Quito is the capital of Ecuador and one of the highest major cities in the world. It sprawls for miles along the north-south valley called the Avenue of the Volcanoes, although it requires a nice clear day to see many of the namesake mountains. While it has a seemingly infinite number of neighborhoods, most visitors spend their time in the area between the airport and the panecillo. This picture is of the Mariscal area which is home to a sprawling mass of banks, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies. The Mariscal is a great place to just show up with no idea what you want to do and start window shopping the vast number of travel agencies. Almost all of them cover at least the Galapagos, something in the Amazon, and a few assorted types of adventure travel. Surprisingly, the Mariscal (known colloquially as Gringolandia) is relatively hassle-free.
At the south end of the Mariscal is a huge triangular park called the Ejido. We believe it is where playground equipment goes to retire (or die). There is a truly phenomenal variety of these things spread across half the park. If anyone happens to be doing a retrospective documentary on playground structures, this is a must-see. For the rest of us, it's just something to walk through (or take the trolley past).
We happened to be in Ecuador on Simon Bolivar day. What happens on Simon Bolivar day? Well, as far as we can tell, ambassadors from neighboring countries show up at this Simon Bolivar monument and place decorative memorials in front of it. That's about it.
So we probably came and left from Quito about 4 times before we ever saw much of the city center. In fact it was only the last couple days of our trip that we actually had time to spend wandering around. That's not really evidence that Quito is uninteresting though, it's more that there's a tremendous number of things to do in central Ecuador and most of them are 1 or 2 day trips out of Quito. This is Quito's basilica.
It's pretty much like a European basilica. Very Gothic, inside are some impressive stained glass windows, lots of little side shrines and a vast open nave. There are two rather unique features to this particular building though.
The first is the gargoyles. Well, actually gargoyles are to be expected on a hulking Gothic mass like this. These gargoyles though represent animals which are indigenous to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Not only is this a nice twist on the expected, but it leads to time spent going back and forth around a corner trying to figure out which one is the three-toed sloth and which is the anteater. (There are guidebooks for that, but it seems like cheating.)
The second interesting feature of the basilica is that you can climb the central steeple. This involves an elevator or stairs to the top of the nave, and then this catwalk across the top of the vaulting. From there it's a narrow ladder to a platform at the base of the steeple which has excellent views across Quito. A series of suspended ladders then lead to the top. These ladders are not for the faint of heart.
This is the panecillo (little bread loaf in Spanish), the origin of the name should be obvious from this picture. This little valley in front of it contains the 'Old Town' of Quito. This is not so much the first settled part of the valley as it is the first part settled by the Spanish Conquistadors. The streets here are very narrow, which is noticeable when delivery trucks go roaring around corners and force all the pedestrians up against a wall. The statue atop the panecillo is the Virgin of Quito.
Here is a close up of the statue. There's a lot of symbolism involved here, most of it from the Book of Revelations describing the woman of the apocalypse. We could've looked this up and provided more background information on it, but we're lazy so this is left as an exercise to the reader.
This is the presidential palace of Ecuador. It's on the main square in old town which is usually a mass of locals, tourists, vendors, street performers and maybe a dancing circle of Hare Krishnas if you're lucky (or unlucky). We mentioned the Mariscal is fairly hassle-free. The center of old town is not. There are a lot of aggressive tour guides and salesmen .
This is a portion of La Ronda which is claimed to be the oldest street in Quito (or maybe Ecuador). Again, this really means it is (or might be) the oldest street built by the Spanish conquistadors. If it looks like a bit of a mess that's because it is. This area right at the base of the Panecillo has been a fairly rough part of town known mostly for muggings. It's being restored now and reclaimed by the tourist center of the old town. We didn't find it to be as bad as many tour books suggested, but then I don't think we'd wander around the area after dark.
La Compania church in Quito is probably the highlight of old town. It doesn't look like much on the outside and photography is forbidden inside, so you'll have to take our word for it. Imagine your average Spanish-inspired Latin American church. Next, cover every available surface in gold. That's pretty much the Campania. Walls, columns, the ceiling, railing, shrines, the altar - it's all covered in gold. There's also some interesting historical shrines in the back and a fascinating painting near the back of the nave that depicts every type of sinner and exactly what treatment they can expect in hell.
This is the back of La Compania as seen from the plaza de San Francisco which is a very nice and peaceful plaza tucked into a corner of the old town. There are no trolleys to dodge here or potential tour guides to shoo away. There will probably be a pack of shoe shine boys though, who will insist on asking the expected question even if you're wearing Tevas.
The plaza de San Francisco is named after this building - the monastery of San Francisco. It was built in the 16th century. It claims to be the oldest church in Ecuador, but everything in old town is the oldest something in Ecuador. Some parts of the enormous complex can be toured and there is a small museum of relics inside.
The plazas and streets of the old town are absolutely bustling throughout the day. Some of the streets are hard to walk down at certain times. It empties out at night though, and while there are a few hotels and restaurants in the area, old town shuts down for the evening suprisingly early. Most of the nightlife is in the Mariscal (for tourists) and surrounding areas (for locals).