Quito Ecuador –
The morning dawns sunny and deliciously warm. After a fine breakfast at the Folklore Hotel, Rick and I walk down the hill to Plaza Foch, a hot-spot for restaurants and cafes with plenty of canopied outdoor tables to enjoy the square’s bustling activity. Our time ahead looks bright….much brighter than our entry into Ecuador!
Yesterday our plane landed in Quito at 11:20 p.m. By twelve midnight we know our pre-arranged ride from the airport thru our small hotel is a “no show”. In our “Spanglish” we ask the lady at the information desk to call the Folklore. After a rapid conversation she conveys the message that we are to take a taxi. Our taxi driver is a woman who speaks no English, but understands the address (we hope). Away we go into the dead of night. A half hour into our drive, a blanket moves in the front passenger’s seat – her baby, probably 6-months-old. She drives with one hand, patting the baby back to sleep with the other, grinning back at us saying, “mi compañero” (my companion). She gestures for us to push down the door locks in the back, and after a quick check for cross traffic, she breezes thru a few red lights. Veering off the highway the narrow winding streets are shadowy with minimal lighting. I peer at businesses shut tight with pull-down garage-type doors; steel bars cover the windows. Over an hour later, we arrive at the Folklore -with the apologetic hotel owner waiting for us. We learn the drive from the airport at this time of night should have taken 45 minutes, confirming suspicions that our driver was lost for awhile. This entry gives testament to our travel motto – “Expect the unexpected”.
With map in hand Quito is ours to explore for the next several days. Our first venture is to the “Old Town”. The feel is electric! Bands play in the squares; the haunting melody of pan flutes fills the air. Ethnic dance ensembles perform. Vendors call out, “Helados” (ice-cream) the favoured treat. Savoury smells of papas fritas (fried potatoes), pollo (chicken) and fresh baking compete. The streets are packed with locals and tourists alike. Ecuador is know to be a safe country to travel in, but as is the way in most South American big cities, there are armed tourist police, regular police, and military on foot or motor bikes in every direction – giving us an added sense of security.
Although once a major Inca centre, the city was destroyed in rivalries between Inca factions shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The present capital was founded by the Spanish in 1534 with many of the colonial structures remaining in the Old Town, for which UNESCO declared Quito a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.
Our eyes sweep over the streets and squares lined with 16th century buildings and grand churches. The interior of the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus) is stunning – it may not be an exaggeration that seven tons of gold were used to decorate its altars! Along one side people are gathered around the tomb of Saint Mariana de Jesús, patron saint of Quito. During the devastating earthquakes and subsequent rampant disease in 1645, this hermit nun is said to have publicly sacrificed herself for the salvation of Quito, then dying within days.
A gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the Old Town from the top of El Panecillo hill. This “Virgin of Quito” is a large-scale copy of a sculpture by Bernardo de Lagarda. We consider climbing to her base, but decide against it, at least until our dull headache abates as our bodies strive to build more red blood cells to cope with the 2850m (9350ft) above sea level of Quito, the highest “official” capital in the world. (La Pas, the seat of government in Bolivia is higher, but the official capital of Bolivia is Sucre at 2750m or 9022ft.) Although a mere 22km south of the equator the temperature range of Quito is from 16 to 24 degrees Celsius, due to the altitude, with an extreme UV index. November is supposed to be the rainy season, but we only encounter a few afternoons of rain; one being a torrential downpour turning the streets into rivers.
“New Town” beckons with its modern flurry of banks, businesses, museums, and malls. On Sunday we find families out in full force in the central La Carolina Park splashing in the long water filled concrete wading channel. Others ride bikes, stroll and picnic. The crowds bring a multitude of vendors selling all sorts of snacks. Buskers and bands entertain. The gleeful squeals of children draw us to a small Ferris wheel and other whirly rides being rotated by hand by strong, patient men.
