Since most of our fellow travelers did not arrive until late last night, we did not have our getting-to-know-you rules-of-the-road meeting until 10am. Our guide is experienced and well organized and most of us understood that it make no sense to ask questions about what we are doing next week; we will only forget the answer and he will have to say it again. Formalities quickly completed, we got on a bus for a walking tour of Old Town, which is a protected UNESCO site.
All the countries in South America have suffered from centuries of incompetent leadership and Ecuador is no different. After Peru and Ecuador had a war over an unmapped area of the Amazon rich with oil reserves, Ecuador won, but the victory was not sweet. When the price of oil went down, the economy of Ecuador went into a tailspin. When we were here last the local currency was the sucre, but when inflation topped 60%, the president pinned Ecuador's economic survival on the US dollar, a far more reliable currency. Today Ecuadoreans use our familiar greenbacks with the exception of $1 bills. When the US dollar coin did not do well in our country we sent them here and they are regularly available as change. They also have a special fondness for $2 bills which we rarely see at home. During this troubled economic time, the Old Town was taken over by squatters and vendors and went into a Wild West mentality. Many of the architectural treasures from Spanish colonial times were destroyed and damaged. Eventually the government recognized what had been lost and today what remained has been stabilized and repaired. There is a mixture of ugly modern buildings and the classic stuff. It can be modernized on the inside, but all the facades are meant to look as they did when the buildings were first built.
When the Spanish first came to this area they were looking for gold. They figured the Inca had hidden it in the foundations of their buildings, so every major building in every city and town was destroyed as the Spanish searched for it. That's why Ecuador has no Macchu Pichu. Then they used all the square cut rocks and boulders to make their new government buildings around a classic Spanish square. Nice guys, those Spaniards. They worked hard to bring the locals into the way of the Lord. One major avenue alone had seven huge churches. They have a vaguely European look, but the devil is in the details. For example, the gargoyles all represent local animals such as birds and turtles. Inca crosses decorate the pillars on the interior. We were frustrated by the fact that we were not allowed to photograph the interior of the most impressive one, the Church of the Company of Jesus, covered with gold leaf from stem to stern.
As usual on an OAT tour, we ate well today. There is a group of street vendors dressed in military looking outfits that sell Espumillas, a meringue made of whipped egg whites with a touch of malt that is covered with a sweet red sauce. We were happy to try it, but it is not on the repeat snack list. We stopped in a chocolate shop and learned about the beans produced here; the best in the world we were told. Lunch was in a 400 year old home owned by a woman who greeted us with hugs and a bottle of Purell. Once again the menu was similar to the one we cooked a few days ago. I'm guessing this might change when we leave Quito for the Amazon.
While we enjoyed the Old Town and would go back again to see more, the highlight of the day was a chance encounter with two young Venezuelans who spent thirteen days walking here to escape the hunger and danger in their country. Their parents did not want them to leave, but when you are young you are brave enough to take such risks. Because Venezuela did not allow them to leave, they have no passports or the required report of good citizenship, so they cannot obtain legal papers to work here. The exodus from Venezuela has gotten so large, that most to its neighbors have stopped letting them in. Ecuador still has open borders, but does little to help the refugees get reestablished. These boys slept in parks at first and have tried to support themselves reselling snacks on street corners. It gets down into the 40º's here at night. When they have $10 they can sleep in a hostel in a bed. When they have a bit more, they try to send it back to Venezuela to their parents. They seemed a bit taken aback by our interest and a bit shy at first as our guide translated our questions and their answers, but they left us with the biggest payday they had since leaving home. It's a cruel world.