Following our two month stay in southern Mexico on the Pacific coast, my husband and I flew to Quito. Since Ecuador is one of the few South American countries we hadn’t visited, we decided to give it a go. Quito is the capital and it’s a strange city. It can roughly be divided into three areas that represent the various stages of the country’s development, and Ecuador is one of the least developed countries in South America. There’s the so-called financial district, also known as the new town, where we stayed. The guide book said it was safer than the old town, but I’m not sure that is true. Our hotel, La Reina Isabel, was just fine, but it bordered on an area the tour bus referred to as the red-light district. Although most of the neighborhood has been taken over by hostels, cheap restaurants and bars for backpackers, I did see a few prostitutes soliciting on a corner a mere two blocks from our hotel. The area reminded me of the seedier side of Amsterdam. There was however one museum well worth visiting, the Museo del Banco central in the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana complex, and it was free. The collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, especially the gold work, was impressive, although there was hardly anyone there except for the numerous guards and a few stray backpackers. The museum’s collection includes pieces made by the Valdivia, the first group in the Americas who settled on the coast of what is now Ecuador. Amazingly, they date all the way back to 3500-1500 BC. The Incas only took over the area in the late fifteenth century, when they made Quito the centre of the northern part of their empire.
The old town, the historic centre and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has many interesting places to visit, including a private museum, the Casa del Alabado. The pre-Columbian artifacts are beautifully displayed and well lighted. However, the main attraction of the old town is the central square, Plaza de la Independencia, where the gloomy old catedral is located. The nearby Society of Jesus Church is much more spectacular. The Jesuits built this church between 1605 and 1765. It took that long to finish because the baroque interior is completely covered in gold leaf.
When I thought of all the poor people the church could have helped, I almost regretted having paid the $4 entrance fee. The Jesuit Missions in Boliva that I visited in 2012 are quite a different story as the Jesuits there had respect for the natives and encouraged them to participate in the decoration of the churches, thus achieving a fusion of cultures.
I was told by the guide, who had participated in the renovation of the mission in Concepcion in the late 1970s, that when the Jesuits were recalled to Spain, the remaining natives were rounded up and sold as slaves in Brazil.
The third section of Quito is “developed,” meaning it consists of glitzy modern malls and designer shops, reflecting a capitalist consumer society. I can’t help but wonder if in today’s world there is any other way to develop. The contrast with both the old and new town is staggering. Like other places in Ecuador, the so-called new town suffers from neglect and parts are badly run-down. What’s interesting about this tripartite division is that it pretty much sums up the state of Ecuador’s overall development. Although Ecuador can now be considered a socialist country, to eliminate economic chaos, President Rafael Correa switched to the American dollar as the official currency during his first term. This process is known as dollarization and somewhat ironically, it seems to be working in Ecuador. Elected in 2006, Correa is now serving his third term, which attests to his popularity. The country has made much progress under his guidance, but as he acknowledges, poverty is a still a problem. Because of poor relations with the US, Ecuador is now being helped by China, meaning they are lending them money. Ecuador’s economy depends on its exports of oil, bananas, shrimp and gold. With the recent introduction of consumer credit, one can see a flood of inexpensive new cars clogging the roads, including a Chinese SUV called Great Wall. Like other big cities in the developed world, traffic is now a problem.
After spending a week in Quito, we went to Otavalo, which is famous for its arts and crafts market, especially Ecuadorian weavings. We stayed at the charming Posada del Quinde, which is considered to be the best hotel in town. The rooms overlook a beautiful back garden. It’s owned by a woman from California who told me she fell in love with the place, so when she learned that it was for sale, she decided to buy it. Her staff consists of friendly and efficient locals and the restaurant is also very good. While I was there a group of Americans of various ages showed up. I was heartened to learn that they were medics and came twice a year to conduct free and badly needed clinics in the area.
Unfortunately it rained the next day, which was market day. I still managed to tour the stalls and bought a collection of scarves for gifts. Some have native designs and the others are made of alpaca, which really is the warmest of all wools. The colorful weavings were just too heavy to carry around in my suitcase. The following day was sunny, so we went to visit Cotacachi, a nearby town that specializes in leather goods. I bought a beautiful handbag for $40. There is also a small community of American expats living there because it is so cheap.
The next day we left for Riobamba, another city high in the Andes. It was sunny when we arrived, but cold. In fact we had to change hotels as ours was not heated, something we’re not used to. Besides, there was a disco across the street, and we didn’t enjoy the booming music. We moved into a colonial mansion that had been converted into a hotel and was more conveniently located. It was also heated and the breakfast was terrific, including a tray of delicious Ecuadorian fruits, some so exotic they don’t have English names. One fruit I’d never tasted before was the tree tomato, which is squeezed for its juice which tastes somewhat like orange juice.
