – “on Ecuador time,” a few minutes late – and the meeting proceeded to last until noon. I met Mike, a physician from Ohio; Josh, a computer programmer from Toronto, Canada; Mimi, a teacher who lived in Quito; and Patrick, a retired pilot from York, England.
After the meeting, we piled into cars and drove to Plaza Foch for a lunch of Indian food and an animated conversation. Then, Patrick invited me to accompany him and a couple of the others to an outdoor coffee shop on the other side of the plaza, where we sat all afternoon sipping coffee and playing dominoes. They used three-sided dominoes with numbers from 0 to 5 on each side, which was a variant I had never seen before. I passed several more hours laughing with my new friends, telling stories about Ecuador, and trying unsuccessfully to outsmart them at this simple but deceptively challenging game.
On another day I wanted to get to the botanical gardens in Carolina Park. The easiest option seemed to be hopping onto the red “Quito Bus” which provided jump-on, jump-off access to points of interest in the city. I rode right through Old Town (having already walked my way through it a few days before), and jumped off at the Virgin of Quito Lookout when the bus made a stop there. The Virgin, a 130 foot tall aluminum mosaic statue, waved a cool hand at the city. Views from her base north across the sprawling city rimmed by volcanoes were breathtaking.
Back on the red bus, I rode past the historic (and pricey) Hotel Quito, through the financial district, and finally to Carolina Park. A huge green oasis in the middle of the city, the park contained bike paths, soccer fields, and a lake where paddleboats were available for rent. Inside the botanical garden, I walked through sections showcasing the various native habitats encompassed in Ecuador: high altitude grasslands, tropical Amazonian headwaters, palm groves, cloud forest, wetlands, coastal jungles, and desert cactus gardens. Like Ecuador itself, the botanic gardens fit a lot of variety into a small space. Inside a greenhouse, I found a spectacular display of at least a hundred different varieties of orchid. My favorite, the aptly named Dracula orchid, sported fangs and what looked like blood splatter.
A couple hours later, I caught the next red bus which delivered me (in a roundabout way) back to the Plaza Foch. I walked through the sprawling mercado maze spread out for several blocks on the way back to my hotel. The vendors all had similar arts and crafts to sell. I walked at random, and stopped at the booths of a couple of very friendly but not pushy sellers to look more closely at their wares. I ended up buying a couple pieces of silver jewelry, a painting, a purse, and a carved gourd. Though I really didn’t need any of the items, I felt moved to contribute a little to the economy of artisans in Quito.
After each of these busy days immersed up to my ears in the city of Quito, I was grateful to have a nice quiet room with a comfortable bed to which to retreat. The Hotel Lef was a great refuge in a central location from which to explore this fascinating and exotic city.