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‘Hot dog, jumping frog’

New Mexico day five continued


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Albuquerque

As we drove into Albuquerque after a fascinating morning spent visiting Acoma Pueblo, we had two things on our minds. One was lunch; the other a song by one of our favourite bands, Prefab Sprout:

All my lazy teenage boasts are now high precision ghosts
And they're coming round the track to haunt me.
When she looks at me and laughs I remind her of the facts
I'm the king of rock 'n' roll completely
Up from suede shoes to my baby blues
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque …
[The King of Rock and Roll]

While the song has nothing to do with Albuquerque beyond the frequent repetition of the line ‘Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque’, it was naturally stuck in our heads as the only thing we had ever heard about the city prior to visiting!

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Downtown car, Albuquerque

Although it is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque surprises by not being the state capital – Santa Fe has that honour. The city was established as the Villa de San Felipe de Alburquerque in 1706. Initially a small farming community clustered around the church of San Felipe de Neri, it expanded rapidly when the Camino Real, the main trade route north from Mexico, was developed to run through the area just a few decades later. Later came the railroad, which triggered expansion to the eastern side of the Old Town, in what then was known as New Town but today is Downtown. This was followed by Route 66, which ran through the city on its Central Avenue, and later still further expansion out into the surrounding desert.

Thus Albuquerque has always been a city for travellers, a stopping point on a journey, and so it was for us. Despite its many attractions, we decided to spend only one night here, preferring to have more of our limited time in more scenic parts of the state. Nevertheless we had time to explore the Old Town and see something of the Art Deco style of the Downtown area too.

Perhaps inevitably we were to leave the next morning wishing we had stayed longer, but Santa Fe beckoned, and that did indeed deserve more of our time ...

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Chilies for sale

Meanwhile, here we are on I40 heading into the city with lunch top of our agenda. We found parking near the compact old town and set off to explore.

At first it seemed to us that most of the places around the Plaza were more suited to a large dinner than the sort of light meal we were after. But then we spotted the sign for the Bebe Café (now closed down, I believe) and followed the trail into a pretty courtyard surrounded by interesting little shops, and in one corner a small café with just a few tables outside.

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The Bebe Café

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Turkey wrap

There was one other customer there, waiting for his lunch, and with just the one server we had to wait a short while as all the sandwiches are made freshly to order. But we didn’t mind as it was very pleasant sitting in the courtyard with our cold drinks, and the sandwiches when they came (the day's special of turkey and mango salsa wrap) were very good. The server explained that she had to get to class (clearly a student working to pay her way through college) so would have to lock up the café, but the owner would be along soon – or if we finished our meal before then we could just leave plates etc. on our outside table – very casual and friendly.

After lunch we had a look around the little shops off the courtyard, especially a very good photography gallery opposite the café, and then set out to explore the Old Town area.

The Old Town Plaza

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Gazebo in the Old Town Plaza

As in any Spanish colonial city, the heart of Albuquerque’s Old Town is its Plaza. The town was founded in 1706 and as it grew settlers built their houses near the church and around a defensible centre, which eventually became the plaza.

Shaded with trees it is a very pleasant place in which to take a rest between sightseeing and shopping (the two main activities in the Old Town). Children play, and both locals and tourists relax on the benches. At the centre is a gazebo which apparently is a popular place for wedding photos to be taken after ceremonies in the church. Also on the plaza are two replicas of cannons which were buried by retreating Confederate troops during a Civil War skirmish on April 8 – 9, 1862. The original cannons are in the Albuquerque Museum.

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Jewellery seller, Old Town Plaza

The Plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops with high tourist-appeal and under the porticos of some of these Native American traders sell jewellery and other crafts. We didn’t buy anything here (although were to do so a couple of days later in a similar setting in Santa Fe) but it looked a good option if you are shopping – it’s always nice to buy direct rather than pay shop overheads!

San Felipe de Neri

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San Felipe de Neri

The most striking building in Albuquerque’s Old Town is the church of San Felipe de Neri on the north side of the Plaza, the oldest building in the city. With its slightly incongruous white wooden spires gleaming against the blue sky it is very hard to miss. These spires are a later addition to the late 18th century adobe structure, which itself was built to replace the original (1706) building that collapsed after the particularly rainy summer of 1792. The spires were added under the direction of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom we were to encounter again later in our trip, in Santa Fe. This French bishop came to the area with very European ideas of what a place of worship should look like – and it wasn’t built of mud!

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San Felipe de Neri, outside and in

The bulk of San Felipe de Neri is adobe however, with five foot thick walls. Its cool interior would have been welcoming in the heat of the afternoon even if we hadn’t been interested to explore within. It isn’t large but is quite grand in appearance, with an ornate Baroque altar and an elaborate pressed-tin ceiling (added in 1916).

Capilla de Nostra Senora de Guadelupe

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Patio Escondido, Albuquerque

This tiny cross-shaped chapel is a hidden gem of the Old Town, and I’m sure many tourists pass by without realising that is there – we certainly would have done so if it were not for our trusty Moon Handbook, as it isn’t visible from the road and neither is it signposted. It is tucked away in the pretty Patio Escondido and is dedicated to the first saint of Mexico.

