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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 Comments (6)

A day out with friends

Ecuador day two


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In and around Quito

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With Marcello and Betty on El Panecillo

When we told a friend in London, originally from Quito, that we planned to visit the city, she immediately suggested that her Quiteño parents might like to meet up with us. An exchange of emails followed and it was all decided – we would spend our second day in the city with Marcelo and Betty. They arranged to pick us up at our hotel after breakfast, which they duly did, and what followed was a very enjoyable day with two excellent companions. Marcello speaks reasonable English, while Betty’s is rather more limited (as is our Spanish) so it fell to him to act as translator as well as chauffeur and guide, and he performed all three roles with charm.

He and Betty proposed a programme for the morning and then lunch, during which we could discuss our afternoon plans, and as all sounded good to us, off we went …

El Panecillo

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El Panecillo

We had already seen from below the hill known as El Panecillo, topped by its statue of the Virgen de Quito who watches over and protects the city. Although not high in comparison with the volcanoes among which the city nestles, it dominates the skyline when you look south down any of colonial Quito’s avenidas. And just as there are great views of it, so there are wonderful ones from it, so a visit to the top is a must if you can manage it. Best not to walk up though, as the steps that lead here are notoriously bad for crime and tourist muggings, so we were very happy that Betty and Marcello suggested this as our first stop of the morning.

El Panecillo means “the little bread loaf”, because of its shape. The hill was a sacred site for the Quechua, who had a temple to the Sun god (Yavirac) here and called the hill Shungoloma, meaning “hill of the heart".

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On El Panecillo

There are two reasons to come here – the statue, and the view. Starting with the former, it is 41 metres tall and was made of seven thousand pieces of aluminium. It was designed by the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras, engineered and erected by Anibal Lopez of Quito, and inaugurated on March 28, 1976, by the then archbishop of Quito, Pablo Muñoz Vega. The Virgin is standing on top of a globe and stepping on a serpent, which is a traditionally symbolic way to portray the Madonna. Less traditional are the wing – indeed, locals claim that she is the only one in the world with wings like an angel. The monument was inspired by the famous "Virgen de Quito" sculpted by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734, which adorns the main altar of the Church of San Francesco. It is full of movement – she might almost be dancing – very different to the usual static statues of the saint. The interior of the pedestal holds a small chapel. It is possible to climb to an observation terrace around the globe but we didn’t bother – according to Marcello the views are not that different from those you get at the foot of the pedestal, and we were more than happy with those.

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Cotopaxi from El Panecillo

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Views of the city

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The Olla del Panecillo

Yes, the views – spectacular, on a clear morning such as we were blessed with! You can see the city spread out beneath you (we spent some time picking out the landmarks while Marcello told us something about many of Quito’s sights that we should see on our visit) and beyond it the volcanoes. As well as snow-covered Cotapaxi to the south we saw Cayambe, also snow-covered, to the north along with Imbabura, Corazon and others. Do come here quite early in your day’s sightseeing though, as the clouds are likely to descend and hide the mountains from view by afternoon, especially in the rainy season.

Just below the feet of the Virgin is another sight, the so-called Olla del Panecillo. This large cistern is traditionally said to be of Inca origin, but recent tests have dated it to after the Spanish conquest. Marcello told us a story about a previous family visit here which should act as a warning. He decided he would like to get a photo of the family in front of the Olla del Panecillo, so he set the camera’s self-timer, rested it on the roof of his car parked just across the road and ran over to join the rest of the family posing for the shot. As the shutter fired a passer-by grabbed the camera and legged it – no family photo, and no family camera any more either :-(

Basilica del Voto Nacional

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In the Basilica del Voto Nacional

When we stood on El Panecillo, looking north, Marcello pointed out to us the Basilica del Voto Nacional, unusual in being of neo-Gothic design in predominantly Baroque Spanish colonial old Quito. And when we descended the hill this was the next place we visited. The Basilica is the largest neo-Gothic church in all of the New World – 140 metres long and 35 metres wide; 74 metres high in the transept, and 115 metres the height of its two front towers. It took almost 100 years to build, from the laying of the first stone in 1892 until its inauguration in 1988 – although technically it is considered unfinished, as a local legend says that when the Basílica is completed, the world will end.

It dominates this part of the city, and can be seen from all over town. Growing up in northern Europe, where Gothic (both original and neo-) is a commonly seen architectural style, I was less impressed by the Basilica than I felt I was expected to be by our lovely hosts for the day, for whom this must be an unusual and impressive building. It was interesting though to see how the exterior, though European in appearance, had borrowed elements from the country’s natural wealth, with gargoyles inspired by iguanas, monkeys, armadillos, pumas and Galápagos tortoises.

Inside I was more impressed. Although the grey stone interior is plain, even sombre, when compared with the ornate Baroque of, say, La Compañia, it is lit by some marvellous stained glass windows. I especially loved the kaleidoscope-like rose windows above the north and south transepts. Behind the main altar was another treasure – a small, much more colourful chapel dedicated to the Virgin and reserved for prayer (so no photos are allowed here, unlike the main church).

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Stained glass in the basilica

I knew from my research that it is possible to climb to the top of one of the Basilica’s tallest towers and, despite the dodgy knee that was slightly hampering my sightseeing, I would have liked to have given this a go, or at least taken the lift to the first level of the climb. But Marcello was keen to show us more of his city in the one day we had available to spend with them, so I had to be content with looking around at ground level.

So soon it was back to the car and on to our next stop.

Capilla del Hombre

The Fundacion Guayasamin currently operate two “museums” (for want of a better word) dedicated to the work of the great Ecuadorean artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Guayasamin was born in Quito in 1919, and was a contemporary and admirer of Picasso. I knew very little about him before our trip and was perhaps all the more bowled over by this place as a result. His work was heavily influenced by his perceptions of the suffering of the disadvantaged in society, inspired by his own mixed-race heritage and the oppression of the indigenous people of his country. War, famine, torture and other 20th century ills are all reflected in his creations – and yet strangely, I found his work uplifting.

