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  • Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism will not be citing Hunter Thompson’s assessment of Quito anytime soon. In an article from April of 1963, he refers to the Ecuadorian capital’s “tomb-like dullness.” In an earlier letter, he writes it off with several other cities as "a pure, dull hell.”

    I got into Quito late last night, following seventeen hours of border finagling, taxi connections, and two cannonball-run Andean bus rides. I'd planned to spend the day inside, doing some lighting housekeeping before heading to the Amazon Basin tomorrow, but my curiosity got the better of me. Thompson made Quito out to be a slate-gray citadel of tedium. With its businesses, vendors, and many municipal services closed for the Sabbath, I figured that Sunday afternoon would find the city at its most tedious.

    Far from it. In the Plaza de la Independencia and the Old Town, I found a carnival of musicians, vendors, dancers, and the occasional howling street prophet. Families roamed the streets with ice cream and balloons, and hordes of cyclists whizzed by on auto-free streets for the city's weekly Ciclopaseo. I bought a green popsicle made of a fruit I couldn't pronounce and listened to a pasillo band in front of the Palacio de Gobierno.

    I'd mentally written off Thompson as a grouch when I passed the Centro Cultural Metropolitano, showing an exhibit of street-level photos covering the city's history. I headed straight for the galleries dedicated to the early 1960s, and truth be told, things really did look a bit duller back then. None of the images came close to the kind of freewheeling street party going on outside. Quiteños seemed to do a lot of marching in 1962 — military marching, marching for suffrage, marching for the Holy Virgin. And if the photos were any indication, the streets of the capital were filled with stern men in fedoras for most of the mid-century. Often as not, they were carrying newspapers and scowling.

    It was worth keeping in mind, I thought, Paul Simon's adage that "everything looks worse in black and white." It's also worth remembering that Thompson was "medically forbidden to touch so much as a single beer" during his stay in Quito, thanks to a stomach bug he picked up in Colombia. This can affect your outlook on a strange town.

    Today, the city is relaxed enough that a pair of enterprising lads sold me three Budweisers for two dollars, despite an official Sunday ban on alcohol sales. I'll be back in Quito at the end of the week, following a brief trip to la selva, and I'm looking forward to getting a better handle on how the city has evolved since Thompson's gloomy visit.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.

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