Quito – a city for everyone

5 Feb

We tapped our toes as we listened to the blind accordion player who stood under an arched alcove belonging to a brightly painted colonial mansion. We dug around in our pockets for some money and the coins which made a clinking sound at the bottom of his collection pot made first him, and then us, smile. We turned on the cobbles and wandered through Quito’s UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘old town’. It was a maze of restored colonial buildings, grand churches and fully functioning monasteries and convents. We passed some of the country’s best museums and grand squares where indigenous women carrying large bundles rested their weary bones on benches. Mouth-watering smells wafted from doorways of family run cafes where cauldrons of soup bubbled and cooks carved chunks of succulent meat from whole roasted pigs. Market stall vendors shouted in our ears as we passed and we declined repeated offers to sell us everything and anything. We felt like we’d stepped back in time with frenetic city life continuing uninterrupted as it had done for hundreds of years. The city belonged to no one and everyone – the tourists, the beggars, the nuns, the indigenous locals, the flea ridden dogs, the drivers of the smoke belching buses, the dirty street kids and the chefs preparing Ecuador’s finest cuisine – all existing side-by-side to make Quito one of Latin America’s most captivating capitals.

Quito, surrounded by green hills and striking volcanos, is the second biggest city in Ecuador, behind coastal Guayaquil, and its 2.4 million population is spread out along a deep valley. The city is split roughly into three main areas – the south is a working class residential area, the centre is the historic core and to the north, the new town is home to international businesses in modern sky scrapers, fancy shopping malls, fine dining restaurants and upper class housing.

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At the heart of Quito lies the old town – a labyrinth of colonial buildings, atmospheric alleyways and formidable plazas. In its centre, the palm tree filled Plaza Grande is where we started our tour of the city and where we returned various times throughout our days to relax on a bench in the sun, to listen to the musicians who often played there or to eat something from one of the many cheap eateries. Around the plaza there are some really smart buildings – the functioning governmental palace is a low-level building painted all in white, the cathedral where Mariscal Sucre, a prominent man in Quito’s fight for independence, is buried, and the Archbishops palace, which is now a colourful and vibrant row of shops.

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The old town has been beautifully restored but we were pleased it retained a working class buzz, with locals living their lives alongside snap-happy tourists. The old town is completely closed to cars on a Sunday between approximately 8am to 2pm and this makes it a great time to explore. We considered joining the locals on bikes, roller blades and skateboards to see the sights but instead we casually ambled around. At other times during the week the streets felt much crazier as cars and buses belched black fumes into the air and exasperated police men blew their whistles frantically to direct the traffic down narrow one-way streets. We were often relieved to discover pedestrianised walk ways and calm, traffic free plazas.

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Churches and convents also offered some quiet space away from the bustle. Ecuador’s most decorated church and a definite favourite amongst Quitenos (people from Quito), who call it Ecuador’s most beautiful, is La Compania de Jesus. The Jesuit church was completed in 1768 after taking a staggering 163 years to build (now that’s faith for you!) and once inside we were blinded by the elaborate decoration of the walls, ceilings and altars which had been gilded with seven tonnes of gold.

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Another impressive sight is the enormous plaza and monastery of San Francisco. With jagged mountains as a backdrop and tall, brilliant-white towers, we had to keep reminding ourselves to look where we were going. The monastery is the largest colonial structure in Quito and the oldest church dating from 1534 when construction commenced. The colonial art found in the monastery and other religious buildings within Quito was produced by local artists trained by the Spanish Conquistadors. The artwork portrays traditional christian concepts but with subtle elements of their own indigenous beliefs, creating a unique form of religious art known as the ‘Quito school of art’.

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It would be very easy to over-do it on churches in a city like Quito but the fascinating living history of Monastery Santa Catalina encouraged us to take a peak. This is a fully functioning convent where, since its creation in 1592, all nuns entering the order have had to dedicate their lives to prayers and quiet contemplation for 23 hours a day, every day, for 5 years! They are allowed 1 hour per day to socialise with the other nuns and to fit in as many sinful activities as they can! The nuns also make all sorts of natural products and herbal remedies (they’ve got the time!) which can be purchased from a small curtained window to keep the nuns hidden. We imagined that the hard cash must be used to buy the odd bottle of gin or packet of cigarettes to wile away those lonely evenings!

