March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
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February 14, 2013
First, there was sugarcane juice. Then came distilled cane liquor, dribbling out of a steel pipe.
And somewhere in between was the stuff I was interested in: fermented sugarcane juice touched by the ethanol-making labors of airborne yeasts and containing 8 to 9 percent alcohol by volume. But fully fermented cane drink with 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume is not easy to find in Ecuador. I have been on the lookout for this stuff since Day 1 in Ecuador a month ago, when I began seeing extensive sugarcane fields, and I have yet to land a used plastic soda bottle filled with the beverage. The clear liquor—90-proof stuff, or thereabouts—whether commercially bottled or sold out of kitchens in Inca Kola bottles, is easy to find. Ditto for the raw, algae-green juice, which comes gurgling out of hand-cranked cane grinders on street corners in almost every town and is sold for 50 cents a cup.
The only way to go from raw, sweet juice to hard, throat-raking liquor is to ferment the juice’s sugar using yeast, then distill this sugarcane “wine” into the hard stuff. In Vilcabamba, at last, I knew I was getting close to this almost theoretical product when, in a grocery store, I found homemade vinagre de cana. Vinegar, like hard booze, is a product derived directly from fully fermented juice, or malt water like beer wort. So a local household, it seemed obvious, was engaged in the cane juice industry.
“Who made this?” I asked the clerk.
She directed me to a home several blocks away where, as she said, a man fermented cane juice and sold a variety of cane-based products. I cycled over, but the man’s wife answered and said they only had distilled liquor, which may be called punta or traga. I bought a half liter for $2 after making sure that it was safe to drink. I mentioned the tragic scandal in 2011, when dozens of people died from drinking tainted distilled alcohol. “We drink this ourselves,” the woman assured me.
Before I left she said that in the next village to the north, Malacatos, many people grew sugarcane and made traga and that I could find fermented juice there. But I had already done the Malacatos juice tour the day prior, while riding through on my way to Vilcabamba from Loja, without luck. At every juice shack I visited, the proprietor said they had none but that they would make some overnight and that I should return in the morning. They all spoke of a drink called guarapo—fermented cane juice.
This sounded almost right—but not quite. Because I know from experience making beer and wine that it takes a solid week or more for a bucket of fruit juice or sugar water to undergo primary fermentation, the vigorous bubbling stage that turns 90 percent of a liquid’s sugars into ethanol. Brewers and winemakers cannot make their products overnight.
I learned more about this matter in Vilcabamba’s eastern outskirts, just outside the entrance to the village zoo. Here I found a woman selling cane juice under the business name “Viejo Luis,” who, it seemed, was her husband. I bought a liter of juice, then was treated to a taste of guarapo fermented for one day—a sweet-and-sour rendition of fresh cane juice. At the risk of sounding crass, I got straight to business: “Does this guarapo have alcohol?” I asked. Yes. “How much?” A tiny little bit. “I want more.”
To better explain myself, I asked the lady to tell me if this was correct: “First, there is juice. Then, you ferment it to make alcohol. Then, you distill it to make liquor.” She nodded and smiled with a genuine sparkle, pleased, I think, that I recognized the labors of her business. “OK, I want the middle juice—the juice with alcohol. Not fresh juice, and not punta.” She nodded in understanding and said that if she were to leave this one-day fermented guarapo for another week, it would contain as much alcohol as a strong beer. She even said she would sell me a liter for $2—if I came back the next weekend.
This wasn’t possible—but she did have another fermented product ready to sell—chicha de hongos. That translates into, roughly, “fruit beer of fungus.” She poured the thick, viscous drink through a sieve and into my plastic bottle. I had a taste immediately and complimented the rich and buttery green drink, tart like vinegar, and teeming with an organism she said was tivicus but which most literature seems to present as tibicos. This fungus-bacteria complex turns sugary drinks sour, thick and soupy and allegedly provides a wide range of health benefits. She assured me it was an excellent aid for facilitating digestion.
Meanwhile, I hatched a plan. I took my liter of Viejo Luis’s cane juice to the village bakery. “Can I have just a tiny, tiny, tiny pinch of yeast?” I asked in Spanish. The young man came back with a sack the size of a tennis ball. “That enough?”
