By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
I really should have known about this already. On the last day of my month-long trip to Ecuador, I had one day to explore Quito. The sprawling UNESCO World Heritage city confused me. Where to begin? Googling among the many tours and options I stumbled upon Free Walking Tours. “Free? What’s the catch?” I wondered. But reviewers wrote about the guides’ passion, authenticity and knowledge as they explored “some great places…that we wouldn’t have otherwise come across.” I figured I had nothing to lose. I could just split off if it was a waste of time.
Apparently I was late to the game here because at the appointed hour I was one of 42 travelers who assembled in the lobby of a lively youth hostel. Two young local guys welcomed us in excellent English. Half of us went with Betto, a ponytailed Ecuadorian of contagious energy. I was the only traveler from the US although everyone spoke English. The first thing he showed us was how to safely cross a street. I wish I had learned it when I’d arrived: you look the driver in the eye and give them a forceful thumbs-up. Magically, the cars part like the Red Sea.
First stop was the city’s central market. Surrounded by towering mounds of tropical produce, street food, heaps of roses and hooks of fresh meat, Betto plucked out unfamiliar fruits. He introduced us to babacoa which resembles a papaya, a tomate de arbol also called tamarillo and a naranilla that looked like an orange until he cut it open to reveal its green, bitter fruit. Suddenly more informed, we ordered blended juices and took a few photos. I was amused by some of the menu translations that hung above the stalls: “Potatoes with booklet”, “Rice with leather”…
For three hours we walked through the historic district as he told stories. Betto’s pride in his city was evident. Ecuador was the first South American country to declare independence from Spain. They’ve welcomed 400,000 Venezuelan refugees. Their instant citizenship for immigrants includes free health care and has made it the #1 place in the world for US ex-pats according to International Living Magazine. He spoke candidly about the country’s political upheavals. Some of its 44 presidents served only a few days or months. One was air lifted out of the country as thousands of demonstrators stormed the palace. I was fascinated to learn the history of the dollarization of the economy. Since 2000, US currency is the only legal tender in the country, a controversial situation that our country had a strong hand in creating.
After a coffee break, we sat on the steps of a cathedral that was once an Incan temple. “For Incas, Quito was like Mecca, like Jerusalem,” Betto said. Because the city is 10,000 feet in altitude and at the widest point on the planet, the solstice is particularly evident here. There are no obstructions to the sun’s rays and no shadows. Natives still blow conch shells to commemorate it. All around us brightly clothed, indigenous Ecuadorians mingled with tourists and businessmen as past and present melded.
I had the impression from my trip that Ecuador was experiencing a surge of grass-roots entrepreneurism and Betto was an example. “Would you say that Ecuador is prospering now?” I asked him. A new president had just been elected and people were hopeful. “Have you seen anybody sleeping in the streets while you’ve been here?” I hadn’t. “How many do you see in your big cities?” he responded. Point taken.
“Free” really means “pay what you will”. At the end of the tour, Betto gently suggested that the usual tip was $10 to $20. The website explained, “…the power is yours. You decide what the tour was worth or what you can afford, if anything.” Almost everyone slipped a bill or two into his bag. With over 20 people on my tour and two tours a day, he probably does well. I hope so. He certainly earned it.
I was amazed to discover that there are free walking tours in hundreds of cities all over the world. Even in Charleston. In Prague they “mix fantasy fairy-tale settings and modernity”; in Poznan, Poland you can meet the city’s “fearless pranger” and Bamber Lady; in New York you can choose from 30 free tours that cover everything from Harlem to Ground Zero. There are pub crawls, bike tours, ghost stories, history and art tours …all free. “The mission is to make real local culture and authentic, quality experiences easily accessible for more travelers,” Freetour.com says. A traveler’s review puts it this way: “Since I discovered the free tours, I do it every time I travel and it’s always really interesting.” Now that I know, I will too.
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see www.peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com