Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ecuador, Day 2

Quito’s “Old Town” came to life at around six this morning, and the sound of revving motors and straining brakes outside my window was all the alarm that I needed to get up. I took a while getting ready, but when I did I knew exactly where I wanted to start the day: at a café called El Cafeto.

I arrived at exactly eight o’clock, right when it opened, and sat inside the charming interior for about ten minutes before the employees had the café in proper order. I took a few photos, but when I went to the second floor the owner told me I wasn’t allowed to use my camera there. It made me wonder if the photos I took initially were prohibited, but since I took them right in front of her I figured it wasn’t a huge deal. However, I did ask her if it was all right to photograph my food, and she said yes, but that she would need extra time to present it as beautifully as possible.

I ordered the desayuno ecuatariano, which was huma (maize and cheese steamed inside a maize husk – it tasted very much like cornbread), two eggs, the best papaya juice I’ve ever had, and café Americano.

The eggs were good – nothing special, really – but the huma was, for me anyway, the piece de resistance. I’d never had huma before and I was very curious about it. I half-expected the huma to be steamed to excess and have a very rich taste and chewy texture, but in fact it was incredibly light, and it lifted off the cornhusk easily. This was a welcome breakfast – huma and coffee pair marvelously – and for only $3.50 it was well worth it.

El Cafeto is nestled beside the Monastery of San Agustín, and if you ask the owner to open the enormous doors in one of the café’s walls you’ll be given an amazing view into the monastery’s central garden -- but no photos! The monastery is open to the public, and with the $1 entrance fee you get a Spanish guide to show you around the two floors that are full of colonial-era religious paintings and figures. For history buffs, the monastery is where Ecuador’s Declaration of Independence was signed in 1809 (this is the bicentennial of Ecuador’s independence), and around fifty of the country’s early military heroes are buried on the premises.

After touring the monastery I decided to walk through the city, which is full of stunning colonial architecture from the 17th century and afterward.

I ended up heading to the Museo de la Ciudad, which is housed in a restored hospital that was in use from 1563 to 1974.

The building itself is interesting, but I found all the exhibitions and the “time tunnel” of Ecuador’s history quite underwhelming. There were very few explanations, and nothing in English was available to help me understand what I was seeing. I stayed there for maybe 40 minutes, but there was little more I could get out of my time there and so I left. The best part of the museum was the view from the back balcony, where I could see much of Quito as well as a giant, colorful head whose significance I could only guess at.

Afterward I happened upon a small stand specializing in various snacks. The place was called El Kukurucho del Maní, and I ended up spending 50 cents on a package of maní, which are peanuts cooked with sugar in a copper kettle. They were excellent, and I snacked on them all day as I walked around Quito.

For lunch I headed to Caféteria Modelo, an old café that I came to realize too late specialized in ice cream and pastries.

They also had a small menu of drinks and breakfast and lunch items, and I ended up getting a “mixed sandwich” (a grilled ham and cheese, it turned out) and an empañada de mochoro (which was a greasy, tasteless empañada filled negligibly with minced vegetables and meat.

I can’t really complain about the food because it was so cheap – the sandwich was $1.90 and the empanada was only 70 cents. Still, it was very unsatisfying. One strange thing that occurred was that a woman of about 80, who was wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers fishing hat, came into the café and decided not to sit at any of the dozen or so empty tables but joined me. She ordered a triple ice cream sundae and ate it while watching me. It was pretty weird. Had she tried to communicate with me I would have gladly attempted to reciprocate, but she really seemed interested in just observing me. When I left the table after my meal she was still there. I said, “Con permiso,” and she gave me a brief nod.

After lunch I decided to climb the hills in the northeastern part of Old Town to see the Basílica del Voto Nacional, an enormous Gothic church that towers over the area and is notable for the turtles and iguanas jutting from the side of the building. Normally, of course, one would see gargoyles.

The streets, and the houses built on them, were gorgeous, and I’ve included some photos of them below.

In the afternoon I decided to explore the Plaza del Teatro, which is a charming area where I found live theater being performed and a lot of people hanging out on benches and in cafes. I ended up going for a midday coffee at the Café del Teatro and enjoying all the people-watching there.

For dinner I wandered around for about 20 minutes before I actually found a restaurant. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. A lot of places that are open for lunch aren’t open for dinner, and the Old Town doesn’t have many restaurants or cafés to choose from. Even so, directly across from the Plaza San Francisco, at N2-92 Benalcazar Street, I came across a local diner-like establishment called Restaurante Benalcazar.

Their menu is full of very affordable comida tipical Ecuador options. I went with the churrasco, which was a mixed plate of grilled steak, rice, salad, French fries, a huge hunk of avocado, and two fried eggs.

For $3.50 it was a pretty good deal, though the steak was very tough and chewy. The people there were really nice, and they have an English menu in addition to the Spanish one all the locals use.

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  1. U`ve moved to so fast , D !
    We`re reading your blog eveyday & everydsay &
    so enjoying your trip with imagination in our
    mind , D!
    We really hope "Ecuadol" will give U wonderful
    days ,Take care ne , D !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Waw, see a lot on your trip & you taste a lot too,...the food looks great except in the last picture!! Beautiful pictures!