Pastel coloured houses cling to the sides of the volcanic slopes. Stray dogs wander the narrow, cobble stoned streets. In the early mornings, before the clouds roll in, there is blue sky in the Plaza de Independencia, or Plaza Grande, the heart of Quito’s Old Town, or Centro Historico. Shoe shine men with wrinkled, nut-brown complexions sit waiting for the day’s customers underneath the curved arches of the Palacio Municipal and little ladies wearing colourful scarves and bowler hats sell lottery tickets.
Quito is the cultural capital of Ecuador, and on my first day here I visit La Campania de Jesus, an ornate stone church decorated by artists from the celebrated School of Quito. Inside, the church dazzles the eye – the main altar and side naves are all gilded in 23 carat gold leaf. The church is mostly Baroque in style, with Moorish motifs and paintings of various saints circling the grand dome.
There are working monasteries dotted all over the Old Town and I sit in at the tail end of an afternoon service in the chapel of the Monastery of San Francisco, before a brown robed monk chases me out. The chapel, like La Campania, is altogether gilded gold on the inside and the nuns who still live there offer artesanial breads and other products for sale through a revolving door, which allows them to sell the goods without being seen.
On the northern slope of the historical centre is the gothic twin spires of the Basilica Voto Nacional. To the south, a stone angel stands watch over Quito. This is the statue of the Virgin on El Panecillo and on a clear morning, the views from here of the city are breathtaking.
The altitude takes some getting used to, and I stop to catch my breath at lunch. Lunch in Quito can mean only one thing – almuerzo, or set lunch. For under US$2, I am served a large bowl of hot soup, rice, vegetables and a portion of fish, chicken or beef, and a freshly pressed juice. The midday meal is the main course for most Quiteños, and many local establishments offer almuerzo.
Note: The Galapagos Islands were incredible – post to come!