After purchasing tickets for a mountain train ride the following day, we spent the rest of the day exploring the city. Riobamba is not an attractive town. People visit to go on the train rides. Like many other towns we saw, Riobamba is run-down and badly in need of renovation. It is also quite dirty. There is really nothing worth seeing except a series of squares; one has a rather large fountain with a figure of Neptune in the centre.
There is also an indoor market and its note-worthy feature is the pork market. This consists of a large room with about fifteen booths. Each booth has a woman selling a roasted pig. She actually has the entire pig on the counter, head and all, and carves bits from it. Several of the ladies tried to tempt my husband with a sample of their succulent pork, but he resisted the temptation. After all we weren’t going to buy any as we had nowhere to eat it.
That evening, we ate at a rather special restaurant, El Delirio. It is also located in a former mansion, right around the corner from our hotel. The restaurant boasts that Simon Bolivar once lived there, so who could resist? Despite the building being somewhat dilapidated, the food was excellent. Our reservation was for 7 pm, and when we arrived, the restaurant was quite dark and completely empty. It seems that people who eat out, eat late. Before we had finished, a few patrons showed up, a group of seven nuns no less, who made their way into the candle lit back room. It felt like we were being graced with a touch of Latin American magic realism. The waiter, who looked like a young version of Peter Lorre, informed us that there is a convent is just down the street, so the nuns eat there regularly. I guess everyone is entitled to one indulgence.
The next morning we travelled to Alausi by bus to get to the train. The two-hour ride through the mountains was simply beautiful.
The indigenous people who live in this region are mostly farmers, and despite the altitude, they cultivate almost every inch of the mountains. They also wear indigenous clothes, and not for show. It is simply the way they dress. The women wear either long skirts, that are really just wraparounds, or else they wear shorter, densely gathered velvet skirts with fancy trim around the hem. Most of them wear white blouses that have been embroidered around the neckline as well as felt hats. Despite their picturesque attire, these people work extremely hard. All the planting and harvesting is done by hand. They have no modern machinery although I did see a few farm workers spraying the crops from a canister of insecticide they carried on their backs. Judging by their humble homes, these people are very poor. Their living conditions are not to be envied.
The train that we took rides over a mountain called El Nariz del Diablo, or the devil’s nose. There are several popular train rides in Ecuador, and besides the Galapagos, they comprise one of the major tourist attractions in the country. This particular railway, which is known as one of the most difficult lines in the world to construct, was completed in 1908. It was built to connect the coastal city of Guayaquil to Riobamba and Quito. The challenge was to mount a track over a massive wall of rock. The solution is a line that zig-zags up and down with a series of switchbacks.
The original line actually ran until 1997 when climate change devastated the tracks. Now only a twelve kilometre stretch is used as a tourist attraction. The train itself is well maintained and, needless to say, the views of the mountains are stunning.
Following this adventure, we moved on to Cuenca, which is undoubtedly the most beautiful colonial city in Ecuador. Its historical centre is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The exquisite main square, the majestic Parque Calderon, is filled with tall palm trees and pines.
There are two cathedrals, the Catedral Nueva and the Catedral Vieja, each on one side of the park. The newer cathedral was built in the nineteenth century and is most impressive. A young man at our charming hotel, La Casa del Aguila, told us one can climb to the roof for a spectacular view of the city. Because I was still suffering from altitude sickness – difficulty breathing and dizziness – I declined.
Nearby, one will find the Plaza de las Flores, a much smaller square where flowers are sold. Behind it is the Iglesia El Carmen de la Asuncion, a white-walled eighteenth-century church. My husband and I slipped in one evening and were astonished to find an Evangelical Mariachi band playing at the front of the church, another magical flourish. There are many museums in Cuenca, too many to visit them all. One, though, the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes had an interesting display of stone-age musical instruments.
The museum guide gave a short demonstration; it sounded like chimes. There were also many pre-Columbia artifacts.
One afternoon, I slipped into the Museo del Sombrero, although I bought my authentic Panama hat from Homero Ortega & Hijos, the worldwide exporter of Panama hats. There are many decent restaurants and cafes in Cuenca, making it a wonderful and cheap place to live. I especially enjoyed walking along the Calle Largo, the long street, as it has interesting arts & crafts shops and some enticing restaurants, like the Windhorse café and the outdoor café behind the Iglesia Todos los Santos. From the terrace, one can see the Rio Tomebamba below, along which is a lovely pedestrian path.
