Who knew being back at school would be so fun? Or maybe that’s just me?
In an effort to improve on our basic Spanish, for three weeks, we attended Ailola Spanish School in Quito’s historic old town.
The school was fantastic but mentally, very tiring. The amount of information we absorbed each day, plus the homework we were assigned, was a shock to our “traveler brains”. Nevertheless, we learned a lot and certainly feel more confident speaking Spanish now. The best feeling is when you have a conversation with a local that lasts longer than a few sentences.
We really enjoyed getting to know the other students at the school; you spend quite a bit of time together as many activities are organised for the afternoons and weekends, like tours of the city, football matches and salsa classes, twice a week. Sadly, my hopes of being a semi-professional dancer by the time we left weren’t met but it was a lot of fun. Tim, of course, was a natural. I still need to find something he’s not good at!
You can either arrange your own accommodation in Quito or have the school organise a homestay for you where you live with an Ecuadorian host. We opted for the latter. It’s the best choice if you want to speak as much Spanish as possible. Our host Mum, Luli, was just lovely. Not only is she a fantastic cook, she really cares about every student that comes to stay with her, walking you to school on the first day, cleaning our rooms for us while we were out and always making sure we were wearing sunscreen. The sun is dangerously strong in Quito.
Again, at the homestay, we got to know the other students well. It was cozy coming home each day to a family-style dinner. We had a good mix of people from the U.S., NZ, U.K, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and of course, Ecuador which made for interesting conversation around the dinner table.
We enjoyed the few weeks we had in Quito but it’s not a place that we’d rush to return to, like Medellin. I read somewhere that Quito feels like it’s just finished a bad relationship with the United States, which is kind of true. Americanisms are everywhere. The US dollar is the main currency, it’s a sign of luxury to own an American car and a KFC is never too far away.
There isn’t a metro system in the city so the many different neighbourhoods can only be reached by taxi, car or bus (which is slow and overcrowded). However, they are currently building a metro so I think will have a big impact on modernising Quito.
It really needs a metro, too. Only when you get up high to a viewpoint like the Teleferico cable car, do you realise how huge it is – 40km long and 5km wide – as it snakes its way through the avenue of volcanoes.
On Sundays, Quito feels like a whole different city. They close a number of main roads for cyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and pedestrians only. The air feels cleaner, the manic traffic is gone and it’s really pleasant to walk around.
As we were at school every morning, we spent most of our afternoons in the historic centre of Quito which is one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved in South America and now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. This part of the city is very easy to walk around and you’re never stuck for a museum, park, or church to visit. After school, we usually grabbed a lunch of llapingachos from the Mercado Central or an enormous vegetarian dish from our favourite restaurant (for $2.25!) visited a park or museum then headed to a cafe or home to study.
The Fundación Guayasamin is a fantastic museum. The children of the late Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, have opened up their father’s house – which is pretty swanky – to the public, to exhibit his incredible collection of artwork; from paintings to sculptures to artifacts and books. Guayasamin’s work is also on display in the next building, the Capilla de Hombre. The enormous paintings inside seek to evoke the cult of humanity and are fiercely harrowing but at the same time, spectacular.
One weekend we took a trip to Volcán Cotopaxi through a local tour company. It was such a fun day. We couldn’t summit because it’s still active but we made it to the hut, at almost 5000 metres. The hike up was tough because of the altitude but then we got to mountain bike down, which was equally as tough (for me).
The altitude really takes it out of you.
Tim and I finished our Spanish course the same day as another student, Sandra, who also lived at Luli’s with us. So, we decided to travel the following week together and hike part of the infamous loop track to Quilitoa, a caldera that was formed by an eruption 800 years ago. We arrived at the crater just before the clouds rolled in and blocked our view. And what a view.
It was fortunate we went with Sandra, as she’s a keen hiker and mountaineer and for sure, we would (sorry, I would) have got us lost somewhere on one of those hikes. She’s also great company and our most recent favourite face.
We based ourselves in the small mountain town of Chugchilán, at the Black Sheep Inn. It was heaven. Everything from the mountain views out the bathroom window, the make-shift gym and beautiful yoga terrace, to the irrigation system, hand-made walking sticks and cute little signs they have around the place, it is so well planned and designed. This is eco-tourism done right. Also, there’s free banana bread, brownies, cookies, and coffee every day and roaring fires are lit when the sun goes down – what more could you want after a day hiking in the hills?
The hikes from the lodge were fantastic, it felt great to be in the fresh air after those three weeks in Quito, where the pollution is pretty terrible. We were also the only ones on the trails, most of the time. Occasionally we passed locals who walked with way more ease than us, despite their clothing! There we were in our hiking boots, with our backpacks and walking sticks, guiding ourselves down ravines and they marched down effortlessly, the women in their skirts, shawls, pretty blouses and court shoes, and one with a toddler strapped to her back.
The colours of the Ecuadorian countryside are what makes it so beautiful; the traditional clothing in particular; the washing always flapping in the breeze against the green hills, the flowers, and the painted farmhouses. It feels like nothing has changed in centuries when you pass old farms with animals grazing freely around it and you see the workers out in the fields picking or tending to the crops. This has been our favourite part of Ecuador so far.
Sadly, when you get further away, and closer to big towns and motorways, you see more and more pollution, rubbish and graffiti. We’ve never seen so much plastic waste, just lying in piles on the side of the streets. It seems like there’s no concept of recycling here and people have no qualms in just tossing their cans or bottles out of the window when they’re driving; we’ve seen so many do it. It’s a shame but supposedly the government, along with other NGOs are working on cleaning this all up.
After Chugchilán it was onto Baños for a couple of nights. We weren’t planning on going here but it was an alternative route to the coast and we thought we’d accompany Sandra for a few more days. Baños is the Queenstown of Ecuador; just as touristic but way less expensive. You can rope jump (poor man’s bungee) go canyoning, mountain-biking, or rafting, all for around $30. We stuck to the hiking as we only really had one full day and we wanted to get up into the hills surrounding the town.
Ecuador, like most South American countries, is very Catholic. We attended mass one evening at the big, majestic church in the centre of the plaza, just out of curiosity, and because we wanted to peek inside. The service was actually a very interesting experience and surprisingly, was over in less than 30 mins. We’d been expecting to have to make a sly exit after an hour. Maybe it’s because they hold five services a day that they keep them short and sweet. I liked the modern twists to the mass like the hymn that was sung to the melody of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone.
So, from Baños we said our goodbyes to Sandra and hopped on a bus headed for the coast, where we’d lined up some volunteering at a hostel for three weeks. We’re here now and really enjoying being by the ocean – after a month inland we were getting withdrawal symptoms – and trying to keep up the Spanish speaking as much as possible. It’s a little difficult when you work with people who are either retired American expats or from somewhere in Europe. But, more on this in our next post.