Many of his pieces are currently exhibited in the Museo Guayasamín, which we didn’t visit. But a few blocks away, here at the Capilla del Hombre, exhibits and the building that contain them are one. This stark monument-cum-museum was designed by Guayasamin himself as a tribute to humankind, to the suffering of the indigenous poor and to the undying hope of man for something better. He planned to open it on the first day of the new 21st century, but died in 1999 before the work was quite completed, and in the event it did not open until November 2002. The building is intended to be a non-sectarian place of worship, a “chapel of man”, and incorporates elements of Inca and indigenous design motifs. At its heart is an eternal flame, dedicated to those who died defending human rights. Around this the works of art are arranged on three floors, descending down to the flame, with some smaller works in the main entrance area and some huge murals lower down. I was especially taken by a series of paintings of a woman’s face, and by a dramatic mural showing a bull and a condor, which we thought must represent the struggle between conquering Spain (the bull) and the indigenous people (the condor). Unfortunately, although I have read that tours are available in English and Marcello asked for one for us, we were told that they weren’t being offered that day, (though a tour in Spanish was in progress during our visit).

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On hoardings in the grounds

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In the grounds

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Copán stella

No photos are allowed inside, so we bought a postcard of one of the “face” paintings in the small but very nice gift-shop on the middle level. This also had some good quality reproductions. Photos are allowed outside, so I took a couple of the hoarding that divided off an area where work was being carried out, as this was decorated with copies of paintings by the artist. Marcello explained that the work here would eventually allow the Foundation to move the contents of the nearby museum to this site, so that all of Guayasamin’s works in Quito could be displayed in the one place.

Also in the grounds were a number of artefacts, gifts from other Latin American countries. The one in my photo is a stella from Copán, Honduras. Above this spot is a tree, planted by Guaysamin himself, under which he is buried; it has been named El Arbol de la Vida (The Tree of Life).

If you want to see what the inside does look like, there are a couple of photos on the Capilla del Hombre website.

By now we were all getting hungry so Chris and I proposed treating our hosts to lunch.

Mama Clorinda

Betty and Marcello brought us to this great little restaurant in La Mariscal district, which they said was one of their favourites for Ecuadorean dishes. We had to agree that it was an excellent choice for our lunch together. The atmosphere, even by day, is cosy, helped by the division of an already quite small space into even smaller ones. And the décor is cheerful, with bright walls and checked table-cloths.

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In Mama Clorinda

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Chorizo and llapingachos

We were brought a plate of four empanadas to have with our drinks while waiting for the meal. One each – except that as Betty is largely vegetarian and these had a meat filling, Chris and I got to split the extra one! They were excellent, as was the hot aji sauce to dip them in.

For my main course I followed a recommendation by Marcello that the fish here was usually good, and chose corvina or sea bass. It was served dusted with seasoned flour and fried and was very good, if a little salty. I also liked the accompanying menestra, a traditional bean stew, and it also came with boiled rice and fried plantain. Chris also really enjoyed his dish of chorizo sausages and llapingachos (potato patties stuffed with cheese) which also included a fried egg, avocado and salad. Marcello ate corvino like me and Betty a vegetable llapingachos dish. Between us we drank four Club beers, one bottle of water and three espresso coffees. The bill for the four of us came to $54 which I thought was good value for this tasty food served in such pleasant surroundings.

Over lunch we discussed the afternoon’s programme and decided to drive slightly further from the city centre to see an area Chris and I would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

Santuria de El Guápulo

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The Santuria de El Guápulo

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In Guápulo

Over the hill from La Mariscal lies the historic neighbourhood of Guápulo, reached by driving down the winding valley on a long cobbled street. At the bottom of the road we came to the impressive Santuria de El Guápulo, a striking church dating from the latter part of the 17th century (although restored in the 1930s) and one of Quito’s real treasures.

We were very fortunate to find it open, as the hours are apparently somewhat erratic. And we were so pleased that we were able to go inside, as it is truly beautiful I loved the ornate wooden pulpit (the work of Juan Bautista Manacho in 1716) and especially the sweet-looking little dog carved waiting at the bottom of the steps – such a nice touch! The altar-piece is also stunning, and there are some important paintings from the Quito school by Miguel de Santiago and Nicolás Javier de Goríbar.

There was a lone local woman praying near the front of the church so we walked around very quietly. Suddenly she broke into song – totally unselfconsciously and I am sure not for our benefit but for her own – or rather, for that of the one to whom she prayed. Ave Maria sung so beautifully in this otherwise empty church – how magical!

No photos are allowed inside, but I asked an attendant who was hovering in the porch if I could take some there of the interesting wall-paintings, and was told that I might. I haven’t been able to find any mention of these paintings, perhaps because the treasures inside are so noteworthy.

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In the porch, and statue of Orellana on the plaza

Outside the church on the other side of the plaza is a statue of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, gazing out over the land he “discovered”. There is a story, possibly true, that the name of this part of the city is derived from Guadalupe – that here the Spanish planned their sanctuary and dedicated it to the Virgin of Guadalupe. But the local Indians weren't able to pronounce the name and it became corrupted as Guápulo.

Nayon

After our visit to Guápulo, Marcello was keen to show us more of Quito’s outskirts, so we drove to Nayon on a winding road in the northeast suburbs. The fertile valleys around Quito are ideal for growing flowering plants, and Nayon is the place that locals go to buy them. The road is lined with small nurseries, each with a beautiful display of plants for sale. We parked about halfway along and had a good wander around one of them. My eye was especially drawn to the wide variety of hibiscus, one of my favourite flowers, and to the bougainvilleas. It surprised me that with such a temperate climate it was possible to grow what to us are exotic blooms – but of course the growers take good care to protect their plants from the chilly nights at these altitudes.

