Exploring Ecuador’s Capital-Why Quito left me Breathless
Walking past grafitti covered walls coughing on fumes from rush hour traffic I pass a woman pushing a cart of lychees down the narrow sidewalk. She’s wearing a brightly colored skirt with a shawl draped around her shoulders and bowler hat, typical of the indigenous Andean culture. I, standing at 5’5, tower over her and many here. No matter which way I go, I always seem to be walking up.
This is Quito.
Standing in a cathedral that’s been welcoming the faithful since the 16th century, I am aware of nothing but the quiet reverence of a place of worship and the striking beauty of one of the most vividly colored alters I’ve seen.
This too is Quito.
At an elevation of 9,350 feet above sea level Quito is the highest capital city in the world. Located in a long, narrow valley on the slopes of the Pinchicha Volcano it seems like every direction you go is up. My sea level adapted heart pumped a bit harder as I walked through Quito’s historic Old Town, one of the best preserved colonial areas in all of South America and was the very first city to be designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
As I only had a short amount of time in Quito before heading out to explore the Ecuadorian cloud forest and Andean Highlands I had a whirlwind day starting in colonial Old Town. Plaza de la Independencia, more commonly known as Plaza Grande, is the beating heart of the city. Flanked by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Carondelet Palace the plaza is graced by a beautiful central fountain and accented with greenery and palm trees.
Moments later I found myself climbing a narrow set of stone spiral stairs, occasionally ducking my head as I made my way toward the domes of the Metropolitan Cathedral( or simply La Catedral). As I climbed out into the sun I had an unparalleled view of the Plaza Grande. Gazing over the city it’s undeniably clear to see the significance of the Catholic Church on Quito; the 135 foot tall winged Virgin of Quito looks over the valley and the spires from the the cities many churches recall visions of Europe. Back inside I slowly take in the vibrant colors that stand in stark contrast to the Gothic and Moorish architecture reminiscent of Sevilla. Aside from serving as an active place of worship La Catedral is also the final resting place for some of Ecuador’s most notable historical figures, including Ecuadorian president Gabriel Garcia Moreno and South American independence leader Antonio Jose de Sucre.
A short stroll past the gilded La Campañia, a 16th century Jesuit church whose interior is adorned with intricate wood carvings and gold leaf, is the pretty neighborhood of La Ronda. Quito’s answer to Brooklyn (without the pretense), the colorful streets are home to independent artisans committed to preserving Quito’s traditions. It was here that I met skilled woodworkers making furniture as beautiful as they are functional, metal smiths creating intricately designed jewelry and medallions and tasted small batch ice cream featuring the exotic flavors of Ecuador. It was also in La Ronda that I learned just how much skill to takes to meticulously craft the effigies of the Virgin Mary that are ubiquitous throughout Quito and Ecuador. Detailed sculptures are first carved from wood before being intricately enameled then adorned with metal;usually tin,sometimes gold.
A quick dash to the trendy La Mariscal neighborhood brought me to Achiote Ecuador Cuisine, a family-run restaurant that highlights the flavors of Ecuador. I was famished after my morning’s explorations but I’d have to work for my meal first. I donned an apron and headed back to the kitchen with my new friends Chef Lucy de Groner and her son Felipe whose passion for Ecuadorian cuisine soon became evident. I soon had my hands on some potatoes which I mashed and combined with cheese, garlic, onions and a bit of achiote for color; I then formed little potato cakes known as llapingachos that were grilled and served alongside a simple made-from-scratch guacamole. Felipe then demonstrated the signature dish of Ecuador’s coast, ceviche. Lightly poached shrimp and whitefish received the star treatment when paired with a spicy-sweet and all too addictive passionfruit sauce.
What will stay with me the most of my quick visit to Quito is the people. The truly gracious hospitality of my innkeeper who’s parting words to me were ” You are part of our family now, this is your home in Quito”, the enthusiasm that Lucy and Felipe of Achiote had when sharing with me the flavors of Ecuador, the dedication to tradition of the artisans of La Ronda, and watching Quiteño families walk with arms linked and hand in hand. More than anything the people are what make Quito.
My tour of Quito was graciously arranged by Quito Turismo, but as always all opinions remain my own.