At 9300 feet above sea-level, Quito is the second-highest capital in the world (La Paz topping out at 11800 feet) and the thin air stings with ozone and diesel fumes from the thousands of buses and tiny taxicabs. Attracted by oil money, businessmen in suits from the lowlands and beggars with babies from the mountains crowd the narrow sidewalks. The wealth divide is striking in its depth and visibility.
As our cab from the airport approached the business district I saw young Quitonian men and women out for lunch walking four abreast, arms locked tightly together. Was it for safety or just to be jerks, plowing through the crowds like that?
Hotel: Mansion del Angel – classy, affordable.
Broken heel: $1.
One pound of laundry: 45 cents.
Trouble: The capirinha.
In 2000 Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency – greenbacks are now used for cash transactions. All those Sacagawea dollar coins that bombed in the States have found a new home in Quito.
Everybody gladly accepts U.S. twenties but nobody seems to have the small bills to make any change.
We opted to give ourselves an extra day of leeway on the front end in Quito just in case weather forced a delay in our flight from San Jose – we wanted to be sure we’d make that connection to the boat in the Galapagos. With no weather problems we found ourselves with a full day to explore the city.
It’s a picturesque town, lots of nineteenth-century Spanish architecture and the surrounding hills blanketed with colorful houses. Still, there’s that awful air.
We started to climb El Panecillo but gave up, finding it unpleasant on the eyes and lungs. Later we learned of its reputation as a den of muggers and thieves.
I never felt in any personal danger out on the street but I had a nagging sense that – with all the bustle and crowding – at any moment things could change very quickly.
Our favorite find was the Victorian-era Observatorio Astronomico, dedicated to astronomy and seismology and still in use today. Seismographs scratch away in the basement and the telescopes roll around when the sky is clear. The building also serves as a museum of scientific instruments.
The tour was cheap (not more than a buck) and our guide was a pleasant female astrophysics Ph.D candidate with limited English but enough to get her points across.
Our guide urged us to stow the cameras out of sight before hitting the street. We took her advice and decided to hail a tiny yellow cab back to the hotel.
We learned that tiny yellow cab drivers appreciate riders not slamming the doors.