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A city among volcanoes

Ecuador day one


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Quito

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View of the city from El Panecillo

Quito for me will forever be defined by its dramatic location. Squeezed between two volcanic Andean ranges, its streets continually wind up and dip down, leaving you giddy at times. Or maybe that giddiness is due to the altitude - at 2,800 metres above sea level, Quito can claim to be the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.

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Quito from Volcan Pichincha

The narrow shape also poses some interesting challenges for residents and the city authorities, especially as car ownership has grown so quickly in recent years. The north-south routes through the city easily become bottle-necks as almost everyone has to travel in those directions to reach their destination. The solution has been to impose a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number. For instance, our friend Marcello cannot drive in the city during peak times on a Monday, and our guide Jose Luiz cannot do so on a Wednesday – not even for work purposes. [When we returned from Quilotoa on a Wednesday evening he had to get his dad, also a tour guide, to help out by meeting us just outside the boundary, on the ring road, so that we could transfer to his car to drive into the city centre.] Of course, for the rich there is always a solution to such inconveniences, and many have simply bought a second car with a different number! Nevertheless, Marcello did tell us that he believes the regulation has had some positive impact on pollution levels.

The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.

Flying to Quito

We had originally booked our flights to Quito through Opodo, flying out via Miami with Delta and returning via the same hub with American. Miami isn’t exactly my favourite airport, and I’m no fan of American Airlines either, but this was the best value I could get on the dates we wanted to travel. But about six weeks before the trip both airlines changed their schedules and the connections in Miami would no longer work. Opodo proposed instead that we flew both ways with Delta, and via Atlanta. The outward option looked good to us, with a reasonable connection time and arriving in Quito only five minutes later than we had planned. But the return flight looked tough – a late night departure, overnight to Atlanta, the best part of the day there and another overnight flight to Heathrow.

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Building detail, Quito

However, the person I spoke to at Opodo offered to look for alternatives, and came up with a great one, proposing to book us on a flight with KLM (one of my favourite airlines) to Amsterdam and a short hop to Heathrow from there. What is more, they didn’t charge us any extra for what I am sure would have been a dearer flight had we booked it from the start!

In the end we had a mixed outward journey and a very smooth return. Going out, we left Heathrow on time and arrived in Atlanta 30 minutes ahead of schedule after a reasonable flight – OK food, good in-flight entertainment, nothing to complain about! Atlanta Airport impressed us – clean, bright, not too busy, and possibly our fastest ever experience at US immigration!

We got a coffee and settled down to wait through the three hour lay-over. But three hours became four, and eventually five, as our flight to Quito was delayed by the late arrival in Atlanta of 50 connecting passengers coming from Tokyo. We therefore arrived in Quito almost two hours late, around midnight local time (5.00 AM London time!), and it took a further 1.5 hours to get through immigration and customs there (mostly spent queuing for the former – we had thought that arriving so late would mean shorter queues but another flight had got in just before ours and staff seemed unable to cope with two late flights).

Eventually we were through and out into the Quito night where Jose Luiz, who was to be our guide on our trips to Otovalo and Cotopaxi later in the week, was there to meet us, and to whisk us to our hotel through the mercifully deserted street. We finally arrived there just after 2.00 AM local time, 7.00 AM London time – 24 hours after we had got up that morning!

Hotel San Francisco de Quito

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Hotel courtyard

We used the Hotel San Francisco as our base for all of our time in Quito –the longer stay of four nights at the start of our trip, a couple of one night stopovers between tours, and a couple of nights right at the end of trip, when we returned from the Galápagos. We slept in three different rooms, of varied quality, during these visits, and found it to be on the whole a pleasant and convenient option if you’re looking for a mid-range hotel in the colonial part of town.

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Entrance to room #22

The hotel has lots of character, having been built in the early 18th century and retaining lots of its colonial features. The rooms open onto the terraces that run around the courtyard or onto the corridors that lead off it. They seem to vary considerably, even within the same price category, and although I can’t be sure as we never asked for a specific room, I have a feeling that it’s the luck of the draw whether you get a better or less good room for your money. To be sure of getting plenty of space you could pay for a suite, but note that these are on upper floors and there is no lift. The highest floors are four or five stories, and the stairs are steep. I know because we went up one day to the viewing terrace on the roof of the top floor, which is well worth doing for the great views of the city, but which would be quite a climb with heavy luggage, especially at these altitudes which can leave you breathless in any case!

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Room #22

The first room we had, for our initial four nights (and on one other night too) was unfortunately the least good of the three we stayed in here. This was number 22. It had the advantage of being a little tucked away on the second floor and very quiet, although we could hear the distinctive sound of the passing trolley buses. But it was very small and almost monastic in its plainness, with no window, although the skylight lit it pretty well. There was a small en suite with a shower, a wardrobe, wall-mounted TV (we never tried to use this or any other here so I can’t say how well they worked) and a tiny desk. The bed though was very comfortable and we slept well here.

