The Taxi Chronicles – Part 2

I learned very quickly about safety while in a cab! On my first full day in Quito, Ecuador, I had walked from my hotel in the new part of the city to the Old Town. You can read my post here about one scary little incident I had along the way. After my lovely tour of the beautiful churches in Old Town, I started my walk back out of town. Um, No. That wasn’t going to happen! Just in case you aren’t aware, Quito is in the mountains at about 8000ft. On my first day there, the several kms of walking up and down crazy hills was not my best idea! (although I’m glad I did it!). When I left Old town, about half way up my first hill, I saw a cab … walked over while he was stuck in traffic and sputtered breathlessly ‘Cuantros a teleferico?’ Meaning – ‘How much to go to the cable car?’

I honestly don’t remember the amount at this point, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I wasn’t in a negotiating mood, I just needed to sit down and catch my breath! So, as long as I had enough money to cover the trip there and the trip back to my hotel, I was good!

I jumped in the back seat of the taxi and tried to catch my breath. We had moved about 100 meters when the cab driver started speaking to me in Spanish. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. At first I just assumed he was being friendly and trying to make conversation. Then he turned around and locked the back door on the driver’s side and motioned for me to do the same.

I remember at the time not really realizing why it was so important to lock my door, but I did it anyway. Was he just taking extra precautions? What could possibly happen? Was someone really going to try to get into the cab while I was in it?

This was the first time when it really sunk in that it wasn’t a particularly safe place and that it was so very different than home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It wasn’t so much the area that I was in right at that moment, so much as the area that we would drive through to get to the Teleferico.

It is one thing to wander into a seemingly fine area to be told you need to leave immediately, but it is another thing to be in a moving vehicle, with a local, and have to worry about thugs just opening the doors and stealing you, or your valuables. I’d like to think that the car could speed away and the thug would roll down the nasty hill that I couldn’t bear to walk up any further, but I guess that doesn’t happen if you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic!

I had already been warned and warned and warned again about safety in Quito, especially as a young, blonde girl, traveling alone … but when a cab driver makes you lock your door, it really sinks in!

I wasn’t really scared at the time, just thankful that he told me to lock my door. We didn’t have any incidents. No one came pounding on the car or trying to open the doors when we were at stop lights, but knowing that my door was locked was a little extra protection between me and the big bad world out there.

We did drive through a few sketchy areas that day. This was more so outside the city once we entered the residential areas. Every city has areas that are the ‘slums’ of that particular city. For us, in Halifax, we have a few questionable areas such as Highfield Park and Gottingen Street. If you have ever felt unsafe in one of those two areas in Halifax then you might rattle to the breaking point with fear in some of the areas that I traveled through. Let me say, very thankfully, that I was in the back seat of a taxi with the doors locked!

Slow and Steady – except when in transit

One of the biggest things I’ve noticed over my past week of South American travels is the pace of life. Originally I noticed how slow people walked in Quito, Ecuador. They just seemed to meander or wander around. No one is ever in a rush when on foot.

There is a whole lot of traffic though, and that is a different story! Both in Quito, Ecuador and Lima, Peru, the music of blaring horns reaches your ears and startles you regularly. People beep to say hi, they beep if they are mad, they beeb to let you know they are coming up behind you, they beep if you haven’t moved fast enough, they beep and yell with road rage. It is a constant stream of little beeps.

And, you don’t have to search for cab drivers here, they are more than happy to track you down … by beeping of course! If you are walking down the street and a taxi driver sees you he will beep to try to make eye contact and you can nod yes or no. It makes it really easy to get a taxi! Then you just have to negotiate your price before you get in so there’s no surprise at the end.

Once again, walking through Lima today I was reminded of just how slow paced life is here. People aren’t rushing to get past you. They aren’t stepping on your feet or weaving in and out of people on the streets. No one is getting annoyed at the slow walkers in front of them, everyone just kind of minds their own business and strolls along.

It really is a beautiful reminder to slow our minds down, be aware of what’s around us and stop rushing to get everything done. I definitely feel the difference. I’m not stressed here, despite all of the mishaps I’ve had, I feel alive and happy. I’m not on a specific schedule, no deadlines, but yet, I’m still here working.

Slow and steady …

Now, when you are in a vehicle, that all goes to hell. There is mucho traffico here. With 10 million people in the city of Lima, there are a lot of cars on the road all of the time. Rush hour traffic last night was still happening at 8pm. Drivers are like mad men pushing their way into crowded streets, inching past cars parked on the sides of the roads, making two lane streets into three .. and all at a nice little pace! It can really be quite terrifying.

