I arrived in Helsinki via Finnair, early on a Saturday…
Ecuador’s Quito offers architectural wonders such as the Inglesia de San Francisco, a bubbling street culture and the chance to escape to volcanic Cotopaxi in the Andes within hours. The city also hosts an annual LGBT film festival, which is like joining a warm-hearted, fabulous family, says Stewart Who?
The e-mail from El Lugar Sin Limites felt suspiciously like a hoax. The LGBT film festival in Ecuador wished to screen our film ‘Twisted’.
Really? Where IS Ecuador? Who told them? They sure? Have they seen it? Ok. Do they wanna DJ for their opening party?
We’d forgotten that a Spanish sub-titled version of the film existed. It was created for LesGaiCiniMad in Spain. But Ecuador? Fleeting research revealed the country sat between Peru and Columbia. Hmmmm. That’s gotta be an interesting sandwich, right?
Thin on knowledge
Anecdotal evidence was rare. Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, even Peru and Columbia- well, there were plenty of tales. Ecuador? NOBODY could even tell me what the capital might be. Neither Paul Hammacott (Editor/Producer) nor Wayne G (co-star) were able to attend. So, despite the military coups, apparent glut of street crime, warnings of homophobia and the prospect of possible kidnap, I said, ‘Fuck it. I’m going.’
I was met at Quito airport by Fredy Alvaro (festival organizer) and Daniel Muñoz, who were so charming and generous that prior worries evaporated instantly. The city greeted me with torrential rain, hammering from gun metal skies.
Favelas and volcanoes
My home in Quito was Patio Anduluz, a gorgeous boutique hotel in the heart of ‘Quito Antiguo’ a part of the city declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in ’78. It’s stunningly beautiful; an unspoiled wealth of Spanish Colonial architecture, surrounded by a crowd of mountains and looming volcanoes.
This dizzying view is further enlivened by pastel hued favelas and abundant lush greenery. It’s hard to forget that religion, culture and faith have ruled this roost as the Quito skyline is chaotically punctured by a jostling army of cloud-kissing crucifixes, spires and statues.
Within hours of my arrival, the rain ceased and an eerie fog had descended. I was escorted through the ancient, misty streets by my hosts, who talked up the architecture and local history en route. On Avenida Garcia Moreno, they motioned to a chipped cherub, high above the street, with a penis almost as long as its leg.
We paused to drink canelazo from cheery, wizened street traders. Made from aguardiente– a local sugar cane moonshine, the beverage is simmered with cinnamon and lemon, it was my first ‘taste’ of Ecuador.
Gulping the gloop from a plastic cup, while wobbling on cobbled streets, I instantly fell in love with the city. That night, at a noisy dinner, in a backstreet café, while a band played accordions and guitars, I partied with festival volunteers, film directors and actors. Within hours, we were all members of the El Lugar Sin Limites family.
The following day, a random, map-free wander through the Old Town left me grinning and slack-jawed. Quito recalls aspects of Lisbon, flourishes of Paris and blinks of Madrid, but the outrageous surrounding landscape and the city’s residents rendered every moment totally unfamiliar.
Ecuador’s story is a torn cultural tapestry, weaved from the first millennium, when it was ruled by the Incas, to the invasion of the Bible-banging Spanish in the 15th century. That blood soaked rich and colourful saga seems evident on every corner; cumbia tunes blaring from street stalls military police slouching on corners, giggling kids fighting for a chance to polish your shoes.
Army of demons
My first sightseeing revelation was in the Inglesia de San Francisco, the oldest church in Quito, which they started building in 1534 and finished 70 years later. Legend has it that the builder, Francisco Cantuna sold his soul to the devil in a bid to get it completed. It’s a baroque masterpiece, with an eye watering, Moorish gold leaf ceiling, epic stained glass windows and Catholic-cum-Pagan sculptures.
It’s easy to believe that an army of decadent demons had a hand in its decor. Right there, in that moment, dazzled by the architectural spectacle, Rome became a little less impressive. Oh, and the view from the choir loft would make Richard Dawkins fall to his knees. It was hard to tell if my eyes were brimming with tears due to the dazzling bling or old-fashioned, God-struck awe.
The festival opened with ‘The Big Gay Musical’ and following the screening, yours truly DJd at the gala after-party, held at Balzac Opera Club. Who knew that an Ecuadorian gay disco would be high-end, slickly designed and blessed with a banging sound system?