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In Nayon

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When we had finished looking around (we didn’t buy anything, naturally, as these are not the most transportable of souvenirs!) we went across the road to one of Betty and Marcello’s favourite heladerias. I had been disappointed the previous day with my first taste of Helado de Paila, the traditional northern Ecuador version of ice cream, so I wasn’t sure about having it again here. But I have to say that it was much nicer than the one I’d eaten at the famed Heladeria San Agustin. I chose taxo flavour (a form of passionfruit) and really enjoyed its refreshing sharpness. It was also cheaper than the Heladeria San Agustin, at just $1.50 for a large cone.

After our ices we headed back to the city centre and to our hotel. Before dropping us off Betty and Marcello proposed meeting up again on our return to the city at the end of our trip when we would have a lot to tell them about our adventures in the Galápagos in particular – a suggestion we were happy to agree to.

That evening, still full from our large and quite late lunch, we decided against having dinner but headed to the street known as La Ronda in search of just a drink or two.

La Ronda

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La Ronda on a Friday evening

If you’re looking for lively bars and lots of late-night action, the colonial part of Quito is not where you should be staying! Although these days generally considered safe at night (and we certainly didn’t experience or observe anything to worry us), it is quiet and definitely low-key. A pleasant dinner, a stroll through its attractive streets, and a relatively early night are probably the norm for most people who choose to stay here. But there is one street, La Ronda, which can be considerably livelier, especially at weekends.

La Ronda (also known as Calle Morales) is a narrow street on the south side of the old town, and has become known for its relatively lively nightlife. We found though that this varied very much according to when we visited. On this first visit, a Friday, the street was packed with both locals and tourists, and the atmosphere was great, although we were to find it much quieter when visiting on a “school night”.

The street is really little more than a pedestrianised lane, lined with old colonial buildings from 16th century onwards. On some of these there are informative illustrated boards, describing the history of the area and some of the artists and writers who once lived there. Today the old buildings have been turned into restaurants (some smart and upmarket, others cheap and cheerful), bars and shops. On a busy evening there are street traders selling gimmicky items such as light sabres and whirling helicopter toys, which seemed to be aimed more at the local market than tourists, but some of the shops have some nice craft items and paintings if you’re looking for something more special. But really this is a place to come and wander, soak up the atmosphere, eat and drink ...

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Soldiers on La Ronda

The street is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to pre-colonial times, when the indigenous inhabitants used it as a path to the Pichincha River, where they went to fish, bathe and wash clothing. Later it developed as the route to the San Juan de Dios Hospital, then the home to all types of artists, and later still became a street notorious for crime – theft, muggings and worse. Today however, like much of the colonial quarter, it has cleaned up its act and is regularly patrolled by tourist police who ensure that you need have no fears about visiting here.

We also saw the smartly uniformed soldiers in my photo here, who were happy to pose for my photo (and for many others!) But I have no idea, and no one could tell me, whether they were here on duty or for pleasure.

After strolling up and down we found a tiny bar near the Santo Domingo end of the street and settled down for a couple of beers at a table near the door from where we could watch the action. This was a pleasant low-key end to what had been a very busy day.

Tomorrow we would be heading further out of town …

Posted by ToonSarah 07:57 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches art views restaurants city museum quito Comments (6)

Viva Cuenca!

Ecuador day eight


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cuenca

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The "new" cathedral

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has it all – lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, and some of the best restaurants in the country. The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderón, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching.

We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. The city was in party mood and the various celebrations added to our enjoyment of it.

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Taking off from Quito

We came to Cuenca by air (with Ecuadorean airline TAME) from Quito where we had been spending the first part of our Ecuador trip. The flight left pretty early in the morning so we had to be at the airport by around 6.15 but already it was really busy, with a long queue at the TAME desk for the several flights leaving that morning. I was even a bit concerned that we could miss ours, as they were not prioritising those with the earliest flights, but I soon saw that the staff were really efficient and the queue moving quickly.

The flight was also quick at just forty minutes, and was mainly full of local businessmen, who must commute regularly between the two cities and many of whom seemed to know each other as lots of friendly greetings were thrown around on boarding. Flying south from Quito the route at first follows the line of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and great views are to be had on either side. I was lucky enough to be on the left-hand side from where Cotopaxi could be seen, although unfortunately didn’t have a window seat. The man next to me however kindly let me lean over to take some photos of the majestic volcano poking up through the clouds. He even offered to swap seats (presumably he makes the journey very regularly) but I declined the offer as it was such a short flight and I didn’t like to put him to the bother. Besides, I had already seen the views and taken my photos, thanks to his obliging nature.

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Cotopaxi from the air

We were soon landing in Cuenca, where the weather was bright and warmer than Quito, being a little lower at 2,500 metres above sea level. Our pre-booked transfer meant that we were soon being driven through the city to our hotel on the edge of the colonial area. Our eagerly anticipated visit to Cuenca could begin!

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Hotel Victoria

When we arrived at the Hotel Victoria it was only 9.00 am, so we weren’t able to check in but could only register and leave our bags. Our first impressions were favourable – the lobby was attractive and the hotel well located on the southern edge of the colonial part of the city. We went off to explore confident that we had made a good choice.

The Coffee Tree

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Our first priority though was breakfast, and in particular, coffee. The first likely place we saw was this European-style café on a street corner just a few metres from our hotel. It was a bright sunny morning, warmer than we had been having in Quito, and the pavement tables and chairs looked very inviting. We managed to secure one of these spots and were soon checking the menu for breakfast options.

Chris decided to try a local dish that our transfer driver, Claudia, had mentioned – bolon. This is a ball of mashed plantain shaped around a cheesy filling and fried, here served with a cappuccino as a breakfast. I stuck to the more conventional muesli, which in fact was granola served with fresh fruit (pineapple, strawberry, kiwi and melon), yoghurt and honey (a very large portion and delicious) and also had a much-needed double espresso.

La Merced

Once we had enjoyed a good breakfast we were ready to start our sightseeing in Cuenca. Right next door to the café was the church of La Merced, so this was as good a place to start as any!

The church is an attractive one, set back a little from the road on a small semi-circular plaza. An inscription above the door reads “Ave Maria, Redemptrix Captivorum” – Hail Mary, saviour of captives. The door itself is beautifully carved – I loved the slightly grumpy lion on one panel in particular.

