Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is nestled in the foothills of the Andes and the seven sacred hills of the Amazon, and it will leave you breathless: not just because of her height (2,850 meters) but her charm and beauty. The combination of foreign imprints and indigenous culture has created a masterpiece built on Incan foundations with European, Moorish, and Spanish colonial architectural influences. It is one of the the first 12 World Heritage Sites named by UNESCO. Baroque churches, leafy plazas, colonial mansions, and 17th century monasteries and convents converge along cobblestoned streets or expansive avenues. The city is dotted with parks and green spaces and is protected by her very own Virgin Mary high on the Panecillo hilltop.
The old accommodates the modern here where shoe-shiners, lottery ticket, food, and healing herb street sellers still holler their wares as they tramp the streets amidst backdrops of modern-day graffiti art. A previous military hospital is now home to the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo, a state-of-the-art avant-garde exhibition center. A colonial maternity hospital now hosts Escuela Taller de Quito I, a school where underprivileged kids can learn fine artisan arts and crafts based on the “Quito School” movement founded in the 17th and 18th century and largely focused on religion.
The spectacularly ornate Church and Convent of San Francisco in the plaza of the same name is being restored with aid from the World Monuments Fund: Despite numerous seismic efforts to bring it to its knees, the place is still standing more or less in its original form. Built on the remains of the palace of Atahualpa, the last Emperor of the Incas, it first opened in 1680. This place is massive — it’s actually home to three churches,13 cloisters, the plaza, 3,500 religious artefacts, and a religious library of thousands of books. The convent is the oldest part of the complex, completed in 1560 and the place is still home to the Order of the Franciscan Monks.
Don’t miss the Spanish Baroque Compañia de Jesús Jesuit church. You’ve just got to go to see the gold — it’s everywhere — and the trompe l’oeil staircase.
Quito mixes its own style of modernity with the Ecuadorian aesthetics and the combination is harmonic and hip. La Ronda is a cobbled barrio that has turned the corner from cut-throat to cool. It’s now the place to shack up in a colonial mansion turned bijoux bolthole, and check out the lively night life, with your Panama hat (which actually originates here) and cigar if the mood moves you. If you want to dress the part, the boys will mix and match a blue poncho, a fedora, and white calf-length trousers. Real “hombres” wear a braid (shimba) that dates back to the Inca era and hangs down to the waist. Girls opt for a white blouse, blue skirt, and a shawl. Even today, Quiteños mix ’n’ match elements of their traditional dress into their daily wardrobes.
Food-wise, ceviche tops most menus (e.g., ceviche camarón) as well as suckling pig or roast guinea pig, tronquito (bull penis soup) or yaguarlocro (potato soup dotted with blood), llapingachos (mashed potato pancakes), fried pork with sweet plantain, and toasted corn. Locro de papa (potato stew) is served with cheese, avocado, and toasted corn. Ecuadorian churrascos are made with beef, rice, fried eggs, chips, salad, and avocado...yum. Yet more corn features in mote pillo, cooked mature corn, and an egg. Bolones de verde are stuffed green plantain dumplings. Aguardiente (firewater) is the tipple of choice here, or Canelazo — cinnamon and sugar cane schnapps — rum, or beer. Local beers include Turtle Pale Ale, Red Llama Ale, Black Bird Stout, and Iguana IPA.
When you tire of sitting under the shade of a plantain tree in a picturesque plaza, palming a cool pale ale, fear not, Quito has your back: volcano hiking treks, Amazon rainforest tours, white water rafting along the banks of the Oriente, Ecuadorian bridge jumping, and mountain bike adventures are all waiting. The forests are rich with monkeys, sloths, toucans, and river dolphins. Like nearby Galapagos, Ecuador is an absolute aviary of feathered friends and can count 1,600 different birds on its shores, especially at Mindo Cloudforest Foundation. Get busy exploring.
This article originally ran in the April 2021 issue of Dockwalk.