After a long flight on Monday, May 30th, we landed in Quito, Ecuador at around midnight. Luckily, we had arranged for pickup by our hostel in advance and when we exited the airport, there was our driver with a sign saying "Anne Eden." Not fighting to determine if we had safe transport was so comforting after a long day spent traveling. However, the Quito airport is still a ways from the city proper so we still had an hour to go before we could relax. Our driver was extremely friendly, telling us about the construction of the new road and which parks to avoid after dark (basically, all of them). He delivered us to our hostel, L´auberge Inn (get it?). Our 20 dollar a night private room was extremely basic but the bed and private bath were a welcome sight to two weary travelers.
Day 1, Quito Old Town
Our first day in Quito was spent exploring the old town. We walked through town, adjusting to the altitude and the smells of strange foods frying from street vendors and exhaust from the heavy traffic. We made our way slowly to the Plaza de Indepencia, a classic Spanish style square bounded by a cathedral on one side, the Palacio Arzobispal on another, and the Palacio Municipal. After sitting and people-watching for a while, our first stop was the cathedral. Sadly, the cathedral was rather drab - although we did see the remains of Field Marshal Sucre, the most famous historical figure in Ecuador. Upon exciting, we were greeted by an angry crowd blocking the street, in apparent protest of a recent bus fare increase. From the plaza, our wandering took us to Cafe Dios No Muere, a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe run by a Louisiana expat devoted to the memory of former Ecuadorian President Gabriel Garcia Moreno, a national hero whose devotion to his country and his faith are still lauded today. We had a po'boy sandwich :).
After lunch our site-seeing rapidly improved. We allowed gravity to pull us downhill towards a narrow, cobblestoned street called La Ronda. There we took shelter from Quito's daily afternoon rainshowers in a series of delightful artisanal shops. We enjoyed fantastic chocolate, watched expert woodcarvers and metalworkers at work, and admired beautiful textiles and crafts. Following La Ronda brought us to another highlight of our day: the Museo de La Cuidad. Housed in a former hospital, the museum explores the history of Quito using replicas, models, mannequins, friezes, and diaromas to illustrate life in Quito from ancient times through the colonial period.
Day 2, A journey to the center of the World
Today we caught a city bus bound for the Mitad Del Mundo, a museum and park dedicated to the official Equator which was originally measured by a team of French scientists in the 1700´s. Using triangulation based on measurements of the earth as well as the stars they were able to calculate the meridian of the equator as well as measure the size of the earth. To be honest, we´re not exactly clear on the science (it involes complicated triangulation) but it was interesting none the less. We took the requisite pictures straddling the official line of the equator and then went down the road a bit to see the unofficial, but far more interesting, Inti Nan Museum. This side of the road attraction boasts to sit on the actual equator according to GPS and it was there that we got to experiment and witness the changing coriolis forces north and south of the equator. Indeed, water draining from a basin spun clockwise and counterclockwise when moved from one side of the equator to the other and directly over the line there was no whirlpool at all!
We returned to the city in the afternoon and wandered through old town exploring various churches and colonial buildings. Of special note was the jawdropping, ostentatious display of colonial wealth that is La Compania. This church, built by the Jesuits just a few years before they were disbanded by Papal decree, is decorated with beautiful and intricate wood carvings, every inch of which is covered by a reported 7 tons of gold leaf. Everywhere you look, from the retablos in every niche, to the columns, even the ceiling is wrapped in shining gold.
Our other favorite stop of the day was the Monasterio San Francisco. This still-functioning monestary was the largest of religious complex in South America and while the majority of the complex is still cloistered from the rest of the world, the section we were allowed to explore was full of religous art from the Colonial period including paitings, frescos, sculptures, and carvings done by artists of the Quito Schoo. These artisans combined traditional Christian iconography with native motifs and details. The courtyards were also breathtakingly beautiful. If you have to live cut off from the rest of the world, this is the way to do it.
Day 3, The heights of the Basilica
On our third and final day in Quito, our wandering took us to the National Basilica of Ecuador, a classic Gothic cathedral perched high on a hilloverlooking the city (erected by President Gabriel Garcia Moreno!). We were delighted to see a group of young Catholics in church to recieve their First Communion and we tiptoed around the edges of the church marveling at the vaulted ceiling and ornate stained glass, while the children and their families milled about waiting for the ceremony to begin. An even greater treat was the opportunity to explore the upper reaches of the Cathedral. We went up 3 flightes of stairs for a dramatic overview of the Church´s interior, but that was just the beginning of our climb. First, we crossed the entirety of Cathedral´s barrel vaulted ceiling and then up a ladder and outside to a one of the dramatic Gothic spires. From there, we took a steep and slightly terrifying staircase to the top of the spire where we enjoyed a commanding view of the city hundreds of feet below.