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La Merced

This church was built here in response to a request by the people of Cuenca, following the construction of the church of the same name in Quito. I was surprised when we entered to find that photography was allowed as in Quito the first sight that greeted us on entering many of the churches was one forbidding the use of any camera. So I was happy to be able to take some photos (without flash, naturally) as we looked around. I was especially taken by some excellent examples of the local tendency towards the gory in any representations of biblical events, which is often attributed to indigenous artists finding in their art an opportunity to draw attention to the blood spilt in the Spanish conquest of their lands.

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In La Merced

I read only after our visit of the painting here of the Sleeping Virgin, a representation of a miracle said to have occurred near Baños where it is believed her image appeared carved in a rock, so we didn’t seek that out. I also read too late that it holds the tomb of Julio Matovelle, local poet and priest, who founded the Congregación de Padres Oblatos and is best known for promoting the construction of the Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito, which we had visited a few days before with friends Betty and Marcello.

After our visit to the church we made our way through some of the streets of the old colonial town towards the plaza that lies at its heart, the Parque Calderón. The colonial heart of the city is of course only a small part of the whole, but it is where we, like most tourists, spent the majority of our time. It has retained much of its character and sense of history, arguably more so even than Quito, although like the country’s capital it is very much a working city rather than museum piece. Many streets are cobbled, adding to the sense of the past as you explore. A few ugly 20th century buildings mar the whole, but for the most part you both sense and see the history around you.

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Colourful doors, a Cuenca trademark

The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and its population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era, reaching the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence when it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the emerging republic, alongside Guayaquil and Quito. But its history goes back much further. It was originally settled by the indigenous Cañari around 500 AD and was called by them Guapondeleg – the “land as big as heaven.” It had been conquered by the Incas less than half a century before the Spanish conquistadors landed, and renamed Tomebamba (the name still held by its river). Soon after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a new grand city to be known as Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma”. The magnificence of this new city was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived however, there remained only ruins, although the indigenous people told stories of golden temples and other such wonders. To this day, it is unclear what happened to the fabled splendour and riches of the second Inca capital.

Parque Calderón

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Parque Calderón

At the heart of Cuenca, as with all Spanish colonial towns and cities, is its grand plaza, here called Parque Calderón after Abdón Calderón whose statue stands in the centre. Calderón was born in Cuenca in 1804 and became a hero of Ecuador’s fight for independence when only young. His death in the Battle of Pichincha at age just 18 ensured his conversion from hero to legend. According to accounts of the battle he stood immovable in the line of fire even after receiving 14 bullet wounds, and ensured that his battalion held firm. He died of his wounds and of dysentery five days later in Quito. His story is still told to young children in Ecuador and his statue here, which depicts the wounded hero holding firm to the flag of independence, was a focus for the city’s celebrations of its own independence day on the weekend of our visit.

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Monument to Abdón Calderón

Around the square are several of Cuenca’s most notable buildings including the cathedral, and the old cathedral which stand respectively in its south west and south east corners. Other less eminent but equally historic buildings add to the overall impression. The square is a focus for both tourists and locals and has plenty of benches and shady corners where you can relax and take a break from sightseeing which indulging in some quality people-watching.

Viva Cuenca!

As we were here on a holiday weekend the Parque Calderón was especially lively, with a variety of entertainments laid on for the local families who had flocked here to join the celebrations – stilt walkers, musicians, photographers with props (you could have your photo taken as a cowboy sitting on a model pony, for instance) and people selling all sorts of food and drink as well as cheap toys.

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Stilt walker and musician

But why the celebrations? On 2nd November each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, celebrates the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), and a day later on the 3rd it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The two events form one merged celebration, Viva Cuenca!, and when, as in 2012, they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood. We arrived here on Thursday 1st to find the Parque Calderón full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history, but when we picked up a leaflet called “Viva Cuenca!” later in the day, all became clear.

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Floats in the parade

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Locals watching the parade

We hadn’t planned it, but we were lucky to be in the city at this special time and to be able to join in some of the fun. Later in the weekend we were to come across other elements of the celebrations – traditional dancing, live music – all adding to our impressions of a colourful and welcoming city.

Raymipampa

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Light fitting

By now we were in need of more refreshment and luckily help was close at hand! We were slightly wary that a restaurant situated in this prime location on the west side of Parque Calderón, right next to the cathedral, might be a tourist rip-off, but Raymipampa was anything but! We found it busy and bustling with a really mixed clientele – local families enjoying a meal together while attending the holiday weekend festivities, young women in town on a shopping spree, tourists of all ages, and even a group of young men and women in army uniform who had I think been taking part in the parade.

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In Raymipampa

The décor here is eclectic and in places eye-catching – in how many restaurants are pieces of old cutlery and broken crockery used to make light-fittings?! More conventionally, there are some interesting historic photos of Cuenca on the walls, and the building itself is old and full of character.

On this occasion (we were to visit again later in the weekend) we were just looking for a cold drink, having been standing in the sun watching a procession wind its way round the Parque Calderón. There were lots of fruit juices to choose from, and I opted for pineapple while Chris had passionfruit – both really refreshing. We had been given a table by the window so could watch the holiday crowds outside as we drank, and despite the fact that it was very busy and we weren’t eating a meal, we didn’t feel hurried but could relax and enjoy our drinks.

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

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Refreshed, we continued our sightseeing. The west side of the Parque Calderón is dominated by the city’s “new” cathedral. This was built when the older cathedral (which still stands opposite but is no longer consecrated) became too small to hold the city’s entire population. Its distinctive blue domes have become a symbol of the city. You see them everywhere – on tourist publicity leaflets, on restaurant menus, on hotel websites and more. Ironically, you don’t see them very well when in front of the cathedral itself, as they are set back a little – the best views are from nearby Plaza San Francisco from where my photo on the right was taken.

