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Friday 20 Dec 2013
Quito, Ecuador

UNESCO World Heritage Site #1

Ailsa and I had booked a 4-day tour, aptly named ‘a taste of Ecuador’.  Our guide was a Quiteño named Andreas.  It turned out to be a private tour and the last trip on this particular itinerary.  We started with a walking tour of the old quarter.

Quito was the first place to receive the UNESCO World Heritage label.  Little evidence remains and little is known of Quito before the Incas arrived in mid 1600’s.  They had already built Machu Picchu and intended to go bigger and better with Quito, as the higher altitude meant they would be closer to the sun.  However, the Inca reign lasted only about 70 years until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.  The Spanish tore down much of the Inca construction to reuse the stones, though they left some of the original foundations.  They rebuilt in the traditional Spanish style, creating central plazas surrounded by their most important buildings, with the surrounding streets running parallel to create a grid network.  Quito has spent a fortune restoring the properties in the old quarter in recent years.  The result is a beautiful maze of well presented old buildings, stunning churches and wide open squares. 

The various religious orders all wanted a presence in this new city, but an agreement was made that none would build their church within a block of the main square.  The numerous ravines made building difficult.  One cathedral is built sideways on to the square because they didn’t have enough money to fill the ravine behind it.  The intention was always to rebuild later, but this never happened.

Andreas started us off at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a towering gothic cathedral standing on the side of the hill.  The outside is covered in the traditional gothic style of flying buttresses and gargoyles.  However, the gargoyles here are representations of local animals – everything from turtles and iguanas to leopards and boobies (the birds, not the human kind).  This was done in an attempt to convert the Indians away from their traditional beliefs and bring them over to Catholicism.  The locals could not afford to enter the basilica with the Spanish, who paid their way with gold each week, so they would gather outside to pray.  Inside, the tall grey stone columns support the vaulted ceiling high above intricate stained glass windows, but there is relatively little decoration beyond the individual altars in each alcove.  An additional smaller chapel had been added on behind the main altar, brightly decorated in warm ochre and gold tones, which would have been reserved for the very wealthy.

From the Basilica, Calle Venezuela runs down the hill to the Plaza Grande, now known as Independence Square.  This road is also known as the hill of the seven crosses, due to the presence of so many churches, monasteries and convents.  Independence Square was renamed after the second revolution in 1830, which overthrew the Spanish once and for all.  There is an unmistakable monument in the centre depicting a condor breaking its chains and attacking a cowering lion with a crumpled up Spanish flag draped across the foot of the pedestal.  The Palacio del Gobierno, the Presidential palace, takes up one side of the Plaza Grande.  It is a huge white building resting on stone arches – the original Inca foundations.  A wide, open corridor crosses the front of the building, supported by white columns.  The main entrance is flanked by two guards in full Presidential guard uniforms of gold, blue and white, reminiscent of the guards at Buckingham Palace (except these guards area allowed to move).  We were able to go inside a short distance to peer into the inner courtyard – the scene of numerous attacks, assassinations and changes of power over the centuries.  The current Ecuadorian flag is three horizontal blocks of colour – gold, for the sun; blue, for the sea; and red, for the lava of its many volcanoes.  The crest in the centre distinguishes it from the other flags of the Greater Columbia countries of Columbia, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia.  The Archbishop’s palace takes up another side of the square.  It was originally built to house 800 monks, but today holds less than 30 due to the steady decline of the Catholic Church.  Instead, the building has been beautifully restored into a colonnaded row of shops and restaurants.

After the Presidential palace, we ducked into Iglesia del Sagrario, a local church, to compare it with the extravagant style of the Spanish influenced churches.  This one had a well-worn, creaking wooden floor.  It was much smaller and had simple painted columns and arches.  It was packed with people praying and lighting candles at the altars around the outside. From here, we continued down to La Compañia de Jésus, the Jesuit church on the next corner.  The contrast couldn’t have been starker – this Baroque church had an incredibly ornate façade, with four alcoves containing statues of saints from different denominations.  Four spiralled pillars flanked the doorway, which was covered in intricate carvings.  Inside, there were two enormous paintings either side of the entrance: One depicted scenes of Hell with tortured sinners being punished for their sins, the words entwined through the picture itself.  The opposite painting depicted the tranquility of Heaven.  Above the entrance were 16 panels telling the story of creation.  The poor would have been allowed into the back of the church – just far enough for a religious education – but no further.  The rest of the interior was covered in gold leaf.  The ceiling carvings shone brightly in the sun coming through the high round windows, while the gold leaf on the columns had dulled with age in some places.  One section of the church had been damaged by fire and the replacement gold leaf was dazzling compared with the older sections.  The columns and ceiling arches were covered in a range of geometric patterns in recognition of Moorish influence, while the dome above the main alter was painted with a giant symmetrical sun - painted by the local craftsmen who still believed in traditional sun worship.  By the time the Jesuits realised what had happened, it was too late to change it.  Instead, they added small stars around the outside to claim the painting represented Heaven.  A spiral staircase painted on the wall to the right of the entrance replicates the actual staircase on the left, highlighting the symmetry throughout the church.

On our way up into the enormous cobbled Plaza de San Francisco, Andreas bought us delicious handmade sorbets from a street cart.  He showed us a souvenir shop built in the arches under the San Francisco church.  The tunnel runs all the way between the monastery and the nearby convent… for obvious reasons.  Now, the shop has used this tunnel to showcase indigenous arts and sculptures from the different regions in Ecuador. We bought some chocolate and were given three beautiful large roses each.

The walk back up to the Basilica wasn’t that long, but the hills were steep and we really felt the altitude making it hard to catch our breath.  Andreas drove us North out of Quito, which took far longer than it should have done because of the awful traffic in the city.  An initiative was brought in a few years ago to limit traffic by limiting cars with certain number plates on each day – those ending 1 or 2 are banned on Mondays, 3 and 4 on Tuesdays, etc.  It was mildly successful initially, but the number of vehicles has continued to increase so it makes little difference now.

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #3 Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

Travel blog by zobeedoo

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This is the big highlight of the year. Joined by my parents and reunited with Ailsa, we'll spend Christmas in Quito, then travel to Galápagos for New Year, celebrating in style with a week on the Queen Beatriz catamaran visiting the southern islands.

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