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A major landmark which can been seen from all over Quito’s old town is called ‘El Panecillo’. Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro has the world-famous ‘Sugar Loaf mountain’ and Ecuador’s Quito has…the not so famous ‘Little Bread Loaf mountain’. At the summit stands a grand statue of the Virgin of Quito who protects all from harm and has a wonderful panorama over the city.

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Some of the best views can be seen from the top of the Teleferico. The modern lift system, like those you’d find in a ski resort, takes passengers 2.5 kilometres in bubble cars from 2,850 metres to a breath-taking and ear popping 4,100 metres on Cruz Loma mountain.

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High above the hub-bub of the city’s streets, the air was fresh and the sun felt strong. The noise of the car horns had been replaced by the sound of the wind rushing past our ears and the gentle clunk of the mechanical lift bringing more people to the top.

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It’s possible to hike a further 600 metres up a steep incline in roughly 3 hours to the top of rugged Rucu Pichincha (4,700 metres) for even more toe tingling panoramas but we were content to purchase take away coffees from a small cafe near the top of the Teleferico and saunter around at our leisure to various viewing points.

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There’s a peculiar habit amongst many young travellers that we’ve found has started to rub off on us – and this ‘habit’ is called ‘getting air’. This involves taking a photograph following a countdown of 3-2-1 where the subject, usually always in a stunning location, performs a leap into the air with arms and legs flailing in different directions and a silly grin on their faces. As we looked at the city below us we thought how cool it would be to soar high above the buildings like a bird and with a bit of photo trickery we knew anything was possible.

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I made Dan jump over and over again, partly to get the shot right and partly for the fun of seeing Dan flushed in the face and out of breath. We weren’t convinced that Dan resembled a bird, a plane or superman…but we had good fun trying!

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We often hear people who live in big cities say that they wish they could be transported to the countryside in the click of a finger and the Teleferico is Quito’s solution to this. We met an Ecuadorian couple in their late 60’s who remembered family outings at weekends where whole days were spent climbing these hills and now they marvelled at the technology that could bring them to the top of the mountain after breakfast and still have them back in the city in time for lunch.

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On a clear day it’s possible to see a striking line of snow-covered volcanos, including the perfectly cone-shaped Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest peak, but unfortunately for us, the clouds were low in the sky so we didn’t get to view this spectacle. However, in their own right, the clouds which hung over the city and swarmed around the mountains at our backs, made for a dramatic atmosphere. The colourful city buildings glowed even brighter below a predominantly grey sky and the tufts of yellow grass leading up the mountainside was in stark contrast to the dark rocks that jutted out through the clouds at angles.

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Another fantastic viewpoint in the city, albeit a nerve-wracking one, is from the giant towers of Basilica del Voto Nacional. The cathedral was built in 1926 and is decorated in striking gothic style with gruesome gargoyles. We took a moment to admire its huge stained windows and then took to the stairs.

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After 3 flights of stairs it was necessary to cross a long, rickety wooden plank which spanned the cathedral’s roof.

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At the end, a set of steep and narrow metal stairs took us to the open roof. The views over the old town were wonderful. We peered down onto a sea of brightly painted houses with terracotta roofs and white-washed churches.

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We spied into hidden courtyards and roof top terraces. Either side of the cathedral, which sits roughly in the centre of the valley, buildings and parks rose on the hills and it felt like we could reach out and touch them. The statues and gargoyles looked even uglier up close and as we pulled faces beside them, it was worryingly difficult to tell us apart. We laughed whilst repeating our mother’s warnings when we were children – ‘If the wind changes you’ll stay like that!’

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The final climb to the top of the towers was on two metal ladders with cages around, bolted to the side of the masonry. Looking at the amount of stone which had already crumbled from the cathedrals’ walls and was left lying on the roof below, Dan downright refused to go any further for fear of his life but curiosity got the better of me and I was soon hanging off the first rung of the ladder with shaky legs! Ignoring any health and safety briefing I may have had to endure in a previous life, I gritted my teeth and climbed with my best cat-burglar skills.

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The part that really got my heart pumping was turning onto the second ladder, looking down for a split second and realising that I was climbing up the outside of the tower with nothing but the concrete pavement X metres below me! The views were out of this world and well worth the climb we’ve now dubbed ‘The climb of death’.

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I could see the whole city stretching out like a miniature toy-town below and the outline of far off mountains and volcanos on the horizon. If only I’d had a parachute – it might have been easier than going back down that rickety ladder!

