We spent 18 days in Quito, Ecuador – the longest we had spent in any one city in the past three months. This was intentional as we had enrolled for Spanish lessons at the Simon Bolivar Spanish School. As part of our research, we had established that the Spanish spoken in Ecuador is one of the easiest to understand of all Latin American countries. It needed to be as I knew it could be an effort for me to learn a new language at my age. We booked two weeks of classes (four hours per day, five days per week), thinking that this would give us some exposure to the language and with the aim to assess if we needed more after that. Sandra is already bilingual, with German as her mother tongue.
Arriving in Quito from New York, we expected that a country on the equator would be much warmer. However, for the first few days, we required the heater to be turned on at night – not what we expected at all. Though, we got used to the weather conditions after a few days: cool in the morning, (often) heavy rain in the afternoon and again cool at night.
A chaotic city
When we first arrived in Quito, the city felt extremely chaotic. The drivers speed everywhere, and like any big city, there are a lot of car horns beeping. The bus drivers are the worst, but surprisingly despite their stop, start, speed to the next stop, we never saw one road accident. The bus system took a bit to get used to, given we didn’t know any of the suburbs or endpoints. The buses generally have several suburbs (and sometimes small route numbers) promoted on their windscreens. However, the direction of the bus was often hard to read and at times we would only realise that it was our bus once it went past us (they don’t slow down or stop unless you wave them or a passenger on the bus wants to get off). The one good thing was the single trip cost of USD0.25. It was also very difficult to find a reliable web source for the combined transport system in Quito. We generally relied on Google Maps (and asking the driver/locals) to guide us which seemed to work most of the time.
I had studied the map of Quito before we travelled to Ecuador. The city of more than two million people sits in a valley and because of the mountains surrounding it, is elongated so that to travel from the northern suburbs to the southern ones takes 90+ minutes, whereas west to the east takes 20 minutes. There is a lot of noise and pollution.
Considered a third world country by some organisations and websites, we found Quito’s infrastructure and living standards quite varied. In some areas, there are single-room tin sheds being used as houses. On the other end of the scale, there are apartment blocks and large gated communities with million-dollar views. It is a vibrant city, and there is a system that, if you are here long enough, you’ll realize works. The buses, trolleybuses, taxis, food stalls, ma and pa shops operating from beneath their homes all work in harmony. There is a definite pride amongst the people.
Before we started our Spanish classes, we stayed in an apartment close to the old town. For the first few days, we would make most of our breakfasts and dinners in the basic but adequate kitchen. It was a nice change from not being able to even use some of the American kitchens we had encountered. On our first weekend, we took the TeleferiQo (cable car) half-way up the Pichincha Volcano. It gave us our first real appreciation of this sprawling city. We were lucky with the weather as the hill where we disembarked (at 4,050m above sea level) is regularly above or in the clouds. We walked around the lower track, watched a local wedding take place and just appreciated the stillness, fresh air and amazing views. As our short-term rental accommodation was on the outskirts of the old town (a UNESCO world heritage site), we took the opportunity to visit several landmark spots nearby, including:
- Walking up to the Centro Cultural Itchimbía (a crystal palace) which was located in a large park and had a great outlook west to the Pichincha Volcano.
- the Basilica del Voto Nacional: The view from the spire was amazing, and I really liked the simple decorations inside rather than the opulence I had seen in other churches.
- the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus and Iglesia De San Francisco: Both of these churches were very opulent, and while a lot of craftsmanship would have gone into them, they were not really to my liking.
- A walk to and around Parque El Ejido: There is a market on Sundays where all sort of trinkets are being sold, including paintings. As it was a Sunday, the roads in the area were closed for the weekly cycling event. The Ciclopasseo is a local project where 30km of the roads are closed off to allow cyclists to take over the city from 0800h to 1400h on Sundays. Thousands turn out and it is seen as a family event. Really nice to see in a city that is so traffic dependent.