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Our Lady of Guadelupe

It is clear by the votive candles burning here, the flowers and the little prayer messages that it is an active place of devotion. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates one arm of the cross, to your right as you enter, and opposite it is a colourful stained glass circular window which acts as perpetual calendar, showing the Feasts of the Virgin and the phases of the moon. Opposite the entrance is a small altar.

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Inside the chapel

After our visit I found a story associated with the chapel, which claims that it is haunted by a lady in black. She has apparently often been seen seated on the far right bench of the chapel, weeping copiously. She wears a long black dress and her face is concealed by a dark veil. She is often mistaken for a real person, until she mysteriously vanishes, at which point the observer realises that she cannot after all be real. The lady is not menacing or threatening, but those who have seen her say that there is a deep sense of sadness emulating from her.

The chapel is not old, having been built in 1975 by a Dominican nun, Sister Giotto, as part of the establishment of a school of sacred art in Albuquerque, the Sagrada. Outside the chapel a wall is decorated with a number of small ceramic tiles set in at intervals, portraying various saints.

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Decorative tile of St Francis

Meeting a medallist!

Our warm sunny afternoon spent exploring the Old Town certainly called for an ice cream at some point, and we found a few places to choose from to the west of the Plaza, opting for Romero House Ices (also now closed down) because it had plenty of seating outside. It is located in an old house, Romero House, which was built in 1915 and was the last major home built on the plaza. Today it has been converted into a sort of mini mall, with a couple of galleries/shops opening off its central corridor and this small café tucked away at the back. As well as a good selection of ice cream and frozen yoghurt, as promised outside, they also sell cakes and fast food savoury treats such as nachos and grilled sandwiches.

While perusing the different flavours on offer we got talking to the woman selling behind the counter and asked if we could take a few photos. She agreed, and suggested that her father should be in them. It turned out that he was one of two older men sitting at a table in the corner, and as she explained, he is a bit of a local celebrity, having won medals at the Senior Olympics for race-walking. Slightly bashfully he agreed to pose – to be honest, I think he really rather liked the attention even while protesting that he wasn’t worth a photo!

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A Senior Olympian and his medals!

Photography over, we turned back to the display of ices. I had a mango sorbet and pistachio, and Chris chose chocolate and strawberry. We ate them outside in the shade of the flowering bushes on the patio and they were fine – not as good as those we had enjoyed a few days earlier in Silver City, but pretty good just the same.

Staying in Albuquerque

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The Hotel Blue, Albuquerque

After our ices we decided to go and check into our hotel. The ones in the Old Town were pretty pricey so I had reserved a room in the Hotel Blue, which had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Gillian. This is located in the downtown business area on a stretch of Route 66, here known as Central Avenue.

The hotel is a modernised 1930s cross between a motel and hotel – the shape, lobby, parking lot etc are more like a hotel in feel, but you access your room from an outside walkway. This may not suit everyone (I saw a few reviews expressing concerns about security) but we had no issues with it, and rather enjoyed the expansive views of the city from our fifth floor room. We were lucky to have been given one in the north east corner as these have views of the mountains beyond the city.

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The lobby of the Hotel Blue

The hotel lobby is very impressive and really reflects the Art Deco style of much of this Downtown district. Staff at reception were friendly and helpful, and there was the nice touch of a plate of cookies on the desk for guests to help themselves!

The décor in the rooms was a lot plainer and the external areas (e.g. the walkways) were not up to the standard of the interiors, but on the whole we felt the facilities and overall appearance exceeded what we would expect for this price and were very happy with our choice.

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Our room at the Hotel Blue

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View from the walkway outside our door

Exploring Central Avenue

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Signs on Central Avenue

In the early evening we had a walk along part of Central Avenue, near the hotel. Had we not been staying in the Downtown area we might never have explored beyond Albuquerque’s touristy Old Town, and that would have been a mistake. We really liked the ‘vibe’ around here, even though it might be considered a little edgy by some.

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The KiMo Theatre

We spent some time wandering up and down the road, checking out a few shops (there was a fascinating large one with a huge range of Native American items, from the kitsch to high-end crafts) and taking photos of the wonderful KiMo Theatre. This is a 1920’s cinema whose ornate ‘Pueblo Deco’ style was inspired by Native American iconography in the same way that cinemas of that era elsewhere were built in the style of Moorish mosques or Chinese pagodas. You can tour the interior, which I would have loved to have done, but it’s only open for tours during the day unfortunately. It sounds amazing, according to the cinema’s website, with ‘plaster ceiling beams textured to look like logs and painted with dance and hunt scenes, air vents disguised as Navajo rugs, chandeliers shaped like war drums and Native American funeral canoes, wrought iron birds descending the stairs and rows of garlanded buffalo skulls with eerie, glowing amber eyes.’

