MARIA DELIA CARDENAS
It certainly seems like María Delia Cárdenas knows everything there is to know about Metropolitan Touring. She hasn’t even made herself comfortable, when suddenly she turns to me and asks, “do you know what INTRAV was?” I haven’t even had the time to present myself, but she’d obviously been briefed that I’m here to learn about Metropolitan Touring, and María Delia has set out to start from the beginning.
“InTrav was a company that sent 13 back-to-back groups of 175 guests each, to Quito, in 1968, from January to April. This was before Galápagos. Probably the single most important event in the history of tourism in Ecuador. At least it was the initial push that sent the ball rolling.” I’d already read Eduardo Proaño’s entire memoires and had come across the unusual acronym, Intrav, paying little to no attention to it. I knew that with María Delia, all I had to do was listen… and learn.
“They were different times then… and Ecuador wasn’t even on the map… on any map!” Venturing into tourism, for Eduardo Proaño at the time, seemed like venturing into space science, and I guess Intrav was like the telescope. Without it, it would have been probably impossible to succeed.
The experience does sound like a mess. Something no one in their right mind would really want to experience. At the same time, however, it seemed to possess that energy and enthusiasm of things that, on paper may seem too large or complex to handle, but become successful just because you get through them alive… These close to 200 foreigners would flock into Hotel Quito one fine morning and roam around the lobby trying to figure out what to do during their stay in Ecuador. Metropolitan Touring set it up for guests to have a choice between a city tour of Quito, a visit to the Equatorial Monument, or a visit to the “tienta”, an hacienda that Eduardo Proaño’s brother and María Delia’s uncle were renting out in the province of Cotopaxi, featuring a bullring and a large dining hall fit for a whole lot of tourists. Imagine the logistics. María Delia insists it wasn’t chaos at all. It was clockwork. The passengers were picked up at the airport… well, right at the landing strip as they walked out of the plane, where a tour leader would give a Metropolitan Touring dispatcher a briefcase full of passports and while he went through immigration, the visitors were transferred to the hotel and sent directly to their rooms, where keys were waiting at the door. They could choose an individual program or the entire package. City tours were amazingly complete. In one day you’d visit Plaza Grande, La Compañía, San Francisco, Santo Domingo, La Ronda, Panecillo and at some point after Intrav, even Mama Cuchara would be squeezed in, and its souvenir store Akios, a family-run shop that set up mid-afternoon snacks for visitors. And then some time at the hotel, perhaps a walk down Colón to Olga Fisch. Today, you couldn’t get half of those sights in a day!
María Delia entered the company unsure if it was quite what she wanted to do. Her parents were close friends with Eduardo Proaño; they even vacationed together in Salinas, a beach town near Guayaquil. Eduardo felt she would be perfect for his company… she spoke English, she was intelligent, a risk-taker and a great person to talk to. Moreover, he trusted her completely. María Delia, back on vacation from her studies abroad, eventually decided to give it a try, leading tours with the very first incoming groups. They arrived on large Grace Line cargo boats every Monday, which mainly were taking bananas back to the States, but also brought some 30 to 40 visitors. María Delia showed them around: Guayaquil (where she lived at the time) and then inland to Santo Domingo de los Colorados, to visit the native Tsáchila population. The group stayed at excellent Hotel Zaracay for the night, and reached Quito the next day. It was ‘all good’ by the time Eduardo set up a receptive operation office in Guayaquil, hoping María Delia could be in charge of it. However, she was about to marry a Quiteño, and decided to move to the capital. Eduardo resolved to send his nephew Vicente to Guayaquil and received María Delia with open arms. As long as she wouldn’t have to work in the office, and could take vacations when her kids were out from school, she was happy. And to this day, almost five decades later, she’s still guiding for the company.
So, as was said at the beginning, she’s seen it all. She knows how things ran in the seventies, how things evolved in the nineties, how things changed when Grupo Futuro took over in 2001. She remembers the strikes that would block destinations for days, the Flotel and the powerful currents of the Napo, the train and the small, beautiful villages of the Andes, the Rincón de Francia in its heyday, the old Hotel Colón, the undisputable best lunch in town at the time, and of course countless guests, mostly fun, with a proportionately miniscule number of grouches… She’s been around before Galapagos meant anything to Metropolitan Touring!
“I went to Galapagos for the first time before it was a destination. I went to see what Eduardo was raving about. I hopped on one of the chartered flights and got to Baltra and looked around, saw the heaps of rock, and the garbage (which included refrigerators and kitchinettes) the US Navy left behind on the beach, and came back to Guayaquil in horror, thinking Eduardo must be crazy! Galápagos? There’s nothing there’. When I confronted him, all he said was, ‘Next week, you’re going back… You’re going for the entire week…’ I returned and had to put my foot in my mouth! It was, truly, the most spectacular destination anyone could imagine.”
When María Delia turned 65, she went over to Roque Sevilla’s office and told him, “I’m here to tell you that I’m officially retiring.” Roque looked at her for a second or two and uttered: “you can’t do that! You can’t go yet! You still have many more years in you… why would you ever leave now!“ Which got her to thinking, ‘you know, he may be right. I’ll quit the day I feel that going to work is a drag… the day I say ‘oh no, not this again’, that day, I’ll leave. But that day hasn’t come yet, so here I am.”