Four seasons in one week in one gorgeous country? We're not crazy - we just don't believe that too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing.Illustrations by Michael Crampton
As we zip around the cobblestones of Quito's Old Town, stray dogs saunter along the streets, eyeballing the car. It's past midnight, and the buildings look deserted, the windows and doors shuttered tight. Although it's a cool, clear night, few people are wandering around. But with three friends in tow, two who live in Quito, an impromptu first-night-in-town stop at the city's main square, La Plaza de la Independencia, seems perfectly reasonable.
When we first step out of the car, the square seems as quiet and desolate as the surrounding streets. Three steps later, music that is big on brass instruments catches up with us. And then we see them: a pack of tipsy people dancing away to the blaring tunes of a band stationed atop a chiva, an open-top party bus, with the brilliant white Government Palace as their backdrop.
Welcome to Ecuador.
After years of trips around the United States and Europe (and, just once, to Mexico), I finally succumbed to my friend Kathryn's stories of her year in Ecuador. I persuaded her to fly south with me (and to play interpreter to supplement my remnants of high school Spanish) and embark on a quest: With the hazy, slow days of the seemingly endless swelter of a New York City summer approaching, we would chase after a year's worth of seasons (and adventures) in a week. Although Ecuador is just slightly larger than Colorado, the country offers a wide variety of climates and topography - and it rarely takes more than a few hours to reach any spot from Quito (though I quickly learned that getting around is 90 percent of the challenge).
Determined to spend time acclimating to Quito's altitude (9,252 feet) before tackling greater heights in the mountains, I have a day in the city at hand. We pay the 25-cent fare for the public trolley and head to Old Town.
Just 12 hours after the quiet of the area at night, the square is a changed place. Sunshine floods the historic area and shutters are open wide, revealing tiny mom-and-pop restaurants serving plate lunches for just a dollar or two and bakeries selling empanadas and sweet rolls filled with mora (blackberry) jam, plus electronics stores, Internet cafés, and more. On this bright Sunday morning, the weather is nothing less than perfect as residents stand on balconies or lean out the windows of their pastel-colored buildings - pale yellow and orange walls, with the occasional bright turquoise thrown in, highlighting the curve of the cobblestone streets.
Old Town has a bit of steep to it. One street slopes up, while, down an alley, a tall staircase is the fastest way down to the main street (though it makes for an exhausting climb back up). Quito's altitude adds a layer of tired to uphill climbs, but sometimes a slow schlep up is well worth it: An imposing church off in the distance looks like a must-see, so the gradual stepping up to the neo-Gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional begins. Along the way, four preteen skateboarders test their English on us and mug for the camera. They beam over the attention before zipping off down the hill.
Although a statue over the front entrance welcomes visitors with open arms and a heart-shaped window softens things a bit, the basilica has, to put it mildly, a stern exterior. What it doesn't have is a sign warning of the trembly-legged adventure that awaits us inside.
Kathryn and I begin climbing the stairs of the church, taking constant breaks to fend off the dizziness and fatigue that the altitude brings on. Climbing a mountain would probably have been easier. About 100 steps up, we walk onto a large balcony overlooking the seating area of the church; a huge stained-glass window glows brightly. More panting out-of-towners reach our level. After we go another 50 steps or so, one of the constant surprises of Ecuador reveals itself: a café, with floor-to-ceiling windows, serving rich coffee (and World Cup soccer games on the tiny TV in the corner). In the distance, we see the massive statue atop El Panecillo of La Virgen de Quito, the angel who watches over the city.
It is at this point that I have to admit to being a chicken. Another 50 steps (and several breathing breaks) up is a sign pointing toward the belfry. The problem? The next set of steps is a tightly wound spiral staircase that shoots through the ceiling, making it impossible to see how high up it goes or if anybody is coming down. While I have few fears, climbing tightly wound spiral staircases is one of them. Instead, I spend time shooting photos of the stellar views of Quito from the subspiral level while Kathryn goes on. It turns out that the spiral is topped off with a climb up some bouncier-than-they-should-be ladders that, thanks to openings in the walls around them, give climbers the sense that they're climbing on air. In the United States, the climb up would be a lawsuit waiting to happen. But in Ecuador, it's just a chance to test one's mettle, to see how far you'll go for a good view on a