Neil Hennessy-Vass finds a rich heritage, good food and lots of scenic interest in the world’s second highest capital
Getting to Quito the capital of Ecuador takes a little while but it’s worth it. This South American gem is 12 hours away from Europe by plane but a million miles away in so many other ways. The 40 min journey from the airport gives a hint of what to expect. Snow capped volcanoes, warm sunshine, vast blue skies and avocado trees that fruit all year, gentle breezes, you get the picture.
It has only two seasons to speak of, wet and dry. November to April is wet it can be chilly at night whatever the season so pack layers. The other big factor is location at 2800m above sea level it takes a little getting used to. I felt breathless with exercise for a few days but you soon acclimatise. Quito is the second highest capital in the world after Le Paz and sprawls in a long and thin swath running northeast to southwest. The population is 2.6 million and it is low rise with a large historic centre that became the first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. The best preserved of all the Latin American historic cities there are over 300 churches in the centre alone. Traces of pre-Columbian life go back 8000 years BC But Quito is best known for the colonial period, which lasted from 1535 to 1822 after which the 12-year struggle for independence was finally successful.
The churches and historic buildings show find a multitude of architectural disciplines including gothic, Moorish and Rococo to a name few. Santo Domingo Church is a perfect example of this owned by the Dominican order, designed by Francisco Beccera in 1581. It has an intricate wooden Moorish ceiling constructed with no nails or screws and frescoes that were added in 1800’s. The real gem here though is on the right of the main aisle, Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary, an in your face red and gold leaf niche Rococo-style piece de resistance. The altar and carvings surrounding it are exquisite and offer great detail; it is used for private hire these days such as first communions or weddings. The roof is open for the brave. A guide will escort you for $3 if you feel you can manage the tight passages and narrow staircases. The reward is a wonderful view over the old town.
The Casa Del Alabado Museum of Pre-Colombian Art is housed in a 17th century colonial house in the historic centre. The Tolita Foundation donated this collection accumulated over 120 years. There is some detail provided about the artifacts but the emphasis is really one of aesthetics and art. It has 5,000 pieces displayed creatively and with great lighting that really enhances the presentation. This is a must if you want an understanding of what the pre-colonial cultural and art references are about in Ecuador. Taking you through pottery (the stamps are particularly interesting) of the Inca period, whistle bottles used for communications to shells with intricate carvings, some more valuable than their weight in gold. It’s only $6 to enter and you could easily spend several hours there.
Food in Quito is both interesting and very good. Ceviche is everywhere, a cured fish dish with lemon and lime juice. It’s zingy and refreshing, often served with popcorn, I ate in cafes, high-end restaurants and many places in between all were good and not expensive.
20th century artist worth seeking out is Oswaldo Guayasamín, something of a national hero. Born in 1919 the first of 10 children he was selling his paintings before he could read. After graduating from the Quito School of Fine Arts where he studied painting, sculpture and architecture his career took off. Both parents were of Kichwa descent and his ethnicity never left him. Travelling extensively around South America in the 1940’s he was constantly struck by the indigenous inequality around him. This was the main thrust of all his works. Some very large and powerful examples show human suffering in an accessible way that offers insight and compassion. Racism, oppression, poverty, politics and South American lifestyle were recurring themes.
He was a supporter of the communist party and knew Fidel Castro well (you can see him with a number of communist notables in a photo gallery in his home). His house is now an open museum and a fascinating visit as he was also an avid art collector and the walls are dotted with fascinating pieces. His studio is also there showing how he worked and scattered all around are his works, some unfinished and a super video of him painting a portrait of a friend, it’s a marvel to watch it come to life. But next door to his house is the more important Chapel of Man, a building designed by Oswaldo and his two architect sons to house a national collection of his works. Completed after his death it has his largest painting ‘Condor’ depicting a fight between a condor and a bull it is about 5m X 4m. The bull represents colonialism and the condor the Andean people. Some pieces were constructed in panels that can be rearranged to offer different perspectives on the subject. Again these are large-scale works that due to the buildings design have space to be appreciated and breathe. The building is immense and contains many completed pictures but there are plans to continue expanding when funds are available. This is a stand out museum of exceptional quality and depth with very knowledgeable staff, for the two sites next to each other you should allow two – three hours.
When you’ve done enough culture then get a super overview of Quito by riding the Teleférico cable car at the eastern end of the city. If you go towards the end of the day you’ll see the lights come on and twinkle. It’s higher still than the city at 4,050m above sea level so it’s best to be prepared for a breathless experience. The other high vantage point is the Virgin of Quito statue on El Panecillo or Bread Loaf Hill. Made of 7000 pieces of aluminum it shimmers as the sun catches it in the day but at night it is light up spectacularly. It’s a beacon for the city not unlike Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
There are plenty of things to do out of town too. I visited the Yunguilla community of 50 families located in parish of Calacals, a conservation area with hundreds of rare bird species. They grow their own food and live a sustainable life. The lodges allow visitors to stay and become part of the community for a few days.
My visit to Quito also coincided with Fiesta de la Luz The Festival of Light. This takes place in August and is a series of spectacular light shows projected onto prominent buildings in the historic centre. The illuminations are highly sophisticated with high production values and specially commissioned music. This event over three days draws in 500,000 visitors the whole city comes alive with light fever.
Quito has so much to offer the intrepid traveller, history, adventure, fantastic food and brilliant hotels. I stayed in three locations around the city listed below but my favourite was Illa Experience Hotel in San Marcos, a traditional town house that has been lovingly restored over five years to provide 10 exquisite rooms. Plenty of space, food by one of the chefs from Noma in Copenhagen and offering experiences such as watercolour painting by a local artist, gold leaf application (which is very hard but totally absorbing) and the inevitable chocolate tasting. Chocolate is big in Ecuador and they take it seriously, so should you. They produce some of the best ethically sourced cacao products in the world with a plentitude of interesting flavours. Casa Aliso is a home from home located in a modern part of town with plenty of nightlife and good restaurants on the doorstep. I loved its easy feel and superb multilingual staff. And the last had the best view by far Hotel Castillo Vista de Angel commands a proud view of the historical centre and the Angel statue, the restaurant offers amazing food and the rooms are old colonial and large.
Tel: (593 2) 3957 010
Tel: (593 2) 252 8062
Tel: (593) 0999017810
About the Author
Neil Hennessy-Vass roams the world photographing and writing about those little luxuries we all crave.
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