On subsequent stays we were to be allocated nicer rooms as you will no doubt see if you follow this blog for long enough!

Our first day in Quito

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Breakfast room

Although we had arrived so late the previous night we were up in time for breakfast, keen to start exploring the city. Breakfast at the San Francisco is served in the basement restaurant, located in what was once a prison! You need to collect a voucher from reception on your way downstairs. But I found the breakfast decidedly disappointing – weak coffee, watered down juice drink and rolls with jam. The rolls were pretty good but the rest very poor. I really couldn’t fathom how, in a country famed for its high-quality coffee and delicious fruit juices, they could make quite such a disastrous attempt at both! You can pay for extra items if you want them, such as bacon and fresh fruit, but we never did so as I wasn’t confident they would be any better than the free stuff on offer, although had they offered proper coffee on that menu I would have been willing to pay for it perhaps.

Leaving the hotel we decided to stroll uphill (slowly – we were still getting used to the altitude!) to the nearby Plaza San Francisco, which was to become one of my favourite spots in the city and which offered plenty of sightseeing for this first morning. But on the way we detoured into the stunning church of La Compania.

Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús

The Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, often abbreviated to just La Compañia, is a must-see in Quito, even if you are not normally keen to visit lots of churches! You will rarely if ever have seen such a richly adorned church, and in fact, La Compañía is considered one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in the whole of South America.

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Detail and door

From the outside it looks interesting but no more so than many another church. It was built from grey volcanic stone over a lengthy period of time, between 1605 and 1765, to serve as the base for the Society of Jesus in Ecuador. Originally it had a bell tower, the tallest in colonial Quito, but this was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859, and although rebuilt, destroyed again in 1868. After that they seem to have given up, as it was never replaced. The facade is symmetrical in design and features Solomonic columns, which are symbolic of the Catholic doctrine that life’s journey starts at the bottom (on earth), but by following the holy path, it ends at heaven.

But it is the interior that will take your breath away! Not only is it ornately carved throughout, but almost every surface is covered with gold. I have read variously that there is almost half a ton of gold, and that there is nearly seven tons – but whatever the weight, it is almost overwhelming in places. You need to take the time to adjust and to start to see through the richness of the surfaces to the detail of the plasterwork itself, and to take in the paintings and other treasures.

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At the centre of the main altar is a statue of the local saint, Mariana de Jesús, whose remains are entombed at its foot. Look out for the paintings by Nicolás Javier Goribar of prophets from Old Testament on 16 of the pillars, and for the symbol of the sun on the main door and on the ceiling. The sun was an important symbol for the Inca, and the Spanish thought that if they decorated the entry with such a symbol, it might encourage local people to join the church. Another thing to note is the absence of figurative designs in the plasterwork, reflecting the Moorish influence – only geometrical shapes are used.

Photography is unfortunately not allowed inside (I would happily have paid extra to do so, as is the case elsewhere, but that option doesn’t seem to be offered in Quito). However there are some photos on the church’s website La Compania, and I confess to sneaking just one quick shot of part of the ceiling.

Tianguez and the Plaza San Francisco

Arriving on the Plaza San Francisco I declared myself in need of caffeine, after the disappointing beverage that had been on offer at breakfast time, and the conveniently located Tianguez beckoned us. We grabbed one of the outside tables, perused the extensive drinks menu and made our choices - double espresso for me (of course!) and for Chris a hot chocolate, served the traditional way with cubes of mild white cheese.

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Plaza San Francisco

This small café on the Plaza San Francisco became my favourite spot in Quito, for its excellent coffee and the great views over the activity on the plaza. The Plaza San Francisco is one of the oldest in the city, constructed on the site where the palace of the Inca ruler Atahualpa´s son, Auqui Francisco Tupatauchi, once stood. It was used for centuries by indigenous groups as a trading center, or tianguez – hence the name of the café and also the shop which now occupies the arches under the church. The plaza is cobbled and built on a slope, with the result that from the upper side, by the church and Tianguez café, you get some excellent views – of the life of the square, of the surrounding Quito rooftops (including the domes of La Compañia) and of El Panecillo and other hills of the city.

And there is plenty of life to be seen here, as you sit over a coffee or on the steps of the church. Young shoe-shine boys tout for business; women in traditional dress try to sell their colourful scarves; local workers hurry to their offices; children play in the fountain; tourists wander, cameras at the ready; and the tourist police watch over it all. If like me you regard people-watching as one of the essential pleasures of a city-based holiday, you will be very happy to spend time here.

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Scarf sellers in the plaza

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Shoe shine

We came to Tianguez several times during our stay as it was just a few blocks from our hotel and the coffee was the perfect antidote to the weak stuff on offer at breakfast there – here in contrast I could get excellent Ecuadorean coffee in my favourite plaza!

