After having spent almost two months at sea level I was quite excited about the prospect of travelling to an unknown city in the Andean mountains. Quito is beautifully surrounded by mountains, some of them exceed 4000m; the city itself is located just a few kilometres South of the equator at an altitude of over 2800m. Old Quito is a UNESCO world heritage site – all indicators that we should have fun. The arrival process, which in some places can be a pain in the backside (whoever arrived anywhere in India will know what I’m talking about), was super smooth: no taxi haggling, the car looked as if it was going to make the 40km into town, the driver spoke English well enough to have a conversation, the road into town was well built and devoid any potholes – it felt good. We rode through the narrow streets of old Quito towards our hostel – one beautiful colonial building after the next, the hostel was very nice – it felt excellent. Since we arrived late in the afternoon we didn’t have time to see much, but just settled and went towards the main square (Plaza Grande) to the restaurant we’ve selected through the usual process of “lonely planetting” and being “trip advisored”. We were, of course, aware, that choosing a restaurant in the most touristic spot in the most touristic area, albeit recommended by fellow travellers, was risky business. But again, it started well: the place was located in a beautiful building (a former bandit’s a.k.a. Archbishop’s palace), the waiter was pleasant enough – so far so good.
Heck, I am rambling here, but I’m trying to figure out why a city, which has got everything going for it (mountains, beautiful architecture, pleasant climate, a good size with a population of 2 million) didn’t do it for me. Nor for the rest of the family apart from Max, who was deliriously happy about our first hostel having a ping pong table. So, what was wrong? Mind you: I still thoroughly enjoyed being there – I just didn’t connect with the place like I did with Panama City, Revelstoke, most certainly Havana. Back to the restaurant: the menu was one of these plasticised pieces you’ll find in English chain pubs. The prices were a tad too high (23 USD for a steak in a country with an annual per capita income of a little more than USD 6000, compared to the UK’s 43000 or Sweden’s/Germany’s 47000, appears excessive). The food was ok, but not superb. So: nice ambience, plastic menus, OK food. Result: physically fed, soulless feeling – somewhat not quite right. Old Quito is truly beautiful – the church Compañía de Jesús is probably the most stunning church I have ever seen. The Spaniards under the catholic flag have done a marvellous job in extracting valuables out of South America and frightening the bejaysis out of the poor locals. Unfortunately the Catholics still seem to have a strong grip on the Ecuadorian lower class – belief-instilled humility helps to keep people quiet.
I’m sure that some functionaries in the Holy Catholic Church regret that they cannot burn critical voices as witches anymore. So, while I can appreciate the architectural beauty, the rather exploitative background (Spaniards robbing South America in the name of God) reduces the resulting joy somewhat.
Another thing is the traffic in Quito. The driving style here is generally first world (this categorisation is based on my observation that the progress of a society reflects on the way people behave in traffic): lanes are adhered to, red traffic lights lead to cars stopping, cars wanting to turn left/right do that from the left/right lane, pedestrians aren’t hunted but treated with consideration, no executive cars disobeying all rules of traffic or rules in general, cars going in opposite directions on a country road don’t drive towards each other and swerve aside in the last second to avoid an accident. So far so good. Greater Quito, though, stretches 65km from North to South, and an awful lot of people seem to have to drive the whole way multiple times a day. In other words, the roads are far too busy – currently there is no functioning public transport system around (the electrified busses are heavily used, but there seem to be far to few of them). Far too often I’ve sat 5 minutes in a taxi moving 50m – my patience was somewhat stretched.
Another topic is safety: one cannot fail to notice, that a lot of restaurants and bars close at 6pm and parts of the town get deserted. There’s a hill on the Southern side of old Quito (El Panecillo) with a Mary statue on top (the only large Mary world wide with wings – sort of an early Red Bull version) which is deemed extremely unsafe and muggings seem to occur regularly.
Particularly when you’re travelling with kids the resulting feeling is undesired. Not helped by the fact that people tell you to watch out that the yellow taxi you’re flagging down is actually a yellow taxi and not an imposter, who wants to mug you. The real killer for me, though, are the cafes closing at 6pm. That’s a serious indication, me thinks. So, summarised: Quito’s got a lot going for it, but just didn’t do it for me.
But, as stated at the beginning, it was still exciting to explore Quito and of course, there were a few unconditional highlights:
- Quito airport, which gave us access to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon
- Quicentro, a top shopping mall, where the tooth fairy could acquire 3-star ping pong balls for Max
- Mitad del Mundo – two stunning attractions, the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (a slightly megalomaniac, but still interesting, reverence to the equator as measured by some French dude a few hundred years ago – approx. 240m off) and the Intiñan Solar Museum, where all sorts of quirky tricks, which “only work at the equator” are performed (Coriolis clockwise, Coriolis anti-clockwise)
- The Basilica del Voto Nacional, or more precise, the Cafeteria Torre Blass located in one of the towers – Quito’s best kept secret: a cafe high up with the best views over Quito, hidden from visitors and thus almost empty