Our home base in Quito keeps changing, although all accommodations are clean with friendly staff. Finding the Folklore Hotel a bit removed from restaurants/cafes, our second and third lodgings are Hostel Del Piamonte and Yellow House Hotel, both in the Plaza Foch area, We find out “the loud way” that Thursday to Saturday evenings from around 7:00 p.m. and into the wee hours of the morning the bars boom with enough base amps to rattle heads and beds. The quietest day is Sunday, as by law, alcohol is not sold in stores all day and only until 4:00 p.m. in restaurants.
Hostel Del Piamonte
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Our final Quito accommodation is the Windsor Hotel with great amenities, spacious rooms and superb staff. Loads of good food places are right outside the door, and it is the perfect distance from the Plaza Foch to get a good night’s sleep (especially in rooms facing the inner court), yet a short walk to partake in Plaza’s exuberant activity “when we choose”, which we do almost daily for our cappuccino break at Café Juan Valdez.
During one of these cappuccino fixes English being spoken draws us to Frank and Alf, a couple of old timers originally from Canada. They are but a few of our X-countrymen who have made their home in Ecuador – Frank for 20 years, and Alf for 10. They fill us in on their perspective of the country’s economic, financial, and governmental ups and downs over the years – the bottom line being their claim “we’re here to stay.” At some point our plan is to go further south in Ecuador to where many Canadians and US citizens have made their home, and “snowbirds” arrive in flocks to these equatorial havens for the winter.
When on our way to breakfast one morning, Cesar, the manager of the Windsor Hotel, enquires if we have been to Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (Church and Monastery of Saint Frances). We had not.
He proceeds to tell us one of Quito’s most famous legends. “Shortly after the city was founded the Franciscan priests wanted a church built in Quito. They gave the job to an indigenous builder named Cantuña. He started to build the church but he was no where near finished by the deadline date. Cantuña made a pact with the devil who agreed to help him complete the church on time, in trade for Cantuña’s soul. But just before midnight on the deadline date, Cantuña removed a single stone from the finished structure, meaning the church was never completed, thereby tricking the devil and saving his soul.”
Well, we had to see this…and also this church and monastery is the largest and one of the oldest colonial structures in Quito. Arriving at 12 noon, we find out the church will not be open until 3:00 p.m. I fill my time going through the adjoining museum with a vast array of sculptures, paintings and furniture dating back to the 16th century. Photos are only allowed in the courtyard area, which as well as well-presented gardens has some stunning wooden alter-like sculptures along the sides of the courtyard walls.
After leaving the museum I find Rick outside staring up at the church trying to find the missing stone. “I think its right there,” he says pointing to the upper right hand corner. Yes, there is a small rectangular hole in the outer façade….and if this is not the legendary missing stone, his thirty minutes of staring while I was in the museum might have bore a new hole. He takes several photos of said aperture. We then wander over to a nearby café for a cappuccino, killing time until the church doors open.
The first thing we notice on the inside is the beautiful Baroque carved altar, which along with superb tile work to the right of this altar are original. Much of the cavernous interior of the church has been restored from earthquake damage. We are glad we came.
On December 6th “Everyone loves a parade” drums through my mind. Since early morning and into the afternoon thousands of plastic stools and chairs are placed along Amazonas Street, which sides the Windsor Hotel. Even though the parade is not due to start until 7:00 p.m. people start filling the seating from 5:00 p.m. onward, and by 6:00 there is barely a free seat left. At quarter to 7 we are privileged to have a birds eye view from our hotel balcony along with a few other guests. The event we are all waiting for is the National Day Parade.
At seven sharp police cruisers with lights flashing are in the lead. Bands and dancers with uniforms and costumes of every colour in the rainbow make their way past us, each vying to be the most spectacular! Around 8:00 p.m. the threatening clouds send down a light drizzle. Umbrellas open along the street. We move back on the balcony to be sheltered by the overhang. It begins to rain harder, but most people stay tucked under now soggy umbrellas until the last dripping wet band passes after 9:00 p.m. In a few words – Viva la Quito!
A fine finish before we pack up our bags again for our next Ecuadorian adventure!