Quito’s Oldest Church: Guápulo

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On a foggy day, the church in Guápulo is completely hidden by the mist that covers the valley like a pot lid. But if you dare to descend the Camino de Orellana that winds through the village like tightly-spun yarn, you’ll be rewarded with the stately sight of the Sanctuario de Guápulo.

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The church is Quito’s oldest colonial church, founded by Spanish explorer Fransisco de Orellana in 1541. The plaza in front of the church bears his statue. And also, a few guys shooting the breeze on a bench.

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The colonial churches in Quito always amaze me with their attention to detail.

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And this grand old woman has recently been restored.

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One of the caretakers was busy giving this lady a bath with a scrub brush and a bucket.

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He told us we’d missed out, though, because while we were playing in the park, they’d taken down the gold statue in the centerpiece of the altar to clean it.

(Side note: my sister is pretty.)

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But our bellies were rumbling and the kids were whining. As beautiful as it was, it was time to go.

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Travel with the Locals: Guápulo Park

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Guápulo is technically part of Quito, but it feels worlds apart. Quito lies in the narrow valley between two mountain chains. Guápulo is on the other side of the northern mountain border, on the way to Cumbaya, one of Quito’s suburbs on the plains outside its narrow valley.

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The town was established by the Spanish and later incorporated into Quito. But on this sunny December day, we headed for a new public park on the far side of the village. We would never have known about it if my sister and brother-in-law didn’t live there.

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According to the security guard who my dad made friends with, the land was formerly owned by the owners of one of Ecuador’s major banks. (UPDATE: Banco Popular.) They stabled their horses on the land. When things got bad with the economy (or they were about to get caught embezzling), the owners left the country (with all their millions, of course), and the land was seized by the government.

Today, it’s a lush hiking, picnicing and leisure area.

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After a stop for croissants, our gang descended Guápulo’s winding Camino de Orellana through the town, then up again to the park entrance. The path into the park was steep, but even the kids and grandpa could handle it. And everything was green and lovely, with eucalyptus trees lining the way, providing a soundtrack as the wind ruffled their leafy limbs.

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We stopped for breakfast at one of the picnic areas, and lazed about, enjoying the deep blue skies and warm sun on our faces.

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[Spoiler alert: I should have worn sunscreen.]

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But we were ultimately headed for the playground, so we continued on.

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It turned out to be one of the coolest playgrounds I’ve ever seen, with wooden structures, a zip-line and all the things, plus views of Cumbaya beyond.

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My dad always says he’d never want to be in one of the high rises peering down from the mountain ridge during an earthquake.

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We played hard (even grandma went down the zip-line!), and too soon it was time to head home for lunch and naps.

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So we climbed back up the path (those of us who don’t live at 9,200 feet altitude took it slowly). And we certainly were only able to scratch the surface of all the fun to be had at Guápulo.

Old Quito

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We rushed down one evening to the old city to stroll along La Ronda, Quito’s oldest street, and find some empanadas.

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I could wander around that area for ages, but between the narrow streets, the traffic and the cobblestone, it’s not something we wanted to do for long with the little people.

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We ran into a Christmas parade, with a high school band playing off-key and loud Christmas tunes.

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The kids loved watching and dancing to the beat.

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La Virgen watches over the city from her perch.

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On another hill, colorful homes cling to the side while the museum of the eternal flame stands proud (but sometimes the flame is out).

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And the building tops were lit with the last rays of the sleepy sun.

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Restless children were persuaded to briefly pose.

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Empanadas procured, we took in some music.

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And charmed the band into teaching the kids some tricks.

Hearts and bellies full, we piled back into the cars to head for home.

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Taste of Ecuador

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Several friends who follow my Instagram account expressed concern that I might be leaving and moving back to Ecuador.

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I mean, I guess I can see why you’d think that, when I’m gushing over empanadas, locro de papas (typical mountain-region potato soup, above left) and humitas (similar to a tamale, above right).

