I’ve come to realize that the best way to gain an authentic understanding of a city is through local recommendations.
It’s not like this realization hit me in a flash (though retrospectively it seems pretty damn obvious), but rather that living as an expat has opened my eyes to how much tourists just do NOT see.
Following the advice of every “Top 10” list in the blogosphere is still only going to get you a tourist experience, unless it was written by a bonafide local… which is rare.
The truth is, only a local truly knows a city. Only a local knows the nuances, the secret spots, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that aren’t on TripAdvisor. A tourist – and hard for me to admit but most expats – won’t ever reach that level of intimacy with a city or a country.
Me and Paula, one of my lovely local guides
The day started with visits to local artisans in their respective shops, selling wares and services that tourists would otherwise overlook. No alpaca-print sweaters or Galapagos keychains on offer!
The first shop, a retouching specialist, is home to decades of family tradition, repairing and restoring important religious figurines and family heirlooms.
the retouching shop sign
But the “retouching” work goes further. Not only does the celebrated shop owner fix the blemished surfaces and broken pieces of dolls — he extends his craft to the human imperfections as well. He covers up bruises and scars using thick flesh-colored paint, and is especially popular with young men who’ve been in drunken fights.
Business was hopping on a Monday, with a steady stream of clientele freshly battered from the weekend. [no one consented to a photo]
Next, we moved onto a different sort of healing, one that goes further than skin-deep.
While indigenous and folk remedies had been snubbed in decades past (in favor of more modern solutions), there’s a renewed interest in natural healing and prevention throughout Quito… and in my experience, the world as well.
Local shops offering herbal remedies are gaining in popularity and reputation both among locals and even visitors. One of the most requested services at this herb-focused shop is the limpieza, or cleansing. The cleansing gets rid of bad energies and anxieties, and is especially recommended for fussy babies.
with the herbal extraordinaire herself
I tried out the remedy myself, which involved being whacked rather firmly with stinging nettles. I can’t say for certain whether it cleared my energies, but it definitely left a burning, itching rash for days. I wouldn’t recommend it before a flight.
More appealing to me was the next shop, which offered internal and external herbal remedies consisting mainly of local plants. The one I tried was consumed via a steeped tea to which lemon and honey are added. It is among the most popular concoctions and known as the “agua vida”, or life water, which many locals stop in to grab on their way to work. It was tasty enough that I purchased my own, a hefty sack for just $1.50.
one herbal remedy I tried (the tea) and one I didn’t
We moved onto more spiritual matters, visiting a store that sells dresses and clothing for Christ figures. Ecuadorians largely converted to Catholicism with the arrival of the Spanish, and to this day over 80% of the inhabitants still adhere to the religion. The shop offers varying sizes of clothing for varying budgets, from very affordable for the common person (a few dollars or less) to elaborate hand-sewn garments for the large figures of churches, with sky-high budgets.
the master gown maker and one of her detailed creations
One of my favorite shops (and also my favorite shopkeeper) was the hattery. The shopkeeper patiently explained each of the unique hats and their respective indigenous group and purpose. Every distinct culture (of which there are many in Ecuador) has its own distinct hat, making the hatmaker a sort of hat anthropologist.
the coolest hat-maker on the planet
Maybe my favorite part of the day was when the hatmaker described the use of masks throughout Ecuadorian culture, including for placing on effigies and burning them, as well as in festivals and parades. He makes masks of all sorts, with political masks being especially popular, with both local politicians and international ones. Donald Trump is a top seller of the season!
Another top contender for the favorite moment of the day was experiencing the changing of the guard. My guide, Dolores, was an absolute expert at where to stand and when for the best photos.
the band for the changing of the guard
This spectacular experience occurs every Monday, and preserves the pageantry of royalty in times of democracy. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to witness the President of Ecuador appearing to wave to the people. I wasn’t that lucky, but I did get to see the Vice President and many important members of the Ecuadorian government, along with the week’s exceptional students, who are honored participants chosen from local schools for their dedication to their studies.
After so much learning and excitement, it was time for lunch at Casa Gangotena. The three course meal was delicious (and vegetarian for me!) but the most enjoyable aspect had to be the discussion with my guide Dolores. The quiet atmosphere and leisure time gave me the opportunity to discuss Ecuadorian issues interesting to me, including the history and arrival of slaves in Ecuador.
the main course at Casa Gangotena restaurant, vegetarian!
It’s easy enough to use Wikipedia and Google to find out facts and dates. But I prefer personal perspectives, and the one-on-one design of the tour afforded the ability to ask questions and hear opinions.
Lunch was definitely not the end of the tour. From there, we toured important local sites, including the church of La Compania and Casa del Alabado, a historical museum.
the spectacular courtyard of the church, and one of the strange and ancient figurines of the museum
We finished the tour with a visit to a local chocolate shop, featuring hand-made, local Ecuadorian chocolate. I’ve visited a cacao farm, but have never seen the actual process of turning cacao into creamy chocolate for consumption. It was interesting, and delicious (and the PERFECT choice for gifts)!
enjoying the chocolate creation process at Chez Tiff
Without a doubt, the Live Quito Like a Local tour was the most informative I’ve ever experienced (and I have been on a LOT of tours!). In the future, I’ll definitely seek out similar tours in other cities that I visit. The personalized information and ability to ask questions of a local provided me a more in-depth experience of Quito and a better understanding of the culture than I ever could have hoped to accomplish with nothing but a map, top 10 lists, and even Google to guide me.
Necessary Information for the Quito Like a Local Tour
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