We were due to start our first week of Spanish lessons on the 12th of October. Before we left home we’d found Montanita Spanish school online, and read lots of good reviews, they offered something unique to other schools: a ‘travelling classroom’ consisting of four weeks of Spanish lessons in four different locations in Ecuador. The package included all transfers and accommodation, most meals and lots of activities, meaning we could still see the country and learn at the same time.
We’d been communicating by email with the school over the past few weeks concerning a few questions and getting the balance paid. They’d sent us the address and phone number for the family we’d be staying with in Quito. We’d worked out our route back to Quito and from Terminal Quitumbe (the southern bus terminal of Quito) up to the north of the city where we’d be staying. The bus from Latacunga went smoothly, watching the countryside pass by and trying in vain to see the famous snow-capped Cotapaxi volcano that has been showing signs of activity recently (it was permanently shrouded in cloud for our whole visit to the area, except for one fleeting glimpse on the last day in Quito!).
We changed buses in Quito and made our way back through the city, eventually coming to our stop. We heaved our bags through the streets, pleased to see the area looked nice and safe, with the houses more well-kept and obviously a more affluent neighbourhood. We found the house and rang the bell with ‘welcome’ (in English no less) on the label – but there was no answer. We waited around for a bit, occasionally ringing the bell and wondering if this was just Ecuadorian time-keeping, but eventually realised something wasn’t right. We checked the address with some neighbours, and realised we needed to find a phone. Neither of our UK SIM cards are working in Ecuador – they were fine in Colombia, but seem to only occasionally pick up signal in Ecuador, so we couldn’t even use them in an emergency. I (Alex) set off to find a nearby shop, this being a Sunday it was a bit more difficult but I eventually found a Chinese Restaurant that was open. My Spanish not quite covering the complications of the matter, I spoke a few sentences and let my panicked face persuade the waitress to let me use her mobile to call our host family! It turned out they had been told the wrong day by the school so were out at a party, I explained we were just waiting on the doorstep and they said they would be over shortly.
Our host for the week, Jose-Maria, came round really quickly and let us in, even heating up some soup for us and making sure we were completely settled. It was nice to feel so welcomed there so quickly. After explaining the mix-up with the dates again and giving us a set of keys, he apologised and went off to re-join his wife at the party. We unpacked and settled in, walking down to the local mall to get Chris an Ecuadorian SIM card and to buy ourselves some better medium sized backpacks as the ones that zip onto our main bags are a bit of a waste of space as they are uncomfortable if too heavy/carried for too long! Later on we met our lovely host mum for the week, Maria-Beatrice, and were again welcomed into the home. We slept soundly that night in the comfortable spare room of our adopted parents.
On Monday morning we were greeted by Jose-Maria with a breakfast of fresh juice and eggs and felt ready to start the day at school. The school was called AGS (Andean Global Studies), and was conveniently only 10 minutes from the house. We had to be there for 8.30am and started immediately with a test to check our level. There were only 3 of us in the travelling classroom, ourselves and Prisca from Switzerland who had already been studying Spanish in Montañita for 4 weeks. The test was pretty hard – Spanish reading, writing, listening and speaking tests all first thing on a Monday morning, I don’t think my brain has worked so hard in a while! The teachers came back to tell us that we’d be split into two groups, so that Chris and I were the only ones in our class. The week was a really good refresher for me, cementing the rules and vocab I’ve been learning over the last year with Roby, plus a new bits of grammar and a whole host of new verbs to try and remember! For Chris the week was a reminder of things he’d last learnt at an evening class we did back in Uni, so quite a steep learning curve, but our teacher Renán was fantastic and we both learnt lots. The great thing about the school was that it was so small, with only about six students there, and everyone tried to speak in Spanish all the time so we got to practice and no-one really minded if you were slow or made mistakes.
During the afternoons we had activities arranged for us as part of the travelling classroom. They were pretty flexible with when these activities took place and moved them around to suit other things happening in the school or in Quito. On the first afternoon we had a tour of Quito old town, a lovely colonial UNESCO heritage site. We climbed up the towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional (the cathedral) and had fantastic views over the city (even if the steep metal grid stairs and lack of handrails did make me feel a bit dizzy!). Then we went on a tour of an amazingly gaudy gold-covered church (La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús). Followed by a walk through the plazas and courtyards of the old town. The whole tour was done in Spanish by one of the professors, Manuel, and we found it fairly hard to keep up at times but it was still really interesting (and very good for my Spanish I’m sure!). We grabbed a taxi and went up to a small hill in the centre of Quito where there is a statue of the Virgin of Quito, and some more great views over the city which is very long but situated in a valley so very narrow. It’s also at high altitude (2850 m or 9,350 ft) so we were out of breath keeping up with Manuel’s pace!