On the other side of the river, there is a wealthy suburb with modern shopping facilities. In the mall, we were able to see the film Escobar, starring Benicio Del Toro. It was quite good. Not surprisingly, there is a small community of American expats living in Cuenca, quite happily I imagine. Should I ever return to Ecuador, this is where I’d stay.
The richness of Cuenca contrasts with life on the coast, which consists mainly of poor fishing villages done up to accommodate tourists who come for the beaches. It was raining lightly when we left Cuenca, so the bus ride through the mountains was like driving through the clouds. About half way to Guayaquil, the vegetation began to change into jungle and we passed numerous banana plantations. Houses became mere shacks, so we began to see just how poor Ecuador still is. What struck me about the poverty was that the people were still friendly, not at all threatening. By the time we arrived at Puerto Lopez, we were back at sea level.
Puerto Lopez is primarily a fishing village (80% fishing, 20% tourist). The tourists consist mainly of backpackers, although there are some older gringos, including Europeans. The Hotel Pacifico, where we stayed, has been in existence since 1963. Of course, the place has been rebuilt and expanded over the years, and such improvements are still underway. Our large room had a small terrace with a hammock and overlooked the ocean. One development was the building of a new malecon, or seafront walk. Although the beachfront is still quite grotty, it was good to be back in the sun and to feel the heat. It was 90 F in the afternoon and very humid. The fresh seafood is also very good and very cheap. A plate of shrimp or fish and chips costs about $7.
The following day we took an all-day boat excursion to Isla de la Plata, so named because it is rumoured that Sir Francis Drake visited the island and left behind a buried chest of silver. It is also known as the poor man’s Galapagos because of its exotic aquatic life. The island is part of the Parque Nacional Machalilla and it takes just over an hour to get there.
As you approach the island, dolphins playfully race with the boat. Once on the island, a guide leads the group along a path and up wooden stairs to a lookout where you can see blue-footed boobies. Before returning to the mainland, fishermen threw food into the water so that the tourists could see large turtles and beautiful tropical fish.
From Puerto Lopez, we made our way to Bahia de Caraquez, which is supposed to be the best coastal resort town in Ecuador. Perhaps we have been spoiled by our numerous visits to Punta del Este in Uruguay because we were disappointed. Except for a select few who inhabit the luxury condos on the tip of the peninsula and who congregate at the modest yacht club, the majority of the people living here are extremely poor and look very unhappy. These indigenous people do not dress in exotic costumes. Their simple, shabby clothes betray their poverty as do the numerous shacks in the surrounding hills. Except for a few new hotels, the town itself is rundown and dusty. It suffers from the usual neglect one finds in many South American cities. The worse example of this we have seen is Valparaiso, Chile.
We went there to visit one of Pablo Neruda’s fascinating houses, but the city itself is worth commenting on. At the end of the nineteenth century, Valparaiso was a thriving seaport, one of the most important in SA. In 1906, a major earthquake in the region severely damaged the downtown; then in 1914, the Panama Canal opened, so Valparaiso was no longer a crucial Pacific port. The world economic crisis of 1929 also played a significant role in the city’s decline. Despite having become a haven for artists, the city resembles a wasteland. While Bahia does not support an artist colony, there are a number of expats living there. One woman informed us she could not afford to live in Nevada on her social security, despite owning a house. Bahia also suffered from an earthquake in 1998, and is now trying to re-establish itself as an eco-city. The improved highway to Quito should help. There are many such government projects underway.
My husband and I were relieved to leave town even though it took us almost eight hours to get to Quito by bus because of the construction of the new road through the mountains. Since it was Easter Sunday, we had a hard time finding a taxi when we finally arrived. Fortunately, one man and his wife offered to share the driver they had found. We dropped them off first in some obscure suburb overlooking Quito. We were going to a hosteria near the airport. Because it is so new, they haven’t yet finished building the airport hotels. Our driver did not know where the village was located, so we stopped to ask a policeman, who sent us in the wrong direction. We soon realized we were lost, so we asked again. I now understand that our driver, who was enthusiastic about making an extra $20, was illiterate. He could not read the road signs. We eventually arrived at the village but by this time it had started raining heavily. Of course, we couldn’t find the hotel, so we asked some school boys who had been playing soccer but were now heading home. Fittingly, it was the youngest, who was probably only seven, who told us where it was. I suppose there is a lesson here. It will be the younger generation who are now being educated who will make Ecuador a fully functioning and thriving country. They do have what it takes if only they can stay the course.