Vern: After our amazing Galapagos cruise, and a 5-hour layover in port town Guayaquil's airport, we flew back to Ecuador's capital, Quito. The tourism department, ever keen on superlatives, advises that Quito is South America's oldest capital. We'd been here for a few hours between the flight into Ecuador and the flight out to the Galapagos and fell victim to bed bugs in a cheap hostel dorm, so this time we chose another hostel and were quite happy with it. We were delighted with the brand new mattresses and Tiffany's-turquoise linen at the three-week-old hostel in El Mariscal, the new town area dubbed 'Gringolandia' because of the high concentration of hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars and white people. We arrived late and slept in. The next day was grey and rainy and wasn't really appropriate for sight-seeing so we spent some time in an internet cafe uploading our Galapagos photos, then in a bare-bones restaurant for avocado soup, and choripans for lunch. The restaurant staff were wrapped around the TV set for the Barcelona vs Real Madrid soccer game, so we got stuck into that. We then hit 'The English Bookshop' looking for a guide-book for Colombia. Because of its poor reputation, we ruled Colombia out of our trip, and I cut the section out of our bible-sized 'South America on a Shoestring' guidebook to make it less heavy. But in the last two months we've heard one traveller after another raving about it and Dina, a lady from our cruise who spent a lot of time there for work, insisted it is an amazing country so we'd added Colombia to our itinerary and therefore needed a guidebook. The bookshop owner was an expat from Essex in the UK who'd moved for an Ecuadorian wife. He didn't have much positive to say about the Ecuadorian government and police force (nor his competitor, a staunch US Republican expat, running a shop called Confederate Books) and we spent several hours in his little store discussing South Africa, the US, the UK and Ecuador before eventually buying the guidebook we needed.
That night we ate at a restaurant packed with locals, so authentic that it had no sign and no printed menu. The waiter reluctantly relayed the three available dishes. Andrea ordered the BBQ chicken with beans, and I ordered the peri peri steak with lentils. The waiter nodded after taking our order and wondered off. Andrea was served the BBQ chicken with beans, and I was served the BBQ beef with beans - So I guess the waiter's nod was just a gesture indicating, "I have no idea what you just said, gringo. You'll eat what I serve you". Our plates were piled high with rice and were served with fried plantains and a delicious salsa. Argentine buskers and a harpist wondered in to entertain us for tips, and with drinks the meal cost us $7. Deal! Afterward we went out to exploit a 2 for 1 on cocktails special at an 'Irish Pub' (aka concrete room with Premiership Soccer jerseys hanging from the ceiling) with the hostel owner: Santiago, a Chilean: Victor and an Austrian: Claudia.
The weather was better the next morning so we wondered into Quito's historic centre. Heavy traffic, thousands of people, lots of shoe-shine boys and kids selling cigarettes and gum tarnished our impression of the Colonial blocks. It's a far cry from the 'Old Town' in Stockholm, Istanbul, Dubrovnik or anywhere really (though apparently they close the roads every second Sunday so that might be nice and UNESCO gave it their 'World Heritage Site' badge). For a treat I tried some guava-flavoured whipped cream served in a plastic cup (a bit strange), and Andrea bought three lollipops from a poor old man with severe cataracts who tugged on her heart strings.
With a referendum coming up in the coming week, whereby the president is seeking control over the justice system, the Plaza Grande in the centre of town was full of political campaigners. A well funded marching band, along with clowns on stilts, chanted "Vota si!". Unfortunately the "Vota no" bunch were scattered quietly around the park looking sweaty and bored. Not looking good for those opposing the dictatorship.
We joined the queue for free tour of the Palacio del Gobierno, Ecuador's White House equivalent, but were ousted because we hadn't brought our passports along to surrender to the tour guide (these were locked securely away at the hostel obviously). The Monasterio de San Fransisco was closed and only re-opened after 3pm. The rain in Quito starts like clockwork at 2pm most days in April so that ruled the monastery out. All the old churches cheekily charge an entrance fee, and we weren't denting the daily budget for admission: La Compania de Jesus is famous for its gilding so we snapped a photo of the only gilding visible before the desk where they collect the admission fee. Tick. Quito's cathedral houses a version of the Last Supper with Jesus and co feasting on 'cuy' - a whole-roasted guinea pig. The painting was printed on a nice big poster outside. Tick. Lastly, we admired the enormous statue of Mary from a hill over the city. We didn't climb the hill because the steps were largely reported as being unsafe for tourists, and we're content with remembering the sculpture with a few pixels in a photograph from the bottom of the hill. Tick.
We almost beat the rain in a race back to our hostel. Unfortunately, once there, in the common room, Claudia's answer to the question, "What did you do today?" was "I got robbed". In the Plaza Grande, a smartly dressed lady pointed out that a bird had pooped on her shoulder (a squirt of foul smelling liquid administered by an accomplice) and with a tissue in hand offered to wipe it off. As Claudia lifted the strap of her SLR camera over her head (so as not to get it in the way of the stain being scrubbed by the woman) a man ran by, pulled the camera off of her arm and disappeared. The lady scrubbing the spot pointed and shouted, "He went that way" and blended back into the crowds before Claudia turned around. At the police station she sat next to a guy with the same sob story. Sometimes, during this trip, when we'd been enjoying an incredible view, or piece of architecture or wildlife, we'd wished for a better camera. But unfortunately in countries with a lot of poverty a big camera is a meal ticket, so we've avoided a lot of unwanted attention with our compact point and shoot.
We cooked huge portions of vegetables for dinner that night, having been a bit vitamin-starved eating the local cuisine and got stuck in to planning our trip north to the border with Colombia.