Travelling to Quito: The entire city is famous for being one of the best-preserved historic zones in Latin America. Back: The BCBusiness Guide to World Travel
Like many South American cities, Quito suffers from multiple personality syndrome. In a day you’ll see her posh side, her poor side and her party side, and in some neighbourhoods you can straddle the sidewalk and be acquainted with two at once.
I was stranded in Ecuador’s capital city after naively booking a ticket from Quito to Brazil without first securing a travel visa. Having delayed my flight a few days while the visa was being processed, I became closely acquainted with the upscale neighbourhood in which I was staying, also known as the New Town or La Mariscal district. Here I filled three days haggling with a shopkeeper over the price of white leather boots (boots I still haven’t worn) and spending too much money on expensive lattes at Coffee and Toffee, a modern Internet café across from my hotel.
WEATHER Quito has a consistently cool climate, with temperatures between 10 and 19 degrees Celsius.
CAN'T MISS Mitad del Mundo. The centre of the world. It’s touristy, but getting to straddle the equator is radical.
COOL EATS The tiny Cocina Manabita de Lauri “2” serves delicious Ecuadorian plates for $1.50. E8-39 Calama
BEST BED Hostal Jardin del Sol in the Mariscal district is a spacious hotel within walking distance of all the good restaurants. hostaljardindelsol.com.
Having arrived in Quito from the Galapagos Islands, I found that the cluster of tidy, pretty city blocks that made up La Mariscal offered a gentle transition back to real life. Upon arrival I even thought it was a rather authentic part of town. There were cobblestones, brightly coloured restaurants, a few dirty panhandlers and countless inexpensive nail salons filled with locals gossiping over Coca-Colas, a staple of all Latin American cities. Then I saw the Irish pub filled with sunburned travellers watching soccer on TV, the line of glossy American sports bars and discos, and the pricey used-book store run by a gringo who tried to sell me a tattered copy of Jack London’s 84-page Call of the Wild for US$15.
After tooling around the pleasant confines of La Mariscal, I began to feel the weight of the surrounding city – a grittier, more intrepid strip of metropolis – pressing me onward. And so I went, heading straight for the famed heritage district of downtown Quito. It’s something of a wonder that the arched colonial heritage district still exists. The city of Quito clings to an active volcano some 2,850 metres above sea level, and despite countless earthquakes the majority of its architecture remains intact. It was the first place to land on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, back in 1978, and thanks to the heritage district the entire city is famous for being one of the best-preserved historic zones in Latin America.
The 320-hectare district is a Rubik’s cube of churches, plazas, convents and monasteries, most of which are designed in a lavish baroque blend of Spanish, Italian and indigenous art. It’s an easy place to wander, and the churches are always open to those who respect the local worship rituals. Skirting the vocal lottery ticket vendors outside – long-haired women who prey on the faithful as they come and go from church – I sat in on afternoon mass at the Iglesia de San Francisco, slightly sheepish as only the non-religious can feel in a house of worship. However, even the most agnostic of souls will find solace in the solemn chanting of the white-robed priest, though the blood-soaked Christ sleeping in a Snow White-inspired glass box by the door might be a bit much for the kids.
As nightfall approached the heritage district, there was an immediate and noticeable dearth in the travelling public. Clutching shopping bags and purses, visitors and locals alike slipped into taxis and disappeared. As the streets emptied and the plazas were left to the pigeons, I was tapped on the shoulder by a grey-haired woman who wagged a long finger under my nose. “Vaya,” she said. “Go.”
And so I went.