We got back to the house fairly tired and with homework to do. We were greeted by our lovely hosts and given a hearty traditional soup. We have had a huge variety of tasty soups over here with different grains and giant maize kernels and other vegetables you just can’t get in the UK. We listened to a bit of Ecuadorian music to really try and get into the language a bit more. Most of our evenings in Quito passed in that way, tasty food and good conversation (en espanol) with our hosts whilst we finished our homework. I have learnt that ‘mi casa es su casa’ really is a saying and we felt very much at home in Quito.
On Tuesday afternoon there was a football match between Ecuador and Bolivia, as part of the world cup 2018 qualifiers. Our school happened to be five minutes walk from the stadium so we agreed to go with a group of students and teachers to see the game. We bought our tickets on the ‘mercado negro’ – which is apparently completely ok as we were bartering for tickets right in-front of the most number of police I have ever seen in one place, including fully kitted out riot police! Our tickets bought, we went off to grab lunch and buy a cheap Ecuador football shirt to make sure we fitted in. One of the local radio stations tried to interview us as we were the strange ‘Gringos’ going to watch this national match – I’m not sure they got much intelligible Spanish from us! We returned about an hour before the match started when the atmosphere was really buzzing with bands playing and everyone decked out in yellow and blue for Ecuador. We joined the queues and found our ‘seats’ – some vague markings on rows of concrete.
We had spotted some grey clouds gathering on the horizon earlier so had thrown the ponchos into the bag just in case – turns out this was the best decision as it absolutely chucked it down from 3pm until pretty much the end of the game at 6pm! We donned the ponchos (fitting in perfectly with all the locals who were doing the same) and still managed to drink a beer with arms and beer glass inside the poncho. The pitch was soon totally waterlogged with huge puddles that slowed the ball down and meant a lot of sliding and swimming from the players! We learnt a few Ecuadorian football chants “Si se puede” (yes they can) and “tenemos que ganar” (we have to win) and got into the spirit of things despite the downpour. At half time they used giant metal stakes to drain the pitch a bit and the second half had a some more action, right at the end Ecuador scored a goal and the response was electric, then they were awarded a penalty and scored again to wild cheering and singing from the crowd. It was a great atmosphere to be part of. Back home our host family had been watching on the TV so we shared in the excitement with them and their friends.
On Wednesday we had an Ecuadorian cooking class in place of lunch and made ourselves tortillas verdes. In short these are cooked and mashed up green plantains with fried onions and coriander, moulded into a dough and wrapped around some cheese then shallow fried. Very tasty!
After cooking we went on our second tour with Manuel, with us, Prisca and another Swiss student called Patrick, this time to the Mitad Del Mundo (the middle of the world)! Whilst this sounds like something from Jules Verne, it was actually just an hour’s trip on a few buses to a museum and the equator line. First we went to the Intiñan Solar Museum, a museum claiming to be on the equator (Chris’s GPS said we were actually about 10m off, but grudgingly agreed that it was close enough!) and saw some interesting exhibits on indigenous cultures in Ecuador. Unfortunately we’d been a bit gung-ho and agreed to the Spanish tour which was conducted extremely rapidly for a lot of Argentinian tourists and us. We were pretty lost with the in-depth info on how to make a shrunken head and how magnetic field lines work on the equator but got the overall picture! They did some experiments (which we later found out are faked) to demonstrate the Coriolis effect and how force changes on the equator. It was all a bit confusing but amusing. Chris got a special certificate for managing to balance an egg on a nail (apparently much easier to do on the equator line), and we had our passports stamped to say we’d been to the equator. We then walked 300m down the road to the place where they thought the equator was in the 1600s (pretty impressively close really). There was a large monument and we messed around taking photos trying to make it look like we were holding the world on top of the monument.
On Thursday we had classes and then a quick lunch before heading off to take the teleferico, a cable car up the side of the valley to view Quito from about 4100m high. Unfortunately, it began chucking it down just as we made it to the base of the cable car. We sheltered in the ticket office having to shout to be heard above the noise of the rain. After 20 minutes the rain died down and by this time there were large puddles on the floor inside where it had come through the roof! We still got the cable car, doubting we’d be able to see anything but enjoying the novelty ride up the mountainside. When we got to the top the clouds had parted and we could see over the city. We had great views down the valley and behind us the snow-capped mountains. We started to walk along a path, enjoying the views for about 10 minutes until the cloud came rolling back in, then walking further in the disorientating fog before the rain started again and we had to leg it back down to the cable car station. We seemed to have hit the week where every afternoon it would rain heavily at pretty much exactly 3pm! We made our way back down and Manuel called for a taxi to take us back to the school where he was running a Salsa class for us (tour guide and salsa instructor in one). The class turned out to be exactly what we needed to dry off and warm up! We learnt the basic steps and then attempted to do a few turns with a partner (which worked fine when I was be in led by Manuel, less so when Chris and I attempted it!), I don’t think we’re ready for the dance floors just yet but it was good fun.
