A Long, Cool Summer in Quito

Posted by Ricardo Roberts on August 14, 2013

In 1982, when I was a skinny four-year-old, my family moved from Quito, Ecuador to Raleigh, N.C. Since then, my family has always tried to get back to the land of ceviche and volcanoes at least once a year. It has always been an important family value that we preserve and constantly experience Ecuadorian culture. Now that I have two children of my own, I look forward to continuing that tradition.

This summer, on June 9th, my wife and two kids took off from RDU, stopped in sunny Miami, and finally found their way to Quito. The trip lasted roughly 9 hours. At 9,350 feet, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, just behind La Paz, Bolivia. When you land, you immediately feel the lack of oxygen as you trudge up the stairs to immigration. No worries, though… the local cure for altitude sickness is a tea made from coca leaves. It works wonders for the weary traveler.

Ecuador has changed a great deal since the last time I was here, roughly 3 years ago. There’s a distinct feeling of progress, of improved national self-esteem, of maturity and a booming economy.

There are well-paying jobs now (particularly in the social/government sector), which were extremely scarce just 5 years ago. There are beautiful bike lanes connecting the 2.5 million residents of the northern and southern parts of Quito. Modern buildings are popping up on every block. High-speed internet is everywhere, and free wi-fi can be had at most major destinations.

This is a modern, worldly metropolis.

But, most important to me is the re-kindling and strengthening of family bonds. While my remaining family in Ecuador is small in number but large in heart, my wife has a wonderfully huge, boisterous clan of relatives who embraced me from day one. The feeling of  warmth and love that emanates from Ecuadorian culture is incredible. If you’ve never experienced it, you must come down to the land of eternal spring and see for yourself.

Here are a few highlights from our trip:

My son, Sebastian, hanging out at my aunt’s house. He’s just over 5 months in this picture.

Pichincha, the mountain that presides over Quito. There’s a gondola lift that takes you up to 3,945 feet, where bars and restaurants await you. The view is absolutely incredible.

Family. The food was good, and laughs were aplenty. In Ecuador, it’s customary to eat and sit for hours afterwards. Telling jokes is a huge part of it; as the night goes on, they become more colorful. I’m a terrible teller-of-jokes, so I sit back and laugh. It’s a lost art.

FLACSO is a public university, and happens to be where I set up a mini-office.

My daughter, Eva, and her cousin enjoying the beach at Tonsupa. This little town is interesting because it recently became the most popular beach vacation spot for people from Quito. It’s surreal to see skyscrapers go up in a town that has one paved road and no basic services. But hey, that’s Ecuador for you.

My brother-in-law is Tren Ecuador’s CFO and he was nice enough to set me up with a temporary workspace. This is the view from my office at Chimbacalle Train station, which is in a very poor, rundown section of South Quito. The government-owned train company refurbished the old station, cleaned up the neighborhood and gave jobs to residents. They also provide education seminars, a children’s playground, train museum and free yoga classes to the public.

When my cuñado (brother-in-law) took the job 5 years ago, there were no running trains—just a staff of 250 people who came into the office and received paychecks but did no work. Of course, all those people were fired and a new era was ushered in. If you get a chance, ask me about the time he had to wear a bulletproof vest and was greeted by machete-wielding “employees” of the company when he came into town to lay them off.

Eva in a wooden fisherman’s boat. Every night, fishermen go out in these handmade canoe-like boats and haul in the local catch.

Me and the family take a casual walk to the supermarket. That normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but Quito is not stroller friendly… at all. With a hilly topography similar to San Francisco, we had to carry the stroller up and down stairs and around potholes. We almost made little Sebastian get up and walk himself. But then we got smart and made Eva carry him on her shoulders. Ha!

Looking up at the FLACSO public library. You can’t really tell from this image, but the building is a triangle-shaped, modern masterpiece. It reminds me of the Flatiron building in New York City.

My brother-in-law and I rode mountain bikes into the office one morning. Talk about 10 miles of insane, exhilarating urban biking. Actually, most of the way we rode in the newly-created Cyclovia bike lane, but the last mile or so was just us and the traffic. Mix that with the hills, and you have one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. Not only do you have to watch for cars, you can’t stop for too long and take in the sights because the threat of robbery exists 24/7 in Quito, especially in Old Town.

A random warehouse on the way to the Chimbacalle train station.

San Fransisco church, one of the major tourist destinations in Colonial Quito. Really amazing, beautiful Roman Catholic architecture, on par with what you see in Europe. Even if you’re not religious, it’s worth a visit to see the intricate gold-plated, hand-carved interior.

La Ronda. Once a neglected pocket of urban decay, this colonial street in Colonial Quito was recently rehabbed and re-marketed to the public. On the weekends, throngs of locals and tourists flock to this cobblestone street to sample empanadas and other local fare while listening to traditional bands sing ballads.

Old friends enjoy each other and new additions to the family. This was snapped at my in-laws’ 40th anniversary party. My wife, her sister and brother all pitched in and threw them a huge bash. It also happened to by my father-in-law’s 70th birthday. Special times. Yes, big get-togethers and family events are pretty much the norm. South Americans like to party. But you knew that already!

Eva and two cousins playing with water. Look at how dirty Eva’s pants are.