Plenty. I took the gift and, on the curb by the plaza, sprinkled a dusting of yeast into the bottle. It came to life overnight. I reached out my tent flap in the morning and unscrewed the cap. It hissed as compressed CO2 exploded outward. It was alive! First, there had been juice—and in a week, there would be sugarcane “wine.” I tended the bottle through many rigorous days, of bus travel and shuttling luggage into hotel rooms and cycling over high passes with the bottle strapped to my pannier. Every few hours for days I gingerly loosened the cap to release the accumulating CO2, the telltale byproduct of sugar-to-ethanol fermentation (methanol, the dangerous form of alcohol that infamously makes people blind or kills them cannot be produced through fermentation). Finally, after five days, I lost my patience. The bottle had been falling off my bike every few hours for two days as I bumped along the dirt road between Cuenca and Santiago de Mendez, in the low Amazon basin. The juice was still fermenting, but I was ready to drink. I gave the bottle an hour in my hotel room so that the mucky sediments could settle to the bottom, then drank. The stuff was a grapefruit yellow now, with a bready, yeasty smell and a flavor reminiscent of raw, green cane juice but less sweet and with the obvious bite of alcohol. I had done it—connected the dots and found the missing link. Or, that is, I had made it myself.
Quick Cane Trivia
- Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia.
- Consisting of several species, sugarcane is generally a tropical plant but is grown in Spain, some 37 degrees from the Equator.
- Sugarcane yields more calories per land surface area than any other crop.
- Sugarcane first arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic, when he sailed to the West Indies in 1493.
Other Local Wines to Taste in Ecuador
If you should visit Vilcabamba and have any interest in wine and fermentation, spend 20 minutes in a small store and tasting bar called Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba. The shop specializes in locally made fruit wines—including grape, blackberry and papaya. The shop also sells liquors made using cane alcohol and a variety of products, like peach and cacao. Most of the wines here are sweet or semi-sweet—and you can put up with that, go in, meet owner Alonzo Reyes and enjoy a tasting. He may even take you to the rear of the facility and show you the fermenting tanks, containing more than 5,000 liters of wines, as well as the cellar, where scores of three- and five-gallon glass jugs contain maturing wines.
The Name of a Dog
I must concede that I spoke a few days too soon in last week’s post about troublesome dogs in Ecuador and the owners that sometimes neglect them. I joked about the unlikelihood that a scruffy street mutt down here might be named Rex, Fido or Max. Well, 11 kilometers south of Sucua on the Amazonian Highway E-45, a dog came trotting out to meet me in the road. Its owners called it back. Its name? Max.
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
February 4, 2013
At the Inca Lounge and Bistro, dozens of gringos–tourists and resident expats both–have squeezed into this popular watering hole just off Calle Larga and overlooking the river. It is Super Bowl Sunday in Cuenca, Ecuador–and though the kickoff is still three hours away, owner Mike Sena must usher in his customers early and shut the doors. The sale of alcohol is highly restricted in Ecuador on Sundays, and so Sena, an American who moved here four years ago from New Mexico, is keeping a low profile this Super Bowl and designating the evening a “private party.”
Only a few Ecuadorians have shown. One, a 37-year-old gold mining engineer named Pablo Crespo, was a soccer fan all his life but learned to love (American) football–and the Ravens–during the eight years he lived in Baltimore. “American football is more interesting than soccer,” Crespo concedes. “Every play is different. The players have to be smart, too, and need to read the plays and know what the other team is going to do.”
Soccer, he adds, “can be a little boring.”
London travelers Solomon Slade and his girlfriend Rebecca Wyatt, who have spent the past eight months cycling through Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, are soccer fans and aren’t quite sure what to make of American football.
“Why do they need all the armor?” says Wyatt, 25. “Rugby players don’t wear protection.”
The two have claimed a table inside the bar and are prepared to spend the evening here, though they dread the prospect of a 60-minute game spread thin across more than three hours through timeouts and commercial breaks.
“American sports in general are hard to watch because they’re so stop-start,” Slade, 26, says.
Sena, pouring beers and mixing drinks behind the bar, says that football season generates a spike in his business here–largely from expat Americans but also among native Ecuadorians. He says interest in football among native Ecuadorians is growing in large part because many citizens here who worked in the United States before the economic crash have since returned home–and many of them as football fans.
But Pedro Molina, brewmaster at the nearby La Compañía Microcervecería, at the corner of Borrero and Vazquez streets, told me on Saturday evening that he sees virtually no interest in football among locals. His brewpub is closed on Sundays, and he said he had no plans to watch the game elsewhere–for, like most locals as well as hundreds of millions of people worldwide, Molina prefers the other kind of football.
“Soccer is the king of sports,” Morena said. “It’s a better game. It requires more technique and skill, because you can’t make physical contact.” It’s like a dance, he said–an almost nonstop, 45-minute dance–requiring agility, balance and fancy footwork. “How long is a game of American football?” Molina asked me.