Even though slow and steady is the way of life when you are on foot, as soon as you take that step off of the side walk, you are all of a sudden in transit. That means you’d better move as fast as the cars or else they will run you over!

It is totally different here than even in New York city. At least in New York it is often the pedestrian’s fault for not paying attention to walk lights, but here in Lima, it is like pedestrians have no rights.

You just wait and wait for traffic to pass you by until there is a really clear bee-line for the other side of the road. Take a deep breath and jump off that sidewalk … don’t trip, just get to the other side!

Leaving Quito

Feb 12, 2012

Early this morning, my transfer driver from ATC (Andean Travel Company) was waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel. He was there early. I was ready slightly early, so off to the airport we went. I forgot to get his name, but he was lovely. He didn’t speak any English, but he was very patient with me and my broken Spanish.

He even stopped the van a couple of times in the middle of the road for me to take a quick photo through the window with my cell phone! Ha ha! And here you thought I was a fancy photographer! Although it was cloudy today, there was no fog, so I could see how stunningly beautiful this huge city is.

Quito, Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador

The city of Quito is 45 miles long and has approximately 2.5 million people (I think). It is built in the valley between mountains, with one of the mountains being a volcano. There are houses in the valley, but then they climb up the sides of the mountain as well. It is jam packed with buildings, most of which look poor to us from Canada / US.

I was thrilled once again with Bamba Experience, as they had someone waiting at the airport to help me navigate around the airport. It is a tiny airport, only five gates and three airlines, but I’m so glad she was there. Her name was Deanna. She was friendly, spoke great English and explained every step to me. I’m sure I would have been lost without her, as come to find out many tourists were.

As soon as you enter the airport, they immediately scan your bags through security. She explained, mostly to check for items that are not to be imported to the Galapagos (plants, pestisides, meat, nuts and seeds). She then took my passport and $10 to get a tourist card to go to and return from the Galapagos. I knew that this was necessary, but I would never have known it had to be done at the airport, or where! I was very glad she was there to take care of it.

She then led me to the line for check in. Behind me in line, there was a couple from Alabama. They told me this was their third time to the Galapagos and that they always have done land based tours instead of yachts. They also warned me that the boat ride (a panga) to Isabela Island is three hours of open, very rough water. I think I’m glad I didn’t pre-book that trip! Even though I don’t know these folks, I think I’ll take their word for it and stick with the closer islands in my five days here.

After I was checked in, Deanna pointed me toward a different security, the one where they check your laptop and luggage and screen you for metal. She then went on her way. I headed to Gate #5 and looked out to see beautiful snow capped mountains not to far in the distance. I hadn’t yet seen any because of the heavy fog yesterday. Beautiful!

I had been disappointed yesterday with the amount of fog in Quito. I wasn’t able to get fantastic pictures of the city … or even really see the city because the fog was so heavy! Today, when we took off from Quito toward Guayquil for our brief stopover, it was heavenly!

The scene at first was of crowded houses in the city surrounded by beautiful towering mountains. I wasn’t able to take any photos because they ask you to turn your cameras off during take off.

Within about five minutes, we were above two layers of broken clouds. Below and in the distance you could see beautiful snow capped mountains. My point and shoot pictures don’t really do the scenery justice, but it was breathtaking! You could also see how the peaks of the snow caps sat amongst the clouds. My photos didn’t capture that very well, but I assure you it was beautiful! Check out a few of these ‘snaps’.

Mountains near Quito, Ecuador from plane
Mountains near Quito, Ecuador from plane
Mountains near Quito, Ecuador from plane
Mountains near Quito, Ecuador from plane
Mountains near Quito, Ecuador from plane
Mountains near Quito, Ecuador from plane

45 minutes later, we were descending into Guayaquil, Ecuador for a brief stopover. It is a totally different landscape here. There are fields as far as the eye can see, but today they were more like ponds, lined with trees. It was kind of the same as flying over the prairies and seeing the ‘quilt’ of fields. Except in Guayaquil, the fields were flooded. Or at least I’m assuming they were flooded as it is rainy season here.

Aside from the flooding, there was a beautiful large river running through the city and then another massive city, but this one is built on flat land instead of the valley beside a volcano!

During our stop in Guayaquil, the plane refueled and they asked us to turn off all electronics and to undo our seatbelts. Hmmm … What’s that all about? Anyone know? My guess was so if we needed to evacuate quickly we could, but I don’t really think that’s it.