Friday was our last Spanish class in Quito, we were both pretty tired by this point but had learnt lots. Our Ecuadorian family commented on how much Chris especially had improved in just a week. After class we popped back home, then out for an afternoon wander around to a vegetable market (unfortunately closing as we arrived late due to the prompt 3pm rain!), then to a crafts market where we managed to find República del Cacao chocolate. We’d been recommended this our Argentinian friend German so decided to buy a bar, and we weren’t disappointed! We found a coffee and chocolate shop and I had a very good hot chocolate with ginger, then we wandered some more until we found a few bars. The area was really busy, it was before 6pm on a Friday but people were spilling out onto the streets and the karaoke bars were in full swing! We found a sports bar with free wifi and an offer on mojitos, and a view out onto the busy Plaza Foch area (it reminded us a bit of Leidseplein in Amsterdam). After a mojito or two we stopped at a Mexican restaurant and enjoyed a nice dinner and good chat with Prisca, we were due to be travelling with her for the whole next week in the Amazon so it was really good we all got on so well!
On Saturday, despite not having class we were up at a ridiculous hour! We had to be in the centre of Quito for 6.30am for a day trip out to Otavalo and the countryside north of Quito. The bus in the centre turned up at just after 7am. This time the tour was external to the school so we had a few other groups of tourists with us, a larger group of noisy Germans, a Turkish lady and an older couple from Quebec, plus a couple of solo travellers who we chatted to from Germany and Australia. We had an English-speaking guide for the day which was a welcome change and meant that we could learn about some of the topics we’d brushed over in Spanish earlier in the week (including how to make a shrunken head of course). Our first stop was to Quitsato, yet another equator line! Initially we felt a third equator line was a bit much, but this one was actually really interesting and we learnt a bit more about how they found it and how pre-Inca civilisations had actually built monuments on the equator line, pretty remarkable! This equator also actually measured up to Chris’s GPS so we were happy to have visited at least one true equator line! We took the obligatory photos and were herded back onto the bus (our first proper tourist trail organised tour, we were enjoying the novelty!) to visit a biscuit ‘factory’. We stopped a few miles down the road to watch some people hand making biscuits, the factory was also a restaurant and we seemed to have hit the rush hour so Chris and I bought a bag of the tasty biscuits for the bus and headed out of there pretty quickly. We then went to Otavalo, a town famous for its crafts market every Saturday. There was an amazing variety of stalls, a lot of tourist stuff but also lots of stalls with grains, pulses, maize, flours, spices, chickens and even a whole roast pig with chillies stuck in its ears. We got lost in the market exploring and gave in to the desire to buy some of the beautiful fabrics and handicrafts, restraining ourselves from going mad as I was sure we’d never fit it all in our bags!
Back on the bus and we made a stop at an old volcano crater with a lake, not a patch on Quilotoa but lovely views over the countryside. We then headed for lunch in Cotacachi town, where pretty much every shop sold leather goods. Lunch was again a slight vague interpretation of vegetarian for Chris as the soup tasted decidedly fishy (quite literally). The whole meal was presided over by Ecuador’s answer to Hanson, three long haired youths of varying ages singing in high pitched voices and playing traditional instruments. We managed to get out without buying the CD and, wandering round the town, we found a surprisingly modern vintage-chic coffee shop for a coffee before the bus took us back to Quito.
On Saturday evening our host family were holding a get-together with some friends and we were invited to join them. We had a lovely evening, it was often difficult to follow the rapid conversation but they were all very nice and we enjoyed the company and the food. We ended the evening with them looking up random Ecuadorian fruit online to see if we recognised it. In most cases we’d never heard of it – Ecuador has an amazing variety of fruit and vegetables! We said goodbye to everyone and gave our Quito parents a hug, it had been a really good week and lovely to have a comfortable and welcome home for a while.
The next day we packed up and headed off for the next adventure in the rainforest (more to follow from Chris on that soon!). I’ve put a few more photos from our week in Quito into the gallery below.