With a few days before classes began, it was time to explore. Comfortable with the newer area of Quito where we were staying, it was time to fall in love with the old buildings, winding streets, fragrant produce markets, and towering basilicas of Old Town Quito.
The first order of business was getting there. Old Town is note exactly a stones throw away from New Town, the Mariscal district, and the busses are intimidating. Without knowing the roads and neighborhoods it seems impossible to squeeze your way on to the right overly crowded bus, pay the $0.25, not get everything stolen, miraculously know which stop to get off at, and push your way off. We thought about it, and decided that we would rather walk the 30-45 minutes to old town. But, walking in the city does not come without problems. Roads merge and sidewalks end abruptly. Busses and trolleys are sporadic and crossing the road is dangerous. But somehow we miraculously made our way to a hostel in old town that was offering free walking tours.
If you are physically fit and fully rested, the walking tour was great. We were able to see a lot of Old Town and it helped us figure out the layout of the city. We saw a large market, the National Theater, the Church of San Francisco, the Presidential Palace, the Church of the Society of Jesus, and the Ronda or gypsy district.
The Presidential Palace was the house of most of the former presidents of Ecuador. Smack in the center of the historic district, our guide told us that many presidents had actually been assassinated trying to enter of leave their house. Revolutionary Gabriel García Moreno crossed the street to attend mass daily, and one day was met with the opposition armed with machetes and killed. There is actually a plaque on the building signifying the place of the assassination. We were told that his body was then drug through the square as a trophy. However, his assassination did not dissuade other presidents from living in the Presidential Palace. At other times groups thousands of Ecuadorians would gather and demand a president to leave office. However, the current president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, does not live there. He decided that an office for the people, such as presidency, should not inhabit such a palace and that it should belong to the people instead. Well, either that or he did not want to meet the same fate as his predecessors.
We were actually unable to enter the Church of the Society of Jesus, which is said to hold enough gold to pay all of Ecuador’s debts. I plan on returning because it is supposed to be absolutely incredible. The Central Bank of Ecuador is right down the street from this church, and we received a history lesson of Ecuador’s failed currency and the transition to the USD. Yes, Ecuador uses the same money that we use, which saves me the trouble of converting in my head! Evidentially the largest bills printed during hyperinflation in the 1990s and early 2000s were 50,000 sucres bills. Yikes.
I am also anxious to return to the Ronda gypsy district. The streets were narrow and largely Spanish influenced. There are evidentially many street musicians, food, and a generally cool atmosphere in the evenings.
In the tour group there were people from Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, UK, Greece, etc. Not many times have I been a minority as an American. Ecuador is an interesting country in that respect. You absolutely cannot get around without at least rudimentary Spanish skills. Many other times that I have traveled, Spanish or another language was a bonus, but you could always get by with English. Nobody at our hostel speaks English. Most cab drivers to not speak English. Nobody in the restaurants speak anything more than very basic English. So, if you are planning a trip to Ecuador, bring a dictionary.
Exhausted, we ate a quick meal with a few other people from the tour. For a mere $2 we had a great locro de queso, or a potato cheese soup, a juice, rice, beans, and a stewed chicken. I will absolutely never get used to these prices. Over our relaxing meal we conversed with a couple that was visiting from Canada. They were headed to the Galapagos Islands next. We laughed because at home it always seems like we are the well-traveled people, but whenever we visit a new place, it always seems like everyone else has been to so many more places!
The next day we were able to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which is the towering and awe-inspiring basilica in Quito Old Town. It is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas. Instead of normal gargoyles, there are gargoyles of Ecuadorian animals, such as the Galapagos tortoise. Inside there is a great vaulted ceiling with some incredible stained glass windows.
The highlight was the view that we received from the terrifying climb to the top of the towers. We could see the entire city after climbing a few extremely high ladders to the top. I am terrified of heights, so the fact that I did this was a big deal, but the reward was well worth it.
Here’s to getting out there, exploring old town, and learning something new.