The next leg of the flight from Guayaquil to Baltra Island, Galapagos was smooth flying! A beautiful flight with sunshine, big puffy clouds and lots and lots of ocean. On approach to the Galapagos I took these couple of photos of my first view of the islands! Pretty.

First view of Galapagos Islands from plane
First view of Galapagos Islands from plane
First view of Galapagos Islands from plane
First view of Galapagos Islands from plane

I should also quickly mention that I flew with LAN airlines. They had the most beautiful airline hostesses, who were all perfectly dressed in red jackets. I think they even had matching lipstick. It seems funny to notice, but it was hard not to. They were so well put together that it made an impression. They were extremely polite and helpful and all spoken excellent English (with a Spanish accent of course). I really enjoyed my flights with them!

Old town Quito

Feb 11, 2012

I was standing outside the Basilica del Voto Nacional taking pictures. Oddly enough, the bottom section of this church, outside is converted into small stores. A man from one of the stores approached me. When I said ‘No, Gracias. No hablad espanol.’ he started speaking to me in English. Pretty good English actually. He came up and gave me a couple of post cards to take for souvenirs. When I tried to get away, he told me $5 – It’s for the church. Well, honestly, I doubt that $5 was for the church, but maybe, afterall, he was working out of a small store built into the church. I took two post cards and gave him $2. I made a big mistake at this point though and that was to let him see that I had a $20 bill.

When I tried to walk away, he brought me back in by offering me a tour of the old town and the churches. He was free right now and he could show me everything. I could hire him for 30 minutes or 1 hour, or longer. He was a very nice, clean cut man with fairly good English and very friendly. Even though he was obviously trying to make money, I did not at any time feel threatened by him. He told me $20 for a one hour tour and promised to take me to La Compania, which is the church that I most wanted to see. Looking back on it, I decided that he asked for $20 because he previously saw it in my hand … and I didn’t bargain with him at that point .. shame on me!

$20 for one hour is a huge amount of money for someone working in Ecuador! I wasn’t really thinking of that at the time though. And, really, I had originally planed to spend $80 on a different type of tour in Quito today, but unfortunately that fell through.

So, Joseph and I went on our merry way. He joked about the fact that I’d like the tour because it is all downhill. Not sure how I was supposed to get back out of that valley without climbing the hill later though!

We wound through very narrow streets with room for 1.5 cars, but two were somehow fitting. The sidewalks were only wide enough for one person, or a mom and child. Joseph pointed out all kinds of architectural features of the beautiful old buildings such as the lamps that used to burn candles outside of many of the homes, and that all of the balconies on the homes were unique. I took photos along the way, but with sidewalks being so small, it was hard to stop for long to get the ‘perfect’ picture.

Photo of Balconies of Quito
Balconies of Quito

We visited two local ‘squares’ or central areas surrounded by important buildings. The first was the National Theatre area, the second was surrounded by the President’s residence, the government buildings and a church. Being with a guide was nice at this point as he kept me safe from speeding traffic on small streets, helped keep street vendors from harassing me and constantly kept an eye out for suspicious folk. The more crowded the area, the more pick pocketing is likely to happen. These central areas are swarming with locals and tourists, many who are Ecuadorian and a few from other areas. I certainly stand out like a sore thumb with my blond hair and pale skin!

Another benefit of being with a guide is that he knows the right people. He simply asks for permission to enter private residences or other buildings that you might normally pay for, and he gets us in with no trouble.

Then there’s the President’s Residence. It is beautiful, no question. We couldn’t go inside, but we did skip in front of a line of about 30 people waiting to go on the balcony and into the one corridor that you were allowed to view. He also insisted I have my photo taken with the guards. Just like in Halifax at Citadel hill, they stand very still, rarely speak and don’t smile.

Shari at President's Residence, Quito, Ecuador
Shari at President's Residence, Quito, Ecuador

One of my favorite parts of this tour (although there were many), was the museum that we stopped at which had historic photos of the city. Most of the photos were taken between 1880 and 1905. They were beautiful, large format film photographs of the most important buildings and areas of the city at that time. It was amazing to recognize the areas and see how they had changed. Many of the images were made prior to a devastating earthquake that damaged a lot of the old buildings. I wasn’t allowed to take photos here either, but I quickly snapped one on automatic, from the hip and this is what I got.

