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Quito: the unexpected gateway - Nuevo Mundo Expeditions
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Nuevo Mundo Expeditions / Anniversary  / Quito: the unexpected gateway
Basílica del Voto Nacional

Quito: the unexpected gateway

Written by Oswaldo Muñoz*

“No, it’s not in Japan” had become a cliché during my schooling in NYC when explaining where exactly I was from.  And “Hispanic” was an all too generic demonym for a country whose technology, for the same time period, placed Europe back in the Stone Age.  Furthermore, Columbus Day celebrations back then embedded in our minds the notion that if Europe didn’t know about it, it did not exist.  As the years passed, my eventual vocation for spreading the natural and cultural wonders of my tiny country led me to the conclusion that Columbus was the first travel agent to promote tourism to the Americas, and where a one-way ticket was the way to go, quite often without knowing it!

Quito was pretty much “wait-listed” as a must for international travel until UNESCO came to the rescue, declaring it a premier World Cultural Heritage Site, along with Kraków, Poland, in 1978.  But the beginnings that led to this official recognition are worth addressing.  This city was, and to some extent still is, immune to globalization that would overshadow its uniqueness.  If it was to stand a chance of surfacing among so many other well-known travel options, there was a lot to be done, and once back in Ecuador I became part of this effort, recalling the incredulous expressions on my classmates faces when they thought I had made it all up as to the wonders that the gateway capital, Quito, had in store for the unsuspecting tourist. 

Santo Domingo Square in the 1960s.

The late 1960s saw the construction of the first international chain resort, the Intercontinental Quito Hotel. It was also the first building to have an actual 8-story elevator – an obligated visit each time I spent my summer school break getting acquainted with Ecuador.  And getting equally excited each and every time was my job, for this meant that Quito did have its ups and downs by just pressing a button and bingo, the “stairway to heaven” became obsolete (not the song, mind you!).  And heaven it was, seeing practically the entire city from this special vantage point, surrounded by 5 snowcaps in the distance, and colonial as well as modern homes spread out like a carpet, without one of them dominating the scene.  The west was bordered by Mt. Pichincha, notorious for its historical eruptions many decades back, with enormous granite boulders in the parks that gave testimony to its volcanic power.  (As a cross-reference, it did make a number of comebacks starting in October/1999 covering the sky with ash and grounding planes, as if saying it was alive and well.  This did not pose any danger whatsoever, though the clean-up phase was challenging but not impossible for its inhabitants, characterized by their solidarity and communal traditions.)  And the eastern Andean chain glistened like a silver wall to mark the doorway to the Amazon Basin, and as one of the possible routes to the legendary “El Dorado”, though the 1542 Spanish expedition unexpectedly wound up in the Atlantic via the Napo tributary, now one of the main tourist attractions in Ecuador to see nature as it was intended millions of years back.   

Traffic in the streets was dominated more by pedestrians than vehicles, where 50 miles per hour, even on the PanAm Highway, was considered speeding, and biking was a not-so-practical mode of transport given the irregularity of the topography.  Today, biking is a Sunday sport to pedal the city length-wise, north-south, with a few dare devils trying their luck on weekdays, given the increased number of cars and buses on those days.  As a tourist you had to master the art of jumping on and off buses while they would merely slow down at each station, or anywhere for that matter. Jumping on was not as difficult as getting off, having to hold on the door rail with your left hand while you picked the right moment to take the plunge, looking forward.  I recall on my first “jump” looking back instead of forward, followed by two summersaults that were fortunately not interrupted by a light post or person. Indeed, getting around was a process, where taxis were scarce and asking for directions was at your own risk, since everyone pointed convincingly in the right direction though they may have never heard of the place.  In the backcountry, if you came to a cross-road you had to first trust your “indigenous GPS native”, guessing whether the time to get to your destination was in a car, donkey or walking, and most importantly looking at his or her chin that was pointing in the right direction, not the finger which didn’t matter where it was aiming.  Be it time or distance, it was conveniently safe to factor in another 20%.  After all, time and distance are still not a factor for the country folk, though you are better off with the assistance of a professional guide and driver.     

Av. 24 de Mayo in Quito in the 1980s.

Despite these drawbacks, local people are and continue to be genuinely friendly in the city, eager to make your stay as enjoyable as possible. There are of course natives also interested in whatever worldly goods you may have on you, so staying away from dark alleys or certain neighborhoods after dark is a rule of thumb.  Today, there are many types of public officers at your services, i.e. traffic, tourism (with a good command of English), municipal, mounted and military, that along with 911, are on call to make your stay safe and enjoyable.  This only adds to decades back when tourists were practically novel to local people and great efforts were made to break the language barrier.  Evolving from “no news is good news” to movies and television specials that exalt the beauty of Quito and its iconic regions, places the country in a most favorable position to stand out and finally surface to the world.