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On Central Avenue

This area was once the city’s ‘New Town’, developed in the early years of the last century on either side of Central Avenue (which is in fact a stretch of iconic Route 66), and was the commercial hub. But as the city grew, new shopping plazas opened in outlying districts and the centre declined and became ever scruffier, with boarded up shops and unused office buildings. Then at the turn of this century a movement started to revitalise it, following the principles of New Urbanism. These don’t seem very revolutionary to me, as a European and Londoner, but in the US possibly only New York and few other older cities would recognise what the planners are attempting here. The idea is to create mixed-use neighbourhoods where people can live, work and play without relying on cars. Everything they need – shops, restaurants, bars – should be within a ten minute walk. In a typical American city, where going out means getting in the car and pedestrians are a novelty (we know, we have been those pedestrians!), this is a radical concept – and a marvellous one.

Some redevelopment had already happened in the 1990s, with bars and restaurants springing up on Central Avenue, but the idea that Downtown could be a place to live was a fairly new one when we visited in 2011.

Downtown dining

One reason for choosing the Hotel Blue was the free shuttle service offered to take guests to the Old Town, which we thought would be useful when it came to going out for dinner, but my research had thrown up a few options in the immediate area, so in the end we didn’t take advantage of this. Instead we went to the Flying Star Café, recommended in our Moon Handbook. This is a small local chain with a handful of branches in the city. The one we visited seems to have since closed down but there are still several in the city.

The branch we visited was located in an interesting and rather striking building – which I completely failed to take any photos of! It was originally the Southern Union Gas Company and was designed in 1950 by a regionally famous architect, John Gaw Meem. The gas company stopped using it about 17 years ago and the building was restored for use by the café. It has been granted the status of a National Historic Place, and today is occupied by an IT company, Rural Sourcing (see https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2016/09/07/how-this-tech-company-turned-a-downtown-restaurant.html).

On the evening we visited the café was busy with a wide variety of diners – students making a coffee last for hours while working on laptops (there is free wifi), groups of friends evidently on the first leg of a night out, tourists like ourselves, family groups, business people etc etc. This was clearly a popular spot.

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In the Flying Star Café

We went to the counter to order (no table service here) and found several tempting dishes on the menu. We decided to keep with the casual vibe and go for sandwiches – Chris’s the Turkey and Swiss on rye, and mine the “MOO-ve Over Meat” veggie burger, which was delicious (I’m not a vegetarian but I do like anything spicy, which this promised to be: a ‘grilled, spicy southwest black bean patty with melted cheddar & Cajun dressing’). Both our sandwiches came with a choice of sides – I opted for the homemade BBQ potato chips while Chris had the French fries.

To go with our meals we ordered a couple of bottles of Santa Fe pale ale – and thus began one of the more amusing incidents of our trip. It is New Mexico state law that anyone drinking alcohol must be over 21 years of age. Neither Chris nor I are under any delusions that we look anything like that age for decades! Consequently we were not surprised to be able to buy beer and other drinks in a number of places during the first few days of our trip. The friendly Buffalo Bar in Silver City happily served us beer and Jack Daniels; the Socorro Springs Brewery had no problem with us enjoying their brews both with and after our meal; and our hotel in Grants served us without a quibble. So imagine our surprise, and initial amusement, when we were asked to show ID here. It was, even back then, a very long while since anyone questioned whether I was over 21! But the server was adamant – no ID, no beer. She did offer to see if her manager would waive the rule, but the manager too was insistent. According to her, state laws meant that anyone serving alcohol to anyone had to ask for and see evidence that they were of legal drinking age. We pointed out that no one else had so far done so, but she said that she could lose her job if the police were to raid the restaurant and find anyone drinking without ID, so Chris popped back to the hotel (thankfully only a few minutes away) to get our passports.

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Chris with passport and hard-won beer!

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Key lime pie on the house

To be fair the manager was only doing her job and we certainly didn’t want her to lose it because of us! And she obviously felt a bit bad because when I went up to the counter to order dessert (Key Lime pie to share and a decaf latte for Chris) she came over to tell the server that it was on the house – how kind!

After this incident we made a point of taking our passports out each evening, but hardly anywhere else apart from Albuquerque did we come across anyone who bothered about this law, if law it was. In the end, only one other place asked for ID, and that was a small family-run restaurant in Alamogordo which had only recently got its license and was presumably being very carefully to do the right thing.

After dinner we again strolled along Central Avenue, and saw for ourselves how the area was becoming more lively when we stopped off for a night-cap.

There were a couple of bars on this stretch of road; one had a live band and therefore a cover charge, but the other, although it had a DJ playing records in one corner, was free to enter. The Blackbird Buvette (now closed down, it appears) was quite a dark and old-fashioned bar and on this warm evening it seemed a shame to sit inside, especially as the music would also have made conversation difficult, so we were pleased to see a table available on the pavement outside. The tables though were carefully roped off and to reach them you had to go into the bar, passing the bouncer who, like the server in the Flying Star, asked us for ID – we were ready for the question this time!

