Quito, Ecuador

Basilica del Voto Nacional
Upon our arrival in Quito, we secured a taxi at a counter just beyond the customs checkpoint, and for $26 we were whisked into the city, about 45 minutes away.  US dollars is the official currency used in this country, so no hassle with trying to obtain a foreign currency, or constantly converting what you are actually spending.  Taxis throughout the city use meters, though at night the meters are not always used, so a fare needs to be determined before climbing into the cab.  Basic Spanish seemed to be essential in this endeavor, though hoteliers can generally help with the transaction.  We utilized a number of taxis during our stay, for convenience sake but also due to the 9300 feet elevation.  Rides within the Old Town, where we stayed and did most of our exploring, only cost a dollar or two.  We never encountered a taxi driver who spoke even minimal English.  Even with the use of taxis, we walked several hours each day exploring the beautiful historic district.

Photo by Diego Delso on Wikipedia
Compania de Jesus interior

Our first morning in the city, we headed to the expansive Basilica.  Construction on this outstanding building started in 1892, and is still considered to be unfinished.  It is the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, and in a city filled with impressive churches, this structure overshadows them all.

The church of the Compania de Jesus, started in 1605, is surely the most ornate church in Quito, and perhaps anywhere.  We were told that over 900 pounds of gold was used for the gold leaf finish.  Photos inside are not allowed, but the accompanying photo from Wikipedia shows a glimpse of the grandor.  Use of gold leaf was seen in most of the churches we visited, in addition to classical paintings, sculpture and gorgeous wood carvings.

The church and monastery of San Francisco were first started in 1534, just a few weeks after the founding of the city.  Construction continued for the next 150 years.  Not only does the church contain the fabulous gold leaf seen in the other churches, but the monastery provided the first art school of the area, the Quito School of Art, so countless works created by the students and master artists are on view throughout that portion of the structure.   Numerous vendors utilize the large plaza located in front of the church, and we enjoyed lunch at tiny restaurant located at the base of the building, but with pleasant outdoor seating.  Alan's lunch consisted of pork with 2 types of corn on the side, hominy and roasted kernels, I enjoyed steamed fish over veggies.  We were served popcorn and plantain chips while our food was being prepared, something we experienced at several other Ecuadorian restaurants. 

Our second evening in Quito, we traveled by taxi to Calle La Ronda.  Having visited this area earlier in the day, we knew there were a number of restaurants, artisan shops and music venues available.  During the day, the streets had been relatively deserted.  Arriving that Saturday evening, the streets were packed.  Only moments before our arrival a 7.8 quake had struck the Ecuador Pacific Coastal region.  Even though 100 miles from the epicenter, the ground had shaken and electricity flickered in Quito, and everyone fled buildings, with fear that a quake might hit the city.  Unfortunately, the death toll for the quake has now reached over 650, and it will be years before the coastal area will recover from the devastation.

Located around the corner from the Plaza. we visited the Casa del Alabado.  The house, built in the seventeenth century, displays around 500 pieces of Pre-Colombian art from various parts of Ecuador, different cultures and time frames going back at far as 4000 BC.  An English guide audio tour can be purchased, if desired, but the pieces are well-displayed and labeled, and we enjoyed exploring on our own.
Guayasmin's gardens overlooking Quito

Traveling several miles from Old Town, we visited the home and gallery
(La Capilla Del Hombre) of famed Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin.  Located on the same property, both offer tours in English which are included in the entrance fee.  The home has been left as it was during his life (he died in 1999), and is filled with his personal extensive collection of pre-Colombian art, in addition to works by Goya, Picasso and numerous other renowned artists.  Guayasamin's awareness of world affairs and empathy for oppressed groups are reflected in the majority of his colorful and massive works.

On our return to the historic center, we made our way to the Mercado Central.  Home to numerous vendors selling a wonderful selection of fresh flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as freshly butchered meats for some of the best prices in town.  There are also 20 or so small vendors selling prepared traditional foods.  Fresh roses cost $2.50 for a bouquet of 25!  Our hotel had roses throughout the building, now we understood how they could afford the displays!  Our substantial lunches, which included a large piece of fish, side dishes, and a bowl of seafood ceviche, were a total of only $10.

Every Monday at 11 AM, an extensive program for the changing of the Palace guards takes place in the crowded Independence Square in front of the Presidential Palace with lots of pomp and circumstance.  Generally, President Rafael Correa comes out onto the balcony of the Palace, if he's in country, and waves to the crowd, but he was busy with pressing issues due to the quake.  His popularity with the Ecuadorian people is very evident.  Currently in his third term as President (since 2007), he has markedly reduced poverty and unemployment in the country.  Though by law, he cannot be elected to a fourth term, locals we spoke with hoped that an amendment to the Constitution might allow an additional term.

Later in the day, we had the opportunity to participate in a tour of the Palace.  You sign up earlier in the day for one of the many free tours that are given daily, and are available in both English and Spanish.  Passports or other ID are left at the entrance as you are guided through the cabinet room, receptions room and grand dining room used for formal functions.  Beautiful gifts, such as a diamond and ruby encrusted sword, given to the President by foreign dignitaries are on display.  The tour begins in the courtyard, and then a huge three part mural created by Oswaldo Guayasmin.  On our departure, we were given a souvenir photo which had been taken in the courtyard at the beginning of the tour.

Our final evening in Quito, we returned to Calle La Ronda.  The drama of Saturday evening was gone and the streets were almost deserted.  But we found a restaurant with a beautiful sunset view of El Panecillo.  It was a perfect ending for our visit to this historic area. 
Changing of the guards

Guayasmin's mural at the Palace
Looking up to El Panecillo, a statue of the Virgin Mary, overlooking the city

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