With the volcanic Galapagos Islands teeming with strange and fascinating wildlife, impressive Andean peaks, and the lush Amazon rainforest, Ecuador is perhaps best known for its natural wonders. But my first experience in Ecuador was in its capital city, Quito. In 1978, Quito was declared as the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site for its extensive historic center. With an astounding variety of art, culturally rich traditions, monumental architectural gems, and exceptional cuisine, Quito is a treasure.
Introducing the Treasures of Quito
Surrounded by volcanoes and straddling the center of the earth, Ecuador’s capital city is a place where the past and present effortlessly coexist. Founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca City, Quito has the best-preserved historic center in Latin America. Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with colonial churches, monasteries, convents and beautifully restored houses with architecture from the 16th to the 20th century. The cuisine is outstanding, the people are warm and genuine, and traditions passed from generation to generation are alive and well. It's the kind of place I want to share with my children and grandchildren. Here are some of my favorite experiences.
Architecture along the Calle De Las Siete
The Calle De Las Siete Cruces (Street of the Seven Crosses) is named for the seven churches with different congregations located just blocks from each other. Each church has a predominately displayed cross as a testament to the religious practices of the city that have existed since the 16th century. The iconic La Compañía de Jesús Church also known as the “Golden Ember” is considered the Baroque jewel of Latin America and the world. The facade is a work of art carved out of Andean stone. Inside, the altars, pulpits, pillars, and arches are all covered with gold leaf. Baroque carvings in geometric shapes, flowers, fruit, and garlands are plated with 23 carat gold.
Overlooking the City at El Panecillo
El Panecillo is an ancestral hill where a massive statue of the winged Virgin of Quito made from over 7,000 pieces of aluminum keeps a watchful eye over the city. This is an excellent place to get an overview of Quito and a close up look at the Virgin.
Exploring the historic district of La Ronda
At the southern end of Quito's Historic District you will find the narrow cobblestone street La Ronda. One of the most iconic streets of the historic district, La Ronda is the bohemian center of the old town – a place where musicians, artists and poets mingled in the 1930's. Today traditional foods and beverages are served in modest nondescript restaurants and traditional trades coexist with designer shops, craftwork shops and spaces for folklore and popular culture. You'll see children playing games in the street and musicians entertaining the shoppers.
Don't miss the empanadas de viento (wind empanadas) which are dough made from wheat and filled with cheese that inflate when they are fried in oil as if they were empty inside. They are huge and delicious. You can wash it down with a Canelazo (warm spiced cocktail) made from the Andean fruit, naranjilla, whole cane sugar, cinnamon, cloves, anise, and a splash of sugar cane moonshine.
Getting to Know the Traditions of the Local Families
One thing I truly loved about the businesses I visited in Quito was that so many were family-owned and passed down through four or five generations. One example was the business owned by Luis Branda. He and his son continue the family tradition of making colaciones – a delicious snack made of peanuts, lemon and sugar. The colaciones are made in a 100-year old pan – the same pan used by his father and grandfather before him. The pan is circulated by hand and Luis even let me give it a try – it's not as easy as it looks!
Riding on the Tren Ecuador
My favorite experience in Quito was riding on the Tren Ecuador. The trip began at Chimbacalle station where we learned about the history of the railroad which was declared the most difficult train in the world. But the magic began as we traveled through the city and into the surrounding countryside. Residents, young and old, came out to watch the train pass by as they waved us on our way. In the surrounding countryside we passed the highest volcano string in the world and even got a glimpse of the erupting Cotopaxi volcano. The local cows escorted us as we rolled past fields of quinoa decorated with violet blooms. Along the way we stopped in villages to learn local arts and crafts, watch a traditional dance program and sample traditional Ecuadorian foods.
Straddling the Center of the Earth
Of course no trip to the city at the center of the world would be complete without a visit to the equator. At Mitad del Mundo you’ll find the monument to the equator, but it’s actually not the real equator. Thanks to GPS, it was discovered that the actual equator is about 250 yards away at the Museo Intiñan, (the Equator Museum). Have your picture made at Mitad del Mundo with a foot on each side of the equator line, but then head over to the real equator and stand with a foot in each hemisphere. You can also participate in physic experiments like placing an egg on the head of a nail or watching water swirl down the drain clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. It was fascinating even to this non-scientific grandmom.