In the lifestyle of the Foreign Service, sometimes you bypass the tourist phase and go straight to establishing your house, friend networks, and local hangouts. Two years is a remarkably quick time and so we waste no time in making our house feel like a proper home and finding where to go for the best local produce and a good meal. Before you know it, days or weeks can go by and you haven’t really explored the city that you now call home.
I won’t begin to ascribe any meaningful introspection to our decision to explore Quito’s Centro Historico during our first weekend here. It was a long four day weekend, we had very little of our stuff and limited connections yet, so a day out exploring the UNESCO world heritage site made a whole lot of sense. Even if it did rain on us most of the time.
We really had no idea what we would encounter on our first foray into the heart of Quito, but the short answer was churches, Ecuadorian tourists, and a vibrant mix of colonial architecture and small cobblestone streets. Quito’s historic centre was one of the first UNESCO heritage sites in 1978 and was given this honour due to its historical significance and well preserved nature. With over 130 historically maintained buildings and the largest concentration of churches in Latin America, it is quite a place to walk around and soak up the history and culture of Ecuador.
Since that first weekend we have been back numerous times and have enjoyed the plazas, museums, and artisanal shops. We have seen it lit up and from many different angles, but we have gravitated to certain places such as Calle La Ronda, Plaza San Francisco, and La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús or the Basilica.
We frequently start at the Basilica Nacional, which has two great advantages. First, its imposing view over the spires and ceramic tiled roofs of the old city gives you a great introduction to the whole location before you are in amidst the walls and narrow streets. Second, you don’t have to climb up the rather steep hill to see the Basilica!
The building is faux gothic – having been constructed in the 1970s and 80s mostly out of concrete. It gargoyles are missing pieces and the two clocks in the tower don’t work, but it is an experience to walk on a wooden catwalk over the arched roof of the nave. And then the vertiginous ladders up to the tower that gives you the finest views of the city – except from the top of Pichincha!
What is always great about the centro historico is the vibrancy of the people. Yes, it is a world heritage site, but the Ecuadorians are going about their business like it is any other normal day or place. It feels like any other city centre in the country, with fabric stalls, small shops lining the narrow roads, and vendors selling all sundries out in the plazas. The regular options of chifles, ice cream, and umbrellas when the rain clouds roll in are all available – as are the shoe shine guys.
Towering above the area is the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Panecillo – little bread mount. This enormous status is visible throughout much of Quito, but especially so from the old city. It affords great views from the top, but is really only accessible via car – the stairs up are long, steep, and prone to muggers.
One of our favourite little corners is Calle La Ronda. This once forgotten part of the old city has been the focus of the city’s efforts to entice small artisans to create workshops and small galleries to display their myriad talents. It is a mostly pedestrianized area that has a few nice little restaurants as well. We particularly enjoy the honey shop Api Real which produces honey from bees that are kept on Ilalo – the extinct volcano directly across the valley from our house, and other locations around Ecuador. Our favorite, the local eucalyptus honey.
One of the key plazas has been unfortunately under construction due to the large Quito Metro project, which is quite the engineering challenge. Building a tunnel under the length of Quito, in a highly seismic zone must keep the engineers up at night! Also, having to pull up all the historic cobblestones, only to replace them exactly in the correct places will undoubtedly prove to be quite the undertaking.
Nestled under the La Iglesia San Francisco is a touristy restaurant and gift shop Tianguez. The food is pretty good, but it is the warren of tunnels and rooms leading off the main gift shop that is the real reason to venture here. Displaying traditional arts and crafts from all over Ecuador, this maze reveals its treasures one hidden turn after the next. Just watch your head!
The centro historico has so much to offer, with the Good Friday Procession, Quito Days celebrations, and a hundred more activities and venues. Even when you aren’t right in the centre it can draw your attention. Sitting on a hill overlooking the old city is a lovely little restaurant Cafe Mosaico that offers fantastic views of the sunset over Pichincha. As you enjoy a cocktail or local dish, the magical dusk settles over a corner of Quito that has seen much change since its founding in 1534, yet it retains an old world charm about it. It is a view that can be quietly enjoyed and contemplated for hours.