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Main facade facing the Parque Calderón

This is the largest structure in the colonial part of Cuenca. The domes are almost 50 metres high and its towers should have been even taller than they are had the architect not made an error in his calculations and failed to dig foundations strong and deep enough to support the planned weight. But even with its truncated towers it is still an impressive sight. Started in 1885, its construction continued over the next century, and the result is a blend of neo-gothic and Romanesque. The imposing west front that faces the Parque Calderón is alabaster and local red marble, while pink marble imported from Carrara in Italy covers the floor. The domes owe their sky-blue hue to tiles from Czechoslovakia.

The inside is equally imposing in size, having been designed to hold the city’s then population of 10,000. It is somewhat austere but has some striking stained glass windows and an imposing marble altar decorated with gold leaf, a copy of one in St Peter’s in Rome. This interior was only completed in 1967, more than 80 years after the first foundations were laid.

I wasn’t sure whether photos were allowed inside so I only took one quick one of one of the windows that I especially liked. It is a great example of how local artists blended traditional biblical imagery with motifs from their own surroundings. See how the people who kneel at the feet of Jesus are dressed, not in the costume of first century Palestine, but in that of the Andes region.

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Stained glass in the cathedral

Plazoleta del Carmen

From here we started to turn our steps back towards the hotel, but there was a lot to see on the way. Although actually, we didn’t see a lot of the diminutive Plazoleta del Carmen, or Plaza des Flores as it is often called, as it was packed with the stalls of the daily flower market. As well as being a pretty and interesting sight in its own right, the market forms a colourful foreground for photos of the new cathedral on its north side and of the church right here on the plaza, the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion. It’s also a good spot for people watching as there’s lots of activity among not only the flower shoppers but also those coming to pray at the church. Be respectful, naturally, and keep a low profile if you want to take people shots.

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Flower market

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Cathedral from the flower market

Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion

Finding the church open we popped inside for a look. The monastery here dates back to 1682 but the church that stands next to it is more recent, having been built in the 18th century, around 1730. The white marble facade features a carved image of the Virgin and the shield of the order of the Assumption. Inside, the Baroque interior has a stunning altar piece, again with an image of the Virgin of the Assumption, surrounded by angels, a very ornate pulpit, several other ornate altars and a ceiling beautifully painted in rather surprisingly delicate colours. Photography is allowed (without flash) and admission is free, but I have read that it is rarely open to the public so we must have struck lucky – maybe it was open for the holiday weekend?

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Main altar, pulpit and side altar

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We walked back in the direction of the hotel, along Padre Aguirre, which runs down the west side of the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion past the Plaza San Francisco and the church of the same name. Here there were a number of stalls set out, all selling more or less the same things. The following day was, as I mentioned earlier, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps.

Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. The stalls here were selling the typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.

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Día de los Muertos decorations

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As with all my street / people photos, these were taken with a long zoom and I hope respectfully, but certainly anyone who saw my camera made no objections to my photography, for which I was grateful.

As in other parts of the country, many of the women were wearing traditional dress and again, as at Otavalo, we could see how this varies from place to place. One of these differences is in how the women here wear their hair – in two plaits instead of the single thick one of Quito or the unplaited pony tail of Otavalo. Hats here are made of straw, rather than felt, and skirts are not the sombre black of Otavalo but brightly coloured, often in velvet, and edged with colourful, even sparkling embroidery using sequins and metallic threads. We saw some of these skirts for sale in the shops – their shape is simple, just a tube of fabric, with several rows of gathers at the top and a ribbon to tie them on. They are also shorter than we saw elsewhere, being mostly worn knee length.

Many were in the traditional straw hat and double plait, but otherwise in quite modern clothing, but (perhaps because of the festivities) others were in the full traditional dress, as were the little girls we had seen at the parade in the Parque Calderón (above).

By now it was well past midday and we could go back to the hotel to check in. But I’m conscious that this entry is getting rather long, so let’s save that and our afternoon explorations for the next …

Posted by ToonSarah 19:23 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches people market cathedral cotopaxi customs cuenca street_photography Comments (6)

Farewell to Cuenca

Ecuador day ten


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Museo de Las Conceptas

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On our last morning in Cuenca we had plenty of time before our drive to Guayaquil to do a bit more sightseeing, so we headed for a museum not far from our hotel which we hadn’t had time for the previous day, the Museo de Las Conceptas. This is located in the former infirmary of the convent of Las Conceptas, the oldest religious cloister in Cuenca, built only two years after the Spanish founded the city. The building was restored in 1980 and provides an attractive setting for this interesting collection. Even if you’re not especially interested in religious art a visit here gives you an opportunity to see inside one of Cuenca’s loveliest old buildings.

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Little statue

The collection is spread over a series of rooms opening off the cloisters, on two levels, and the rooms are numbered – visitors are asked to follow the numbers, and not to take photos of any of the art in the rooms, although pictures taken out in the open, of the cloister itself, are permitted. I bent the rules a little and took one photo of a small statue in a niche on an outside staircase.

A couple of the rooms contain one big piece (the pride of the collection appeared to be a beautiful altar in the small central chapel of the old infirmary) while others are themed, e.g. statues of the Holy Family, nativities, crucifixes or saints. I found this more interesting than a purely historical arrangement as you could see how the ways of representing a particular scene or individual changed over time (the collection covers the period from the 17th – 19th centuries).

As well as the religious art, there are rooms containing various items brought to the convent by the nuns as part of their dowries – some mere trinkets, brought by those from poor families, and some rather beautiful – ornaments, religious figures and china, for instance. A few rooms towards the end of the series have been used to recreate a typical nun’s cell and show what the kitchen would have looked like, and there are displays about life in the convent, with photos of nuns carrying out their daily chores. The embroidery of priests’ robes was a particular skill cultivated by the nuns here and there are some examples on display.

In addition to the exhibition rooms you can see the courtyard that was used by the nuns as an outdoor kitchen, with the old oven still in place, and the “indoor cemetery” with the walls lined with rows of (empty) cubby holes for burials. We spent much longer here than we had expected, as there was so much to see and the building itself so lovely!

