Quito

Colonial Quito

As I peered out the window of my plane as it flew into Quito, Ecuador from Lima, Peru I had the feeling that “this is paradise” –green cultivated fields, forests and striking mountains all around, compared with the desert landscape of Lima. Quito is a large city which runs north and south through large valleys and is surrounded by several volcanoes. The northern part of the city is the business center and more prosperous than the south. El Panecillo (‘little bread”) hill separates the two sections of the city and is crowned with a tall statue of the Virgin Mary, facing north, and immediately overlooking the colonial section. The residents of the south lament that the statue is facing north, and overlooking the blessed prosperity of this area while “turning her back on the south.” El Panecillo can be reached by taxi and has some snack and tourist trinket vendors. The views of Quito are excellent from this location.

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Virgin Mary Statue on top of El Panecillo.

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A view of colonial Quito with El Pancello in the distance.

Quito has the largest Spanish colonial district in South America. In the historical area are several beautiful 16th and 17thcentury Baroque churches, convents, old hospitals, and the presidential palace. According to my business partners this area is slowly being refurbished and brightened up, and has become much more vibrant than a few years ago. The cobblestone streets and colonial facades of the buildings give it an old world feel.

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Colonial Quito.

The dominant building in the colonial section is the presidential palace (Palacio del Gobierno), home of the current Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa. The building is open for tours, but we did not visit. The palace faces the main square, Plaza Grande o de la Independencia. The Cathedral of Quito is also on this square.

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Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace).

Catedral Metropolitana de Quito_Ecuador

Catedral Metropolitana de Quito.

Just a couple blocks south and west of the presidential palace are the Church and Convent of San Francisco, dating from 1536, and the oldest existing church in Quito. The chapel is decorated in beautiful gold gilding.  The nearby cloisters have an interesting museum of religious art ($2 entry fee) from the 17th – 18th centuries and include paintings and drawings from Europe and many are scenes from the life of St. Frances (born 12thcentury). Also included are some alabaster figures made with real human skulls.

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Church of San Francisco, Quito.

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Cloisters of San Francisco Convent, Quito.

Unfortunately no pictures are allowed. It was weird seeing these human-like figures of Christ and saints, knowing that they are partially human with the skulls providing the form for the heads!

On the east side of the street (Gabriel Garcia Moreno) in this area is the San Juan de Dios hospital which was founded in 1565 and was in operation until 1965-400 years! I am glad I live in the era of modern medicine.

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Hospital San Juan de Dios, Quito.

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Hospital life in the 1500’s.

Just north of the colonial section is the gothic Basilica (Basilica del Voto Nacional), which looks like a medieval cathedral right out of France. It is actually just 130 years old and is still under construction (not unlike the cathedrals of Europe, some of which took centuries to complete). One can visit the roof for a small fee which provides great views of the city and colonial section, just a few blocks away. It was interesting to walk along the catwalk above the naïve and then climb the narrow ladders out to the rooftop access.

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The Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional.

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View from the rooftop of the Basilica.

Many of the buildings’ exteriors hide the beautiful courtyards contained within. We ate at a restaurant called Cialcote L, part of Cadena Hotelera which provides an example of the courtyard setting inside the building.

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Cialcote L Restaurant courtyard.

Other information

Even though it’s almost on the equator, the year-round climate of Quito is very pleasant due to its elevation. Given more time, I would have liked to visit the nearby volcanoes. I stayed at the Radisson hotel, about halfway between the airport in the north part of the city and the colonial old town for about $90 per night. It’s a good hotel with large comfortable rooms and a very good restaurant. At the breakfast buffet, there was a serving container with popped popcorn…it was the first time I had seen popcorn served for breakfast!  I wish I would have had my camera handy! Taxis are pretty cheap in Quito, it was only $5 from my hotel to the colonial quarter, about a 15 minute ride, and $7 from the hotel to the airport, about 20 minutes away.

Safety

I was cautioned to pay attention to my small daypack which I carry when touring, which I did, but I never felt threatened or nervous in the colonial Quito, especially in the daytime. There were a few other tourists milling about also, but not many. I took several walks around the hotel at night and felt very safe, that part of the city is modern and feels about like any other large city. As always, pay attention to your surroundings and carry as little cash and valuables as possible.

Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador – The Middle of the World (Almost)

Location of Mitad del Mundo, near Quito, Ecuador

During a May 2011 business trip to Quito, Ecuador I visited Mitad del Mundo on a Saturday morning. This spot marks the location of the equator—half way between the north and south poles. Mitad del Mundo is about 45 minutes by car north of Quito. I hired the car and driver from the Radisson Hotel (where I was staying) for $70, which also included a visit to the old colonial part of Quito. A local bus would have been much cheaper, but I didn’t have the time. I enjoyed the drive out to the monument—through a valley with farms, small towns and many nice townhouses and homes.

Mitad del Mundo monument

The monument was built during the years 1979 to 1982. I’ve heard (according to those with the latest GPS tools), that the exact location of the equator is a few hundred yards to the north, but given the earth’s equatorial circumference of about 24,901 miles, the variance is less than .0006%—not enough for me to lose any sleep.

The equatorial line - right side is nothern hemisphere, left side is southern hemisphere

The site is basically a park that has a large stone monument noting the latitude and the hemispheres. The site entry cost was $2 (Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar) and there is another charge of $3 to go up to the observation platform on the monument. There are several little shops and restaurants, and a museum (where the equator actually is), so one could make a day of the visit. I got there about 10 am and shops were just opening for the day.

Shops at Mitad del Mundo

Additional shops at Mitad del Mundo

My driver asked if I also wanted to visit a nearby volcano, Puluhahua, to which I agreed. Ecuador has61 volcanoes (with 15 more on the Galapagos Islands), several of which surround Quito. The short drive up to the old crater from Mitad del Mundo was a bit like going into the alpine tundra in my home state of Colorado. If I hadn’t learned that Pululahua was a volcanic crater (3,356 meters elevation), I would have thought it was just a high small valley surrounded by peaks, but as we learned a little more from a local guide, I could more clearly see the crater, which last erupted in 500 BC.

Farming in Pululahua crater

On the way down from the crater, I caught sight of my first roasted cuy (guinea pig) by the side of the road—as tempting as it was, no one was there to sell the treat (darn), and I wasn’t quite ready for lunch.

Roasting cuy...yum!

I enjoyed this little trip, just to get into the countryside of this beautiful country for a few hours.