Day 2: Ecuador & Galapagos – Quito’s Historic District

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Travel / South America, World Travel / Day 2: Ecuador & Galapagos – Quito’s Historic District

The first full day in Quito was spent exploring the original section of the city known as the Centro Histórico, or Old Town.

Filed Under: South America, World Travel by admin June 29, 2012, 11:43 pm

There was no middle-of-the-night wakeup call this morning. Instead, I slept to a comfortable hour of 10 AM, with the only repercussion being that I missed the included breakfast provided by the hotel. Oh well, no worries. There will be plenty to eat on the streets of Quito this morning.

The place where I’m spending these first two nights is the Centro Histórico (Old Town) district of Quito and is one of the best preserved and least-altered historical places in all the Western Hemisphere. This distinction allowed it to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back on September 18, 1978. Hence, it is also Quito’s main attraction. Miles of cobblestone streets transports the visitor back through the centuries as the grand cathedrals, churches, and exquisite colonial architecture captures the senses. The most difficult thing about the Old Town is deciding which road to go down next.

The first destination to hit was the Plaza Santo Domingo, the smallest of the three squares that dot the Old Town and graces the southern edge of this district. The Iglesia (Cathedral) Santo Domingo, constructed by the Dominican friars between 1581 and 1650, dominates the southeastern corner of the plaza. While not the most impressive of places, this plaza is frequently used by the locals as a venue for outdoor concerts and festivals. During the weekends, street performers and magicians crisscross the venue entertaining the swarms of Quiteños that regularly pack the square.

From there, I decided to take a jaunt that would lead me out of the Old Town and into the local streets of Quito. The Rocafuerte Road just to the west of Plaza Santo Domingo would take me towards the main bus terminal. Walking down the Rocafuerte is the Ecuador I always pictured when thinking about this place. Small shops line the streets with the narrowest of footpaths to traverse between the buildings and the roadways. Local Quiteños wearing the traditional colorful outfits that define this South American country were seen everywhere. Women with bright red or purple suede skirts and shawls topped with brown colored fedora hats paced leisurely up and down the road. Young girls in vivid dresses lounge uninterestedly in shady corners of buildings selling fruits, packs of Chiclets gum, or uncooked empanadas from shabby plastic crates. Similarly, senior citizens sit dozing off against faded doors under the midday equatorial sun. Everything had an air of authenticity and normalcy that does not exist in the high traffic tourist areas. I wish I could speak Spanish so I could sit down at a cafe and strike a conversation with the locals.

Returning back to the Old Town, I decided to take another look at La Ronda. The streets were much more deserted at this time with only a few pedestrians sauntering around for a closer look at the art and architecture on either side of the cobbled pavement. From here, it was time to get immersed into the Centro Histórico, and so I made my way out to the heart of the Old Town – the Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square). This well adorned open area is surrounded by the city’s most prominent civic and religious buildings. First laid out in 1534 with just a string and a ruler as an esplanade of packed dirt that was meant to hold water for the surrounding area, the unused land adjoining the square began to get bought up by various institutions including the Catholic Church, the local city government, and private investors. As the churches, municipality buildings, and palaces were constructed, the plaza became a true square, in the style and spirit of the grand European cities that inspired it.

Flanking the square on all sides are some of the loveliest and grandest buildings that make up this section of the Old Town. These include the Gothic-Mudejar style La Catedral de Quito (Cathedral of Quito), the Palacio de Gobeirno (Government Palace) which serves as both the seat of government and the presidential palace. Along the north side of the plaza is the dazzlingly white Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace). It was first established as the Diocese of Quito in 1545, until it was elevated to the archdiocese level by Pope Pius IX in 1849. And finally the Municipality of Quito building borders the eastern side of the plaza and houses the governing body of the city and canton of Quito.

A considerable amount of time can be spent around this area. It is bustling with local businessmen, tourists, government officials, merchants, children, and beggars. Crowds line up at cafes that serve up everything from quick sandwiches and coffees to extravagant five-course meals to satiate the palate. I settled for a simple traditional lunch of eggs, humitas, potatoes, coffee and orange juice. It only set me back a mere $3 and was well worth the investment.

Moving on, the third major square of the Old Town is the Plaza San Francisco. The absence of trees and benches in this square marks a noteworthy contrast to the leafy, park-like setting of Independence Square.
Far and away the most conspicuous edifice here is the monumental twin bell towers of the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (Church and Monastery of Saint Francis). The entire complex of the church, extensive buildings and seven courtyards that covers an area of two city blocks makes this the largest religious complex on the South American continent. The construction of the church began in 1536, just two years after the founding of Quito. The entire complex was not completed until 1680 – a project that spanned nearly one and a half centuries! The church itself is adorned with the most immaculate of decorations. The main altar with its large, domed area is almost a visual overload of gilded imagery.

