SHEL’S AND FRANK’S EXCELLENT ECUADOR ADVENTUREFirst impressions: Date with destiny and incognito in Quito

Apr 5, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Frank and Shel Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel Drake is a professional travel photographer.

We went to Ecuador, initially, to attend a four-day conference on expatriating sponsored by the venerable and recommendable International Living (IL) group, which publishes a monthly magazine and holds similar events, mostly in Latin America, several times a year. No doubt many of you are not only aware of IL, but are either current or past subscribers and have attended one of more of the never-ending offshore shindigs. I myself went to two others before this one.

The first was in Belize in 2000. I wasn’t at all impressed with Belize as a retirement destination, so I never gave it a second thought. A year later, I attended one in Panama City. I liked Panama itself and especially appreciated the offshore potential; for years I believed that Panama was probably the place to go. Yet, I never managed to go back. Also in my quest, I’d visited the British Virgin Islands, Jamaica, France, Monaco, Argentina, and Uruguay. But I always had Ecuador in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to meet her before I made a final decision. Must’ve been destiny.

Speaking of destiny, Shel and I had been married for a couple of years. She hadn’t been to any of those places or an IL conference, but she certainly knew about my offshore proclivities. So when I saw, sometime the previous September as I recall, that International Living was holding a big confab in Quito in February, I went to my wife and said, “Shelly, we’ve got-ta got-ta GOT-TA attend.”

This is the first of many things I like about IL’s get-togethers: They force you to make plans. They give you a good reason, with firm dates, to visit a place you’ve always wanted to see. And when you get there, it’s the easiest way to be introduced to, educated about, inculcated into a country, by people who’ve gone before you and are in the business of helping you fulfill your overseas fantasies.

We hadn’t made travel plans beyond Quito, figuring we’d get the lay of Ecuador land at the conference. We weren’t traveling per se; otherwise we’d have probably gone to the Galapagos, in which Shel was particularly interested, or the rainforest, about which I was especially curious. Rather, we were looking for a new home.

With that criterion in mind, we determined to head to the northern highlands to see the market town of Otavalo and the popular expat community of Cotacachi; while we were at it, we might as well take in the big city up there, Ibarra. Then we’d return to Quito and fly to Cuenca, which sounded from all the descriptions at the conference like it might — dare I hope? dare I dream? dare I dare? — like it might — dear God, please let it! — fit the relocation bill.

***

Meanwhile, of course, we were thrilled to be in Quito. We’d arrived two days before the conference, the better to acclimatize to the altitude of 9,500 feet or so above sea level, world’s third highest country capital after Lhasa, Tibet (no longer technically the capital of a country, but still up there at 12,087 feet), and La Paz, Bolivia (at 11,913 high). According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the highest town in the world is Wenzhuan, China, at 16,730 feet. Two towns in Peru, two in Bolivia, one in Nepal, one in Costa Rica, and one in Colorado (Leadville) are also higher than Quito, but that’s all — Quito is the 11th highest settlement on Earth.

We also wanted to leave a full day’s worth of leeway, in case of travel screw-ups. As it turned out, we arrived on a Monday night without incident and took a prearranged shuttle to La Casa Sol, the only other reservations we’d made after the flight and the conference. The hotel shuttle cost $14 for the two of us, perhaps $8-$10 more than a cab, but I felt better having someone waiting for us at the airport at midnight. It was also the first time I’d ever walked off an airplane looking for my name on a handheld sign; seeing it was worth the higher price. Once.

La Casa Sol is a minor six-block walk to the Swissotel, where the conference was being held, but a major $120 mas barato (less expensive) per night. Since we were staying in Quito six nights, that was a substantial saving, more than $700. We could’ve done it even cheaper; John, an adventurous Canadian we met Tuesday evening while registering for the conference, stayed near us in New Town at a hostal and paid $15 a night, saving $270 over us and nearly $1,000 over the attendees with rooms at the Swissotel. I’d learned from previous experience that IL holds its conferences at the fanciest hotel in town, but that I didn’t have to pay the price.

At La Casa Sol, we had a nice enough private room with bath for $60, though we shared a wall with a bar where a one-man band with a microphone and synthesizer kept us up awhile.

In the bathroom, a sign initiated us into the Ecuador toilet-paper situation. It requested that instead of flushing the TP, guests throw it into the wastebasket. Shel balked; she’s a bit of a germ freak. I tried to get into it. Even so, at first I wrapped it up in plastic bags we had with us. Soon, though, we ran out of plastic bags and I had to … make do.