We bought our drinks (a Sodbuster Pale Ale for Chris and a Jack Daniels for me) and grabbed the free table. We then passed a very pleasant half hour or so watching the late evening activity of Downtown – dog-walkers, late-night shoppers, sporty gym-goers, a few tourists, groups of girls clearly on their way home from the gym, young people and older couples on a night out and a handful of business people who had perhaps stayed late at the office that night. It felt much more urban than most US cities do to me, with their sprawling suburbs and often hard-to-identify centres, and we really enjoyed sitting there.

Posted by ToonSarah 14:35 Archived in USA Tagged churches buildings people architecture beer road_trip history restaurants city new_mexico Comments (9)

A city among volcanoes

Ecuador day one


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

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)

Getting to know Quito

Ecuador day one continued


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Palacio Arzobispal

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Palacio Arzobispal

After our morning spent exploring the Compania church, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de la Independencia (see previous entry) we decided to search out a light lunch. I knew from my research and tips from friends on Virtual Tourist (thanks Malena!) that there were a number of cafés and restaurants in the Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace) on the opposite side of the Plaza de la Independencia, so we decided to check these out.

The Archbishop's Palace is a two-story whitewashed building built in neoclassical style, with a colonnaded passage facing the plaza. Inside are a number of courtyards, around one of which are several restaurants (both fast food and smarter) and souvenir shops – also, conveniently, a good clean public loo!

It was built in the 17th century at a time when the Catholic Church was as powerful and important as the ruling Spanish government, if not more so. It remained the seat of power of the archbishops of Quito for centuries, undergoing various modifications as needed to preserve or improve the building. Its current restored appearance dates back to 2002 when the structure was strengthened and the courtyard given over to today’s commercial activity.

Querubin

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Humita

For lunch on this first day we chose the casual eatery Querubin, located on the ground floor of the Archbishop’s Palace. The space inside was quite small and full so we asked if we could eat at one of the tables outside in the courtyard, not being sure which of the several nearby restaurants they belonged to, and were told that indeed we could. It seemed that the tables were common to all the ground floor restaurants in fact.

We were keen to get our first taste of local food, having arrived too late for dinner the previous night. Chris chose a chicken empanada (a single large pastry rather than the more usual little ones) and I decided to try the humita. Humitas consist of fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. They can be savoury or sweet. This one was savoury but was rather disappointing – so bland in flavour that I could only enjoy eating it once I had covered the corn with generous dollops of the chilli sauce known as aji. As we were eating outside I had to go into the restaurant to ask for the latter – normally it is placed on every table in just about any restaurant in Ecuador. My choice of drink was more successful however – a delicious glass of mora juice. I also had a single espresso after my meal (more caffeine needed!), and Chris had a coke.

The Cathedral

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Cathedral


After lunch we decided to pay a visit to the cathedral. Easier said than done, at first, as while there appears to be an entrance from the Plaza de la Independencia, and indeed one from Moreno, in fact you enter through an unprepossessing doorway on Venezuela, which is almost lost in a row of small shops, so it took us a while to find. Admission to the cathedral cost us $1.50 (remember, these are October 2012 prices) and I found it very interesting if less ornate than I had been expecting – but isn’t that quite often the case with cathedrals?

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This was the first cathedral to be erected in South America, between 1550 and 1562, although it has been since restored several times owing to earthquake damage. It is today a fascinating mix of 16th century colonial Spanish design and local native influences. As an example of the latter, on the wall to the right of the altar there is a painting of the Last Supper with dishes that include cuy (roast guinea pig) and humitas (fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed) – it’s unlikely that either of these would have been on the menu in 30 AD Jerusalem!

On the whole, the interior is as I’ve said less flamboyant than some of the other smaller churches in the city, but no less interesting for that. As well as the painting mentioned above, I was taken by the hammered-relief silver doors of the rear chapel, through which we had entered, and the beautiful wooden ceiling which dates back to the turn of the 19th century. I also liked the dramatic altarpiece in sky blue picked out with lots of gold – as the most ornate piece of decoration in the cathedral it really draws the eye forwards to the altar, as it is of course intended to do. No photography is allowed inside, as seemed (frustratingly) to be the norm in Quito, but I have to confess that I did sneak one of this altar, without using flash, obviously.

The cathedral has seen its share of bloodshed. A bishop of Quito, José Ignacio Checa y Barba, was murdered here during the Good Friday mass in March 1877, poisoned with strychnine dissolved in the consecrated wine. Only two years earlier, in 1875, the Ecuadorian president Gabriel García Moreno was attacked with a machete outside the cathedral and was brought inside – a plaque behind the altar marks the spot where he died. His is one of several notable tombs in the cathedral, and another is that of Mariscal Sucre, one of Ecuador’s heroes of independence. You will recognise both these names as they are commemorated in nearby streets – Moreno runs just behind the cathedral and intersects with Avenida José de Sucre just a block away.