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We did empanadas HARD, consuming these corn-based empanadas de morocho (cooking above, ready for inhaling below) in Quito’s old city.

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Later that evening we moved on to empanadas de viento (aka cheese-filled pockets of love) down the street.

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This boy became an instant fan.

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But while those were good, they couldn’t compare to the lusciousness that comes from Empanadas Chilenas (on the way to Cali Cali).

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Don’t be deceived, my friend. These are not Chilean empanadas, in spite what the restaurant name implies. These are Ecuador-proud, the best empanadas de viento known to man (or at least us).

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It didn’t matter how many snacks we’d consumed at Kelley’s friend’s house in Cali Cali, we were stopping for empanadas.

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Those crispy, gooey, oily, hot and sprinkled-with-a-dab-of-coarse-sugar pies always win.

Oh, and we also had empanadas verdes (made from green plantains) that Kelley’s house helper made for us for Christmas.

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We also made sure to hit up the local bakery for amazingly fresh and high-quality French-style baked goods. As my sister said, “This city runs on bread and fruit.”

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For Christmas Eve, we feasted on ceviche (shrimp cocktail, but not as pungent as the Peruvian version), bread, meat and chifles (fried platain chips). I think there was my brother-in-law’s eggnog, too.

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Of course, I’d made sure to get ceviche on my first day there, so I was topped up.

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And then there is the street food:

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Grilled corn, sausage, fruit juices and …

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what is roughly equivalent to donuts, aka huevos chilenos, or Chilean Eggs. ???

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These are kind of a New Year’s tradition for us, but I gotta say, as an adult, these were not super great.

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Food in the jungle is nothing special (but maybe makes for better stories if you can get yourself some smoked monkey, fried ants or grubs), but one must stop for a taste of the famous Banos taffy, made from sugar cane molasses.

Just beware it might come with a side of bacteria from the taffy-man’s hand. (Personal experience)

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And to finish off your culinary tour, made a stop with mora and tomate de arbol juice.

Just do it.

And tell them I sent you.

Street-side Shopping

As with many less developed countries, vendors can often be found on street corners and stoplights, hawking various goods. On one trip around town, you could reasonably purchase windshield wipers, a cell-phone case, a radio, a toy, some as-seen-on-tv item and a seat cover. Plus various snacks like homemade chips, candied peanuts or fava beans.

But the very best thing is produce.

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Need avocados? How about five for a dollar from the lady on the corner? Strawberries? Oh, try her, weaving her way through the traffic with plastic bags hanging off her fingertips.

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Act fast before the light changes!

My sister says it’s her favorite way to shop for food, and I tend to agree. It’s basically a drive-through.

Authentic Life at Iñaquito Market

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Let’s start with the colorful.

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Growing up, a trip to the capital city meant a stop at Iñaquito market for fresh fruits and vegetables was likely.

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Then later, my mom or the lady who helped around the house would hit the market up weekly for produce. There was always the typical grocery store, but Iñaquito was different in that these women were selling what they or their community had grown themselves. It was high quality and super fresh, right from Ecuador’s growing region a little south.

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Before, the outside of the market was peppered with indigenous women carrying a length of rope. For a little money, they’d tie your basket to their backs follow you through the market as you made purchases. Then, basket full, they’d follow you to your car and help you unload. I didn’t see any of those women on this visit.

In the past 20 years, the market has gone from a dark cave laden with the smells of over-ripe fruit and meat to a bright and clean place with orderly stalls.

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Outside, small stores ring the central market; before they used to be filled with flower-seller after flower-seller. But these days, more and more flowers are being exported for greater profits, and the outer stores now sell candy, crackers and cheap Chinese-made goods.

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Even if you’re just visiting and don’t need to shop, a quick walk around the market is worth it for the true experience. (Hang on to your wallet, though.) You’ll see the huge variety of Ecuadorian produce at it’s finest. And if you do decide to make a purchase, definitely haggle over the price. And if you buy a lot, ask for a “yappa”, or a freebie, kind of like a baker’s dozen.

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