After my DJ set, a rum bunch of us wound up in a very strange after hours. The venue could have been an old slaughterhouse, a kebab restaurant or a dental surgery. There was a lot of white tiles, strip lighting, clinical furniture and mirrors. The crowd featured an abundance of trans sex workers and a large contingent of men who you’d be unwise to pick a fight with. Or look at.
The soundtrack featured reggaeton, tribal beats and an occasional salsa thrown in for good measure. It got weirder, wilder and possibly more dangerous as the morning dragged on, so naturally, I stayed there ‘til lunchtime.
Al fresco spa
Later that weekend, the El Lugar Sin Limites crew treated us to a bus ride into the mountains to visit Termas de Papallacta. Located 40 miles east of Quito, it’s an al fresco spa sat between two volcanoes, Cayambe and Antisana, both of which fuel the thermal pools.
Basically, you lounge around in boiling water, overlooked by lush mountains, sucking up the cleanest air on the planet. There’s an icy river that runs through the Termas, which you can fling yourself in, before throwing yourself back in the lava-like water.
The experience was surreal and soothing bliss. While enjoying the company of what felt like my new family and the tropical surroundings, it dawned how miserable I’d been for months. It seemed unbelievable that I’d fearfully hesitated to book the trip. The lesson? Live a little.
Buzzing and weeping
Almost every minute of my jaunt to Ecuador was one of wonder. Simply strolling through the streets, feeling the thrill of being far from home and way out of one’s comfort zone made every cell in my body buzz. I began to truly understand those annoying people who claim to feel ‘really alive’.
Climbing the spires and clock faces of the Basilica del Voto Nacional was utterly terrifying, but delivered a breathtaking view that made me both weepy and weak of knee. Health and safety culture doesn’t seem to have troubled the city of Quito. Visitors to this huge cathedral can choose to traverse the rafters, unsupervised, via a creaking wooden bridge, with only a frayed rope as a makeshift bannister.
Crossing the length of the cathedral’s attic on a splintered walkway of timber led to a ladder allowing one to climb the outside of the building. I decided that plunging to a certain death from a gothic spire in Ecuador was probably a decent way to die. Very Omen, slightly Hitchcock, way to go.
On another day, my friend Diego drove us through the Ninanburo mountains, over the Guayabamba river, before stopping in the tiny town of Perucho. We eat empanadas de viento con azucar and fritada– cheese and sugar pastries with oil crisped pork chunks.
The deserted town was like something from a Tarantino movie- dogs on the rooftops, an eerie calm and a tiny population dwarfed by a massive landscape.
Diego’s grandparents, Napoleon and Celia welcomed us to their farm, perched in the middle of the lushest, most dramatic scenery imaginable. They served a lunch, culled fresh from their farm and it was quietly mind-blowing.
Even the UK’s Organic Finest Taste the Difference Weep at the Price produce can’t compare to the taste sensation of this simple meal. I was humbled by tomatoes and a clear, chicken broth, while discussing the traditions of bullfighting, which Quito still enjoys.
Snow and Boney M
Climbing Cotopaxi in the Andes, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and frolicking on its snow cap while listening to Boney M, well, that’s a memory which won’t fade fast.
Equally memorable was my first trip to Buddha Bar on Calle Foch, a rough, gay joint brimming with teenagers grinding to Latin pop. It had ‘edge’ in spades and was so unique, I just stood there watching the action, soaking up the vibes.
I’ve always been a city boy, bored by the country and thrilled by neon and nightlife. One day, while trekking along the Rio Pita, one of our guides suggested stroking the moss on a tree, then smelling my damp hand. It was prehistoric perfume, the essence of freshness and primordial flora. Eau de Dinosaur, if you like. That made me tearful too, it was so beautiful and alien to me.
Obviously, I saw lots of films. No, I didn’t do heaps of uncut, super cheap cocaine, I was far too busy stroking trees and marveling at mountains. There’s no doubt about it, Ecuador changed me. There’s more to life than discos. The world’s much bigger than you think. Nature can get you high too.
Most of all, the trip restored my faith in humanity. The El Lugar Sin Limites team welcomed me into their homes and lives, looking after me like they would a slightly dozy sister.
The Ecuadorian people were a friendly joy, amused by this gringo’s crappy Spanish and clumsy ways. Obiously, there’s more to life than London and you’re never too old, poor or weary for an adventure. I thought otherwise and thankfully, was proved wrong. Te quiero Ecuador.
First Published: QX Magazine Issue 828 January 2011