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A Helado de paila pan

Leaving the cathedral, we decided to complete the fourth side of the rectangular route we had been following from our hotel. The historical heart of Quito (and indeed much of the rest of the central part) is laid out in the square city blocks typical of colonial Spanish towns, making navigation easy. We attempted to visit the attractive church of San Agustin on the corner of Guayaquil and Chile, one block southeast of the Plaza de la Independencia, but found it closed – that would have to wait till another day. But nearby I knew was a café named for the church, the Heladaria San Agustin, which specialises in a traditional local treat, which just had to be tried – Helado de Paila. This is a particular sort of ice cream made in the north of Ecuador. It is made not through churning, as is usual, but instead prepared in a wide metal pan (a bit like a wok) which the ice cream maker spins on a bed of ice. The fruit juice, with I think just a little cream added, freezes in the pan through the contact with this ice. The result should be a thick creation somewhere between a sorbet and ice cream.

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We found a table in the café, which has a somewhat European style to it. The waiter helpfully brought us a plate of small taster spoonfuls so we could make our choice. These were mostly flavoured with various local fruits, many of them unknown to us on this, the first day of our trip. A bowl with two small scoops cost $2.00, so we decided to choose two flavours each. I was tempted by taxo, a type of passion-fruit, but in the end chose guanabana, which reminded me a little of lychees, and naranjilla, a green bitter orange that I found refreshing. Chris tried mora, the local blackberry-like fruit, and chocolate. He was disappointed with the latter, and indeed all the flavours seemed a little watery, which made me wonder why Helado de Paila is so celebrated (and indeed why this establishment is so highly rated). However the next day while out and about with our friends Betty and Marcello we stopped at a roadside heladeria in Nayon, where I had a much stronger flavoured and very refreshing cone of taxo flavoured Helado de Paila. So I don’t know if we had just caught this place on an off-day perhaps?

After our ice cream we realised that the long flight, time difference and maybe also the altitude were catching up with us, so we decided to go back to the hotel for a break and also to get to know our temporary home a little better than we’d been able to do when arriving so late the previous night. We spent a little time in the large communal lounge which has two computers for free internet access (there is also free wifi, though we found it patchy in the rooms), checking up on emails and social media, and then headed up to the roof terrace, up several flights of steep stairs, to check out the views which were great.

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View towards Santo Domingo

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View of La Compania and beyond

Café de Fraile

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Palacio Arzobispal - the courtyard at night

Having seen the range of restaurants inside the Archbishop’s Palace when we were there in the morning of our first day in Quito, we returned in the evening to try one of the smarter ones. Our choice was the Café del Fraile on the first floor (second floor to US readers) balcony of the courtyard. There were a number of tables along the narrow balcony with good views over the courtyard below, but the evening was a little chilly so we opted for an inside one. The décor here was quite interesting, with some old paintings on the walls, antique instruments etc. Service was a little slow perhaps, but not really a problem as we had all evening.

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Tortillon

We were brought bread and a tasty chilli sauce, aji, with the two beers we’d ordered and decided that was sufficient as starters. For my main course I chose a dish called tortillon which consisted of pieces of well-flavoured steak (which I think had been marinated in something but I’m not sure what) served with boiled rice, llapingachos (potato patties with a melted cheese centre – these became one of my favourite Ecuadorean treats), fried egg, avocado and salad. The rice was a little dull but the rest of the food very good. Chris had a “Sandwiche Fraile” with ham and cheese, which was served with fries. At the time we couldn’t judge as this was the first main meal we had in Ecuador, but on reflection I think it was one of the better ones we had in Quito (although we had even better food elsewhere perhaps).

We walked back to the hotel along the quiet streets (the colonial city is not the part to come to for boisterous night-life), very happy with our first day in this likeable city.

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Cathedral and El Sagrario at night

Tomorrow we would meet up with a local couple, parents of a London friend, to explore further afield …

Posted by ToonSarah 16:11 Archived in Ecuador Tagged restaurants city cathedral quito Comments (7)

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)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


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

Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

After a good night’s sleep in our lovely room at the Hotel Victoria we sought out the included breakfast which was served in the large restaurant, Le Jardin, which as its name suggests overlooks the pretty garden and was very good. We sat at a table with a hummingbird visiting the feeder just by our window and enjoyed fresh fruit, papaya juice, a choice of bacon or ham with eggs cooked to order, rolls and much better coffee than we had become used to at our Quito hotel.

City tour with Terra Diversa

When planning our trip to Ecuador I was conscious that we were only going to have very limited time in Cuenca so when our travel company (Simply Ecuador) suggested pre-booking a half-day tour of the city I acquiesced, thinking it would be a good way to see a lot in a short time. But when we arrived, and I realised how compact the city was, I wondered if we would regret that decision as it seemed quite possible to cover a lot of ground even in the couple of days we had available. However, I have to say that the guide we had, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa, was absolutely excellent, with the result that we were very pleased to have secured his services. What made it so good a tour was the variety of places he took us, his flexibility in listening to our preferences (and adjusting to the fact that I couldn’t walk as far as I would have liked with my still-dodgy knee), and the wealth of interesting information he imparted. Terra Diversa offer lots of tours and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again, directly – and would certainly ask for Wilson by name!