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The Museo de Las Conceptas

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Eiskaffee

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When we left the museum, coffee called. I usually like to eat and drink mainly local treats when travelling, but I can’t resist a good cup of coffee, so the presence in Cuenca of a supposedly Viennese-style coffee-house was enough to tempt me to break that admittedly very flexible rule! When we got to the Café Austria I felt that it was in practice more like a French bistro in style than an Austrian coffee-house, but it was no less pleasant for that, and the coffee was as good as I’d hoped.

This is the sort of place you can sit over a drink or a snack for a while. The décor is pleasant, there are newspapers to read from around the world, and free wifi. I have read mixed reviews of the food (though people around us were tucking into late breakfasts very happily) but the coffee is widely praised and with good reason. I really enjoyed my Eiskaffee and Chris his cappuccino, and we thought the prices were reasonable. The service was perhaps a little slow, but this probably isn’t somewhere you would come if in a hurry.

Although we had spent a fair amount of time in and around the Parque Calderón over the previous few days, we hadn’t got around to visiting the city’s old cathedral, which stands on the east side of the square facing its replacement. So we settled on that as our final “sight” in Cuenca.

Iglesia del Sagrario

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This is the city’s original cathedral, built in 1557 using stones from the ruins of nearby Inca Tomebamba, and restored in both 19th and 20th centuries. It was the main focus for worship in the city for the Spanish during colonial times and became a cathedral in 1787.

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It is no longer consecrated as a place of worship however, having been superseded by the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1880 when this one became too small to hold the city’s entire population, and is now a museum of religious art and a venue for occasional concerts.

Visiting here I got a strong sense of it being neither one thing nor another – neither church nor museum. It retains so much of its ecclesiastical structure and features that you are left in doubt as to its original purpose, but has an emptiness of soul that is no less obvious than its lack of pews for being invisible. But that is not to say that it is not worth seeing. It is an impressive building, and it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered too small, as its present day emptiness makes it seem vast. There are three naves with central altar, in front which are life-size statues of Jesus and apostles arranged as if at the Last Supper.

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To either side of the naves are chapels with some beautiful altarpieces, religious statuary, and in one some wonderful illuminated manuscripts. Labelling though is all in Spanish so I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at – but it was still mostly very lovely. The ceiling of the main structure is also noteworthy, ornamented with paintings of flowers and leaves as well as religious symbols and saints.

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In the Iglesia del Sagrario

We were charged just $1 to go in although signs said $2 for foreigners – we didn’t question the unexpected discount, naturally, but I wondered afterwards whether it was a special price for the Independence holiday (surely we can’t have been taken for locals?!). The ticket seller told us we could take photos if we didn’t use flash, so I did, despite the several signs inside indicating otherwise. Most people in fact were doing so, and many of them even using flash.

By now it was time for lunch and it made sense to have this near our hotel as we would need to be back there soon afterwards for our transfer to Guayaquil. So we headed back to the Coffee Tree café where we had enjoyed breakfast on our first morning. Given that it was the Saturday of the holiday weekend we were very lucky to again get an outside table and enjoy the buzz on the street and the live music playing nearby. I enjoyed a spinach and cheese crepe and a fresh passionfruit juice, and Chris had the “pitta Arabe” topped with chicken, olives, peppers and cheese. A tasty finale to our wonderful few days in Cuenca!

Journey to Guayaquil

We had originally planned to fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil and to connect there with our flight to the Galápagos. But when Tame altered their schedules we had to change our plans to include an overnight stay in the city, meaning an afternoon departure from Cuenca. We were sorry to have leave early a city we had quickly grown to love, but we would have been even more sorry to miss that flight to the Galápagos! And the bonus was the journey there by car rather than plane – how much better to be driven through the countryside than fly over it! And what wonderful countryside ...

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On the road to Guayquil

We started our journey a little late, as our driver got caught up in the festivities marking Cuenca’s anniversary weekend, and also had to park some distance from our hotel for the same reason – there was a fun run going on outside. We drove out of the city through a western suburb where we were told a lot of expat Americans have settled – so much so that locals call it “little America”! We were soon in El Cajas National Park, an incredibly scenic if rather bleak area, with a large number of lakes set in a rather stark landscape of paramo, and rocky outcrops. Cajas means boxes in Spanish, and one explanation that is given for the name of the park is that it refers to this distinctive landscape, sometimes called knob and kettle geomorphology, where the outcrops alternate with lakes. Another possible explanation for the name is linked to the Quichua word "cassa" meaning "gateway to the snowy mountains”. The highest point in the park is Cerro Arquitectos, at 4,450 metres, although the highest point on the road was just over 4,000 metres. We only stopped briefly for photos but if you have more time there are lots of hiking routes. It would make a wonderful day out from Cuenca.

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In Cajas National Park

A striking feature of the road from Cuenca to Guayaquil is the dramatic change in height along a relatively short stretch of road. Cuenca lies at around 2,500 metres above sea level, while Guayaquil, being on the coast, is naturally at sea level. This is a considerable drop in just a couple of hours, and it leads to some very varied landscapes and a mini-lesson in climatic zones. When we left the national park, we were on the western fringes of the Andes, and below us was cloud forest. At this height we could look down onto the clouds that filled all the valleys, almost as if they were flooded. We stopped again for photos, and to use the toilet at a little snack bar.

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Looking down at the cloud forest

Then we plunged down into the clouds! The road twisted and turned, and the landscape around us (or what we could see of it – we were now in a thick fog) became lush with plants and trees, their branches dripping in the damp air. Every now and then the cloud would break and we would see that we were still pretty high – and hope that our driver knew the road as well as he seemed to, since there was quite a drop on one side!

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Cloud forest scenery

After a while we emerged fully from the cloud, dropping down below it to reach the plains. The mountains we had left so recently were totally invisible as the thick blanket hid them from view. And again the landscape changed, now becoming intensely arable in nature. We drove between fields of bananas, sugar-cane and rice paddies. In the small villages stalls were piled high with fruits and dusk was falling (it was now about 6.00 pm). Local people were riding their bikes, stopping to chat to friends, buy a few provisions for the evening meal or have a beer at a roadside bar. The air was warm and had that unmistakable tropical dampness. It was such a different world to highland Cuenca, yet only three hours away!

