Here, in no particular order, is a list of things Ecuadorans are not afraid of: blood, gold, fruit, primary colors, and heights. It’s all so dizzying. Or maybe that’s simply the altitude sickness that comes with being nearly 10,000 feet above sea level in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. It can make one a bit light-headed.
After landing in Quito, I drop off my things at Café Cultura, in the center of town. It’s less a café than an old mansion refurbished as a boutique hotel. I am escorted to my room, which is accessed from the garden. The lodgings are bare-bones, with the bed taking up the majority of the space, but I have one of the largest bathrooms I’ve ever seen in my life. No TV, heating, carpet, or closet. But a giant claw-foot tub surrounded by enough candles for midnight Mass? So far, Quito seems to have its priorities straight.
Despite the city’s rarefied position at the top of the world, I realize I need to go a bit higher to get a gander at the whole metropolis. So I head to Café Mosaico, which, it’s worth noting, is an actual café. You can’t sleep there, although I consider trying. The small restaurant is perched on a hill overlooking Quito’s sprawl. A canopy of soldered glass windowpanes covers the balcony to keep the wind at bay. I arrive just in time to watch the sun set over the giant winged statue of the Virgen de Quito on a volcanic hill in the distance. Since I am visiting the city during the week before Christmas, the cathedrals and apartment complexes are only too happy to pick up the sun’s slack with a cosmos of tiny lights blinking in the dark.
Overall, Quito looks like what you might imagine for the capital of Ecuador. It is textured and lush, crowded and green, nestled in the snow-capped Andes with pastel-roofed homes and a staggering number of churches speckling the landscape. It is a mixture of grand sculpture and hanging laundry. Of course, the only things I knew about this city prior to my arrival were that a) it is one of the poorest places on the continent, and b) Proof of Life, a movie about the kidnapping and ransom business in South America, was filmed here. Thus I decide now is as good a time as any to start drinking.
To warm up, I order a canelazo, a kind of Ecuadoran hot toddy made with sugar cane alcohol, cinnamon, and orange juice. It is truly delightful, but when I say orange, I am referring not to the flavor but to the hue. Over the next week I will discover that orange and grapefruit juices are foreign to the Ecuadoran palate, which prefers mango and multiflavored concoctions of passion fruit, guava, coconut, and general deliciousness. If I had any gift for lyrics, I’d put out an entire album of songs dedicated to the juices of Ecuador.
Notwithstanding the elevation, I am determined to get to know Quito from the ground up. During my stay, every single person I talk to advises me to take cabs from destination to destination. I think I understand why. The most expensive cab ride you can take costs the equivalent of about three dollars. But a one-minute cab ride? Really?
“We’re like L.A. in this way,” explains László Károlyi, Café Cultura’s Hungarian owner. “We’d drive straight into the restaurant and up to the table if we could.”
I appreciate the concept of a driving culture, but being a New Yorker, I choose to walk everywhere. Only later am I told the decision to cab it is actually an issue of safety, not funds or laziness. Even residents don’t wander down side streets during the day. Quito is not a shortcut-friendly place. The neighborhoods change quickly from diplomat-level to dicey. Fortunately, I walk with a sense of purpose and am sporting some very non-American-looking shoes.
On the morning of my second day, I buy a chocolate-filled churro for 10 cents from a street vendor and make my way toward Old Town, meandering from the Monastery of San Francisco (where I sit staring at a statue of the Virgen de la Asunción for so long that the automatic lights click off around me) to the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, which is covered in so much gold that God must live here—what else could keep the building from dropping straight through the ground to the center of the earth?
On my way out of the church, I am stopped by a bubbly woman and her cameraman. She places an oversize microphone at my mouth and starts peppering me with questions in rapid-fire Spanish. I know the answer to all of them, and it goes something like this: Yo no hablo español. She smiles and apologizes in English.
“What is this for, though?” I ask, gesturing in the direction of the man behind the camera.
“It’s like the Ecuadoran Oscars,” she says. “We are asking the people which film they think is the best.”
“Oh,” I say as I start to walk away, but instead I stop and ask, “Are there any I should see?”
She is partial to the work of Sebastián Cordero, she says. I scribble down his name. Of course, the glitches immediately present themselves when I try to track down the director’s latest film. The first I saw coming: Yo no hablo español. The second I didn’t: His work doesn’t seem to be playing anywhere in the next few days.
Nonetheless, I resolve to pay a visit to the independent film house Ochoymedio and see whatever’s showing that night. It turns out to be a documentary about the legendary Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. A boy in his late teens hands me a ticket and speaks so passionately about the film that I feel compelled not only to fake being a Spanish speaker but to fake being a cinephile as well. I put my hand on my heart and nod as I walk in.
I sit through several hours of beautiful, subtitle-free singing, including tribute performances by contemporary artists, most of whom I have never heard of but who are clearly quite famous. The audience oohs and ahhs appreciatively. At one point, Shakira comes onscreen and they snicker.
As I leave, the boy in the box office asks me how I found the film, at which point I am forced to admit I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. He laughs out loud and shakes his head.
“Where are you headed?”
Tomorrow I plan to take myself farther afield, to the rain forest near Mindo, and I would like to be well rested for the birds and the butterflies.
So for now, the closest I want to come to wildlife is my claw-foot bathtub. I brandish my map and reveal my intention to walk back to my hotel. The boy blinks at me and says, in perfect English, “I don’t think so. I’ll drive you. Hold on, I’ll get my keys.”
As we walk toward his car, I marvel that I am about to get into the motor vehicle of a total stranger. What’s next? Eating unwrapped candy and using electronics near the bathtub? But every experience I have had thus far in Quito has been so warm, I’m not going to morph into a skittish tourist now. Plus I’m sure that plenty of people saw us leave the theater together, should I wind up dead in a ditch.
“You have to really pull the handle,” he says, pointing at the rusted hook on the passenger side.
I yank it and the door nearly falls off in my hand. He shrugs. No big deal. Ah, the universal nonchalance of the Independent Film Guy.
In the car we talk about his life, how he moved to Barcelona but came back to Quito, and what a special place this is. When we pull up to Café Cultura, I thank him and offer to pay him or to take him around New York City should he ever visit. We have an independent cinema or five he might like. But he will have none of it. Instead, he juts out his chin, offers me the right side of his face, and taps it.
I lean over and kiss him on the cheek. I tell him in so many words that when I go I will miss Quito’s quirks, its visual vibrancy, its seemingly unique combination of edge and comfort.
“We are no different from any other city,” he says, “We’re a total mix. Just a little bit higher, that’s all.”
>> Next: The AFAR Guide to Ecuador