Sunday Afternoon Stroll in Quito

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Monday, June 21, 2004

Travelling down through Central America we generally tried to avoid major urban centres as we usually found them very congested, dirty and not that pleasant to visit. Country bumpkins that we are, we prefer to head for the rural areas, mostly "up into the hills"! However, we have found the capital city of Ecuador to be an interesting and delightful place to explore. Quito is large and sprawling, with a population somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million, but is easy to get around because of the way the city has developed, located high in an Andean valley. It is about 40 km long, along a roughly North/South axis, and only about 3 to 5 km wide. A trolley bus system runs almost the length of the city, and with a fare of 25 cents for any distance, and with very frequent service, it makes most areas quite accessible. There are also innumerable yellow taxis and a comprehensive bus network. It is now the summer dry season, with daytime temperatures of about 25 to 28̊C and pleasantly cool nights around 15 to18̊C. The days are fiercely sunny with deep blue skies, ideal for walking around as long as you have a hat or remember the sun screen. We say walking advisedly - as opposed to running - as at over 9,000 ft altitude it is easy to find yourself out of breath quite quickly.

Quito is named for the peaceful Quitu people who established a major centre here in pre-Columbian times. It was taken over by the Incas in the 15th century and became the most important city of the Inca Empire until it fell to the conquering Spanish led by Pizarro in 1534. The city was almost totally razed during the resistance to the conquistadors, and was rebuilt over the next three centuries as a significant colonial centre with many large churches, monasteries and stately buildings. Ecuador obtained independence from Spain in 1822 after two decades of resistance by the Indians and mestizos
against the abysmal treatment by the Spanish ruling classes. Since then Ecuador's political development has been very tempestuous - often characterized as a typical Latin American "banana republic"scenario - with fierce and frequently violent rivalry between the conservative factions of Quito and the more liberal socialists of Guayaquil on the coast. Over the past century there have been political assassinations and periods of military rule, but in recent years the protests have been largely democratic and peaceful. Opposition to the political and economic corruption has led to the deposing of two presidents since 1997 by demonstrations, marches and strikes without any bloodshed. Despite the discovery of oil in the 1970s the economic situation over the past three decades has gone from bad to worse, with periods of runaway inflation and huge foreign debts. In 1999, with inflation at 60%, bank accounts were frozen and the local currency was replaced with the US dollar. This stabilized the situation somewhat, but the country continues to grapple with severe economic problems. As usual, it is the indigenous people and urban poor who have suffered the most, and continue to be the most economically disadvantaged groups.

Enough of the politics! It is Sunday afternoon and we are ready to explore. The city is rather unique in that the modern areas of the 'New Town' have been developed quite separately from the well-preserved colonial historic centre. Although the 'Old Town' is a commercial area in its own right, it has not been blighted by the construction of obtrusive modern office blocks, and retains a charmingly 'old world atmosphere' of red-tiled roofs and whitewashed walls. During the week the narrow one-way streets are bustling and congested, but on Sunday most of the traffic is blocked off and the streets and squares are filled with promenading families enjoying the peace and quiet of their day off. Interspersed are the travellers and tourists (like us, clutching their Lonely Planet guidebooks!), enjoying the relaxed atmosphere but determined not to miss anything. Every block has another fascinating church, museum or monument, but it is just as interesting to 'people-watch' quietly sitting on a bench in one of the plazas. Old men reminiscing, young lovers oblivious to the world, families posing for group photos, vendors hawking snacks and treats, shoe-shine boys hustling for business - all are part of the tapestry of a Latin Sunday afternoon.

We spent some time on the Santo Domingo Plaza with its statue of Mariscal Sucre pointing off to the flanks of Volcán Pichincha, where he won the decisive battle for independence on May 24th, 1822. We made a mental note to come back another time in the evening to see the Santo Domingo Church, dating from 1581, whose tower and dome are floodlit at night. This southern part of town is dominated by a huge winged statue of the Virgin of Quito, high atop a nearby hill affectionately known as El Panecillo (little bread loaf) - also a site to visit another day. Along Avenida Sucre we passed the Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesus, which is regarded as the most ornate church in Ecuador - seven tons of gold were apparently used to gild its walls and ceilings! On to the Plaza and Monastery of San Francisco, which was the first church to be constructed by the Spanish starting in 1534, and where we were lucky enough to happen upon a display of indigenous Andean dancing and folklore. The colourful costumes and distinctively haunting music of the altiplano immediately transported us back to our three years in Puno, Peru and brought back a flood of memories. Time for a quick lunch - a three-course local almuerzo of sopa, seco de chivo (goat stew) and piña postre, all for the modest price of $1.50 - and then on for some more people-watching in the main square, Plaza de la Independencia.

The last stop of the day was to prove the most striking and needful of a good head for heights. The northern end of the Old Town is dominated by the Church of the Basílica, high on a hill with its twin towers and spires rising to a height of close to 250 feet. The church itself is relatively new - the construction was started in 1892 and is still ongoing. We preferred the handsome simplicity of the interior compared to the very ornate decoration of some of the older churches, and admired the stunning stained glass windows. We plucked up courage, paid our $2 entrance fee, and headed up the 311 steps to the belfry and finally made it up the steel ladders almost to the very tip of one of the spires. The views looking out over both the Centro Historico and the New Town were stunning, with the city seeming to stretch on forever in all directions. In the distance we could see the snow-capped peak of Volcán Cotopaxi, and could watch aircraft on their approach paths low over the city. It was a great vantage point, but we were careful not to look down or to lean out too far over the somewhat crumbly stonework.

Now to the task of picking out some photos. We are really enjoying the wonders of modern technology in the form of our Canon S50 digital camera, and not having to worry about supplies of film or where to get film processed - just download the flashcard on to the laptop and recharge the battery. However, this leads to another problem - an overabundance of shots which need editing down to a manageable level. In our few hours strolling around Old Town Quito this afternoon we took over 150 pictures! Never mind, we can now re-live the experience for about the same amount of time as we agonize over choosing the pictures for TravelPod and dreaming up suitable captions.
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