Story and Photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Quito, The Miles High City
The energy was running high as we made our way onto the Plaza Grande or Central Square, La Plaza de la Independencia. Every park bench and every bit of pavement was jammed with noisy, flag-waving crowds. And, in an effort to get closer to the Presidents Palace, with President Rafael Correa and his entourage ensconced on the balcony, they would have spilled over onto the beautifully landscaped grassy patches and flower beds, if the guards had allowed them to. But even the solemn, unsmiling guards, were good natured as they shooed people behind the barricades. The brass band struck up a marching tune and slowly parading towards the square were what the children - of all ages - had been waiting for, the mounted horses, high stepping and proud, carrying the stiff-backed Granaderos - Presidential Honor Guard - outfitted in their traditional gold braided royal blue jackets and crisp white pants with high black boots and even higher braided hats. The marching Granaderos followed, swinging their upturned swords in step to the music. The band was playing, the crowds were cheering, and I was jumping up and down alongside the kids at this colorful weekly spectacle held in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
The handsome Granadiers’ uniforms are replicas of those worn in February of 1829 during the Battle of Tarqui, when only 4,000 troops were victorious over 8,000 Peruvians; an independence victory that is celebrated annually. Although the changing of the guard happens twice daily, on Mondays at 11a.m. a full dress formal ceremony is performed. On the Monday I was there, President Correa addressed the crowds to wild cheering and applause. And so began my introduction to Quito, the second largest city in Ecuador. With a population of close to 1 ½ million, Quito still manages to preserve the quaintness of a town, in large part thanks to the warmth and friendliness of its citizens.
Perched high in the Andes at 9,300 feet above sea level – almost two miles high - and 1000 feet higher than Cuenca. Quito is a rambling conglomeration of neighborhoods, with the Old Town spiraling out from the Plaza Grande, holding sway as the jewel in the crown. Quito was an important link in the Inca Empire when the Spanish arrived in the mid 1500s and turned it into a Spanish satellite city. And before the Inca, Quitsa-to - its original name meaning “middle of the earth” - was inhabited by the Shyris civilization that had an impressive knowledge of astronomy. In fact, archeologists have unearthed artifacts of an organized culture that dates as far back as 1,500 BCE.
Due to Ecuador’s position on the Equator it enjoys 12 hours of equal light and dark year-round with spring like temperatures that vary little from a delightful 50 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The altitude would make the air crisp and clear except that Quito is experiencing the same negative effects from progress that all other global capitals are victims of – smog. But once you leave the congestion of the center and travel up into the highlands that ring the city, the sweet smell of woodlands; the fragrance of brightly colored flowers; and the song of the myriad bird population, permeates the air.
Many of the Old Towns’ buildings are striking examples of colonial architecture dating back to the Spanish period and a walk in any direction from the central square is a stroll into a bygone age. Designated as a Mankind Heritage site in 1978 by UNESCO, there are over 300 blocks frozen in time to explore. While wandering though the narrow and sometimes steep streets to locate the St. Augustine Cloister - which unfortunately was closed for restoration - we passed the House of Inquisition. An inconspicuous small brass plaque marks the large white building on the corner of the unmarked street as a chilling reminder of the Spanish legacy of forced conversion to the Holy Roman Church. Less harsh methods of persuasion are the spectacular churches in Quito’s Old Town which no doubt were responsible for many willing converts due to their grandiose displays of wealth and power. There are 40 churches and chapels, 16 convents and monasteries plus cloisters, museums, and plazas, that contain impressive and moving works of religious art.
Located at a high point in the Old Town is the Neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional which houses the tallest bell tower in Ecuador and which for a meager fee you can climb. Building began on the Basilica in 1892 and by 1985 the still uncompleted church ran out of money. To save face, an enterprising priest spread the tale that when the church was finished the world would end… so leaving parts of the façade undone was the prudent path to follow. To this day the church’s exterior remains unfinished, which is not to say that the façade is uninteresting, quite the opposite, as the gargoyles adorning the left side are carved to represent animals that inhabit the Galapagos Islands, i.e. turtles, land and sea iguanas, and penguins, and on the other side, jungle animals such as aardvarks, jaguars, monkeys, caymans. Stylistically the Basilica is reminiscent of two of the most famous cathedrals in the world; Notre Dame in Paris and Saint Patrick’s in New York City. The Basilica was built over the Indians sacred Temple of the Sun and perhaps to atone for that desicration, the stained glass windows are positioned in such a way as to allow the sun to shine onto the interior stones of the church shining a mosaic of light and color on its dark core. The large stained glass window over the entrance door illustrates 1,300 different types of orchids indigenous to Ecuador. High up on a side wall there is a translucent glass window in the shape of the Sacred Heart through which you can view the statue of the Winged Virgin on the hill opposite the church. At night the Basilica is illuminated with blue and green lights which can be seen from almost any location in Quito.