By the time we reached the outskirts of Guayaquil it was dark. Although not the capital, this is the largest city in the country and it was a bit of a culture shock – neon lights shone above US-style shopping malls that lined the road as we approached, and the traffic was heavy. By the time we reached our hotel in the centre we had been driving for about 3.5 hours and plans to do a little sightseeing while searching for dinner were abandoned in favour of a quiet night in the hotel. The sights of Guayaquil would have to wait for another visit!

The Grand Hotel

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In the hotel grounds

When a night in Guayaquil became unavoidably added to our itinerary Surtrek reserved a room for us at the Grand Hotel. This is as the name suggests a large hotel, very well located near the city’s cathedral – so near in fact that the wall of the apse forms the outer wall of the hotel’s small pool area (which is also watched over by a colourful giant sculpture of an iguana).

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Our bedroom

The lobby here sets the tone for the hotel – large, bustling, and rather lacking in character. You could be anywhere in the world. But that’s not a criticism – Guayaquil is a very different city from, say, Quito or Cuenca, and it’s not surprising to find a more international style of hotel perhaps (though I’m sure there are places with character to be found as well). As we were only here one night it suited us just fine, and we had a comfortable night’s sleep in our large room, with its queen-size bed, lots of storage and some comfortable seats. There was a TV too, and the bathroom was also a generous size with a tub / shower combination, hairdryer and plenty of towels. Everything we needed for a quiet night before the big Galápagos adventure would begin the next day!

There are two places to eat in the hotel, the smart 1822 Restaurant and the more casual La Pepa de Oro coffee shop. We had decided to eat in the former but when we went to check it out it was deserted so we opted for the friendly buzz in the coffee shop. We had expected that this might have a limited dinner-time menu but in fact there was plenty to choose from.

Our waitress was, to be polite, not “in the first flush of youth” and seemed to find managing the orders a bit of a challenge but she was so eager to please and agreeable that we didn’t mind. Unfortunately though the food was a little disappointing, but served in very generous portions. We shared empanadas to start with but these were not as good as those we’d had elsewhere, lacking flavour and being a little greasy. My main course of fajitas suffered from the same problem, although Chris’s club sandwich was better. We were too full for dessert, so finished the evening in the hotel’s cosy bar instead, which had a very good selection of drinks at reasonable prices.

Tomorrow our Galápagos adventure would begin …

Posted by ToonSarah 05:41 Archived in Ecuador Tagged landscapes churches art road_trip museum cathedral national_park cuenca guayquil Comments (8)

Farewell to Ecuador

Ecuador day nineteen

A last morning in Quito

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Santo Domingo

So, almost time to go home, after an amazing time in Ecuador. We had explored the old colonial cities of Quito and Cuenca, been awed by the majesty of the Andes, and been thrilled by the many wildlife encounters on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. But with an evening flight to catch, we determined to make the most of our last few hours here and take in some of the sights for which we had not previously had time.

Museo Domenicano de Arte Fray Pedro Bedón

We started here, just around the corner from our hotel. The Museo Domenicano de Arte in the monastery of Santo Domingo may be smaller than the Museo Fray Pedro Gocial attached to Iglesia San Francisco, but it is well worth a visit. In some ways I liked it more – perhaps because there were fewer exhibits and it was therefore easier to take them in; perhaps because the leaflet we were given gave us a good explanation in English of a few of the more noted pieces; perhaps because photography is allowed; but probably because we had the opportunity here to see more than just the museum itself.

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In the cloisters

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Wooden statue

But let’s start with the museum. We came here first thing in the morning and were the only visitors. The entrance fee of $2 included the brief leaflet, in Spanish and English, mentioned above. We were offered a guide but declined as we wanted to look round at our own pace. The guy who sold us the ticket told us we were allowed to take photos, without flash naturally, and walked with us to the room off the cloister where the treasures are displayed, which he unlocked for us. We spent some time in the short series of rooms. Among the treasures on display are:
~ a huge hymn book, dating from 1681 and made from parchment, leather and wood
~ an 18th century painting of the Virgin of the Rosary, by an anonymous artist of the Cuzco school
~ various wooden statues of saints from the 17th and 18th centuries, very realistic on their portrayal

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In the museum

When we had finished looking around here, we took some time to enjoy the peaceful cloister where more paintings were displayed, some of them looking decided more modern but not described in our leaflet.

As we went to leave the same guy who had sold us the tickets asked if we would like to see the original monastery refectory. We said that we would, so he locked up the museum (there were still no other visitors) and took us to the far corner of the cloister where he unlocked a door that led through the next cloister. This is currently part of the school for boys run by the monks, but he explained that the building works that we could see going on were being carried out to turn another part of the monastery into the school and open this part up to the public, thus extending the museum.

He then opened another door and we were in the refectory. This was really worth seeing – a large room beautifully decorated, with seating along the edges. Each of the 54 seats has a painting of one of the Dominican martyrs, along with the cause of their demise – some stabbed, some stoned, one shot by arrows and so on. As a contrast to these rather grizzly images, the ceiling has beautiful paintings depicting the life of St Catherine, from her birth at one end to old age at the other. Our guide pointed out that some had been restored and were consequently much richer in colour. The room is apparently still in use – hired out by the monks for special events, and used by themselves on feast days.

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In the refectory

Back in the cloister I asked our guide about the more modern paintings we had seen, and one in particular that had intrigued me. He explained that it had been painted in 1933 by a Dominican monk and artist, and showed the establishment, in Guayaquil, of Ecuador’s first trade union. You can see people practicing their various trades and crafts, gathered around Jesus in his guise as a carpenter, with his father Joseph, also of course a carpenter, behind him. On the right a Dominican brother leads more workers to join the union, and in the background is the busy port of the city, a hive of industry and activity.

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Painting marking the first trade union in Ecuador

We had spent considerably longer here than we had expected, and there was still the neighbouring church to be seen.