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We had the pleasure of spending Dan’s birthday in Quito so, following a relaxing morning wandering the old town streets and stopping for coffee and cake, we headed to the new town to do something we’re good at – drinking! As our staying power isn’t what it used to be, we traded late night bars and dancing into the wee small hours for an afternoon pub crawl followed by dinner in a rustic Italian restaurant.

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The Mariscal area of Quito’s new town is where the young and trendy come to party. From central Plaza Foch, streets filled with international restaurants, stylish bars and pumping clubs head in all directions. Frequented by party-hungry backpackers and a new generation of progressive and hip Ecuadorians, the bars in the area are rowdy affairs where dancing on the table tops is just part of the fun.

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We enjoyed small bottled ‘Club’ beers in an arty and hip bar with cut outs from fashion magazines on the walls, followed by a pint in a traditional Irish pub with dark wood furniture, a patterned carpet and Guinness in bottles (but they were charging a whopping 12 USD per bottle). Our favourite bar of the afternoon was a micro-brewery serving light and dark ales and where we indulged in a selection from the extensive menu.

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Several groups of locals had ordered ‘giraffes’ of beer to share and excitedly poured more rounds until the long, thin neck was fully drained and they were starting to slump. The place had a laid back vibe and we grooved to a selection of 80’s pop classics whilst each beer order increased in size and frequency! Dan was in his element!

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We left the Mariscal at around 7pm before it all got too messy and headed back to the old town for dinner. We were surprised to discover that Quito’s reputation as a dangerous city is increasing and after dark certain streets in the old town are completely deserted. We weren’t sure if we found the police presence on the streets reassuring or unnerving but it was positive to see the city working towards improvements. Certain old town enclaves buck the trend and still pull in the crowds most nights such as the traditional folk or jazz evenings on Calle Ronda or the local and slightly bohemian district of San Blas, where we indulged in thin and crispy pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven at family run and originally named Cafe San Blas.

We were pleased to find that Quito wasn’t short on green spaces. Alameda Park and Ejido Park begin at the north-eastern side of the old town and link it to the new town forming a good spot for picnics or a game of frisbee. At weekends, art and craft vendors sell their wares and bring a funky feeling to the area. Our favourite park was Itchimbia which was easily reached by taking a number of stairs from San Blas.

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The park, set high on a hill east of the old town, has great views over the city and well maintained walking and cycle trails.

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Groups of teenagers played impromptu games of football and couples strolled hand-in-hand enjoying the sun whilst eating ice-cream.

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The park’s cultural centre has changing exhibits but it was the outside that really impressed us with its big, glass windows and intricate iron work – it looked like it has been transported here from Victorian England.

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To escape the city for the day we decided to make a trip to see the equator line at Mitad del Mundo just 22 kilometres outside of Quito. We took Quito’s very convenient and efficient metro north to the end of the line and transferred to a bus which took us the final leg. As we’d picked a Sunday to visit, Quitenos and tourists alike packed into the park and traditional folk bands entertained the masses in the central plaza area which hosted overpriced restaurants and tacky gift shops. Despite a tall stone tower marking the boundary between the north and south hemisphere’s, we couldn’t help but feel an initial sense of disappointment as we stood next to a solid line on the ground. We were expecting to feel something…perhaps a strange magnetic power to wash over us…but nothing!

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However, as Dan and I stood in different halves of the planet and shook hands across the line we started to feel a slight tingling and as we jumped back and forth from one side of the world (line) to the other, we realised it was actually quite good fun.

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After our visit to Mitad del Mundo we discovered a shocking fact! The discovery and mapping of the equator line can be traced back to a French expedition in 1736 led by an explorer called Charles-Marie de la Comdamine and although this was an incredible feat at the time, GPS technology has taught us that they were in fact 250 metres off the mark. The miscalculations of the French meant that the thirty metre monument we visited at Mitad del Mundo built to observe the bicentennial of the original mission, was a false equator line and the true marking was at a small museum called Inti-Nan which was tucked further down the main road. Oh well, we thought – we’ve got some great pictures…and who needs to know the truth – right? Shhhhhh!

2 Responses to “Quito – a city for everyone”

  1. tina stevenson February 7, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    still great to follow your adventures. tina and john

    • latinchattin February 11, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

      Thanks Tina and John – we’re pleased your with us for the ride!

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