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Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Handy Andes: Escape to Quito by Stanley Johnson

Published in London Evening Standard 24th September 2010

pdf version (with photos) | Click here for The Evening Standard

 

Far too many people seem to think that Quito, Ecuador's high Andean capital, is just a pit stop on the way to the Galapagos. At best, they spend a night or two there before flying on. I have been guilty of that myself in the past. But what struck me about my most recent visit is the astonishing transformation of Quito into a destination city in itself.

 

The seeds of this transformation were sown more than 30 years ago. In 1978, UNESCO proclaimed the city a World Heritage Site (with Krakow in Poland, the first such nomination). At a time when throughout much of South America other architectural gems were being ruthlessly bulldozed to make way for modern city centres, the World Heritage designation had the effect of preserving Quito's centre. Admittedly, much of the area was run-down, even decrepit. But the fact remains that, while business and commerce grew up in new locations outside the historic heart, the essential structures of the old colonial city remained intact and unchanged.

The seeds of this transformation were sown more than 30 years ago. In 1978, UNESCO proclaimed the city a World Heritage Site (with Krakow in Poland, the first such nomination). At a time when throughout much of South America other architectural gems were being ruthlessly bulldozed to make way for modern city centres, the World Heritage designation had the effect of preserving Quito's centre. Admittedly, much of the area was run-down, even decrepit. But the fact remains that, while business and commerce grew up in new locations outside the historic heart, the essential structures of the old colonial city remained intact and unchanged.

Nowadays, of course, the achievements of the Spanish conquistadors are not necessarily bathed in a golden glow. The ruthlessness with which they overthrew the Inca empire, whose northern capital lay in Quito, is legendary. They captured and executed the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, despite the fact that his people ransomed him with a room full of gold and silver. Yet though the price was high – certainly for the indigenous peoples of the region – it has to be admitted that nearly 300 years of Spanish rule in Quito left the world with a near-perfect gem of colonial architecture.

In recent years, enlightened civic administrations have come to appreciate the treasure trove that lies on their doorstep. Since the turn of the century, Quito has invested some $250 million in the protection of its heritage (the US dollar is the official currency of Ecuador) and the pay-off, by any standard, has proved spectacular.

My wife and I spent a whole day walking through the streets and plazas of the old city, visiting the churches and convents, art galleries and museums. If you are looking for a single superb vantage point, try to persuade the management of the Plaza Grande hotel to let you stand on the balcony of the Presidential Suite looking out on to 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. To your left lie the city's municipal buildings (admittedly modern, but less of an eyesore than might be expected). Lastly, 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. We 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. In the convent category, the Convento de San Agustin and the Convento de Santo Domingo vied for first place. Wherever we turned in our day's walk through the old town, we found ourselves awed and even overwhelmed 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 potbellied 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).

One of the advantages of Quito's geographical location in more or less the centre of Ecuador is that it can serve as the natural hub for an extended Andean holiday. You can spend a few days visiting the Ecuadorean Amazon, before returning to base camp. Then you can set off again to, say, Cuenca, another colonial gem in the south of the country. You can make a day trip to Cotopaxi, at 19,347ft one of the world's highest active volcanoes, before once again setting off on a longer excursion to enjoy one of the many festivals held in the town of Otavalo in the Northern Highlands. Quito, in a word, has almost everything you could wish for. Galapagos, watch out!

 

| Journey Latin America

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