Iglesia Santo Domingo

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Chapel of the Rosary

The church of Santo Domingo was our “next-door neighbour” while we were in Quito, but somehow we had never got around to going inside until now, our last morning in the city, and when we did so there was a service in progress so we couldn’t look round properly. But while we were hesitating at the back a local lady motioned to us to indicate that we should go ahead, so we did just walk quietly along the right-hand side to peer into its most noted treasure, the Chapel of the Rosary. This alone is worth a visit to this church! It is richly decorated in deep red and gold, with a stunning rococo altar-piece, and quite takes your breath away. We had been told by our guide in the museum that this was the only part of the church to retain its original appearance, after the rest was redecorated in what later Dominicans considered more appropriate to the worship of God – this being thought perhaps too rich and worldly. But can you imagine what the church must once have looked like if it were once all like this?! It isn’t possible to enter the chapel (or at least, wasn’t possible when we visited) but photos are allowed from the gate that closes it off, as long as you don’t use flash. Despite resting my camera on that gate, the gloom has meant that my photo is a little blurred but I had to share it so you can see a little of the dramatic effect of this chapel.

The rest of the church is much plainer although still worth seeing, with some notable paintings – apparently. As I said, we weren’t really able to look around properly, but didn’t mind at all, as once we’d seen that chapel we were more than happy that we’d made time to come inside our neighbour church.

The church stands in, and dominates, the plaza of the same name. In the centre of the square a statue of Antonio Jose de Sucre points to the Pichincha volcano where he led the winning battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822. I had read that the square is considered unsafe at night, but we had walked along its north-eastern side several times on our way to and from La Ronda, once stopping to take photos, and had never seen anything to concern us. However, we may have been lucky, so do be careful if you visit at night.

From the southern corner of the plaza you can walk under the arch that the church forms over the road, Rocafuerte, and look back for some rather different views.

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Santo Domingo from Rocafuerte

After visiting the church we walked up to the Plaza San Francisco for coffee at our favourite café, Tianguez, and from there walked along the narrow but busy shopping street, Cuenca. We came across a number of clothes shops along this street that to our European eyes were rather old-fashioned but all the more fascinating for that, and they presented us with some great photo opportunities. In particular, the shops selling clothes for special occasions such as children’s First Communion celebrations, and dresses for brides, caught our eye – and our camera lenses!

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Shops in the colonial city

Iglesia La Merced

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La Merced

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I had not read as much about this church as many of the others in Quito before our arrival, but as our walk led us this way we decided to pop inside for a look. Approaching the church along Cuenca gave us an excellent view of it, and as it was morning and therefore sunny it was shown to best advantage, its white walls gleaming. Entering we found that there was no fee to pay and no restriction on photography other than a request not to use flash – unusual here in Quito.

The church dates from the early part of the 18th century, having replaced an earlier one that was destroyed by earthquake in 1660. The tower is the highest in colonial Quito, at 47 metres. According to a legend this tower is possessed by the devil. Supposedly the only person strong enough to resist the devil was a black bell-ringer named Ceferino, and no one has dared enter the tower since he died in 1810. The clock therefore stands still and the bell is never rung.

The church has an unusual grey stone door frame, with images of the sun and moon carved above the lintel – the two heavenly bodies worshipped by the indigenous people who no doubt quarried the stone. Inside two features dominate – the beautifully painted dome with its dedication to Mary, and the altar. The latter has a life-size stone statue of the Virgin of Mercy, to whom Sucre dedicated his victorious sword after the Battle of Pichincha. The statue was carried in procession during the eruptions of Pichincha volcano.

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The dome of La Merced

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The altar

All this we saw, as well as a number of interesting paintings. But I wish I had done more research, as I found out after returning home that the cloister here is considered one of the most attractive in Quito, with pillars of stone and dazzling white archways, as well as a wide stone courtyard with a magnificent carved stone fountain in the centre. Furthermore, from this cloister you can apparently access the library, with two floors of ancient parchments and gold- and leather-bound books. How I regretted not having seen this! Nevertheless we enjoyed our visit to this slightly off-the-path church.

Iglesia San Agustin

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Iglesia San Agustin

By now we were running out of morning and still wanted to fit in lunch before we had to leave. But we made time for a brief visit to another church.

The church of San Agustin is one of the oldest in Quito, having been constructed during the first half of the 17th century, but much of it has been rebuilt after damage by earthquake in 1880. It has a distinctive tall bell tower (37 metres) topped with a statue of St Agustine. We didn’t have time for a proper exploration, but we did manage to get a quick look at what seemed to me to be a somewhat plainer church than some of the others in Quito but with attractively painted walls and ceiling – almost more in the style of a grand house than a place of worship. The most noted part of the church is in fact its cloisters, which we had no time to visit. These are decorated with paintings depicting the life of St Augustine, dating from the mid 17th century and the work of an important artist of the Quiteño school, Miguel de Santiago. The chapterhouse opens off the cloister and was the location for an important event in the city’s history – the signing, on August 10th 1809, of Ecuador’s declaration of independence from Spain.

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Last lunch in Quito

A more thorough exploration of this church and its treasures will be one of my priorities should we ever return to Quito.

As our route back to the hotel took us past the Plaza Independencia we popped into the Palacio Arzobispal for lunch at Querubin, where we had eaten on our first day in the city. A toasted cheese sandwich and last glass of my favourite guanabana juice were a good finale to our time in this very likeable city.

Travelling home

After lunch we headed back to the Hotel San Francisco de Quito to pick up the bags they had kindly been looking after for us. Our transfer to the airport went smoothly, as did the flight home, with none of the delays of our outward journey, and the standard of service on board was as good as I’d remembered from a previous long-haul flight with KLM some years ago.

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Sunset over Ecuador

Travelling directly from Quito to Europe was great, as it meant a long overnight leg with a chance to catch some sleep, and a short hop back to Heathrow on a plane so small that baggage reclaim was mercifully quick, and we were home from the airport in record time!

The end of another wonderful trip – one of the most memorable we have taken.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches sunset city quito ecuador street_photography Comments (5)

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