It looked like any other gondola, or what they always looked like in the movies anyway, I had never been on a real gondola before. The closest I had come was the ski lift at Adventureland Amusement Park or the Skyfari at the Henry Doorly Zoo. It seemed mostly safe, only swaying in the stronger breezes as we ascended the mountain. Not that I cared that much, I was too busy trying to take in the view behind me, below me, and above me. The thickening golden rays of the waning afternoon sun streamed through the valley below, once again highlighting the many colors of the city.
I had to crane my neck to see around the initials surrounded by a heart that two (what I assumed to be young) lovers had so thoughtfully left behind. Looking down from the gondola, I watched as the thick forest eventually became stubby shrubs kept company by the increasing fog of clouds as the Earth and the sky met in a kind of No Man’s Land. A particularly dense cloud blocked the view above me as we climbed still higher.
We passed through the cloud and arrived at another building similar to the one at the base of the mountain where some friendly workers helped us out of the gondola. The first thing I noticed was how cold it was. We had just come from the botanical gardens, so our light layers were no match for the thinner atmosphere and biting gusts of wind.
But the view at 13,287 feet was worth it.
I was looking at the heart of the second largest city I had ever been to, but not even Willis (formerly Sears) Tower could give me a view of the entire city. Most of the buildings lacked any defining features, in fact, they all started to bled together, separated only by their blockish outlines. They reminded me of a three-year-old playing with Legos, all of the bricks stuck to one another in no recognizable pattern or shape, just a clump. A multicolored hodgepodge that was impressive nonetheless in its own right.
There were many trails leading away from the main building that housed the main lookout and restaurant. Some of the trails went back down the mountain (a favorite of extreme mountain bikers if you’re looking for an even more active adventure) and some that lead still further upward. We picked one of the trails at random and passed by a shoot that lead to one of the rugged biking trails. We wandered further along and the dirt path eventually became paved brick that led to a little chapel tucked away on the back side of the mountains. As with all of the other houses of worship that we had seen, it had plenty of intricate statues and paintings, as well as a generous amount of gold accents.
We veered off the brick path and climbed a steep hill through some shrubs and taller grasses to another dirt path once again along the edge of the mountain face. The cold and wind were even more dramatic here and the air was noticeably thinner. I had not had any trouble with the altitude so far, but others in the group were starting to feel it. Still, we pressed on, going higher and higher. Smears of white and gray against the multicolored basin holding the city became more frequent as clouds rolled in.
Our last stop was a swing perched on one of the highest points of the mountain. Here, as the strands of stray hair tickled my burning cheeks, I remembered all those times in childhood when we would have competitions to see who could get the highest or jump off the furthest. Opening my eyes to the mountains, the clouds, and Quito, I could not believe I was here. In a place that I never imagined myself, not because I had something against Ecuador, but because it was never in “The Plan”. And that is one of the most beautiful things about travel, it gives you an exciting excuse to abandon “The Plan” every once in a while. Who knows, it may even rewrite a little bit of the road map.
As the sun began to set, we made our way back to the main building and the TelefériQo. As fate would have it, our timing could not have been more perfect. We had a clear view of the city going up and the wave of city lights on our way back down into the settling dusk.
Pro Tip: When traveling in Quito, keep your time in mind. Not only the time of day, but the day of the week. On Sundays shops, restaurants, and services like Uber tend to shut down early by American standards, often late afternoon or early evening.