When a young girl wearing a school uniform warns you about robbers ahead on your path, it’s easy to figuratively pat her on the head and continue on your way. But when an elderly woman with a wrinkly face and no more than three teeth races down stairs and warns you about “atracadors” while giving a throat-slashing gesture, you are more likely to heed the advice and find a new way.
No lie: Those were the circumstances of how our return trip from Quito’s hilltop Panecillo statue played out on our second day in Ecuador’s capital.
The day began with Pessa and I walking through Old Town, the metropolis’ colonial district, to meet her sister and her two friends. As we shuffled past Quito residents on narrow streets that reminded me of Florence, Italy, la Virgen de Quito, a.k.a. el Panecillo, was perched high on a nearby southern hill.
“Look at that,” I told Pessa. “I saw that in the guidebook. We should go there today.”
We met Laura in Plaza Grande, the city’s main square which includes the presidential palace. She took us a block away to where her friends Pares and Susan were watching a quintet of Ecuadorian jugglers a few blocks away. The girls’ easy-going, see-stimuli-and-follow-it approach to travel was something I immediately liked.
From there, we wondered Old Town from the seat of our pants. Our first unplanned sight was a protest on the front steps of President Rafael Correa’s home.
The protest, from what I later gathered from my Spanish teacher, was about a group of farmers from the Andean Mountains who had come out against a new law that allowed the government to take control of their land for tourism purposes.
These tourists watched for a bit, but eventually continued meandering.
Less than a block away, I paused to take a picture of a random church’s spiral column which caught my eye. When I was done snapping the photo, I gazed inside the church to see the walls covered in gold. I corralled the crew to follow the stimuli I saw, and we entered the La Compania de Jesus.
Upon further review, the guidebook called it, “Ecuador’s most ornate church. … Quitenos [people from Quito] proudly call it the most beautiful church in the country, and it’s easy to see why.”
It turned out that our follow-stimuli approach was working out well.
Now, it was off to follow the stimuli we were drawn to on the top of the hill — the Panecillo.
For five Minnesotans, the climb up the Andean hill was exhausting. We were huffing and puffing on the way up, but the view was well worth it.
On the way down, Susan, a fluent Spanish speaker, had a quick conversation with a woman about how muggings can occur on the hillside in front of the Panecillo. We didn’t think much of it really, and instead considered ourselves as alert and semi-experienced travelers, who weren’t the stereotypical tourist in flower-print Hawaiian shirts and toting three-foot-wide maps.
Then the school girl and the nearly toothless grandmother spoke up. When the warnings were repeated with seriousness by the woman, we stopped our descent and soon safely found a cab.
It was a little unnerving. See, I had read the guidebook section on “dangers and annoyances” in Quito, but hadn’t yet read the part about the Panecillo, and instead decided to follow the stimuli and read up on it later.
What I failed to read in the book is this: “Definitely don’t climb the stairs at the end of Calle Garcia Moreno on the way to the statue – they are unsafe due to muggings.”
That would have been good to know beforehand, huh? But thanks to the helpful Quitenos, we averted danger.
After this close call, my goal was to live and learn from the Panecillo experience.
So, when Pessa and I met up with Laura and Co., after Spanish class for a few Ecuadorian Pilsners, I was much more alert.
And my guard certainly wasn’t diminished when I walked into a bar flanked by four white American girls and every Quiteno in the place turned to look at us, or rather, them. We ordered a round of beers and gathered at a table away from the others.
Midway through my first Pilsner, I heard a loud boom.
“Now, what the hell was that!” was the thought that jolted into my head. “A gunshot?”
I immediately looked over at the bartenders to see if they were alarmed. Oh no, they were laughing.
As we sipped more brews, a few more harmless firecrackers went off. Just a false alarm.
The night, thankfully, ended without incident.