Quito is a bustling city that in many ways reminds me of Lisbon in Portugal. Both are strong Catholic cities with steep hills and narrow streets. I think Quito is in a better state of repair. It is situated in a valley in the northern Andes that is about 5 km wide and 57 km long. In the surrounding mountains are a couple of active volcanoes. Periodically, they erupt and cover the city with a layer of fine ash. There is not much flat land available so many buildings cling to the side of the steep hills.
At an altitude of 2,800 metres, Quito has a opulation of around 2.5 million people. The total population of Ecuador is about 15 million. Since colonial times, it has always been the capital of Ecuador although it is only the second largest city in size. The Presidential Palace is located in the old town along with many other historic buildings.
My tour of the city began with a visit to the caldera of an inactive volcano about forty minutes out of town. It last erupted 2400 years ago. It was originally settled by the Benedictines who started growing corn in the rich volcanic soil. Now it is owned by farming families. The main access is down a steep track and the local people use mules for transport.
Ecuador is obviously on the Equator; as its name of Spanish origin suggests. The line of the equator is marked by a monument but a more interesting place is the Equator Museum which has some displays of indigenous cultures – mostly those tribes who live in the Amazon rainforest. One of their exhibits is a shrunken head from the days when tribes-people created them as a way to capture and retain the spirit of those whom they had killed.
The history and cultural items at the museum are interesting, but they also spend a lot of time showing experiments. One, for example, shows how water goes down a plug hole clockwise or anti-clockwise depending on which side of the line you are on. Its all a bit of a gimmick – as if a few metres of distance would have such an impact! However I can say that I have now had a foot in different hemispheres (for the second time – the first was in Kenya).
The traffic in Quito is manic. It is not helped by the fact that the government is currently building an underground railway through the centre of the city, resulting in major detours and traffic jams. This is no place for the timid driver. People change lanes inconsistently and cut off others as they circulate through roundabouts. There is a constant beeping of horns. The traffic is not fast – the streets are too narrow but there is major congestion everywhere.
On many street corners people sell fruit or other produce. It’s now the orange season so the are available in bags of twenty for the price of US$1. (The US Dollar is Ecuador’s national currency). Roses are also popular. You can buy a bunch of 20 roses for $6. Most of these street vendors come from Venezuela. It’s a sad thing that people can come to Ecuador and live on the streets and be better off than in the currently decrepit economy of their own country.
In the centre of the valley over the city is a 200-metre-high hill of volcanic-origin. It’s name is El Panecillo (from the Spanish word ‘panecillo’ which means a small piece of bread). In ancient times, the local aboriginal people had a temple there from where they used to worship the sun. It is likely that it was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores during the time of colonisation.
Now, the hill is topped by a tall statue of the Madonna with outspread wings like an angel. It is made of seven thousand pieces of aluminium and provides a fine viewing point from which to see over the old town. The old town is dotted with church spires and domes and it contrasts with the new town behind it with its modern tall buildings. I guess that these will have a much shorter life than the buildings in the old town.
There are many colonial buildings in the old town. The presidential palace, old convents, commercial buildings are obvious examples but the most outstanding are the churches. Different ones were built by different orders from within the Catholic Church.
The church oF San Fransisco is one of these. It fronts onto its namesake Plaza de San Francisco. The imposing structure (along with its convent and school) has the distinction of being the largest architectural precinct among all the historical structures of colonial Latin America. Its baroque style evolved over almost 150 years of construction (1534-1680), surviving earthquakes and changes in artistic fashion. This Church houses the city’s famous Virgin of Quito which is taken out and paraded around the city on holy days.
My guide, Jose, then said that we would see another church which was even more ornate. Unbelievably, it was. I don’t have any pictures because photography was not allowed. It was the Church of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). I asked Jose whether there was any perceived conflict about the opulence of these churches and the low incomes of the people of Quito. (The prescribed minimum wage in Ecuador is only $366 per month). Jose dismissed any concern about this by saying that these churches were built 200 years ago, so any thought of a conflict is irrelevant.
After a typical Ecuadorian lunch of frittata, we wandered around the town. The main square was, as usual, crowded with people just relaxing outdoors. The equatorial climate is modified by Quito’s altitude but it was still surprising to see many people wearing jackets and cardigans. Aboriginal (Indian) women all wear fedora hats – an idea a little like the bowler hats worn by women in Peru.
The narrow streets were quite photogenic. Many of the shops are now restaurants and galleries. The locals certainly know the things that interest tourists.