Exiting the church and returning to the square, one’s eyes are drawn southward to a 660 feet (200 meter) tall hill in the near distance called the El Panecillo (“The little bread loaf”). Sitting atop this is a magnificent 98.5 feet (30 meter) high statue of the Virgen de Quito (Quito’s Madonna) that was commissioned by the church and was inaugurated by the 11th archbishop of Quito on March 28, 1976. Locals say that this is the only statue of a Madonna anywhere that shows her with the wings of an angel. Due to the distance and time, I never actually made it to El Panecillo – just one of the many attractions I missed during my time in this city.

By this time the weather was starting to turn. What had been a sunny but breezy mid afternoon, was now cloudy and raindrops were starting to descend with a sense of urgency. While I love the rain, the thought of the shower damaging my Nikon DSLR was a little more risk than I wanted to take. So I quickly headed back to the hotel to weather out the brief storm and continue the meanderings through Old Town later in the afternoon and evening hours.

A couple of hours later I was back on the newly washed streets of Centro Histórico. However, by this time it was later in the day and just an hour or so before sunset so I needed to make some haste. Why is this important? Well, for anyone reading this blog post that has never traveled in the tropical zones or at the equator, it is a curious phenomenon that there is hardly any twilight period at the lower latitudes. In fact, right after the sun sets, it gets dark very quickly. The reason for this is actually quite simple. It is because at the equator the sun sets perpendicular to the horizon, extinguishing its light from the sky in a matter of minutes. However, the further you get away from the equator in either hemisphere, the sun sets at a more oblique angle, allowing the light to remain close to the horizon after sunset for a longer period of time. This is why in the summer months of the effective hemispheres the sun does not fall below the latitude of 66° 33’ 44”, marking the boundary of the famous midnight sun for at least one 24-hour period. The closer you get to the poles, the longer the day lasts until finally, at the North or South Pole, the sun only rises and sets once each year. Conversely, in the winter this same latitude marks the periphery of the polar night – a 24-hour sunless period where the sun never crosses above the horizon. So, it is important to keep this in mind while traveling in the equatorial region so you don’t find yourself in a tight spot as darkness descends at an incredibly swift pace.

Anyway, back to the story. With only about an hour or so left of daylight, I decided to head down another pathway. This time to the northeast towards the flamboyant, neo-Gothic inspired Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow). With two 377-feet (115 meter) towers, this is the tallest church in Ecuador and can easily be seen from many parts of Quito. Despite the construction starting way back in 1892, this concrete studded church is still not complete. This is not a result of shoddy construction, limited resources, or derelict contractors. Rather, there is a local legend that states that once the basilica is complete, the end of the world will be upon us. I guess that is one way to disband trade and labor unions. I wonder how such a bizarre tale got started.

By this point sunset was upon us and it was time to start heading back. While waiting for the rain to subside earlier that day, I found an entry for a great local restaurant called the Mirador Vista Hermosa so I decided to check it out. I had my first cup of hot chocolate here, a drink only reserved for Inca kings and queens in the pre-colonial days, and was surprised to find that the blob of white matter at the bottom of the cup was a slab of cheese. It seems a bit bizarre, but the locals like to mix the salty flavor of the cheese with the sweet flavor of the chocolate to balance out the taste. It’s definitely an acquired taste and I felt really weird chewing on chocolate covered cheese. I wonder if they realize that sea salt would accomplish pretty much the same thing. Nevertheless, the rest of the meal that consisted of a potato soup and Ecuadorian pizza were exquisite. In addition to the fantastic ethnic food, the roof terrace provided a lovely panoramic view of the Old Town and out into the rest of modern Quito. Live music accentuated the atmosphere. It’s not often that I can eat an authentic Latin American meal while being serenaded by the harmonic sounds of a pedal harp and accompanying guitar.

Here is a badly recorded video of the musicians that I took with an iPhone. You may need to have Quicktime installed to view it.

Unfortunately, the next several hours were mundane. My bag had arrived from Miami and I had to return to the airport to pick it up. Sadly, they don’t deliver bags here. Passengers are required to personally walk their own bags through security – even if those bags don’t show up till some days later. It seems like every country has its own ridiculous set of airline rules. So grabbing a taxi, I made the journey back and found myself waiting almost an hour for the right person to show up and then grab my bag. I was hoping to see my friends arrive from the US, but apparently their slog through immigration and baggage claim was far more hassle free than mine and they had departed the airport before I ever got there.

Yet another $10 taxi ride returned me to the Boutique Hotel Plaza Sucre. Reaching my room, there was a note attached on the door from my friends stating they were going to La Ronda to grab some dinner. Throwing down my recovered backpack, I headed back down to La Ronda to try to find them. As luck would have it, I ran into them in just a few minutes. After some pleasantries about the flight to Ecuador and my missing backpack, we hunted down a good café where they could stuff themselves as well as get used to the altitude. An hour later, just after midnight, we were back in the hotel and turned in for the night.

Tomorrow starts our drive south through the Avenue of Volcanoes.

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I've always felt that a life full of experiences is far more valuable than a life full of material goods. I have yet to come out of one of these experiences poorer than when I first went into it.

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