Iglesia de San Francisco and Museo Fray Pedro Gocial

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Iglesia de San Francisco

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Lovebirds

The Plaza San Francisco is dominated by the church of the same name, whose convent houses a museum of colonial religious art. Although we weren’t sure how interested we would be in the collection we decided to visit as we knew that doing so gives you access to the lovely and peaceful convent cloisters and to the choir loft of the church. The monastery is the oldest and largest in the country, taking up two city blocks. It was founded in 1546 but took 70 years to build.

The art works here include paintings, altar pieces and processional statues, displayed very nicely along the outer and inner cloisters. No photos are allowed in the inner one but you can take any pictures you want in the outer one, both of the works on display and the cloister itself. In one corner, we found some pretty birds – finches, lovebirds etc. I’m not a fan of keeping pet birds but at least these weren’t caged (though I assume their wings had been clipped to keep them here) and the lovebirds in particular were so sweet that we found them an added attraction to the museum.

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The outer cloisters

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17th century altarpiece

The altarpiece in my photo depicts Saint Barbara and is by an anonymous artist of the 17th century. This is in the outer cloister, which was why I was able to take the photo, and is typical of the works on display there.

But the highlight for me was a series of processional statues depicting the Passion on display in the inner cloister. These are typical of the Quito school in their vivid, if not gory, portrayal of the sufferings of Christ and the other saints. It is generally said that this goriness is a reference to the suffering that the indigenous people had undergone at the hands of their Spanish conquerors. Perhaps they found those who had suffered for this faith that had been imposed on them, to be the element of it with which they themselves could most easily identify? Whatever the explanation, these are powerful works, whether or not you share the beliefs that inspired them.

When you have finished looking at the art, and maybe sat a while in the peaceful cloister, you can climb a flight of stone stairs to the left of the museum entrance which lead you to the choir loft of the church. From here you have an excellent view of the church (although again no photos allowed).

The loft itself is also worth seeing, for the intricately carved choir stalls and the dramatic crucifix by Manuel Chile Caspicara, which dates back to 1650-70. It is said that Caspicara tied a model to a cross to examine how best to represent Christ's facial and body expressions as realistically as possible.

Plaza de la Independencia

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When we emerged from the museum, we decided to walk over to the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Independencia. Also known as the Plaza Grande, this is an attractive green space with the memorial to independence at its centre, plenty of benches for resting and people-watching, and is surrounded on three of its four sides by attractive old buildings. These are:

~ On the southwest side, the cathedral
~ On the northwest, the Palacio de Carondelet, the President’s Palace and seat of government for the republic
~ On the northeast, the Archbishop's Palace and the Palacio Hidalgo, built as a private residence (the only one of these that still remains on the plaza) for Juan Diaz de Hidalgo and now the Hotel Plaza Grande

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Palacio de Carondelet

On the remaining southeast side are municipal offices, including the police headquarters. The corners of the square also hold some interesting and attractive buildings, including the church of the Immaculate Conception and the Centro Cultural Metropolitano. Only the rather ugly 1970s building on the southeast side of the square spoils its harmony. This was built as a replacement for an earlier city hall, presumably because the functions of the council of this rapidly growing city had become too numerous for the facilities available in the old structure, but it is a shame that this happened during a period so little renowned both for its respect for historic architecture and for its ability to create memorable modern buildings.

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Monument to Independence

The plaza itself, as a public square, dates back to 1612. The first significant buildings to be constructed here were those built by the powerful Catholic Church – the cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace. Later, private homes followed – the Palacio Hidalgo next door to the Archbishop’s Palace, and more on the northwest side. These latter were damaged in the earthquake of 1627 and the site then occupied by the Palacio de Carondelet. In the eighteenth century, the square was further developed to act as a sort of garden for the latter, whose steps (since demolished to allow traffic to pass along this side of the square) led down into it. There was a fountain at the centre, but this was replaced in 1906 by a newly commissioned monument to commemorate the centenary of the country’s independence from Spain. This monument depicts the victory over the Spanish colonial troops through a triumphant condor holding a broken chain in his beak, and a fleeing Iberian lion which is limping away, dragging its cannons and standards as it goes.

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Monument to Independence

Any tourist who spends much time in colonial Quito is likely to pass through this square several times. We found it a pleasant haven when we wanted to rest during sightseeing walks (there always seemed to be a bench available) and particularly liked it at night, on our way to and from dinner at a nearby restaurant perhaps, when the surrounding buildings are nicely illuminated.

Now however, lunch beckoned – but this entry is becoming alarmingly long so I will continue in another one …

Posted by ToonSarah 15:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches hotel city quito ecuador

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Comments

Amazing colonial architecture. Lovely photos.

by ADAMYAMEY

Thanks Adam!

by ToonSarah

Your writing inspires me to move Quito higher up on my must visit list. I know I would love this city.

by Wabat

I think you would indeed love it, but don't neglect the rest of Ecuador. Cuenca is wonderful too, and as for the Galapagos ...

by ToonSarah

I would love to spend a couple of months across the top of South America :-)

by Wabat

It could easily occupy you for that long, and more!

by ToonSarah

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