Spear’s, 4th June 2013
Recently I made my third visit to Quito in the last five years. I have to admit that on the first two occasions I was, as it were, just ‘stopping in’ on my way to the Galapagos. This time my prime objective was not to visit Ecuador’s ‘Enchanted Isles’, 600 miles out in the Pacific Ocean; it was to spend some quality time in Quito itself.
What struck me about my most recent visit to Quito was the astonishing transformation that has taken place over recent years. What we see here is sensitive restoration and rehabilitation which now covers not just a few buildings, or even a few blocks, but almost the whole of Old Quito, the heart of the former colonial city.
The seeds of this transformation were sown more than 30 years ago. In 1978, Unesco proclaimed the city a World Heritage Site (with Krakow, the first such nomination). When other architectural gems in much of South America were being ruthlessly bulldozed to make way for ‘modern’ cities, the World Heritage designation had the effect of preserving Quito’s centre.
I spent a whole day walking through the streets and plazas of the old town, visiting the churches and convents, art galleries and museums. If you are looking for a single superb vantage point, find a way up to the balcony of the Presidential Suite of the Plaza Grande Hotel in the Plaza de la Independencia, also known as the Plaza Grande. To the right stands the Presidential Palace, flags fluttering.
The cathedral soars directly in front of you. On the other side of the plaza lie the city’s municipal buildings (admittedly modern, but less of an eyesore than might be expected). Finally, if you crane your neck to the left, you can see the Archbishop’s Palace. Cast your eye upwards, above the roof of the cathedral, and you will see, on historic Panecillo Hill, the great statue of Quito’s Virgin (Virgen de Quito), a winged Madonna standing on a globe, made of 7,000 pieces of aluminium, placed there in 1976.
In terms of Baroque magnificence, Quito’s churches take some beating. I found it hard to decide whether the Jesuits, with their magnificent Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, stole the palm from the Franciscans, with the equally voluptuous Iglesia de San Francisco.
(My hotel, the newly opened Casa Gangotena, was magnificently situated, in the same square as the Franciscan church.) In the convent category, the Convento de San Agustin and the Convento de Santo Domingo vie for first place. Wherever I turned in my day’s walk through the old town, I found myself awed by the abundance of sacred images, painted and sculpted.
If you had the time, you could spend days, not hours, visiting no fewer than 30 churches, convents and chapels built within Quito’s historic centre. There must be, literally, acres of gold leaf here.
You could also spend far more time than we did just wandering through the narrow streets. Some, like Calle La Ronda, have a charm all their own. The pot-bellied walls of the houses built on the steep slopes of the street provide shelter and music for visitors in search of the region’s empanada de viento (deep-fried puff pastry stuffed with cheese).
From Quito to Coca
One of the advantages of Quito’s location near the centre of Ecuador is that it can serve as the natural hub for an extended Andean holiday. I flew from Quito to Coca (the flight over the Andes into Ecuador’s Amazon provinces takes about 30 minutes) and then on by helicopter to Añangu, a Quichua community in Yasuni National Park.
Yasuni is home to 596 species of birds, 2,274 species of trees and bushes and at least 382 species of freshwater fish, 169 species of mammals, 141 species of amphibians and 121 species of reptiles. There are also more than 100,000 species of insects per hectare, the highest concentration in the world.
At the time of my visit to the country, Ecuador was in the throes of an election campaign. Since President Rafael Correa was himself a candidate for re-election, the vice-president, Lenin Moreno, was filling in as acting president and my arrival in Añangu coincided with his official visit.
I joined the crowd of Quichua in the clearing to hear the acting president broadcast an appeal to the world to help save the Yasuni National Park from the depredations of the oil industry. ‘Ecuador,’ he said ‘will ban all further exploitation of oil in a large tract of the park.’ He hoped the international community would appreciate this extraordinary gesture and compensate Ecuador for some of the lost revenue.
As far as I was concerned, this was a no-brainer. The vast Yasuni National Park is a critical part of the whole Amazon ecosystem and the Amazon, in turn, is a vital determinant of world weather patterns. In comparison with the trillions of dollars thrown at the banks in recent years, the sums involved in preserving Yasuni seem trivial.
The next day I took a long canoe ride down the Napo river to the Napo Wildlife Centre on Añangu Lake. Hawks, parrots, giant river otters, caimans, monkeys — this is a journey that has everything. It is not for nothing that Yasuni is called the most biodiverse place on the planet.
The Cloud Forest
In north-western Ecuador, the other side of the Andes from Yasuni, much of the humid tropical forest, including the ‘cloud’ forest, has been lost, thanks to logging and the relentless expansion of agriculture, including — most recently — palm oil plantations.
But at the end of my trip, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a couple of days at the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve. This is a protected 3,212-acre rainforest retreat and guest lodge set at over 3,000 feet, three hours north-west of Quito. It forms part of a much larger reserve of 42,000 acres which, in May 2011, was declared a natural protected area by the municipality of Quito.
Birds of all kinds abound: 400-500 species inhabit the forest. I saw at least six species of wild hummingbirds, and there are 25 species of hummingbird in Mashpi altogether. Mashpi’s resident wildlife project coordinator, Carlos Morochz Andrade, has overseen the construction of an extraordinary ‘butterfly life centre’ where you can observe at close range the whole amazing cycle of a butterfly’s life. That morning Carlos was followed wherever he went by two young orphaned ocelots that he was hoping to be able to return to the wild in due course.
For me, the high point was the hour spent cycling through the forest canopy. You literally have to pedal along wires strung high up across a great ravine. You are way above the trees. On all sides you can see the clouds of this great ‘cloud-forest’. ‘Take it slowly,’ Carlos urged. ‘There’s no need to rush. You won’t see a view like this again in a hurry.’
Casa Gangotena has rates from $460 per room per night, including breakfast and afternoon Quiteño coffee (casagangotena.com). Yasuni Ecolodge offers a four-day stay in a double room for $574 (yasuniecolodge.com). Mashpi Lodge offers three-day programmes from $1,296 per person (mashpilodge.com)