I celebrated my 30th birthday this past March. In honor of the commencement of my fourth decade, Megan planned a two-week trip to Ecuador: a week and a half on the Galápagos Islands, bookended by a total of five days in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. As presents go, this one was pretty perfect, expertly calibrated to my love of weird animals, big cities, and old buildings.
Unfortunately, our trip happened to coincide with the outbreak of coronavirus cases in the western hemisphere, to which the Ecuadorian government responded with surprising alacrity. Within three days of our arrival, not only had the city been put under lockdown, travel between states was restricted and flights out of Quito (at least to the United States) were canceled. We never made it to the Galápagos Islands, and instead ended up spending nearly a week confined to hotel rooms and losing a ton of money on canceled flights.
Our journey home was an adventure in its own right. But that’s another story. Instead, here are some pictures and observations of Quito from our first days there.
The most startling attributes of Quito are geographic. For someone coming from a New England valley in late winter, it’s practically a hostile environment. Start with the elevation. At 9,350 feet in altitude, Quito is either the first, second, or third highest capital city in the world, depending on whether you count Lhasa, Tibet or La Paz, Bolivia. It’s about 77% higher than Denver and 135 times more elevated than my home base of Springfield, MA. (Mesa Verde in Colorado, where we camped last summer, comes pretty close at its peak of 8,572 feet.)
At that height, even normal activity can be tiring. The elevation is sufficiently extreme to have put selection pressure on the native population, which has evolved its way around altitude-induced hypoxia. The rest of us are left to deal with the constant fatigue, thirst, and hunger that accompany life in the mountains.
While it’s very far from the Earth’s core, Quito is very close to the equator—about 16 miles south therefrom. Its latitude further thins the atmosphere, making Quito a great place to catch a sunburn, even on a cloudy day (of which there are many).
In addition to its geography, Quito is remarkable for its size. The sprawling city is home to some two million residents. Before the lockdowns, Old Quito was buzzing with tourists and merchants selling avocados, apples, flowers, fedoras. The familiar beats of 90’s American hip hop anthems pumped out of disembodied car stereo systems, providing the soundtrack to our walks up and down the cobblestone hills of the city.
Like much of Latin America, Quito is a mix of disrepair and ornate splendor. Many of its buildings are crumbling, have broken windows, or are otherwise dilapidated. But adjacent stand a few that are kept pristine, seemingly unchanged from their colonial heyday. The grandest buildings are churches and federal offices.
Unlike in the US, God and the state seem to commingle freely in Ecuador. Both loom large over everyday life: National flags decorate the inside of La Compañía de Jesus, an insanely beautiful church. The massive Virgen de El Panecillo, a collaboration of local government and religious leaders, casts its shadow over the (apparently quite dangerous) neighborhood from which it derives its name.
Sadly, this is where the post ends. Shortly after we visited La Compañía de Jesus, mandatory quarantines went into effect. The formerly bustling city of Quito folded in on itself, its streets emptied. From behind shuttered windows, people tweeted #QuitoenCasa.
Some bonus pics I couldn’t fit coherently into the post: