Text and photos: Natalia Castro
Our morning arrival coincides with a persistent rain, but we still get a map and familiarize ourselves with the city’s three main public transportation options: the Ecovía and Central Norte transport corridors and the trolley bus. The trolley is very easy to use and reaches most of the city. Slightly disoriented and rather wet, we eventually find our hotel and drop off our suitcases in anticipation of our upcoming adventure.
We set out along Avenida Amazonas and head toward Plaza de los Presidentes, where busts of Ecuador’s Presidents line the way to the La Mariscal handicrafts market. The weather begins to improve, though not to the point of clearing, as we walk to Parque El Ejido, where an enormous arch serves as a grand entry to the green space. El Ejido marks the border between old and new Quito. Weekends in the park, which features 1,470 species of native plants, take on the ambience of a fair; visitors will find works of art, jewelry, and ponchos, among other indigenous handicrafts.
We marvel at the odd sport we see everywhere: “ecua-volleyball,” an Ecuadorian version of volleyball played with a soccer ball. It was invented by a taxi driver, who popularized it in small local tournaments, eventually leading to an official championship in 1960.
We come across an obelisk and a statue of General Eloy Alfaro, the so-called “Old Warrior,” who died combating 19th century conservatism. His fascinating history and tragic end, just like his remains, are linked to different parts of the country, and this is just one of the monuments built in his honor. On the June 5th anniversary of the revolution, people of all stripes, from Quito public school students to Masonic lodge members, gather here to pay tribute. We also visit the statue of José María Velasco Ibarra, which immortalizes the 5-time President of Ecuador on a balcony in mid-speech, discoursing to anyone who wishes to remember him.
The park’s splendid gamut of green hues, the children playing nearby, and the parade of historic characters are enough for one day. Exhausted by the trip, we indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: lying on the grass and looking the sky. The heavens are still stubbornly cloudy and deny us a good view of the mountains that are so characteristic of Quito. We leave the park before dark and conclude the day in Plaza Foch, a zone of bars, rumba, and tourists. It is a perfect place to enjoy a family dinner and listen to a little music with a cocktail in hand.
The next day, history calls to us; we answer the invitation and set out early for Plaza de la Independencia or “the big square.” Located in the heart of the historic city center, the plaza boasts an outstanding monument to the heroes of August, 10, 1809, the date of the first call for independence in Hispano-America. The plaza is surrounded by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the seat of the Ecuadorian government, the Carondelet Palace, toward which we are now walking.
The Carondelet Palace was opened to the public by President Rafael Correa, who decreed that the building belongs to the people of Ecuador and everyone has the right to visit it. As we wait for our guide, we admire the gardens on either side of the majestic staircase that leads to the treasures of Ecuador. A wood urn finely carved with the country’s coat-of-arms stands against the backdrop of an enormous mural painted by Quito native Osvaldo Guayasamín in 1957, depicting the discovery of the Amazon River. It took the artist seven years to extend his work over three walls rising nearly two stories high. I breathe deeply, trying to feel each one of the brush strokes in this master work. By tour’s end, we had spent an hour among the illusions, surreal objects, and extravagant pieces donated by various countries to the President of Ecuador, now on exhibit for all to see.
Back in the plaza we notice that churches abut churches that in turn jostle against convents and more churches. Quito is known as a religious capital. The city is not necessarily more Catholic than other places, but it has preserved an abundance of exquisite Colonial religious constructions, the tall doors of which hide a treasure trove of art that draws thousands of admiring devotees and tourists.
More than twenty convents and monasteries house treasures of Colonial art, gilded wood, and the incomparable work of the famed Quito school, which features a sublime blend of Spanish and native themes executed by skilled indigenous artists. The school gained such renown that legend holds that King Carlos II stated: “Italy might have Michelangelo, but I have the master Caspicara in my colonies.”
One of the most visited churches is the Cathedral, a Gothic-Mudejar construction with preserved altar pieces covered with gold leaf, and statues of saints and martyrs carved by the first masters of the Quito school, which was originally headquartered nearby in the Church of San Francisco. The high gold altar shows Baroque and Mudejar influences. Not far from here stands the Compañía de Jesús de Quito church and convent, which has an outer door beautifully carved out of volcanic stone and interior decorative features covered in gold.
In search of more architectural gems, we walk to Calle de las Siete Cruces (Street of Seven Crosses). The crosses were placed there by the Spanish conquerors, who believed that the residents of Quito had not yet been sufficiently steeped in Catholicism and therefore needed to be reminded of their faith at every step. As we stroll these ancient streets, it seems impossible to imagine that anyone could forget to attend mass or cross themselves, considering the preponderance of images of Christ and the hymns filtering out of the convents to the ears of residents and tourists.
We finally reach the Basílica del Voto Nacional: the view from below is enough to make people feel that the builders hoped visitors would repent of their sins before entering, since the long staircase through a lovely garden will leave anyone gasping. I stand before the vast Gothic edifice (the largest in the Americas) and I am dazzled by the outer towers and roof peaks topped with gargoyles in the shape of native animals that seem to perch on high, protecting the church from evil spirits. I admire the carved wood doors that tell the story of the creation of Adam and Eve along with the history of the area’s colonization and the imposition of religion. Then I turn my attention to the stained glass windows, with designs featuring local flora. I step over the threshold and I am once again left breathless as the extreme surrealism of the center of the Ecuadorian capital makes my head spin. No one, be they pilgrims of any faith or non-believers, should miss the basilica.
There are still churches to be seen, but as the day is drawing to a close, we resign ourselves to returning to the hotel. We concede defeat on the topic of churches, since there is little time left and much to see. On our third day, we amble along La Ronda, a street of history and traditional games, now home to local merchants who are more than willing to talk about their products as they hold court in their handicraft shops. We meet Luis López, artisan and owner of Humacatama (a Quechua word meaning “covered head”), and logically enough, he specializes in hats. Luis greets us with a hat in hand and a cheery “Come right in.” He explains that he is one of the few artisans still making this kind of hat in Ecuador, as he measures our heads with a peculiar wood device. We try on at least half of his selection of traditional, old-fashioned, and generally incredible hats; we clap our choices on our heads and make for the Chez Tiff chocolate boutique, with the motto “Cacao, the light of the Americas.” There we learn how chocolate goes from the bean to the table, and we taste chocolate tea and delicious chocolate bonbons infused with rose petals, mint, and coffee, among other flavors.
Afterward, a taxi takes us to El Panecillo. This lookout point near the center of the city gives us a 360-degree view from an altitude of some 9800 feet. Silence and sky envelop us and still cloudy Quito once again leaves us breathless as we rest at the foot of the Virgin of Quinche.
We end the day in Parque de la Catalina, in the modern part of the city. The change of scenery carries a shift in attitude: the buildings, streets, and pedestrians remind us that we live in the 21st century, and the contemporary artwork along Bulevar de Naciones Unidas pulls us back to reality. We stop to enjoy a traveling art exhibit and we dine at a shopping center, wrapping up a day of contrasts.
Our last day in Quito is reserved for a trip to “Ciudad Mitad del Mundo.” Constructed approximately eight miles outside Quito with tourism and education in mind, the city is a must-see. Just two dollars gives visitors access to the majestic Avenida de los Geodésicos (Geodesic Avenue), lined with thirteen busts of the men who calculated the exact center of the planet. The museum in the French pavilion teaches us about the expeditions and missions that searched for this exact spot with the aid of all manner of inventions. We explore the insectarium, the Spanish pavilion, and Colonial Quito until we see the yellow line leading to the monument marking the equator and the centermost point of the world at latitude 00” 00” 00”. We have our passports stamped as proof of our visit to the center of the earth.
We stop by the Ethnographic Museum and its displays representing the different regions of Ecuador, and continue to the ground floor for information about other countries bisected by the equator. Close by is the Intiñan Museum, which showcases the regions and customs of Ecuador, along with experiments that show how the northern and southern hemispheres differ magnetically. Although this museum is on a more modest scale than the previous one, it is much more educational. For example, we learn about the effects of gravity and magnetism in the two hemispheres and now understand why water swirls down the drain in different directions depending on latitude.
We leave the museums in a state of exhaustion, but we depart from Quito in a state of contentment. We were denied the sight of Quito’s mountains during our stay, but we happily strolled from the 19th century to the 21st as we walked through vast, green parks and along narrow cobblestone streets and modern paved avenues; fantastic architecture greeted us at every turn. We resolved to return during the sunny season, especially since we now know that hosts in Quito open their doors with that cheery “Come right in.”