Spanish school started on a Monday so we took a taxi there in the morning to ensure we were on time and didn’t have to squeeze into rush-hour trolleybuses. The taxis are plentiful and extremely cheap (compared to other cities we have visited). So cheap that I don’t think Uber would be as competitive here. Anyway, arriving at 0800h for a 0830h start, the school is a four-story building only two blocks from the very popular tourist spot called Mariscal District – a very strategic location given the number of hostels, bars, etc there. Given we had different levels of Spanish language experience, we decided to have our classes with individual teachers. Sandra’s teacher was Santiago, an eleven year veteran of the school, while I had Irma. Both were good. Santiago certainly challenged Sandra to maximise her learning, while Irma was very patient with me.
At the end of our first day at school, Laura, the mother of our host family came to the school to pick us up and walk us back to her residence. Laura and her adult son Santiago live in the Vincentina barrio approximately 1.5 km (or 20 min walk) from the school. Their three-storey house contained six guest bedrooms all with ensuites. Brad and Donna, a retired couple from the US, also stayed with Laura, who also attended our school. Santiago is an avid (his mother would say fanatical) soccer player, but on a couple of mornings, he and I went out for a 5km run around the national track and field stadium almost at their doorstep. In fact, almost all the national federation sports seemed to be in their area.
Our second week of Spanish classes was much like the first, except we managed to visit the Jardin Botanico (again in Parque La Carolina) one day after school. The school has a strong cultural interest and puts on various activities, either during or after school or during the weekends. Salsa classes, cooking classes, cocktail classes, additional language sessions… all of this is offered. One day, Sandra and 17 other students and teachers went on a day excursion to Parque Arqueologico Cochasqui, an archaeological site north of Quito that covers a period of 500 to 1500 AD.
On our other two weekends in Quito:
- we visited the Museu Intinan (around the corner from the touristy complex called ‘Mitad Del Mundo’), a spot 30km north of Quito where the equator runs through. It was interesting, but also quite a tourist spot. Sandra has now stood at both Greenwich (0° longitude) and on the equator (0° latitude). Not sure if it was on her bucket list.
- I managed to go on a 20km run with a Strava friend, Pablo ANDRADE, as well as Santigo. Pablo took us to the El Chaquinan trail run – an excellent undulating path along a disused railway track from Cumbaya to Puembo, east of Quito.
- Sandra and I visited the Guayasamín Museum dedicated to sculptor and painter Oswaldo Guayasamín in the artist’s former hillside home. Many of his paintings were a reflection of the intense and at times oppressive period of the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America.
On our last Saturday night, we all (Donna, Brad, Laura, Santiago, Sandra and I) went out to La Ronda – the tourist nightspot in the Old Town for dinner and dancing. The others had not had a chance to see Sandra and I dance so there were high expectations. It was a great night out, although Santiago and I were exhausted as it was the evening after our 20km run.
- After ten weeks in North America, our food costs have reduced drastically. So far, the average dining costs have been USD4.38 per person per day in Ecuador compared to USD14.26 per person per day in the USA.
- I managed to get a haircut for USD5 from an old-fashioned barber. The experience alone was worth it. He treated my haircut as a work of art.
- We considered getting a SIM card for our iPad, but in the end, we opted to just use the WiFi of the school and our host family. The Wi-Fi was not fast and at times, non-existent, particularly after it had rained, which was generally every day.
- When it came to money, most smaller businesses did not have credit card facilities so we had to carry cash with us. When we needed money from an ATM, we made sure we did it from an ATM adjacent to a bank branch that was (about to) open, always keeping an eye out for anyone watching us. Sandra’s teacher had told her the most incredible ways people had been mugged.
We left Quito to travel first to Mindo and then onwards to other places in Ecuador. We really enjoyed Quito. It felt inviting, cosmopolitan, interesting, proud, relatively safe and a place we could spend much more time in.