24 Hours in Historic Quito: A Guide to one perfect day in Ecuador's Capital
Our New Book
As I step outside the hotel, the regal mist-shrouded mountains that surround Quito take me aback. This is the world's second highest capital, meandering along a narrow plateau at an elevation of 3,000 meters (about 9843 feet).
I feel like I could almost reach out and touch the snow-dusted bottle green Andean peaks that tower over the city. Winding roads slither up the mountainsides to even higher suburban barrios.
As I amble toward the city center, I'm diverted into crowded parks where couples stroll arm-in-arm, families linger over picnic lunches, and macho young futbol players re-create the World Cup final. Rows of craft stalls in one park offer up ponchos, alpaca blankets, carvings, and panama hats. At a bustling art market grinning artists proudly beckon me to inspect enormous oil paintings of colourful Quito street scenes.
Quito is a World Heritage CityI'm starting to wonder whether The Old Town can live up to what I've already seen, but my concerns are soon put to rest. Vibrant plazas, exquisite colonial buildings, and riotous traffic snarls that wind up and down narrow cobblestone roads combine to make the Centro Historico a total assault on the senses. It's no wonder that UNESCO designated Quito a World Heritage site in 1978, one of the first cities to receive that distinction.
At the Plaza Grande, the focal point of the Old Town, I buy an ice cream cone and get my bearings. Festooned in palm trees and encircled by beautifully restored historic structures, the plaza oozes chocolate box charm. Native women crouch over makeshift stoves and sell fried corn. Boys with shoeshine kits search out potential customers while vendors in felt bowler hats embellished with peacock feathers hawk everything from postcards to toilet paper. The scent of warm empanadas rising from a bashful young girl's straw basket proves irresistible, as is her captivating smile.
The Ecuadorian flag proudly waves over the Palacio del Gobierno, the Presidential Palace, on the plaza's north side. I sneak a peak inside some of the ornately decorated staterooms, but El Presidente is nowhere in sight. On the plaza's southern flank, Quito's cathedral is not as lavish as other Old Town churches, but the paintings inside that were created by indigenous artists from the 16th to 18th Century are mesmerizing. The depiction of the Last Supper was given a distinct Ecuadorian flavour, with Christ and his disciples feasting on national specialties like chicha (a fermented corn drink), humitas (corn dumplings) and cuy (guinea pig).
From the Plaza Grande I stroll two blocks northwest to La Merced, an 18th Century church that contains riveting paintings of nearby volcanoes erupting over the church roofs of colonial Quito. No one has climbed the lofty tower to ring the bell for over two hundred years, as it is believed to be possessed by el Diablo, the devil, and I have no desire to be the first. After all, who am I to disrespect local beliefs?
As I stroll the cobbled roadways and wallow in the colonial ambiance of the Old Town, it's hard to believe that this was once a place of rampant crime and crumbling architecture. Guidebooks once warned of gangs of pickpockets and urged tourists to avoid the area after dark. But in the last several years Quito has invested hundreds of millions of dollars restoring plazas and ancient structures while beefing up security. Between 2000 and 2008 tourism revenue nearly doubled to US$766 million. Today I spot turistas aplenty, and nearly every street is patrolled by a member of the policia, many of whom are women.
At the Plaza San Francisco, a block south of La Merced, I'm treated to sweeping views of El Panecillo (the Little Bread Loaf), a small hill to the south. An enormous statue of La Virgen de Quito that watches over the city from the top is one of the city's major landmarks. Sporting a crown of stars and angel wings, Quitenos proudly boast that she is the world's only winged Madonna. The views of the city and surrounding mountains from El Panecillo's summit are said to be remarkable, but I decide to save that outing for another day.
From the Plaza de San Francisco I can also view the Moorish-inspired green and gold domes of La Compania de Jesus two blocks east. The church's plain grey exterior doesn't prepare me for what's inside. The interior practically glows from the gold leaf that covers several walls, while other surfaces are painted bright red as a reminder to us that Christ gave his blood. Carvings of Ecuadorian plants and indigenous faces are imbedded in the ornate pillars throughout. The only sound is the low hum of locals kneeling in silent prayer. Quitenos claim this is Ecuador's most beautiful church, but for my money its one of the most stunning I've witnessed anywhere.
When I leave the church I find that the clear indigo sky has abruptly clouded into an ominous grey. The temperature has plummeted ten degrees and the dank smell of moisture hangs in the air. I consider retreating back to my hotel, but there is one more place that I wish to see before I leave the Centro Historico.
The slender cobblestone walkway known as La Ronda is one of the most recent Old Town areas to undergo transformation. The enchanting 17th century red-tiled roof buildings that line the road look as if they've escaped from a fairy tale. Placards on the walls relate in Spanish of the famous artists and writers who once lived in them. Pots of giant crimson flowers spill from wrought iron balconies overhead. An old woman stirs an enormous vat of canelazo, a brew made with warm orange juice, cinnamon, and sugar cane alcohol. The sound of live folk music and the pungent scent of Ecuadorian cuisine wafts from sidewalk cafes. Just before the deluge starts, I duck into one of those cafes and wait out the downpour over a hearty lunch of seco de chivo (goat stew) and locro de papa, (potato soup mixed with avocado and cheese). The rain stops momentarily. Then, to my astonishment, marble-sized hailstones pound the awning above me. This is the rainy season so I expected precipitation, but I never imagined myself sitting in a cafe twenty kilometers from the equator while I watched the ground outside turn completely white. The other customers, who appear to be local business people, pay no attention, as if this is a common occurrence.
Twenty minutes later the hailstorm suddenly halts, the clouds vanish, and el sol re-appears to caress the gorgeous city once again. I stride back to the Folklore Hotel along the freshly cleansed streets. Bernardo, the hotel's affable curly-haired owner, greets me at the door. "Tonight," he grins, "we will have a party here for my cousin's birthday. You will join us, I hope."
Of course I accept his invitation. The party takes place in the restaurant of the converted colonial mansion. Aside from the birthday girl, I meet Bernardo's wife, four additional cousins, two nieces, three nephews, and an older brother, all of whom are warm and welcoming. Bernardo is the only one who is fluent in English, but between my muy poquito espanol, their little bit English, and mucho alcohol, we manage to communicate.
I don't know if it's the altitude, all the exercise I've had today, or Bernardo mixing those cuba libres too damn strong, but after a couple of hours I'm done in. I stagger up to my room and collapse on the bed. At this moment I have no idea what the next day will bring but I'm sure I'll figure it out in the morning while I devour my huevos revueltos and Daniela's bunny rabbit nibbles at my toes. Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.
Read more about Central and South American travel
Rick Neal is a free-lance writer living in Vancouver, Canada. He has travelled to Mexico, Central America, Turkey, China, and Vietnam. He hopes to make South America his next destination. You can read about his wanderings on his blog http://www.rickneal.ca/travelblog/M/a>