A visit to the equator sparks a South American love affair.Photograph by Sean McCormick
Strolling down the streets of Quito, Ecuador, I begin to fall in love. Then, high atop a volcanic crater in the Ecuadorian highlands, while overlooking a blue and frigid lagoon, I feel myself falling deeper in love. But it’s along Guayaquil’s magnificent malecón (boardwalk) on a sultry, languid evening that I realize I’m truly in love with Ecuador.
I suppose my love affair is inevitable, as this small and spectacular country has so much to offer. But because my time in Ecuador is limited, I’m forced to choose just three incredible areas to explore: Quito, the Andean highlands, and the coastal city of Guayaquil. Maybe later, I’ll be able to experience the enigmatic Galápagos Islands; the majestic Avenida de los volcanes (Avenue of the Volcanoes); the pristine beaches of Esmeraldas; the paramó, Ecuador’s boggy, peaty prairie; the colonial city of Cuenca; and the steamy Amazon jungle.
For now, though, I’ll take what I can. As is the case with an irresistible romance or a delectable dish, the first taste just leaves me hungering for more.
Quito is like a beautiful and dignified woman. Traditional and conservative, she’s a guardian of both the pre-Columbian traditions of her Andean peoples and the Catholic traditions of her European children. And her cool weather is perfect for getting out and discovering her many charms.
As I stroll along the historic center, Ruta de las siete cruces (the Route of the Seven Crosses), and the street vendor’s market, I feel safe and welcome. Among the many beautiful churches in Latin America, la Iglesia de la Compañía has to be one of the most awe-inspiring of all. The wood carvings, the porcelain work, and the gilded altar and ceiling literally take my breath away.
I get hungry and head to Patio Andaluz for some locro, a delicious potato porridge, which is typical fare of the highlands and can be prepared in many ways. I sample an assortment of tiny empanadas, some savory, some sweet; they’re delicious and melt in my mouth.
I continue my exploration of the city by walking to the Plaza de San Francisco. From a park bench, I observe several multi-generational families. I’m moved by the love and interaction across the ages.
I get another peek into Quito’s daily life, as well as a glimpse into her colonial past, when I visit la Ronda -- a street in the Old District that is also an eclectic neighborhood of artisans, writers, and working-class folk.
Originally an alleyway connecting the outside perimeter of the city to its center, La Ronda is today a picturesque, serpentine street for pedestrians only. The houses and tiny shops that line it still have their original narrow wooden doors, which remain open during the day and allow a view of lush atrium gardens. As I greet residents who smile and wave, I hear the sound of music and laughter drifting above my head, where wrought-iron balconies are draped with geraniums and bougainvillea. It’s easy to love this little neighborhood, where every corner has a historical marker that helps peel back the layers of its complex past.
Everywhere I go in Quito, I see the Andean culture peeking through like splashes of color against an earth-toned backdrop. I hear it in the Quechuan words and lilting accent, which mix easily into the Spanish dialogue and add a sparkling note to the banter.