Ecuadorian Capital Crash Course
I am writing you this letter wearing 4 layers of clothes and freezing nonetheless and guess what: Quito is not as exotic as one would expect weather-wise.
I had to get this out of the way…
Quito, Ecuador, is my home at the moment. Neither an obvious choice, nor one planned in advance: the city just presented itself as self-imposed exile destination next. I have decided to feel at home everywhere, but this one required no effort: having former ties with the place, I came in to an almost fully organized life, complete with friends and a social circle. And it feels good.
As hinted in the introduction, my main complaint is the weather: I find it downright frustrating. It may be the expectations one wrongly has when thinking of a far-off land located in the equator, or simply the fact that I am Greek (hence super-specific about what constitutes good weather) – the bottom-line is I am always cold. The city seems to be in a perpetual state of autumn and, incredulously, buildings don’t have central heating.
There are actual exotic elements about Quito however, most notably the fact that it sits at an altitude of 2,850m (which doesn’t fair great with the average smoking urbanite) and it is offset by active volcanoes. This renders it rather unique as a capital city.
On other notable things, this city has the most spectacular skyline. Deep, impeccable blue, tainted with imposing clouds, colours and patterns alternating with dizzying speed. I cannot stop photographing it (enjoy some stunning skyes here).
The cityscape has its formidable moments as well, with interesting juxtapositions between urban architecture and the volcanic background. The Gonzalez Suarez and Guapulo nocturnal views are made for urban fairy-tales.
I have been meaning to start this narration by pointing out how everyone seems to be living in gigantic, über-luxurious apartments (furnished by Home Identity), drive awesome cars and have maids. About how all the buildings have guards (who will not let you in unless otherwise agreed) and nobody ever goes on foot. But it transpires that I have been living a mostly shielded life here and -as venturing a little further from home made abundantly clear- this is not the general case. The city seems to be clearly segmented, with every area having its own characteristics (that said, the above do apply in the area where I am located).
Allegedly Quito is dangerous but so far I haven’t witnessed anything real scary (except being unsuccessfully jumped upon inside a mall once, but thank god for guards and bodyguards). Nevertheless it is advised to be Careful at all times, avoid flaunting it on the street, be mindful of your bag -even when in a car- and always keep a close grip on your mobile phone.
Quito is home to the Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world), a monument pinpointing the exact location of the equator (said to be about 250m off-mark). It is the place where you can put each foot on a different hemisphere, making for the million dollar photo-opportunity. If you make it this far, visiting the closeby El Crater restaurant is a must. It has amazing, Hitchcock-esque grounds and serves local delicacies like the locro soup. And it has Eliana Jones, the house pet and cutest llama of all times.
A distressing thing about Quito, and Ecuador in general, is that it is “earthquake-friendly”. We are all familiar with the devastating April 16 earthquake, but what is not so well known is that the occasional temblor is on the menu. You get used to it in the end.
Interestingly, the city seems to breed mind-blowing artistic talent, but this one merits a separate article (hopefully coming up soon).
FOOD & ENTERTAINMENT
Ecuadorian food is all the rage. Ceviche and aji (a local sauce that will mostly remain local due to hard to find ingredients) have become a fixation. The city has a powerful gastro scene, with an abundance of restaurants serving all the favourite Latin American dishes & all types of international cuisine. I haven’t made it to visit all the musts yet but my stand-outs so far include The Market (local of choice), Banh Mi (friendly prices, cool atmosphere, best for lunch), Zao (elegant chic, nice smoking area as a bonus) and the newly opened The Red Rooster (seems to be an immediate hit). I recently went to Lua, famous for its outstanding food and can verify that it is worthy of the hype. I also like The Flying Scotsman a British pub-inspired place offering a variety of tasty plates, including fish & chips for when I get London-homesick. My all time favourite however is the Italian Carmine: an extremely sophisticated yet relaxed environment and food to die for.
The street food also seems very appetizing but I have been forbidden from going anywhere near it and so far have obeyed.
My European self is positively dismayed with the lack of bars: apparently they do not exist (hotel bars don’t count) – you either have to settle for restaurants’ bars or skip directly to the nightclub (no, thanks). And the street life is rather limited. People don’t seem to be hanging around a lot; come evening, silence reigns. This is good or bad, depending on your viewpoint.
SHOPPING & COST OF LIFE
One can argue shopping is somewhat challenged. There is a lack of premium (and not so premium) brands but more importantly there is a lack of commonly used items. Imported stuff in general is dear. There is alternate brands for most things, as long as you are ok with being “alternative”. In case of visit just bring along whatever you deem essential.
I have a thing for visiting Supermarkets when traveling, they are accurate indicators of what to expect from a place. My weekly visits to the local Supermaxi have become an entertaining ritual– I love the exotic stuff at the fruit and vegetable department and the interesting vibes at the seafood (great prices) and meat areas. That said, it is better to shop for groceries at the Fruit Market – I visit the La Floresta one- and for meats and fish at respective specialty shops. Liquid yogurt, sweet breakfast tortillas and 500g bars of cooking chocolate are my figure-destroying indulgences of choice. Alcohol is really expensive (around $60 a bottle for most standard drinks) but, if you feel adventurous, there is local variations of everything at around $12 a pop.
If you are a smoker things are a little meh. At $5.4, average, a packet of cigarettes is a little or a lot depending on where you are coming from (a bargain if you are Australian, a rip-off if you are Colombian and just unpleasant if you are Greek). E-cigarettes are 4X the European price and e-liquids are hard to find.
Working out tends to be on the expensive side. You can find amazing deals for hairdressing and manicures. Taxis are cheap. Gas even cheaper. They have amazing roses and great cocoa. And you can find pineapples and coriander at any corner store.
A nice local touch: Traditionally looking (see. Andean) vendors are stationed in street junctions, selling fresh fruit (at a fraction of the price). Buying limes while stuck on a red light totally does it for me.
– People only kiss on one cheek.
– And you get to kiss the people you don’t know as well.
– The average person doesn’t speak English, so brush up the Spanish 101.
– Water is not potable
– Single girls and boys are endangered species
A well-deserved high-five to the people of Quito. They are honestly very friendly, a trait I always appreciate when traveling. “Mi casa es tu casa” is an expression that is actually in use.
VERDICT: I like it a lot.
P.S.: If you are thinking of coming over get a jacket – we don’t want you catching a cold. And bring cigarettes and booze!