Our tour started when Wilson collected us from our hotel at 9.00 and should have lasted four hours, but he was as happy as we were to over-run a bit and in the end we spent nearly five hours exploring the city with him.

"Panama" hats

In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our tour with Wilson, despite being concerned that it might prove to be little more than a sales pitch aimed at persuading us to buy one. As it turned out it was a very informative visit and with only a little pressure to buy – which we resisted, more or less!

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Unfinished hats

The factory we visited was one of the most respected in the city, Homero Ortega & Sons. The visit started with some history, and an explanation of the name, Panama hat. Everyone in Ecuador will tell you that the hats come not from that Central American country, but from Ecuador – and a specific part of the country, near the coast, where the toquilla plant, from whose straw they are made, grows. The reason for the misleading name comes from the fact that, like many other 19th and early 20th century goods from South America, the hats were shipped via Panama to be exported to Europe, America and even as far as Asia. They were popularised by President Roosevelt who wore one when he visited the Panama Canal during its construction – thus probably also contributing to the adoption of the name, Panama, for the hats.

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Mock-up of hat maker's village home

Wilson told us all this and more as we studied the photos in the first of the three rooms at the factory that make up what they slightly grandly call “The Magic of the Hat” Museum. In the second room we learned about the process of making a hat, only part of which happens here at the factory. The hats are first woven by local women, working at home in the villages outside the city. They are delivered to the factory where they are examined and graded.

Homero Ortega buy only the best of the examples sent to them, so those that don’t make the grade will be sold instead in local shops at rather lower prices. Those that are selected are graded according to the weave (more strands of straw to the inch gives a finer quality hat) and sent back out of the factory, this time to specialist hat-shapers, usually men, who trim and neaten the edges and shape the hat on a mould. When they come back to the factory for the second time they are bleached, dyed, reshaped and given their final trim. They are then ready to be sold – here in the factory’s shop, through specialist outlets or sent all over the world. The best hats fetch huge sums – some over $1,000! We were shown photos of many famous people wearing Homero Ortega hats, including film stars, politicians and pop singers.

From the little museum, we went into the working part of the factory, but unfortunately as it was a holiday weekend very few people were at work and we could only see the machinery (very simple and unchanged for generations) and have an explanation of how things were done.

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Trying on a hat

Naturally the factory has a shop, and naturally our tour of the factory ended there. But I have to say that there was minimal “hard sell”. We were persuaded to try on a few hats (and I at least was happy to do so, as some were gorgeous!) but no one forced the issue when we said we didn’t want to buy. Had we wanted to do so, the price range was considerable – from $25 for the simplest men’s ones, made from the coarsest straw, up to around $1,000 for a couple of special ones displayed in locked glass cabinets. Wilson explained that, sadly, making these ultra-fine hats is a dying art, with only a handful of people known to be producing them. They sell through agents, and even the factory owners don’t know where these skilled workers live, or anything about them. It is assumed though that they are by now fairly old, and that when they die there will be no more hats of this quality, so these are usually bought as an investment. Not an investment we chose to make however!

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Our little tile

In a room that led off the hat shop was another shop, selling a good range of high-quality souvenirs including Tigua paintings, jewellery, organic coffee and chocolate and more. Here we did spend some money, buying a small ceramic tile with a picture of a blue footed booby that caught Chris’s eye (in anticipation of seeing the birds very soon in the flesh) and a packet of my favourite chocolate-covered coffee beans so that I could get my caffeine fix “on the move”. Then it was on to our next stop with Wilson

Mirador de Turi

I had read about and wanted to visit this viewpoint to the south of the city, so I was pleased when Wilson told us that we would be going there on the tour. It is a popular spot because it affords such a good panorama of the city, including the historic colonial part. You can pick out the blue domes of the new cathedral and from there orient yourself and find other landmarks such as the Parque Calderón. From this spot it is easy to appreciate the grid layout of the early city planners, and also see how the rivers wind through the city throw that plan out in places.

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Mirador views

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Iglesia de Turi

Next to the viewpoint is the Iglesia de Turi, which dates from 1835. We didn’t have time to go inside on this tour so were unable to see on the main altar the sculpture of the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of the parish (made in Spain, about 80 years old), and on a side altar the Calvary with the image of the Lord in Bethlehem. This latter is also commemorated in a grotto a short climb above the church.

According to a local legend, the Christ Child appeared to a Cañari shepherd boy on this hill, and since then the Cañari people have had a special devotion to him, coming to the grotto and to the church to leave offerings such as bird feathers, animal feed and small model animals at his feet, thereby ensuring that throughout the year their animals, their livestock, their crops and products are blessed.

