Quito, the capital of Ecuador, initially reminded me of the large Colombian cities of Bogota and Medellin. This was due more to the common look of these big South American cities (i.e. dense and sprawling concrete buildings, packed through a long valley, with neighborhoods pushed to the city’s geographical boundaries, and terraced up the mountain sides), than the spirit of each specific destination. And I will let you know, Quito is very special. In my opinion, this city has one of the most beautifully maintained, historical centers of any I have had the pleasure of exploring, in ALL my Latin American travels. It is unique for its contemporary mixture of indigenous culture and Spanish colonial artistry, both honored for their contribution to the Quiteno lifestyle.
We traveled through Quito on three separate occasions, taking each brief visit to explore a new part of the city and increase our growing understanding of “what makes Quito tick”. I was especially fascinated by the foreigners that we met, who had decided to make this place their home. I’m thinking specifically of Mark, the British gentleman who owns the English Bookstore in the Mariscal neighborhood, a place to find literary treasures and meet other travelers and expats alike. He invited us to enjoy a cup of tea and regaled us with tales of life in Ecuador. Here, we also met Jon, a US retiree who had decided to settle down in this country, but was still in the process of determining exactly where. Then there was the 30-something owner, Edward, of La Oficina, a craft brewery and pizza pub, which had just been expanded to include a cinema/live performance lounge. He had initially been drawn to Ecuador with film work, but was now creating his own establishment to foster art and creativity in a convivial atmosphere. I was just as inspired by their life choices, as I was by the ornate architecture and hilly streets steeped in history. Desirous of more stories, we ended up joining a free walking tour that educated us on all things Ecuadorian, not just Quiteno, (like chocolate making!) and provided us with a basic history lesson on Spanish occupation and the eventual revolution which lead to Ecuador’s independence and establishment of a Republic.
Much of our tour and subsequent strolls involved the study of its many churches, cathedrals, convents and monasteries. The best of talent and technique is on display within these stone edifices, many gilded with gold leaf and adorned with intricate carvings. Richly detailed murals, tapestries, paintings and religious artifacts dress the lavish interiors, illuminated by candles or sunlight from a well-positioned window. Catholicism is firmly rooted in the Quito culture as evidenced by the ritual of prayer, religious icons, pageantry, spiritual devotion and upkeep of its Houses for God.
The most stunning example is the Basilica del Voto National with its superior location and 360 degree views, high atop a central Quito hill. Here you can ascend steep stairs and ladders to the rooftop a steeple. The exterior is Neo-gothic with famous Ecuadorian and Galapagos birds and mammals (like condors, armadillos, tortoises and iguanas) carved in the place of Gargoyles.
Per my passion, much of our exploration revolved around the search for art. Whether this manifested itself as appreciation for street murals, modern art or “School of Quito” carved sculptures, we found inspiration abundant. However, I was most moved by our visit to the Guayasamin Museum, which provided majestic views of Quito, and consisted of a tour of his lovely, art-filled home and studio (which I immediately fantasized about living in), followed by a video about his artistic process, and then a visit to the actual museum or humanistic chapel, Capilla del Hombre, that showcases some of the late Osvaldo Guayasamin’s larger works. I was moved by his legacy of creativity and the themes of anger, injustice, racism, and poverty juxtaposed with peace, love and greater humanity.
Although some of the gritty outskirts of Quito, far from the historic center and in impoverished neighborhoods, left much to be desired aesthetically, there was still a vibrancy of life that I appreciated. I will never be a fan of rebar and concrete bricks, a staple of many masonry structures in Ecuador and throughout South America, but thankfully, cities like Quito make an effort to preserve the magnetic beauty of their historical wonders.