Photographic history of Quito
Photographic history of Quito

Next stop, the library and school next to La Compania, which was the church I most wanted to see. Joseph said he had a surprise for me. Three flights of stairs later, (heart pounding, shortness of breath …), I see these three beautiful sites:

Church tower wtih Quito in background
Church tower wtih Quito in background
Angel on panicillo in Quito
Angel on panicillo in Quito
Praying statues Quito Ecuador
Praying statues Quito Ecuador

Then we headed back down stairs (no problem!) and over to the very historic, La Compania. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside which is incredibly disappointing. I cannot even begin to describe the incredible architecture, delicate hand-carved everything, and all, plated in gold. The WHOLE inside of the church shines beautiful gold. Here is the one measly photo that I ‘snuck’.

La Compania, Quito, Ecuador
La Compania, Quito, Ecuador

Outside, after La Compania, Joseph pointed out a few other nearby sites and asked if I’d like to continue the tour, or not. Knowing that my price had likely already doubled, I said no. He did in fact ask for $40 instead of $20. We ended at $27 as I told him I needed money for taxi’s and the teleferico (next post – coming soon).

Exploring on my own – The Trek to Old Town

Feb 11, 2012

I woke up this morning at 7:30am feeling pretty good. I took a hot shower, with cold flashes, used the in-room hair dryer and then headed down for breakfast around 8:30am. There wasn’t a lot out for options when I go there as in was wrapping up. A few cold cut meats, yogurt, juice, milk, toast and watermelon. I sat down with a couple of slices of toast, a piece of watermelon and the lovely ladies made me some scrambled eggs which were pretty good.

After breakfast I headed back to my room to pack up for my one and only full day in Quito. I didn’t have any tours booked, so I was on my own, for better or worse! Because I’ve read and heard so much about crime here, mainly pick pocketing, I decided to pack light.

I took one camera and two lenses (24-70 & 70-200). I packed in a regular backpack, not a camera gear backpack. I took a photocopy of my passport with me and left the real thing in the hotel safe. I also decided to take a minimal amount of money. This was suggested in case I was to get robbed. At least I would only lose what was on me, not everything.

I struck out on a walk from the mariscal district or ‘new town’ to the ‘old town’ district. I had my map in hand and camera around my neck. By walk, I really mean hike and it isn’t just a few blocks. The first part of my trek, yes, let’s call it a trek, was downhill, so no major issues. Traffic signals and cross walks operate much the same as they do in Canada, but people aren’t quite as courteous, so you do have to be very careful.

I walked for an hour and a half. Normally that would be 10 kms. I was a little slower because of the altitude though, so probably still 8kms. It wasn’t all down hill! It’s kind of like the story your grandfather told you about having to walk uphill both ways to get to school. Somehow, no matter where you turn, you are walking up a hill! I would complain about walking small hills on a regular basis, well these aren’t small hills and on top of that, lack of oxygen from altitude, it was grueling! However, I didn’t complain (only because I was by myself, so no one was listening.)

I took a couple of wrong turns, ending up not quite where I wanted to be, but yet not really lost either. I made my way past McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King to a park where there was a market. I was very surprised that the locals at the market didn’t hound me. A few of them tried to get me to look more closely at things, but when I said ‘no’, they left me alone. I must say that I can’t wait to bring home some beautiful Alpaca scarves. They are soooooo soft and warm!

Quito, Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador
As I was leaving the park, I saw my first view of the houses grouped on the side of the mountain. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but Quito is really an amazing and unique city.

After walking through the park where the market was, I headed down another not-quite-right street, but still not lost … heading in the right direction! I needed a break after walking up yet another hill. I saw a small monument/fountain, so I took a couple of photos, caught my breath and then sat down on a bench in the small park area to have a drink of water.

The unsafe park
The unsafe park

Just as I stood up to leave, a lady came over to me speaking urgently in Spanish. Now, of course I don’t understand Spanish very well, but she was wagging her finger and very clearly telling me that it wasn’t safe for me to be in this area. PANIC! When a local comes and tells you it isn’t safe, you et a move on. Why I chose to move on UP THE STAIRS instead of down the stairs, I don’t know. I got to the top of the stairs and needed another break!

All along this trek I saw regular police cars passing by, a few security guards at stores and lots of people who looked at me like they might just run at me.

About a block from the area that I was steered away from, on top of another hill, was the beautiful Basilica del Voto National with construction dating back to 1892.

Basilica del Voto Nacional Quito Ecuador
Basilica del Voto Nacional Quito Ecuador

My next post will be about my tour of Old Town. Coming soon!

