Quito's Ageless Allure

A grandmother, a granddaughter, a month in Ecuador

By Lynne Sullivan

I'm in Quito with my 6-year-old granddaughter, and feeling surprisingly well at almost 10,000 feet above sea level. This is the first day of a month-long exploration of Ecuador, and Hailey's along to keep me company. I couldn't have chosen a better traveling companion. Ecuadorians love children, and Hailey's gringo features and spontaneous smile are gaining us friends as we make our way through Old Town, the soul of this capital city, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Thanks to an incredibly patient guide, we're seeing all the best sights at kid speed, and both of us are captivated for very different reasons. Our first stop is La Compañia de Jesus, Ecuador’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. "Is it real gold?" Hailey asks, checking out the gilded walls and altars.

"Seven tons of it," our guide assures her, then launches into a fact-filled recital of dates — built between 1605 and 1768 by Jesuit priests and restored after an earthquake 20 years ago — and architectural styles — Baroque facade, Corinthian pillars. It all interests me, but causes Hailey to fidget.

We cut our visit short and walk back out into the Plaza de la Independencia. We find youngsters chasing around the full-bloom flowerbeds while their moms, wrapped in brightly colored hand-woven shawls, chat in Spanish or indigenous Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas.

"I can’t understand anything anyone’s saying," Hailey sighs, more baffled than disgruntled. "I think they’re speaking cursive."

Learning the Lingo

First thing after breakfast the next morning, we scout the area around our hotel for language schools. Now that she’s been exposed, Hailey is agreeable to being immersed in Spanish, and Quito is well-known as the best place in South America for a thorough dousing. More than 70 schools compete for students and lessons are cheap, about $6 an hour for private tutoring. As a bonus, most city residents — from teachers to shopkeepers — speak crisply, pronouncing each letter in every word at an unhurried pace.

We settle on a school that offers intermediate instruction for me and play-based learning for Hailey. Both teachers are engagingly friendly, and Hailey’s tutor is a young mother who agrees to conduct class in the school’s lovely garden, weather permitting. Another instructor offers to accompany us on a tour of New Town, and we head out immediately to do some shopping "en Español."

New Town, it turns out, is not that new. It sprang up in the 1940s, when the moneyed elite left their Old Town mansions for shinier casas to the north. This area — known locally as Mariscal Sucre — is crowded with shops, banks, tour operators, restaurants and hotels — including JW Marriott, Hilton Colón, and Grand Mercure.

[photo photo2 align=right max-width=100] We buy a few necessities at la tienda. My first words: "Acceptan tarjetas de crédito?" ("Do you accept credit cards?") Then, Hailey gets free time in the immense green spread of Parque La Carolina and persuades me to join her in the Vivarium, where we are charmed by a collection of snakes from Ecuador’s jungle. After she is well-exercised and amply entertained, we taxi up a nearby hill to Museo Fundación Guayasamín.

Honestly, I do not recognize the name Oswaldo Guayasamín until we step into the building that once served as his home and studio. Immediately, I recall his creations. Gripping. Emotional. Exciting. This is the sort of art that grabs you and refuses to let go until you "get it." Guayasamin died in 1999, but he is still Ecuador’s most famous contemporary artist. His universally acknowledged work includes Age of Anger, a series of giant hands clinched in ire before gaunt faces disfigured by agonizing rage. The paintings are as disturbing as they are beautiful, and Hailey and I are both mesmerized by the palpable passion depicted on the oversized canvases. In other words, we get it.

We will return someday, when Hailey is older, to explore the historical events that caused such anger, but now we are tired and hungry and want nothing more than a warm bath and hot dinner. We make a quick stop at the restroom, and in my fatigued state, I almost forget not to flush the toilet paper. I knew Hailey wouldn’t forget. When I had explained the inadequacies of the Ecuadorian sewer system on our first night, she shrugged and said, "Fine. I usually don’t wipe anyways."

The first entry in my travel notebook reads: Discuss Hailey’s bathroom habits with her mom.

Going on a Gondola

[photo photo3 align=right max-width=100]To commemorate the completion of our first day of language school, Hailey and I set out for a gondola ride on the city’s new Telefériqo. We buy our tickets at half-price, one senior and one child ($2 each), and add the Fast Pass supplement ($3) to avoid waiting on line. As we scoot up the side of Cruz Loma, a mountain set at the foot of the twin Pichincha Volcanoes on the western edge of town, the vastness of Quito spreads out below us. The ten-minute ride takes us to a lookout point that offers views which, at an altitude of 13,300 feet, are quite literally breathtaking.

We observe the twins. Rucu, meaning old in the Inca language, is inactive. Guagua, baby, is considered active, but calm since 1999. While I struggle to take in adequate oxygen, Hailey runs effortlessly from the snack bar to the souvenir kiosk begging to buy "just one thing, puleeze." I pull a U.S. dollar from my zippered pocket, hand it over, and go back to coaxing air into my reluctant lungs while giving silent thanks for Ecuador’s "dollarization." I simply could not deal with foreign currency at the moment.

When Hailey skips back with a sugary treat, I offer a challenge. "If you can ask in Spanish, I’ll agree to an hour in the amusement park at the bottom of the Teleferiqo." I may be rucu, but as long as there are grand-guaguas, I refuse to be inactive.

"Uh, sure," she says. "Quisiera ... ir ... hmmm ... a el parque."

"Al parque," I correct. "Muy bueno. Vamos al gondola. Race ya!"

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