Monday, 6 February 2012

With our heads in the clouds...

We are in Quito!! Waaaaayyyyyy up in the Andes. We already miss Jill, Modest, and Lauren - our beach buddies for most of January. Several Laurenisms will likely remain with us for at least a few more weeks of travel ("Poot" = pooped; "milka-milk" = I'm ready for bed; "Done-done" and various other word-doublings for emphasis; "both!" = the response after Lauren learned that was the third option when posed with a "this or that" question). We will also miss all of Modest's language lapses on account of his "BSL". Allow me to explain: Modest loves to blame both failed attempts at humor and instances where his humor crosses certain lines of social appropriateness on the fact that English is his second language (ESL). After a few too many of these ESL moments, I suggested that perhaps BSL was a more accurate descriptor... I know. I'm so clever.  I'd love to poke fun at Jill too but she didn't really give me much material to work with. I guess we'll probably continue to use the "bhhhjjjjuhhh" onomatopoeia whenever an unidentified fluff invades our personal space.... Get Modest to reenact this for you if you know him.

Our flight here from Costa Rica was on a nearly empty, nearly brand new airplane. It literally took us 10 minutes from the time we arrived at the gate at Quito airport to get our baggage, clear customs, and hire a taxi to our hostel. Crazy!

The first thing you notice about this city is how much of it you can see. Quito is spread over the slopes of the surrounding mountains, making for great views every way you look. The colonial-style architecture is also immediately apparent. We are staying in the Old Town (Centro Historico) in a hostel named (simply and aptly) "Colonial House". Our room is on the third floor and we have a pretty sweet view from our balcony (see photo; actually, the photo doesn't do it justice so you'll just have to trust me). The hostel itself is quite nice and the owner, Ornelia, is really sweet despite not having the best grasp of English. Luckily, she does not suffer from the BSL that afflicts Modest.

We spent our first afternoon wandering the streets of old town, admiring the buildings and unabashedly people-watching in the Plaza Grande. The temperature is considerably cooler than it was at the beach in Costa Rica - average highs are around 18 degrees and so far the days have been mostly cloudy with a few smatterings of rain. Honestly, it's a welcome reprieve from the heat we enjoyed in Costa Rica. Deep down I'm still Canadian, born and bred, meaning I thrive in more temperate conditions although I do enjoy hot days at the beach now and then! Our first meal in Quito was at a cafe with tables looking into an interior courtyard. This style is common with colonial buildings, which is sort of sad because typically the courtyards are beautiful, often boasting ornamental gardens, fountains, and large balconies overlooking cafe patios.

The second thing we noticed about this city is the abundant police presence. They are everywhere! Walking solo or in groups, riding motorcycles, driving in trucks, and guarding the entrances to the more prestigious shops, hotels, and eateries. This is comforting and yet also disconcerting.... I suppose I'd rather see too many cops and be left wondering why they're necessary than find myself alone on a street wondering why there are no cops to help me while I'm getting mugged. Yah.

The third thing we noticed is the excessive honking by drivers. Don't imagine that this phenomenon is comparable to the behaviour typical of crowded New York streets where gridlock is a daily occurrence and drivers honk to (presumably) vent their frustrations. No, drivers honk here because most streets in the old town don't have signage for traffic controls and with 3+ storey buildings constructed such that their exterior walls effectively meld with the curbsides, you really can't see cars coming from intersecting streets. So, drivers have evolved to honk as a way of alerting others that they are coming through! Forget about yielding at every intersection - you'd get nowhere fast. Honking seems to work just fine. So far.

The fourth thing we noticed was the altitude. Or, to be more accurate, the effects of the altitude. Quito is at least 2800 m above sea-level with some neighborhoods reaching upwards of 4000 m. For comparison, Banff is at about 1400 m and Jasper is about 1000 m. Most of Edmonton lies at about 700 m, so it's not a huge jump to visit the Rockies. We came from sea level in Costa Rica, so probably felt an even greater impact than if we'd flown here directly from home. Our symptoms, which didn't really manifest until day 2, were light-headedness, shortness of breath during periods of exertion, loss of appetite, and some achiness in our joints. Normal. Fortunately this only lasted about 2 days. Oh, I also have to confess that I am no longer part of the sickness-free club. Yep. I guess the food quality/cleanliness standards here are a little lower than in Costa Rica.  :S

One highlight of our time here thus far has been a restaurant called Cafe Mosaico. The view from their patio is spectacular, the food is good and reasonably priced (especially when you consider the epic view), and we had the place entirely to ourselves. Surely that wouldn't be the case all the time, but it was a nice treat and escape from the bustling streets of old town proper. Note the bull-fighting arena in the center of the photo. We actually saw a matador de toros practicing sin toro but with the stereotypical red cape! Maybe we'll check out a bullfight during our stay here... maybe.

While in Costa Rica we did some research into Spanish lessons and made one major change to our planned itinerary: originally were going to leave after a few days and head to Cuenca to take Spanish classes. We've now decided to take a couple weeks of lessons here because it's a bit cheaper than in other locations and it will be easier to travel to other places once we've picked up some basics. I guess that's the fifth thing we've noticed - very few people speak English. We are getting by but my sentiments are that our experiences will be all the more richer if we invest some time learning the language. So, after a minor setback resulting from the internets swallowing my email to the school, we will begin our lessons tomorrow! We are also moving in with an Ecuadorian family for the next 2 weeks. I feel slightly apprehensive about this but am confident it's the best way to force ourselves to practice what we are learning each day. Plus, it should be a great opportunity to learn first-hand about the culture and customs here.

Creepy mannequin in an old town market.
After the two weeks of studying in Quito we are going to travel-and-study - the school offers lessons at other locations in Ecuador. We have chosen a lodge in the Amazon that is only accessible by river and a beachside town where we will be housed in beach-front huts. This travel-and-study option appealed to us because it will allow us to see more of Ecuador while improving our language skills. I sort of think we'll be over the big city after a few more weeks too. Though we're looking forward to meeting up with our friend Christa who is volunteering in Quito for a couple of months! Hurray for a serendipitous overlap in our visits!

Aside from sorting out our Spanish lessons we've spent some time researching and sketching out the rest of our year in South America. ATTENTION THOSE THINKING ABOUT MEETING UP WITH US ALONG THE WAY! Tentative plans are to spend the rest of February in Ecuador, taking our Spanish lessons as mentioned above. There are a few more places near Quito that we want to visit in early March and then we are going to try to book a Galapagos tour for about the second week of March, probably looking to do a 5-day boat trip with a few days spent on the islands after the formal tour (want to come??). Then we'll make our way through the south of Ecuador towards Peru. We are thinking of signing up for the Inca Trail hike at the end of April (27th or 28th are the only dates still available), so will spend most of April around the north of Peru, aiming to arrive in Cuzco in time for a few days of acclimation before we do the trail to Machu Picchu. Anyone up for this adventure??? After Machu Picchu we will make our way to Bolivia. We are still thinking about our route after Bolivia. We may go to Paraguay, then Brazil, then Argentina or we may to to Chile and then Argentina. Anyway, just a tentative sketch of countries FYI!


  1. If I decide to meet up with you, my terms require it to be at Machu Picchu haha.

    Good like with the spanish! You'll probably get respect from the locals for doing so too!