Sixty minutes, I said, plus a couple of hours of breaks. Molina nodded, satisfied that he’d adequately assessed the two games–one a nimble sport of lithe, quick athletes, the other a brutish but slow battle of bellowing muscle-heads and lumbering jocks.
Earlier that same day I questioned three young men working out on the chin-up bars at the popular Parque Paraiso, on the north side of town. They said they knew about the Super Bowl but didn’t seem to think much of it and had no plans to watch the game. I asked which of the two sports–soccer or football–they thought was more challenging.
“American football,” Juan Merchan, 28, said. “It’s tougher on the body.”
But Merchan added that “futbol real” is more interesting to play and to watch since “it involves more improvisation and less plans.”
In the Inca bar, perhaps 200 people of every age category and many nations have crammed into the private party. Still, the Super Bowl has yet to begin. Elizabeth Eckholt, a San Francisco Bay Area native who has been in Ecuador for the past two weeks, says she is routing for the 49ers–though not passionately.
“I’m really here to see the commercials,” she says.
The game begins but plods forward slowly. Every few minutes, a break arrives and we are subjected to another series of ads for cars, beer and junk food.
“I can’t believe the unhealthy junk they advertise on this game,” says Wyatt, voice raised to be heard.
I have never spent six hours in a bar and I don’t plan to tonight. Last May, the Wall Street Journal‘s Bruce Orwall recognized the virtues of what he called “real football”, including soccer’s “subtle athletic grace, fierce national and regional rivalries and mercifully efficient, commercial-free matches.”
I, like him, I assume, am not entertained by Doritos and Calvin Klein ads. Okay–let Beyonce sing if she must, but this game should really be done by 8. I leave before half-time. In the United States, virtually every sports bar must now be crammed with football fans. But in Cuenca, beyond the Inca Lounge and Bistro, the Super Bowl may be happening but this world is not watching. The Sunday evening air of Cuenca is calm and still, the nation quiet on a day without drinks. In this land, soccer is the king of sports and athletes–not advertisers–kings of the airwaves. And for fans of futbol real, even after they watch a televised afternoon match, there may remain enough daylight to go play a game.
January 24, 2013
Climbing the Parador de Navas last week, I felt it happen—a ping of pain in the rear of my leg, four inches above the heel. An ache set in as we crawled to the top of the pass, and I knew it was back—my recurring Achilles tendonitis. I spent a week in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 16 months ago lying in a hostel bed, reading, typing, visiting the local gym, sitting on benches, eying the distant Rhodope Mountains and waiting for a similar Achilles strain to heal up—and I know the boredom that can arrive with athletic injuries. But this time, I have limped into Quito, Ecuador, a fast and modern hub of sophisticated people, energy and activity. Boredom should not be an issue here. Mangoes may cost $2 a piece from sidewalk vendors—a harsh reminder for the hungry cyclist that he is no longer in the boondocks. But there is life beyond cheap mangoes, and it can be found in Quito’s clean public parks, brewpubs, wine bars, bicycle shops, historic center and so much more. Here are a few things to do that can keep one entertained in this highest (when measured from the Earth’s center) of big cities.
Sample Local Microbrews I have no love for Peruvian wine—and as an alternative, my brother and I have taken to the abundant if boring South American lagers available in every corner grocery store. Thing is, I have no love for cheap lagers, either. So when I learned that two brewpubs operated within blocks of the Hostal del Piamonte, where I have been icing and elevating my leg, I ran for them. Limped, anyway. At Cherusker German Brewery, we found a club-like scene with leather sofas and a rustic brick interior—and four beers on tap. That could leave many an American beer nerd thirsting for more options, but in Ecuador, the chance to drink a Belgian-style dubbel and a dark, smoky stout provided much needed respite from lesser beers. After one round, we walked north several blocks to sample the other city brewpub, Turtle’s Head Pub and Microbrewery. A pilsener, a Scottish amber and a stout made up the extent of the house-made beers. The amber was malty, thick and chewy, the stout creamy, smooth and sweet.
