I’m standing at the Middle of the World.
To clarify, I’m straddling the equator, just 20 miles from Quito, Ecuador, at the so-named museum of phenomena unique to this global belt. At 0 degrees, 0’ 0’’, gravity is absent, so, as our guide demonstrates, water doesn’t circle in a drain, and an egg can balance on a pin.
The indigenous Incas were onto all this 1,500 years ago, as confirmed by artifacts such as their sundial- as accurate as my Timex. The museum also reproduces the tribal lifestyles, via huts where women prepared corn liquor and guinea pigs for dinner while their men undertook more physically demanding tasks, such as weaving llama wool, or shrinking their enemies’ heads.
At 9,508 feet above sea level, Quito is the second-highest capitol in the world, a fact brought home as we panted our way to an overlook where we gaped at snow-tipped volcanoes in the distance, then lunched aside a volcanic crater, where the food was tip-top, too: our first taste of the nation’s mainstay, was locro—potato soup, served with sides of avocado and white cheese. Pork roast was accompanied by another culinary icon, corn: popped kernels, hominy, and a potato cake for good measure.
Back in the palm-lined streets of Quito’s Old City, shadows of the Incas lurk everywhere. Their heavy stones became the building blocks of Spanish Conquistadors, who zealously tore down temples, and on their sites erected churches, such as San Francisco of 1534, the oldest in South America. Beneath the Baroque façade shines an extravaganza of gold plate.
Today, its monastery houses the Museum of Sacred Art, showcasing the works of indigenous carvers, who endowed their Virgins with the pink skin of the conquering Spanish. Life-size saints sport fashion-forward robes, eyes heavenward as they balance their golden dinner plate halos.
The Jesuit Church of 1605 is a copy of the Jesuit Church of Rome, dressed in yet more blinding gold. On its plaza, families enjoying a sunny Sunday swirled between ice cream carts and balloon sellers, as a military band performed. Nearby, Casa El Alabado houses a mesmerizing collection of pre-Colonial shaman figures and animal totems.
At the St. Augustin café, itself a cache of painted saints, we feasted on beef-stuffed tamales, then goat stew (yum!) and churrascuro, an overflowing plate of beefsteak topped with fried eggs, rice, and French fries (more is more). A server churned ice cream as we watched, dashing a splash of the flavors du jour—mango, passion fruit—into a copper basin housed in a bed of ice, beating them until they freeze.
From antique cobbles to the fashionable New Quarter: We’re off to the Chapel of Man, a museum designed by Ecuador’s most illustrious artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin (1914-1989), to house his compelling paintings. His work addresses the treatment of people enslaved by dictators—Conquistadors and beyond—as an homage to humanity. Big, bold, canvases recall Picasso’s cubism, the elongation of El Greco, and the war-abhorring Goya.
We dined in equally modern style in Galleria, Ecuador’s gourmet shop, on shrimp (Ecuador’s prime food export), tilapia and yucca cake. “Modern” is also the byword at the University de las Americas’ culinary program, which schools young talent in the country’s treasury of historic foods. Even a picky Michelin inspector would be awed by the likes of sea bass with goldenberry sauce and plantain patties, followed by Andean blueberry ice cream, topping plantain cheesecake.
Next, we bump through green valleys along the Pan American Highway to visit Otovata’s market, where women with babies strapped to their backs and long, black braids beneath their straw fedoras, sell knit-ware, ponchos of llama wool, and delicately fashioned silver.
En-route to nearby Peguche, we brake for lunch at Pinsaqui, a resort of lush gardens and roaming horses in an antiques-laden hacienda where Simon Bolivar once slept (and at $135 a night, you can, too). As servers once again churned ice cream—tree tomato; sweet-sour maranzilla—four brothers serenaded us on drum, flute and strings as prelude to our visit to the workshop of Senor Manchi, who demonstrates the wind instruments he fabricates—pan flutes, mandolins from armadillo shells, rain sticks, and clay ocarinas.
But Cuenca’s calling. A half-hour flight lands us in “the Athens of Ecuador,” dubbed for its artsy vibe. Diving back in time, we enter La Posada, the oldest house in town, once a hostel for travelling merchants and now the Museum of the Virgin—historic works of local artists, including Mary with raven tresses, and another with a Shirley Temple simper.
San Sebastian Square is a blaze of white stucco erected by the
Conquistadors, who leveled the Inca temple on the site (as usual) to erect their own beguiling church, and the equally enchanting Museum of Modern Art, once a jail, then a rehab center for alcoholic gentry. A few steps further, we inhale the sensory overload of the flower market. Beside it hides a tiny Carmelite chapel, ablaze with votive candles, and a convent where cloistered nuns sell products of their making.
The New Cathedral, begun in 1884 in a rampage of eclectic styles, boasts a lookalike altar of St. Peter’s. The Old Cathedral of 1560 across the plaza—Cuenca’s first church—served only Spaniards, verboten to the indigenes they’d come to convert. Today it’s a museum of sacred art.
Colonial homes hug interior patios, such as Villa Rosa, today a restaurant serving sugary, cheese-filled empanadas and local trout. We later dined even more rambunctiously at Tiestos, where the specialty is clay-pot cooking. Shrimp disappeared from platters in a Cuenca minute, girding us for tomorrow’s immersion in local crafts.
First off was a tour of a factory fashioning the famous Panama hats (so named for the traditional headgear of Ecuadorians building the Panama Canal), then into the countryside to visit guitar-maker Guiterros Uyugueri (bargains beginning at $79). We next encounter an 80-year-old jewelry maker who spins silver into delicate filigree. Then, on to the markets at Gualaceo—one a buzzing myriad of crafts, another a goldmine of food stalls where we wolfed down corn pancakes, then juicy bits of roasted pig.
Who wants to go home? No volunteers. Visiting Ecuador is extra-easy because it’s in our own time zone, so no jet lag. Another bonus: the currency is U.S. dollars. And because it’s on the equator, the climate remains—oh, I’d call it heavenly—year round. For information, contact www.ecuadortradenyc.com.
Freddy Lobato spearheaded a recent, daring and successful, campaign for gay rights. Homosexuality was punishable by prison before 1997, when a new President pushed for reforms and encouraged groups to rally for their passage. “Gay rights was a major factor in his reform package,” says Lobato. “Volunteers like me made a campaign, held press conferences. For our first Gay Pride Parade in Quito in 1997, 20 people participated. This year, 2,000. Today civil unions are legal and discrimination of any sort is illegal,” he’s happy to report. “We’ve now got our own political party—Equal Rights—and had seven candidates in 2009, one of whom was elected as an alternate.
Freddy’s favorite clubs:
Balzac: disco for the younger crowd
Black Swan: higher-end disco; drag nights
Hueco: entry-level, lower-class disco
Magenta: tropical theme, middle-class clubsters
Favorite Bars (more popular, he indicates):
Buddha: very young, teen night; no admission charge