I’m not much of a city person anymore. Too many years living on a farm where owls and foxes provided white noise at night, where I never took the car key out of the ignition and couldn’t remember if there even was a key for the front door, changed me. Whereas I used to love the relentless bustle, noise and swagger of big cities, now I find most of them overwhelming and insufferably self-important. Whether in London, New York or Bangkok, I find most cities dirty to an appalling degree, unsustainable in almost every way and pricey beyond what most normal people can afford. Cities also tend to exacerbate economic schisms, resulting in really rich and really poor neighborhoods, with little in between and not much interaction.
Still, I am a sucker for nice architecture and I love walking around neighborhoods people watching and peeping into other people’s lives. Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, features lots of diversions on both fronts, and I spent a very happy day exploring it solely by foot. With the historic center dating back to the 16th century and built on Incan ruins, Quito is not only an old city, but at 9,350 feet it is also the world’s second highest capital city behind La Paz, Bolivia and so is breathtaking in the literal sense. Having flown in from sea level the night before, I started the day in my fusty historic hotel, the Sierra Madre, with a mild headache that I flushed out with copious amounts of water. That necessitated many bathroom visits over the course of my eight-hour perambulation, ranging from those in historic churches and convents to parks, local pastry shops and family owned restaurants, where I sampled all manner of local food. The first piece of good news: there are plenty of clean bathrooms in Quito. The second: Ecuadorean cuisine is wonderful.
The local parks and streets are filled with vendors selling all types of food, from fresh fruit cups with mango, papaya and pineapple that school kids and businessman alike walk around snacking on, to plantains and chicken freshly cooked on small, wheeled grills with propane canisters, to little stands that featured a huge variety of fried foods, both savory and sweet. Just about every corner of Quito also featured Quechua women who come in from the provinces every day to sell their local produce in plastic bags, so that if you weren’t hungry right then, you could buy a bag of eight avocados, say, for the princely sum of $1. Other similarly priced bags that the women hawked in sonorous, repetitive chants included grapes, strawberries and cherries, all of which looked delicious.
Food was everywhere in Quito. Virtually every street in the city features a bakery or panaderia as they’re known here, with delicious smells wafting from open doors or tiny stalls no wider than six feet. In addition, big streets usually also have a pastry shop with home-baked sweets and European pastries, as well as a local restaurant or two with typical Ecuadorean fare, which melds European and Latin American influences. The cuisine here includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a lot of rice and other starches, and includes everything from chicken in many forms, to beef and pork dishes, often served with freshly fried yucca chips. Dishes of fiery salsa were a staple at every stand or restaurant. When I stopped for lunch, the chicken soup that I had as a starter for my $3.95 lunch featured an entire chicken foot, which seemed to be staring at me with every spoonful I took but was scrumptious, laced with fresh thyme and filled with vegetables and onions in its savory broth. A dash of salsa made it a little more picante.
My meandering eventually took me to the historic district, where I did visit the beautiful but still unfinished Basilica del Voto National, as well as the Monastery of San Francisco, built in 1534, both very European in style and imposing. Mostly, though, I made random turns down narrow alleys and found myself in the warrens of Quito, where the city was divided into whole streets that featured nothing but car parts, for example, or kitchen appliances or soccer uniforms or floor tiling or sewing notions. It was one of the most interesting discoveries of the day, especially because it seemed as though there wasn’t a thing that you wouldn’t eventually find if you needed it and knew which alleyway to turn down.
A lot of life is lived outdoors in Quito, I discovered. All over I saw women casually nursing their infants on benches or while they stood talking on cell phones; large groups of school children in their uniforms playing tag and soccer in the streets after lunch; business people conducting transactions at open air and stand up cafés, and tourists crowding the main square in the historic center, as tourists worldwide always do. Though the weather was overcast that day and so the view of the Pichincha volcano was obscured, the temperature was mild and pleasant. As I walked back to my hotel, the parks were packed with dog walkers, musicians, chess players and soccer players entertaining people on their way home from work.
Like most big cities, Quito has many different faces, from the alluring and well-to-do façades of meticulously restored colonial architecture and luxurious modern buildings, to the simple, even shack-like homes found not all that far away from the city center and seat of government. Quito certainly has its share of impressive museums and cultural institutions, but it doesn’t wear its history ponderously, as does London, say. It seems and is a city that is still defining itself as it sprawls outward onto the surrounding mountains and climbs to two million people in population. Having received many accolades in recent years for its beautiful historic center and surrounding natural beauty, Quito struck me not as a beautiful city first and foremost, but as a livable city, one in which rich and poor co-existed far better than in most other capitols I’ve seen. It’s a city I’d gladly spend more time in.