Ecuador

Morning Walk in the Old City (Quito, Ecuador)

Written by Mark McElroy

For the first time ever, we’re waking the narrow streets of the Old City in Quito, Ecuador.

Before arriving, we purchased a walking tour of Quito from ToursByLocals.com. Our guide is polite and nice enough, but because he has no sense of story — no gift for weaving the things we encounter into a cohesive experience — our time together devolves into a rambling blunder from one closed or inaccessible site to the next. Ultimately, we thank our guide and, with Google Maps in hand, decide to see the sights at our own pace.

For this early on a Friday morning, the neighborhood is lively. Elderly women in shawls and striped ponchos sit on front stoops, calling out the names of the fruits they have for sale. Big-bellied street vendors, their arms laden with everything from textiles to packages of coca leaf tea, bellow the names of their wares to anyone who will listen.

A young woman stands on one corner, holding a huge tray aloft in one hand. On the tray are what look like huge mounds of ice cream, studded with grapes or strawberries or nuts. We can’t figure out why the ice cream doesn’t melt, until a local explains to us that what we’re seeing isn’t ice cream, but stiff peaks of meringue.

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Roses are everywhere: huge bouquets in hotel lobbies, armloads of blooms in plastic buckets along the street, bundles in the arms of girls on every other corner.

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The stems are thicker and straighter than the roses in the U.S. Locals tell us “Because these are grown on the equator. they grow straight and tall.”

Right before we reach our destination — Plaza Grande — we stumble on a fast-food soup shop selling a delicious-smelling “twelve grain soup.” We’re intrigued by the bowls of thick stock, potatoes, carrots, and chicken … but less interested in their lunch specials than we are shocked by their mascot:

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Plaza Grande is not as splendid as some South American public squares — mostly because locals tore down some of the historic buildings and replaced them with a dreadful concrete city hall. After wandering the canyon-like streets and balancing on narrow sidewalks while buses roar past us, we’re delighted to be in an open, pedestrianized space:

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After a stroll around the plaza, we stick our heads inside the “Church of the Company of Jesus:” I’m a sucker for Baroque architecture, and this church is about as Baroque as any spot on earth could be:

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Serpentine columns support a barrel ceiling that seems lost in the clouds above us. Every inch of the woodwork above and around is slathered with tons of gold leaf. They won’t let me take photos (“Mass in Progress!”), but later I find an image on Expedia.com that captures the interior of the church in all its gilded glory:

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We linger several minutes, listening to the Mass — and to the congregational singing. Instead of the monstrous organ in the rear of the church, today’s Mass features hymns played on a tiny, warbling electronic organ. The musician, the Dean Martin of the Catholic Church, delivers a performance that would sound right at home in a leather-upholstered lounge.

The crowd loves it, though, and I can’t help but grin at one parishioner’s singing. She’s about four feet tall, about ninety years old, and about a dozen words behind everyone else. Her earnest rendition of the hymn rattles the rafters.

The visit puts us in a spiritual mood — so we decide to snag a tourist bus up the hill to Quito’s looming, unmissable landmark: the Virgin of Quito. Perched high atop El Panecillo, the Virgin (also known as the Virgin of the Apocalypse) dances atop a massive pedestal that visitors can climb up into:

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Inside the Virgin’s steel skin, you can see her skeleton, and not much else:

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But the observation deck at her feet offers jaw-dropping views of Quito’s volcanic peaks and urban sprawl:

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After that visit, we’re ready for lunch — but (of course!) there are snacks along the way. Will I pay a high gastro-intestinal price for eating the limp, fatty pork this vendor mixed with our fried corn kernals?

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(I expect the worst — but everything turns out fine.)

Meanwhile, just try finding a serving of freshly-squeezed juice this big in the States for just a dollar:

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That’s not just juice — it’s freshly-squeezed blackberry juice, swirled with frozen, sour guanabana nectar. Sipping it on the shady patio of a shop on the Plaza San Francisco was one of my favorite moments of the day.

Before we leave, we duck into the crypts below the Church of San Francisco, which have been converted to house a series of artisan shops selling chocolates, masks, textiles, and carvings made from “ivory fruit.” I make a note — I’m coming back here to pick up chocolate bars.

Quito is crazy busy, and in this altitude (we’re 9000 feet above sea level), Atlantans used to oxygen-rich air tire quickly. So we snag lunch, see a few more sights, and then trundle off to Casa el Eden for quiet time … to confirm tonight’s reservations at Zazu … and, yeah, nap a bit.

All in all, a good first day.

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Mark McElroy

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