City of Fire and Passion: Discovering Quito

The unknown and knowable merge in the volcanic capital of Ecuador

Quito isn’t a city that hides its passions. Start with the geography alone. High in the mountains, at a (literally) breathtaking altitude of 9,350 feet, it’s set between steep hills on one side and the western edge of the Andes on the other. Long and narrow, the city’s dense network of streets and buildings snakes 42 miles from north to south, with residential areas climbing up the adjacent slopes. When you walk around town, most streets end with views of big peaks stretching all the way up to the clouds.

And there’s a volcano, too. An active one. Looming right over the city. Pichincha’s biggest eruption took place in 1660, but it has roared as recently as 1998. My guide for a few days here, Mauricio, showed me a dramatic photo on his phone. “Ash rained down on the city,” he recalled, without any sense of alarm, as if retelling a favorite old story.

Ecuador’s capital is one of South America’s most underrated cities. Home to some 3 million people, it continues to grow quickly. But heading to its heart, which still beats mightily, feels like stepping back in time.

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Colonial houses frame a view of the Basilica of the National Vow in Quito. (Lewis Toleti/Shutterstock)

Beating Heart of Ecuador

Emanating from the main square, Plaza Grande, Quito’s old town is the largest and best-preserved in the Americas. It was among the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, granted the prestigious designation in 1978. While fun to visit, it’s much more than just a tourist attraction.

On the way from the new town to the historic center, the road curls down a crowded hillside at an almost impossible angle, the street flattening at the bottom into cobblestones. Looming high above, a 13-story statue of the Virgin Mary rises at the crest of a hill called El Panecillo. Arriving at the center of the city, I emerged from the modest little car on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Immediately, the energy of the place swallowed me up.

The previous day, heavy storms had kept everyone inside. Today, people were reveling in the summer weather. On one side of the pedestrian street, a man strummed a Latin tune and paired it with his off-key voice, his lilting melody somewhat clashing with the deep thrum of an accordion played by another man, just across the way.

At Plaza Grande, palace guards in storybook uniforms strode across the patio in front of Carondelet Palace, the presidential seat. Women wearing traditional felt brown hats sold exotic-looking fruit, calling out the deal of the day in a sing-song patter. Just next to them, an indigenous dancer in a colorful costume pounded his feet so powerfully that I thought I could feel it in my heart.

I had no idea what any of it meant, and that continued when I entered the Church of La Compañía de Jesús. Later, I would learn that it took 160 years, from 1605 to 1765, to construct this ornate baroque building. The interior absolutely shimmers with gold. A mirror was provided so visitors could see the interior of the church’s soaring dome without craning their necks; I noticed some familiar religious symbols and a sun god.

Heritage of Passions

The next day, when I reunited with Mauricio, he explained everything as we sat on hard, wooden benches enjoying a cold, crisp beer. Before the Spanish arrived, the Incas here built a city, and the first arrivals from Europe, when building their churches, integrated Incan symbols of power. At the Church of La Compañía de Jesús, that included the sun. Other places incorporated eagles and snakes, holy animals to the Inca.

We were enjoying a beverage at Antigua Cerveceria Francisca, a sort of pop-up bar within a former monastery. As part of the Basilica of San Francisco (built 1540), it’s a massive complex covering several city blocks, with seven separate cloisters. The central courtyard is colonnaded and palm-lined. I spotted a monk, in full robes, sitting next to the alabaster fountain in the middle. Its twin bell towers are one of Quito’s most iconic landmarks.

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The courtyard at San Francisco monastery. (Tim Johnson)
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San Francisco Basilica. (Tim Johnson)
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At the brewery. (Tim Johnson)

And for quite a while, they brewed beer here. “Local farmers would bring barley as an offering to the priest,” Mauricio explained. They were permitted one glass of beer at lunch and another at dinner.

We lunched a couple of blocks away at a historic restaurant called Casa Manuela. This was once the home of a woman named Manuela Cañizares, a schoolteacher. One night in 1809, revolutionaries planned a revolt against the Spanish right there in her house. We dined on traditional Ecuadorian classics, including locro, a hearty soup from the highlands that showcases potatoes and cheese. “Every week, growing up, we had this,” Mauricio said, “made by my mother or my grandmother.”

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Casa Manuela. (Tim Johnson)

Old Meets New

After seeing a few more sights (and a couple more churches) in the old town, we made our way back up the hill to the modern part of the city. Stopping briefly, I snapped a few photos of the Basílica del Voto Nacional, once the most important neo-Gothic building in the New World. “You won’t ever see a church like this, anywhere else,” Mauricio explained. “Just look at the gargoyles.” And sure enough, lines of fascinating stone wildlife figures jut out along the side. One line from the Amazon: jaguar, caiman, monkey. Another from the Galápagos: tortoise, shark, marine iguana.

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Gargoyles at the Basílica del Voto Nacional. (Delphine Ménard/CC BY-SA 2.0 fr)

Our day ended with the city at our feet, driving up to a high lookout. “Look, we can see the other side of the city,” my guide said, pointing across the valley, the hustle and bustle sprawling down below, with so much left to explore.

If You Go

Fly: You can fly nonstop to Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO) from a number of cities in the United States, including Houston and Miami.

Stay: The Swissotel Quito offers big, modern rooms in a lively neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants. There’s a courtyard pool, and suites are massive and include separate living and dining areas, as well as jetted tubs.

Getting Around: Quito’s first subway system will open soon with one line and 18 stops. For the moment, your best option to get around is ride-sharing services like Uber, which are generally safe and inexpensive.

Take Note: All cash transactions in Ecuador use the U.S. dollar. But you may not recognize the currency in your hand. One-dollar coins and 50-cent pieces are very common.

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Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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