Hotel Villa Nancy – Arrival in Quito

Feb 11, 2012

At the Quito airport, once I got through security and had my luggage verified to say it was actually mine, I found a man holding a sign with my name on it. Phew!

Cristian was my transfer driver and he was very friendly and spoke English. A warm welcome for my arrival into Ecuador.

Cristian drove me from the airport to Hotel Villa Nancy which was about a 10-15 minute ride. He provided me with some papers and important information about my trip, phone numbers and transfer times.

He helped me check in to my hotel and then I made my first attempt at the stairs. Thankfully I was only going to the second floor!

At this point, I’ve been in Quito for all of about an hour. I’m tired and drained. I noticed that I was a bit out of breath in the airport, but didn’t think too much of it. Mostly just thought it was because I was carrying an extra 60 lbs of luggage.

Then came the true test … the stairs. I started up the stairs, got to the first landing and took a few extra moments before moving forward again. Another 6 or 8 stairs to the top, you can do this! Crazy enough, I had to talk myself through it. I was exhausted! By the time I reached the top of the stairs I was huffing and puffing like I had just run a marathon!

Oh, so this is what altitude is like!

I dropped my things on my bed and caught my breath. Phew! I’m here! I’m actually here in Ecuador! How exciting is that!?

I got my wifi working immediately and had a great connection, but it was already too late for anyone at home to still be awake. Sent off a couple of emails and hit the hay!

Houston to Quito

Feb 11, 2012

I got into my hotel really late last night, so I didn’t get around to writing about my flight from Houston to Quito. Always entertaining!

It was a 6 hour flight and I was in an aisle seat. Sitting in the middle was an Ecuadorian man named Jorge and at the window was a lovely Ecuadorian woman, about my age named Nina (I think).

I slept for the first bit of the trip, but after about an hour I woke up and started talking to these two ‘locals’. Come to find out, they were talking like old friends, but didn’t know each other prior to take off. So, I jumped right in to the conversation (in English of course). I talked to Jorge for most of the flight picking his brain about all things Ecuadorian … what to see, what to do, what to eat …

He taught me that ‘papas’ is Spanish for potatoes and that I should try a ‘cane lazo’ which is an Ecuadorian warm alcoholic beverage. He told me about his home town of Ambato and that he would be enjoying carnival festivities while he was home! Now, not that I wanted to go home with Jorge, but it definitely made me itch to find locals who I could hang out with and participate in local celebrations as part of the community instead of just a tourist. I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own this trip, but it reinforced my urge to learn Spanish in a homestay environment where I would be immersed in the culture, not just the language.

For awhile I also practiced my Spanish on my laptop when I thought he was sleeping. Nope, he was peering over my shoulder to see how much I knew. He later told me he was very impressed at my vocabulary and that it should take no time at all for me to pick up speaking it.

During the flight I had a man sitting directly behind me who had several fits of anger throughout the flight. Apparently on Continental airlines, movies are not offered for free and you have to swipe your credit card to get one. Not only this, but once you are over international waters, the movie may or may not work. The flight attendant certainly had her hands full trying to keep this man in his place. I was honestly a little concerned that some kind of security might be put in motion to calm him down. All this over paying for a movie? Wow! People just don’t have their priorities right at all.

Near the end of the flight (the last 45 minutes), we hit a bit of turbulance. Jorge was very good at telling me that it was normal and that shortly I should suspect a ‘drop’ as we approached the runway. This wasn’t the first time I had been warned of this. It is something to do with the altitude and the shortness of the runway. When the plane approaches, it has to drop quickly a couple of times in order to properly land on the runway. And, it is a noticeable ‘drop’ … one that would have made my heart stop if I hadn’t been pre-warned that it is normal. Moments after the ‘drop’ we were landing … by landing I really mean bumping and screaching to a hault. Quito has a relatively short runway and I remember wondering if we were actually going to stop moving before the end of it! The end of this flight was a little rough, but overall, I had great conversation along the way, so it was all kinds of fun!

When we finally got off the plane and headed through security, Jorge stuck by my side and helped me navigate to get my luggage, get through security and find my way to my transfer driver. Thank you Jorge! I think I would have been a little lost and definitely much slower than I was if it hadn’t been for Jorge leading the way and explaining to a couple of officials in Spanish for me. It was a huge help and stress relief for me after 16 hours of travel and it being close to midnight in a new country where I didn’t speak the language.

I am thankful for helpful people!