Safety reminds me of one of my colleague guides who, when being asked by a guest about pickpocketing in Quito, emphatically responded: “not a good idea, don’t do it!”  Restrooms also share their place in the safety category, so as to avoid an “accident”. In this respect, a travel writer back in 1972 pointed out, after a full-day of exploring Quito, that he was most impressed by the 50 churches Quito had to its name, but perhaps only one bathroom! Today, you can “rest” almost anywhere, since hotels (even if you are not staying at that establishment), restaurants and special designated “water closets” are eager to let you relieve yourself.  As for churches, especially in Old Town, they remain to this day as some of the most impressive in the world, with baroque-style gold interiors that over-shadow their European counterparts. In short, we finally have more restrooms than churches, enough to literally go around the city!

Old Town Quito’s landscape is dominated by churches and chapels.

Food in Quito is another dynamic factor to be considered in retrospection. Culinary distinction to avoid being dominated by the notion that everything and everyone “south of the border” was not necessarily “down Mexico way” was another challenge to have tourists try something different for their taste buds, without thinking it was too “hot and spicy” or “not safe” to try.  It was and still remains to this day a gradual process that favorably surprises even the most discriminating palate.  First of all, in the early 1970s there were only two fast-food restaurants in the city, namely “Jimmy’s Chicken Delights” and “Mama Mia’s Pizzeria”.  That was it and they were not in a hurry to produce really delicious and healthy options, and neither were the patrons, for it was a time when “fast” didn’t get you anywhere quicker – in short, we had all the time in the world to enjoy life at a natural pace, especially when eating.  There were however a number of native restaurants with 5-star Ecuadorian menus without the need to resort to the now popular “fusion” craze, not to mention international chains like KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, TGI Fridays, Pizza Hut, Juan Valdez Coffee and other “chemical warfare establishments”, like many present-day travelers refer to.  Locro, quinoa and fanesca soups, bolas de verde, tamales and tortillas (not the Mexican type), llapingachos, fritada, carne colorada, plus another couple of dozen dishes make for a most delicious and healthy culinary experience.  Moreover, today chocolate has broken ground with the Pacari brand that continues to win, year after year, first prize at international venues.  And if you think coffee or even beer or rum, the Ecuadorian brands are now much in demand abroad as we emancipate ourselves from traditional sources people are accustomed to considering.  As for the ingredients, given we do not have to ever cope with seasons, everything is always in season, plus the variety provided by our geography, and hence agriculture, that stems from sea level to 21,000 feet.  Ecuador is the birthplace of pineapples, cacao beans, and many exotic fruits and vegetables often impossible for the traveler to identify.  Even chili peppers were first eaten in Ecuador almost 7,000 years ago, despite our present-day food not being hot to the palate.         

The Ecuadorian cacao fruit makes the best chocolate.

Quito was also the first introduction to the language barrier.  It was as if natives expected you to speak fluent “Ecuadorian”, packed with countless and rather inexplicable idiomatic expressions that, when translated literally, did not quite represent the true meaning of the word or idea.  And if you would dare utter just one word in Spanish, your listener would provide you with a big smile and start rattling off full speed.  Guide books did not provide you with the basics and speaking your high school Spanish or Castilian was not fully comprehensible, even today, in most Latin American countries. What’s more, in Ecuador as in most other countries, the pronunciation took on many variations that added to the confusion, depending where you were.  As examples, “entre no más y tome asiento” meant “come on in and sit down”; however, if you dared to translate literally, word for word, it came out to mean “between no more and drink a chair”; bathroom was “water” since somewhere along the line the “room” was lost; “simón” meant “yes”; and “no” was “nofs”.  Along the same line, our first local guide books showed an extensive network of roads and highways, though they also included those that were in the process of being built in order to save on reprints.  And if you would dare rent a car to visit other sites, you would keep on coming back since “all roads led to Quito” and asking someone how to leave the city and be on your way was not an option. Since then, things have improved ten-fold, as not only local schools but also American movies, television and new technology have contributed to a better understanding of English in Ecuador, in addition to the growing tourism industry that necessitates locals to have a basic command of the language.  The goal today is to equal the number of tourists per year to Ecuador to the native population, that is, 15 million. 

Quito school kids
Do you speak Ecuadorian?

With the aforementioned anecdotes, we can see that tourism is not just a tour, but most importantly a process in which both visitor and host form an alliance to get to understand each other’s culture and hence bring the world together in harmony and peace.  After all, you love what you know and protect what you love.

*Oswaldo is the founder and CEO of Nuevo Mundo Expeditions. This is the second post in the Anniversary series.