On Tuesday morning, our first at Casa Sol, we were introduced to the lovely ecuatoriana custom of the complimentary Continental breakfast. In Argentina and Uruguay, breakfast also comes with a hotel room in the form of a buffet, though I was underwhelmed by the food in those countries: bread and butter, canned fruit juice, canned fruit, and jamon (ham) and queso (cheese). You had your choice of jamon y queso, queso y jamon, queso y queso, or jamon y jamon. In Ecuador, at Casa Sol, instead, we got coffee or tea, fresh-squeezed jugo de fruta (fruit juice), a bowl of delicious fresh fruit, and a roll with butter and fruit jam (no high-fructose corn syrup in any of it). This was where I first sampled the agua aromatica (herb tea) called mate de coca. It was dried in a bag, but it still packed a pretty powerful (and a bit strange) punch. Eggs were $2 extra, which we gladly paid.

Also that first morning in Ecuador, we walked the streets, which we found mostly free of garbage; Quito doesn’t have that distinctively Third World rotting smell. Better yet, though the streets are relatively narrow and congested, the driving is relatively sane, even orderly.

The guidebooks — I was carrying Moon and Lonely Planet — both recommended against renting a car in Ecuador, due to crazy drivers and rough road conditions. But I took a look around and thought, crazy? This is crazy? The drivers are aggressive, sure, and a little too fast, natch. It’s Latin America, after all. But obviously, the writers had never been to Buenos Aires or Boston! They even obeyed the laws, unlike in Mexico, where traffic lights and stop signs tend to be suggestions, rather than regulations. We also passed a Budget rental-car office, which is when I seriously began considering getting behind the wheel myself.

We stopped into a Supermaxi supermarket, which was clean and organized, then walked around a mall, which, to my (pleasant) surprise, actually had a gun store. From a sidewalk vendor with a small wheeled cart, we bought a bag of fresh-cut mango slices for 50 cents, suspecting and not caring that we were paying double the going locals rate. And we made our way to the Swissotel, a classy joint that might as well have been in Manhattan or Paris or Zurich, and we knew we’d made the right decision with La Casa Sol.

We kept reminding ourselves about the altitude and drank plenty of bottled water, though neither of us felt any ill effects. On the other hand, the climate was paradisiacal, the kind of sublime spring temperature in the midst of which it’s nearly impossible to determine the point of separation between the air and your skin.

By the end of the morning, I was feeling the stirrings of a new infatuation.

For lunch, we had our first almuerzo, also known as menu del dia, familiar to anyone who’s spent any time traveling around Mexico. There’s no menu; you’re served what they happen to be cooking in the kitchen that day. The meal starts with a big bowl of soup. Then comes the fresh fruit juice, a plate full of rice, some kind of meat, and vegetables or a little salad. On the table is a small bowl of picante sauce, always fresh and homemade and delicious. Since our little lunch restaurant was in the middle of the New Town tourist district up Avenida Juan Calama from Casa Sol, we paid $3 apiece, the most expensive almuerzo of any we ate during our visit, and we ate one every day, 14 in all.

That evening, we returned to the Swissotel where we registered for the conference, picking up our nametags and schedule. Errand accomplished, we started heading out again when John, the Canadian, started talking to us. We chatted and strolled together to the lobby, where he was meeting his Ecuadorian friend Elizabeth, then going to dinner. When Shel mentioned to Elizabeth that she was anxious to try some Ecuadorian food, Elizabeth said, “I know just the place,” and the next thing we knew, the four of us were walking out the lobby door and on our way to catch a downtown bus.

First, though, we had to cross the street. We’d already noticed, of course, that though Ecuador drivers are law-abiding, the cars, not the pedestrians, have the right of way. Man, you have to have your wits about you on foot in Quito and, for that matter, all over the country. As Ecuadorian society is based on civil law, there aren’t any personal-injury lawyers or lawsuits. In fact, there aren’t any frivolous lawsuits of any kind, a relief, if you think about it for even just a minute or two, from litigious-happy common-law cultures like the U.S. and U.K.

If you get hit by a car in Ecuador, it’s your own damn fault and no one’s gonna give you diddly-squat for it. (According to the Moon guide, the only time pedestrians have any rights at all in Ecuador is when they’re killed by a car. Then, oh boy, they can do no wrong. The driver, who’s often tossed into the clink till things are sorted out, might also have to pay funeral costs and contribute money to the family. The Moon author, Julian Smith, comments, “There may be some connection between this policy and the prevalence of hit-and-run situations.” Indeed.) So you quickly learn to be alert. You don’t take any street, even the smallest, for granted. You don’t step off curbs. You cross at red lights, even then remaining vigilant for turning cars. At least you’d better, if you want to get home alive. It’s good to have someone along for your first walks around Ecuador; Shel and I grabbed each other a lot in our initial few days in Quito when one of us was about to blunder, unconsciously, into traffic.

