After a lovely bath and long sleep to shake off the flight, I was ready to explore Quito. I landed on my feet with my first hotel stay at Casa Gangotena. The above was the view I woke up to just before sunrise.
This place is luxury on toast: voted 6th best boutique hotel in the world by TripAdvisor, it’s situated ridiculously centrally in the old town overlooking Plaza San Francisco and the same-named church. It’s the old mansion of a wealthy Quito family which was converted into a 31-room boutique hotel a few years ago. Despite being so central with the bustling square right outside, my room was a haven of peace and quiet.
It was such a lovely introduction to the city to wake up and watch the sun rise behind the church and see the plaza slowly roll into life.
Breakfast blew away any remaining plane-fuzz. Seated in a sunny corner with more views of the square, I started with a mimosa and tasty homegrown coffee.
There’s an extremely well-stocked buffet including juicy local fruits, breads, pastries and cheeses, and you can also order cooked-to-order dishes.
I had to try something local: the ‘San Roque’ comprised soft-boiled eggs next to a cheese-topped pancakey flatbread, with a brown sugar syrup to drizzle over. Slightly weird and utterly delicious.
I met my guide for the week, Luis, in the hotel lobby and we set about on a walking tour of some of the nearby sights of the old town. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, on the strength of it having the best-preserved historic centre in South America. You can easily see the Spanish and Moorish influences in the architecture; if you plonked me here at random I’d have said it was Barcelona.
We started by doing a lap of some of the streets leading off the plaza, taking in some of the local shops. I see they got the memo to send out a welcome cat.
Grain stores selling masa, beans and rice by the sack, and small stoves cooking up hot snacks.
Beautiful vegetables, familiar and exotic
An alternative pharmacy, which uses herbs and plants to make remedies – camomile, aloe, ochre root and so on.
A flower shop – roses are a big export for Ecuador, and I’ll see a rose farm later in the week.
I bought a delicious fruit-flavoured shaved ice from an old lady’s cart. Street selling is a huge thing here: fruits, hot food, ices and sweet snacks are on offer literally every few paces for a bit of small change.
We walked to La Ronda, a little cobbled street which is known as an artsy bohemian hub, housing several bars, restaurants, artisan studios and workshops. I bought some beauty products made using local honey, and watched some metalsmiths and wood carvers at work.
Back on the Plaza San Francisco, we had lunch at Tianguez restaurant. It was nice to taste some more local food: I had spicy sauteed mushrooms with salsas and chips followed by a lovely potato soup with avocado and crispy corn kernels, with a sweet steamed tamale for dessert. The juice is a local fruit, tomate d’arbol, ‘tree tomato’ which tastes like a cross between tomato and apricot – really tasty and refreshing.
We visited three churches: first, Iglesia de San Francisco, the one that formed my sunrise view. No pictures allowed inside (though I just had to sneak one) but it was quite breathtaking with every surface carved and gilded, sombre statues and Renaissance paintings bearing down, and the ink-blue domed roof dotted with more gold. High Baroque at its finest.
The Basílica del Voto Nacional. The outside is quirkily decorated with stone animals of all the local fauna: alligators, armadillos, turtles and so on, and it’s pure Gothic drama inside.
Finally the equally Baroque St Ignatius Jesuit church. No photos again but it’s another highly gilded wonder, with every square inch covered in intricate baroque- and Moroccan-influenced carvings. The church also houses a small collection of 16th century religious paintings and a special tribute room to a nun called Mariana who allegedly sacrificed her own life to God to save Ecuador from an earthquake. She is buried in the church; you can see her tomb at the altar and the crypt underneath. Also notable are the two arresting paintings on each side of the church’s entrance; one an extremely gruesome depiction of hell and the other of a more serene heaven. Religious or not, I found it all utterly absorbing and beautiful.
Finally we got a first glimpse of the city from above by driving to Itchimbia, at 3,000m above sea level. This is a little park with some rare species of tree and flower, most of which are used for medicines. The crystal palace in the centre is used for events, exhibitions and concerts.
It was incredible to see the sprawl of the city for the first time: my guide explained that most of the houses on the hills surrounding Quito are self-builds, but the government has started to crack down on planning permissions as over-development is becoming a concern. Quito has seen exploding growth in the last decade and right now the infrastructure, particularly travel and pollution, is playing catch up.
This was a great introductory day to the historical wonders and everyday life of the old town. Tomorrow I’d be seeing more of it, and climbing even higher into the clouds…