Hunt for Espresso Machines Each time we emerged from the desert or jungle into a village in the past three weeks, we listened for that sweet song of the espresso machine. One time I even asked the villagers, “Please, for mercy, is there an espresso machine in this town?” I was thirsty and desperate and hopeful, and the town’s main street boasted some relatively upscale establishments. Several men gathered around me, all frowning and shaking their heads in befuddlement. “Say, Fred, what’s this kid talking about, what with machines that make coffee and all?” “Beats me, Leroy. Does he think he’s arrived in the future?” I even made the whooshing-hissing noise that coffee drinkers so love to hear at 7 a.m.—but the men shook their heads. “Let’s go! His mind is gone.” They had not heard of an espresso machine. But Quito is fast, smart, slick, modern. In hundreds of bars, cafés and eateries, espresso machines hiss like the finest apparatuses of Europe. Cafe lattes arrive with hearts and mountains shaped into the foamy milk, and espresso comes in cups like thimbles, as smart and sophisticated as coffees enjoyed in the bistros of Paris. Top recommendation: Este Cafe, on Juan León Mera street.
Work Out on the Exercise Bars in Parque El Ejido As we rode into the center of Quito on our first day, I had my eyes peeled for that sure signature of any modern metropolis undergoing swift and progressive social development: outdoor exercise bars at the public park. After checking into our hostel, we walked several blocks back to Parque El Ejido, where we had seen among the people and the trees some playground-type structures that looked very promising. Sure enough, we found them—a rock-solid, two-tiered set of pull-up bars in the shade of the trees. A security guard (they stand around every corner and behind every tree in Ecuador) paced slowly around the jungle gym while Andrew and I got to work. My brother, ten pounds lighter than he’d been in Lima, started with an all-time best set of 20. I did only 17—but, really, who’s counting? See you at the bar. Note: The same park comes alive with scores of market vendors and thousands of visitors each Sunday. It’s a good time, but you’d better get your bar time in early, before the kids arrive.
Stalk the Aisles of the English Bookshop Quito is great—but if you need to get away fast, step into the compact, book-stuffed space of the English Bookshop, in La Mariscal. Owned by London native Mark Halton, the store—at Calama and Diego de Almagro streets—provides a refuge of wisdom and intelligentsia for English speakers craving some bookish conversation and quiet time. The shop is crammed with used quality literature (well, there’s also some sci-fi, but never mind), plus a selection of Ecuador travel guides for rent.
Enjoy the City’s Many Miles of Bike Paths Quito bears many marks of a sophisticated hub of culture and style—enthusiastic brewpubs, art museums, numerous sporting goods stores and air-conditioned supermarkets. What more could one want? Bike paths, of course. Leading through the city are miles and miles of them—two-directional lanes separated by barriers from the auto traffic and leading to all corners of the city. But bike paths can always use improvement. In Lima, for instance, the hip locals dump heaps of trash in the bike lanes and set the rubbish on fire. In Quito, businessmen who haven’t ridden a bicycle since they were 8 years old use the lanes as personal sidewalks, and at intersections pedestrians gather in the bike lane as they wait for the light to change. No—not all Ecuadorians are totally wise yet to the concept of the separated, designated bike lane. But parts of Quito are almost as cool and edgy as Amsterdam or Portland, and locals will catch on.
Ride the Gondola to Cruz Loma Lookout Taking a ride on a gondola is a bitter pill to swallow for a proud cyclist with a leg injury. But the TelefériQo Cruz Loma chairlift, beginning at the western edge of Quito, ascends 2,700 feet in eight minutes, taking passengers to the best vista point in the region—Cruz Loma, near the top of Mount Pichincha. The cost is about $9, with discounts for privileged locals and even the option to bring a bicycle to the top and ride the trails back down to the city. Sounds like a blast—but I’ll wait until I can make the entire journey by my own strength.
Get Screened for Malaria at a Local Medical Clinic If you’ve got the shakes, the shivers, nausea, achy joints, stomach troubles or a headache and have traveled in malaria hot zones anytime from a week to a year prior, you had better get checked out. That’s the logic we followed when Andrew came down with sluggishness and other flu-like symptoms on our second day in Quito. We decided that if his condition persisted in the morning, we would go to the hospital. He woke up in a sweat, and off we went on a new adventure. The Clinica de San Francisco was just four blocks away from us, and by 9 a.m. Andrew was having blood drawn and his internal organs examined by stethoscope. The doctor said that Andrew’s relatively mild symptoms did not appear to be malaria-related, but Plasmodium falciparum is a disease to be taken very seriously. The most deadly type of malaria, it is especially dangerous if not identified and treated within 24 hours of the first visible symptoms. The doctor said the test results would be e-mailed within three working days—plus two weekend days. Isn’t that cutting it close, we asked? Don’t worry, the doctor answered; Andrew does not have malaria. We hope so.
And Keep That Leg Elevated