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Horno

From the Mirador we drove through an area to the south west of the city famous locally for its restaurants and street-food, and in particular for its horno or roast pig. The smell (to a non-vegetarian) was delicious! And we were interested to see how the pigs had been decorated with flags to mark the independence celebrations that weekend.

Once back in the colonial city Wilson parked the car and the rest of our tour continued on foot.

Plaza San Sebastián

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In the Plaza San Sebastian

I thought this was one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Cuenca, although there is a gory piece of history attached to it. It was constructed in the 17th century to serve as an open marketplace for the western part of the city. The church (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) is recently restored and has a carved wooden door, single tower and octagonal raised dome. In front of the church is the Cross of San Sebastián which marked the western limit of the city.

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Iglesia San Sebastian

As we strolled around with Wilson he told us the tale of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, the surgeon Juan Seniergues, who had come to measure the Equator and later settled in Cuenca. He was by all accounts a bit of a womaniser, but made the mistake of turning his attentions to the former girlfriend of a local dignitary and became embroiled in a dispute between the dignitary and the girl’s father. At that time (1739) the plaza was the venue for bull fights, but one evening at one of these a fight of a different nature broke out here, between the surgeon and some local “heavies”, and he was murdered. It had the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but it is generally accepted, according to Wilson at least, that his murder was ordered and planned.

Today this is such a peaceful scene that it is hard to imagine that it was the location for such an occurrence. And on the south side of the plaza is a great little museum.

Museo de Arte Moderno

This museum is worth visiting even if you have little interest in modern art, because of the lovely building in which is located, but even better if you do have such an interest because of the manageable size of the collection and exhibitions, and the way in which they are presented.

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Museo de Arte Moderno

The building is the former Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance), built in 1876 to house people with drinking problems. It later became a convent and then an orphanage before being restored in late 1970s and opening as a museum in 1981. The building has been very sensitively adapted for this new role and provides a somewhat unique setting for the art, which is for the most part displayed in the series of very small rooms (some no larger than cells and housing a single sculpture) which open off the pretty courtyards. You could spend a very pleasant hour wandering from room to room and then relaxing in the greenery of one of those courtyards.

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Exhibits outdoors and in

The exhibits are a mix of those from the small permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When we were there the latter included some intriguing sculptures as well as paintings exploring how modern technology is changing who we are as humans (or so I believe from the limited amount of Spanish labelling that I could guess at, and the works themselves).

The chapel of the Temperance House has been restored to its former appearance and is used as a venue for talks etc. If not in use, you can pop inside to see the lovely painted ceiling and friezes.

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Chapel ceiling

A traditional craftsman

Next to some art of a different and far more traditional nature. Leaving the Plaza San Sebastián by its south-eastern corner Wilson led us down a street of small traditional houses, far less grand than most of those nearer the centre of the old city around the Parque Calderón. This is Coronel Guillermo Talbot and in one of the houses on the west side a traditional craftsman, working in tin, has his workshop. Wilson took us in to meet him. It was a fascinating place, the walls covered with examples of his craft and his tools laid out on the small table where he worked – tools he has clearly been using for decades. He proudly showed us his newspaper cuttings with several articles from local papers in which he has featured. Wilson acted as translator as he explained that sadly his son, like most younger people, has no interest in following in his footsteps and the craft of engraving in tin as he does it is dying out.

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Tin craftsman

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Engraving the tin

Of course all his work is for sale, but I’m sure you could come and visit just to see the work. Probably though, like us, you will feel that you want to make at least a small purchase to acknowledge his time and support him – and as a memento of the visit. We bought two of the pretty tin stars that he makes, to give as Christmas tree ornaments to my family. If you want something more than this there are photo frames, larger ornaments and pictures, many (but not all) of a religious theme. We paid $6 for each of our stars, which is at the lower end of the prices. If buying a more expensive item I reckon it would be possible to haggle but we didn’t as we were mainly buying to thank him so haggling seemed to go against that somewhat!

Plaza del Cruz del Vado

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Cruz del Vado

Continuing our walk, we came to this little square perched on a ledge above the Rio Tomebamba on the southern edge of the colonial city. There are good views from here over the more modern city on the other side of the river. Its main feature is a cross, called the Cruz del Vado, which is protected by a six-sided structure. This cross was erected as a symbol of protection for travellers who had to cross the waters of Tomebamba.

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Greasy pole sculpture

Next to the cross is an interesting modern sculpture depicting the Ecuadorean version of the traditional greasy pole contest. Women in local dress watch as two young men try to climb up to where a selection of pots, pans and other household objects dangle above their heads – such very practical prizes!

This square is located in one of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city. Houses near here are for the most part less ornate than near the centre and some are run down and in need of restoration. Others though have been smartened up, and several have the traditional roof tile decorations to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. It’s an interesting area to explore and I was pleased Wilson had brought us here as it wasn’t a part of the city I’d read about at all.

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Traditional roof decorations

And nearby was an even more intriguing place. Wilson asked if we were easily offended, which seemed an odd question, but we assured him that we were not, so he proposed stopping for coffee in a rather different sort of café.

