On my first night in Quito, my host family packed into a car and navigated the winding, steep path up to El Panecillo, a peak with a view of the expansive city. A statue of the Virgin Mary looming above my head, I looked out into the distance trying to make out the different churches and neighborhoods we passed on our way. Quito is the highest-altitude national capital in the world, my host family explained. It is nestled into the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano and bordered by several more volcanoes to the east, notably Cotopaxi. I would later observe the same view in the daytime, but something about the brightly lit city made this first memory one of my favorites.
I attended a study abroad program at the University of San Francisco Quito, a private liberal arts college. The campus was small and inviting, and I quickly settled into a routine of attending classes, some taught by Georgetown professors and others by professors at the host institution. Speaking Spanish in class wasn’t challenging, but conversing with natives and locals proved to be more difficult; it took me a while to understand and feel comfortable using certain colloquial words and phrases.
Ecuadorian cuisine was quite different than what I am accustomed to: the focus is more on grains and fruits. I could count on rice and fresh juice with every lunch and dinner. My favorite meal was llapingachos or fried potato cakes stuffed with cheese, which my family served with beets. Upon arriving, I was introduced to many fruits I had never seen. Babaco looks similar to a papaya but has a sour taste. Passion fruit is an Ecuadorian favorite, and tomate de arbol (tamarillo in English) is a slightly sweeter version of a tomato with a distinctive taste. My favorite discovery was the guanábana, known as soursop in English, which has a sweet flavor and a creamy texture that makes for an ideal smoothie.
Our first weekend excursion was to Otavalo, a city located in the Imbabura province to the east of Quito. First, we went boating on scenic Lake Cuichocha and tried “canelazo” a hot tea with a strong cinnamon flavor. Later, we visited Condor Park, a nonprofit organization that rescues and rehabilitates raptors, vultures, and owls who have been captured, injured, or subject to violence. We walked around the park and saw the various birds in their enclosures. I was able to get very close to a bald eagle, which was very cool, or “chévere” as an Ecuadorian would say. I’ve seen bird shows before, but this one was certainly the best. The employee explained the story of each of the birds he showcased and directed them to fly near the crowd and out over the landscape.
Otavalo is the home of the largest outdoor market in the Americas, boasting a colorful display of alpaca blankets, wool scarves, handmade jewelry, wooden trinkets, and a seemingly endless array of other crafts. When it was time to return to the bus, I found myself wishing I had had more time to explore the various stalls and to bargain for the best prices with the vendors. Among my purchases were gifts for my family, three hand-painted picture frames for my dorm room, and four pairs of linen drawstring pants to wear while walking in the jungle (more on that to come in the next article).
One free Saturday, a couple friends and I traveled the short taxi ride to the Quito Teleférico, a gondola lift that runs to the Cruz Loma lookout on the Pichincha Volcano. As we rode higher up, more of the city came into view. Walking around on the volcano, my lungs could definitely feel the effects of the altitude. In spite of this, we each paid $5 for a forty-minute ride on horseback, which was well worth it. A guide led us up a designated path as we took in the view and the experience of literally being in the clouds.