The San Francisco Church and Plaza is the oldest in Quito, and the largest religious complex in America, and from which the city derived its proper name of San Francisco de Quito. Construction began over an Inca Palace a mere 50 days after the colonization by the Spanish, and includes a Convent, Chapel, Museum, and “Tianguez” or native market. Built between 1536 -1580 in the Baroque style, the heavily carved ornate main alter is embellished in gold leaf and contains images of the Inca Sun God along with the masterpiece of the winged Virgin Mary by Bernardine de Legarda “La Virgen de Quito”, the inspiration for the massive statue on the hill that can be seen through the Sacred Heart window in the Basilica.
But for pure opulence and a lavish display of wealth and power, the La Compañia de Jesús or the Gold Church, is the ultimate. The extraordinary entrance of worked stone and intricately carved pillars is astounding by itself but it pales in comparison to the splendor of the interior. Once you get past the blinding gilding that envelops everything inside the church, reflect a moment on the artistry of the carving the gold leaf covers. The stonework; the sculptures; the paintings; all are equally worthy of admiration. Be warned that picture taking is strictly controlled and at times not allowed, and flash is never permitted in Quito’s churches.
And while we’re on the subject of gold, a must-see in Quito is the National Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador (Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador) in the trendy Mariscal neighborhood. Along with a world-class exhibit of fine arts from the colonial era to the present, there are galleries that detail Ecuador’s pre-Columbian culture. Most mind-boggling is the Sala de Oro, which houses a breath-taking display of ceremonial gold artifacts including a remarkable headdress and mask that gives some small idea of what the Spanish encountered when they arrived in the new world that whetted their appetite for Ed Dorado. And speaking of museums, in the hills overlooking the city is the Guayasamin Museum “La Capilla Del Hombre” that houses the works of one of the most famous of Ecuador’s native sons. Of course no visit to Quito would be complete without visiting the El Panecillo hill and the statue of the winged Virgin at its pinnacle. A climb inside the statue to the balcony provides a towering view over the city.
Quito is a city of growing sophistication as evidenced by the proliferation in recent years of luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants. For a review of Quito’s restaurants see link listed below. On this trip accommodations in Quito were split between the Hilton Colón Ecuador, a high-rise deluxe hotel and executive tower, separated by a third building housing public rooms, restaurants, clubs, and shopping arcade; and the modern luxury boutique hotel Le Parc, featuring 30 beautifully designed suites.
The Hilton Colón is conveniently located in the upscale La Mariscal district, just across the street from the El Ejido Arch at the entrance to the eponymous park, and within a short 2 block walk to the National Museum, mentioned above, and Ecuatoriana Museum of Culture complex. The El Ejido Park is home to a native market that is a microcosm in products and prices to the famous Otavalo Market, and is just across the boulevard from the Hilton Colón on Av. Patria. It is a good alternative if you can’t get to Otavalo on Saturday, the only day worth the 4 hour round-trip drive. The rooms at the Hilton Colón are very comfortable and feature the serenity bed, a Hilton Colón specialty. I enjoyed the services and special amenities provided in the Executive Tower and the friendly and accommodating staff happy to assist with changing money, providing directions or recommendations, and attending to virtually any request that’s needed when traveling far from home. www.quito.hilton.com
Le Parc Hotel is located a little further away from the Old Town but within easy reach via the plentiful and inexpensive taxi cab system. Le Parc Boutique Hotel is ultra-modern in design and furnishings. All the suites are similar to studio apartment set-ups with desk area and seating grouping not separated by claustrophobic walls. My suite sported a white leather couch and lounge facing out the floor-to-ceiling windows onto a beautiful view of Quito and the surrounding valley of volcanos. The bathroom was a glass and marble wonder but best of all was the king size bed featuring a goose-feather mattress that was really hard to exit for an early morning walk-up call. Le Parc also offered a business center, 24 hour WI-FI connectivity and airport transfers. www.leparc.com.ec
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