Prohibido Centro Cultural

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In Prohibido Centro Cultural

In one of the old houses on La Condamine, which are gradually being restored, a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has undertaken a restoration very different in style. Yes, the old house (dating from 1810) has retained its traditional layout, with small rooms leading off open courtyards. But the décor in those rooms would I am sure shock the original inhabitants, although if you go with an open mind you will be intrigued and entertained.

You must knock for entry (apart from when one of the regular music events is going on) and will be charged just 50 cents. Believe me, it’s worth it! The whole house is an intriguing shrine to the macabre. There are skulls, coffins and tombstones; religious imagery with more than a twist; designs inspired by tattoos, heavy metal music and black magic; even a guillotine! And if you want to use the bathroom facilities (and you must!) you will find yourself washing your hands in water that flows from the “private parts” of an appropriate sculpture – a goddess for the men and an impish creature for the women.

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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Hand-washing and guillotine

As you can imagine we spent quite some time looking around and taking photos, but after a while took our seats with Wilson in the small open courtyard where we had a coffee. The artist’s wife sat with us and was stringing flowers as she chatted, preparing them for their afternoon visit to the family graves as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We wanted to treat Wilson to coffee but she said his was on the house, so we paid $3 for our own two. This is definitely something worth doing when in Cuenca if you want a change from the more conventional sights – and if, as Wilson put it, you are not easily offended!

We finished our tour with Wilson by walking some more interesting streets, peering into a few shops and ending up, a lot later than intended (by mutual agreement!) in the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, which we had already seen and which I have already described in a previous entry.

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Locra de papa

Having said our goodbyes (and tipped generously as was deserved), Chris and I headed for a late lunch at nearby Raymipampa, where we had enjoyed our fruit juices the previous morning. We had a short wait for a table, but only a matter of minutes. I had the traditional soup, locra de papa, which was very good (one of the best I had on the trip) and a sparkling water, while Chris had a toasted cheese sandwich and a Coke.

After lunch we spent a bit of time relaxing in the Parque Calderón and enjoying some of the festivities there and in the surrounding streets, before heading back to the hotel. There we went down to explore the garden and enjoyed meeting the resident cats. There are some chairs set out here for guests to relax in, and you can access the hotel directly from the river through this garden.

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One of the cats

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Cheers

Before dinner that evening we decided to try out the offerings at La Compañia Microcerveceria. It claims to be the first micro-brewery in Cuenca and when we saw the sign we decided we just had to go in and sample its beers. We liked the rather higgledy-piggledy arrangement, with tables on different levels and a friendly buzz, but were less impressed with the beers themselves – which were sort of the point! My Irish Red was OK, if rather cloudy, but Chris’s Golden Ale somehow managed to be both watery and a little acidic in flavour.

It was good to see that local entrepreneurs want to produce local beers, but we concluded that they would have to get better at it than this to really make an impression on the ubiquitous Club / Pilsner duopoly in Ecuador. Although having said that, the bar was busy enough when we went and many people were sinking back large glasses, mainly of the stout, so maybe that is a better beer than the ones we tried?

Las Monjas

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On our first evening in Cuenca we had eaten at the restaurant rated number one in the city, and the only way to follow that seemed to be to try the one rated as number two, Las Monjas. And to be honest, based on just one visit to each, I would give this one the edge. The only surprising thing is that it isn’t busier. This was a Friday evening and we were amazed to find only two other tables taken as we had worried that we might not get in, having not got round to making a reservation. This really deserves to be better known!

In contrast to the traditional décor of Tiesto’s, the atmosphere here is cool and modern. It looks expensive, but while you can certainly eat more cheaply in Ecuador, the prices here are not really much higher than many a less-good restaurant and we thought it was excellent value for the quality of the food.

They describe the cooking here as “New Andean” – a kind of Andes/European fusion. That may sound odd, but judging by what we ate, it works! The cover (which like everywhere we went in Ecuador was complimentary) was garlic bread with four delicious sauces – two with chilli and two we couldn’t identify. We then shared a mixed starter platter (one of two on the menu) which consisted of my favourite Ecuadorean treat of llapingachos (cheese-filled potato patties), cheesy empanadas (sprinkled with sugar as is quite common here), a stuffed green chilli and slice of pork in an apple sauce.

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

My main dish certainly reflected the fusion theme – corvina (sea bass) in a quinoa crust with an olive sauce, served on a bed of nicely al dente fettuccini (Ecuador meets Italy!). Chris chose one of several chicken dishes which had pieces of chicken, peppers and other vegetables in a sauce flavoured with tree tomato and accompanied with rice. We had no room for dessert despite a rather tempting menu.

On the way back to the hotel somehow our feet took a detour and we ended up back in the Wunderbar for a night-cap – a margarita for me and beer again for Chris.

Our time in Cuenca was drawing to a close, although we would have the following morning to take in just a few more sights …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:27 Archived in Ecuador Tagged art views restaurants city museum tour ecuador crafts cuenca Comments (6)

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