Despite the lure of the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and the tango flair of Buenos Aires, my inaugural trip to South America led me to Quito, the capital of Ecuador and one of the world’s highest cities at a literally breathtaking 2,800 metres.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but flying into Quito, one thing became unmistakably clear: this was a big city—huge, in fact. Some 2.3 million people make Quito Ecuador’s second-largest city after Guayaquil. From the plane I could see the city spilling into and over valleys and mountains (actually, volcanos as I later learned). The modern part of the city centre was clearly recognizable by its skyscrapers and office buildings, while numerous tall church spires pointed to the old part of town.
I learned Spanish for two years at school, way back in the day, so when the taxi driver started a conversation like this: “Blablablabla … Hablar español?” I half-heartedly answered, “un poco.” The following waterfall of words rushed in and out of my ears, but when the driver looked at me expectantly, I could only reply, “No hablo español.” He shrugged and drove me in silence for what felt like a very long hour into the city.
In the fading evening light, I could make out a large statue on a hill. Not daring to try my Spanish again, I tapped my driver on the shoulder and pointed to the structure. El Panecillo was going to be my first stop after a good night’s sleep, I decided.
In 1976, Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras created a grand-scale replica of the 18th-century statue of the Virgin of Quito that resides on the main altar of San Francisco Church.
The 45-metre statue is composed of almost 7,000 pieces of aluminum, making it one of the largest such structures in the world. “Virgen del panecillo” means “virgin of the little bread loaf,” named after the hill on which the statue sits, dominating the city. Catholic this country may be, but not without a sense of humour.
After a brisk 30-minute walk from the old part of town, including many steps climbing the “panecillo,” I opted to face some more within the structure. The inside houses a permanent exhibition about the construction of the virgin, while the outside platform delivers a stunning 360-degree view.
In the distance I could see the snow-covered Cotopaxi volcano and the Basílica del Voto Nacional, my next stop. The first stone of this largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas was laid in 1892, but it was not until 1985 that the building was blessed by Pope John Paul II, and subsequently inaugurated in 1988.
The basilica, which measures 140 metres in the two frontal towers, is noted for its inclusion of Ecuadorian animals such as armadillos, iguanas, and tortoises.
After paying $4.80 I climbed various towers in the basilica, studied the church bells, and got a great close-up view of the colourful stained glass windows. This time, in reverse, I could see El Panecillo.
Quito Old Town
While walking through the narrow streets, past colourful façades and ostentatious churches, I understood why Quito was said to have the most beautiful Old Town in South America. It was impossible not to be charmed by these colonial remains, which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Quito’s central public square, Plaza de la Independencia, is flanked by the Carondelet Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Municipal Palace, and the Plaza Grande Hotel. I sat on a shadowed bench taking in the white stones, walls, arcades, pillars, and balconies that seemed to sparkle in the bright sunlight. There were people everywhere, mostly locals such as shoe polishers, taxi drivers, and street vendors trying to sell everything from fresh cherries to lottery tickets. “No, gracias” became my standard reply and the locals were gracious enough to leave it at that.
No visit to Quito Old Town is complete without entering at least one of the many historical churches—however it can prove difficult to get inside. I wandered past the famous La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús at least three times, always finding the surrounding fences locked, before getting lucky on the evening before my departure.
The church is famous for its large nave, heavily decorated with gold leaf and wood carvings. It is unlike any other church I have ever been to.
The outside is also very unusual, and I learned that the carvings of the main façade were executed entirely of Ecuadorian andesite stone. Four different architectural styles (Baroque, Moorish, Churrigueresque, and Neo-Classical) were merged in the construction of the building.
One thing I struggled with while in Quito was finding a good place to have dinner. Using the Internet in my hunt for local food, I tried to track down various recommended restaurants only to be standing in front of locked doors at 7 p.m.
My aim to sample guinea pig, an Ecuadorian speciality, was unsuccessful. Instead I ended up returning three times to the small but excellent Café Dios No Muere. Located in a 400-year-old building, the tiny restaurant was run by Mathieu Guillory, an expat from Louisiana, part-time coffee farmer, and chef par excellence.
“I am a passionate admirer of the 19th-century Ecuadorian president Gabriel Garcia Moreno, hence I named my café after his final words, ‘God Never Dies,'” Mathieu explained. Apart from listening to some of Mathieu’s great stories about life in Ecuador, the food was delicious and the hamburger with yucca fries for $4.80 was a bargain.
Quito’s officials are aware of the importance of the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America. The streets are cleaned regularly and on the weekends there’s a car-free pedestrian zone. I felt safe walking around anywhere in the Old Town and past sunset.
As my plane took off from Quito I contemplated how much of Europe and its colonial history was still left in the city and yet how it had developed its very own identity. After all, I don’t know of any other place where a statue of a winged virgin guards a little loaf of bread…
Wibke Carter is a world traveller who hails from Germany, has lived in New Zealand and New York, presently enjoys life in London.