Drivers in Quito do, it must be said, tend to give a little beep of the horn when they’re approaching you on a city street at, say, 55 miles an hour. This is a courtesy, if you’re not paying attention, before they run you down. Unlike New York, where drivers can be rude at best and malicious at worst, most Ecuadorians, even behind the wheel of a speeding car, are nothing if not polite.

Successfully negotiating Avenida Doce de Octubre, the next thing we knew we were boarding an express bus to Old Town Quito. We discovered that evening that Quito’s express bus system is excellent. The bus stops are in the medians of the main north-south thoroughfares. You put a quarter into the turnstile and hop on the next super-stretch accordion bus that comes along. The buses use dedicated lanes in the middle of the roads and underpasses that avoid intersections. We made it several miles downtown in the middle of evening rush hour in ten minutes flat, rocking and rolling the whole way.

We walked from La Marin bus stop several blocks up the hill to the central square, passing bargain shops and stores and at least half of Quito’s estimated 2.2 million people. Elizabeth insisted that I wear my daypack with the pack in front and the straps in back, rather than the usual other way around, to protect against razor-blade-wielding snatch thieves who can cut open a daypack or backpack and remove the things of value in split seconds without you feeling a thing. I’d never worn a pack like that and felt a bit ridiculous — until I noticed many other people doing the same. Even so, we didn’t feel the least bit threatened in what Elizabeth insisted was sneak-thief central, and made it up to the Café del Fraile in the Edificio Arzobispal in Plaza de la Independencia (also known as Plaza Grande), right in the heart of Old Town Quito.

There, we first encountered some food common to the highlands. I ordered a llapingacho plate, delicious potato-cheese pancakes that came with arroz (rice), a big leaf of lechuga (lettuce), two slices of tomate, and a half an aguacate (avocado), all fresh from someone’s garden not too far away, along with a spicy stew of flank steak. (What they call lomo, carne, and carne de res all seemed like the same cut, rich in taste and only slightly chewy).

Shel got locro soup made of cheese, avocado, and potato. John ordered seco de pollo, stewed chicken and arroz with aguacate slices. Elizabeth got something or other and, including dos Club (you pronounce it cloob) cervezas and dos aguas con gas (the agua comes con or sin/without carbonation) and the whole bill came to $36. Eight bucks apiece. And a lesson in comida ecuatoriana for free.

Also at the Edificio Arzobispal, set up in the narrow hallways, are crafts sellers and this was where Shel, looking closely, first saw tagua. I’d bumped into tagua at the International Living conference in Panama, where I hooked up with an importer-exporter looking specifically for the stuff, and took a tagua tour of the Panama City art galleries, learning all about this fine craft. I even remember the Latin name, Phytelephas Equatorialis, since Ecuador was already on my radar screen. I learned that the Tagua Initiative is in northwest Ecuador, where rainforest natives sustainably harvest tagua from the forest floor when the cabezas (heads) ripen and fall. Each tree contains several cabezas and it can take up to eight years for them to fully mature. When they do, they produce big-ass nuts, also known as “vegetable ivory,” not only from their ivory-like color, but also their ivory-like texture. With the near extinction of animal ivory, tagua nuts are now highly valued by artisans and consumers. The little pelican with a fish in its pouch that Shel bought outside the Fraile cost $20 (much higher than if she’d waited for the market in Otavalo).

After dinner in Plaza Grande, it was now dark, our first night out in Quito. Though the streets were still teeming, the vibe had turned slightly sinister, just noticeable enough for both John and me to comment on it. “Some shady-looking characters have come out in the dark,” I said.

“Opportunistic,” he said. “Sneak thieves looking for an easy score.”

We walked, on alert, back down to La Marin, wading through the crowds and watching one anothers’ backs. We paid a quarter and caught the express up Avenida Seis de Diciembre, the accordion bus fairly flying through the streets of Quito. Our stop was a mere block and a half from Casa Sol and we were “home” for the night in Ecuador.

Photo captions: Church in Quito's historic district; downtown Quito; La Casa Sol on Avenida Jose Calama in New Town, Quito; courtyard of Casa Sol; menu of the day; Quito traffic; church domes; restaurant near Plaza Grande;   

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