Quito, Ecuador’s cultural and political heart, sits nestled in the Andes at the foot of Volcan Pichincha overhanging the Valle de los Chillos. At 2800 metres, exploring the city is a breath taking experience in more ways than one. The “Old City” is gorgeously picturesque, one of the first UNESCO designated world heritage sites.
We decided to make our usual “soft landing” and booked into Hostal de la Rabida, a charming 11 room guesthouse in a restored old villa on a quiet street in the Colon neighbourhood. Run by the most helpful staff ever encountered, it provided a peaceful introduction to this congested city of 2.5 million people. Each evening we enjoyed a glass of wine by the roaring fire in the lounge — this is not to be a warm trip, in fact so far distinctly chilly.
We loved wandering the narrow cobbled streets of the Old City with its many gold encrusted Spanish cathedrals from the 16 and 1700’s. Boy those Spanish knew how to impress the locals with the Baroque splendour of their churches. Martyred saints, multiple depictions of bleeding and suffering Christ figures, hovering angels, cherubs, Madonna figures with and without wings, ornate columns, a reputed 7 tonnes of gold covering every available surface — well, who needs restraint?
Every famous cathedral fronts its own expansive square, we soon had our favourites and especially enjoyed some of the less famous sites we happened upon. La Casa de Maria Augusta Arrutia provides a glimpse into the lives the very rich lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. The house this woman lived in was perfectly preserved from the time of her marriage in the 1920’s at which time she ornately furnished a 19th c mansion. Widowed a few years later, she took mourning to an extreme, living on in the house with the aid of 24 servants until her death in 1987. She never changed a thing in respect for her dead husband, and all is as it was, including her collection of black hats and walking sticks!
A real highlight for us was the Museo del Banco Central which absorbed us for hours with its collection of historical artifacts starting from 3000 BC with fragments of tools etc, progressing through meticulously reassembled pre-Columbian pottery items both useful and artistic, to an astonishing collection of Inca golden treasure such as the mask at the head of this entry, to the “Quito School” of art with its macabre paintings of blood soaked martyrdom and polychrome statuary, like giant china dolls with glass eyes and real hair, depicting Madonnas, saints, angels, cherubs and so on. Once the religious theme waned, the paintings began to be quite banal depictions of wealthy patrons. Actually a rather exhausting experience but we loved it.
Another absolute top site was the the Museo Guayasamin housed in the self designed former home of the most esteemed artist in Ecuador and its accompanying Capilla del Hombre, completed after his death and his tribute to the suffering of humankind. His giant murals and hugely prolific collection of his own works, those of artists like Chagall and Picasso, pre-Columbian artifacts, more suffering Christ figures than you can imagine almost but not quite distract the visitor from the lovely home he designed overhanging a view of all of old Quito.
Despite cautions by Gloria our wonderful manager at the hotel, we learned to use the public transit lines — much faster than taxis in rush hour because of the gridlocked streets but packed like sardines — and did as the locals all do, clutching our bags firmly to our chests to foil the legendary pickpockets. Quito is vastly safer than it was ten years ago but still even the locals avoid public transit and even walking the streets after dark.
We were sad to say good bye to Gloria after four packed days at the Rabida, but we will return there at the end of our journey. There are so many more things we would like to see there. Off to Otavalo, about 2 1/2 hours north in a share taxi, one of those wonderful conveniences where you buy a seat and are picked up and set down at your chosen hotel. Clearly we will not survive here without updating our Spanish skills, so after viewing the legendary Saturday market we will attend Spanish school for a week. More to follow.