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Once a part of a giant empire spanning Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia, Quito is often referred to as the ‘The light of America’ for being the first city to rise up against Spanish rule. Like in other historical conquests, the influence of power, in this case the Incan and Spanish, has left a deep impression on the physical and mental makeup of the city. The Spanish built intricate basilicas and plazas but also trapped and killed native revolutionaries, a fact that is not easily forgotten.
Ovi of Free Walking Tour Ecuador navigates us through old town’s undulating lanes towards the town center called Plaza Grande. The plaza is a free, open space with benches, a place for locals to relax in the sun. Surrounding the plaza are some of Quito’s primary landmarks – the president’s office, the town hall, the main cathedral and Palacio Arzobispal which was once home to the archbishop. Further down the street is La Compañía de Jesús, an astonishingly beautiful church and the Banko Central, which is a numismatic museum. Outside the president’s office, Ovi tells us about the historical streak of bad luck among Ecuadorian presidents (many of them have been killed at this square) and laughingly mentions that the current president chose not to live on premises!
Our visit falls on a weekend and people are out in their Sunday best. Street performers, local artists and curio sellers display their bearings outside Compañía de Jesús. We walk towards the second most popular Plaza- San Francisco, where hawkers sell meringue and children chase pigeons, making the most of the ample space. What was once a bustling square for trade and commerce is now a vacant spot for tourists to catch their breath and for locals to idle about.
Mass progresses inside the church of Plaza San Francisco and we are asked to wait to take photos. Ovi tells us about the techniques used to create the statue of Jesus displayed on the left side of the entrance. He points out to the hair and the blood and mentions that those are real. Unsettled, I try to distract myself by looking at the ornate gold leaf work on the ceiling. Around me, I see a steady depiction of faith – in the mannerisms and expressions. My mind momentarily switches back to the temples of India. Back then, I never quite imagined that I’d be witnessing a similar sight millions of miles away in a country so far removed from my own. Perhaps that’s what unites us, as humans.
Walking through old town’s checkerboard streets we find ourselves at a panoramic spot behind Museo de la Ciudad, but not before picking some plantain chips and my local favorite homemade sauce, aji. At a distance we could spot the Virgin of El Panecilo, the statue of Quito’s Madonna. We hear the sounds of an orchestra and find an organized crowd gathered next door. This square was once Quito’s black market, shared Ovi. Today, a free musical performance organized by the city’s tourism board was underway. The artists put up a string of performances including a Colombian dance called Cuyamba, an act that I had to tear myself away from.
Every guidebook, blog and travel magazine talks about Quito’s La Ronda, a narrow street with little boutiques and cafes on both sides. What makes the street special is the Spanish style architecture in pastel hues. Ovi points towards the balconies on both sides and tells us about the wooing ritual of the past. Men would walk on the street, play the guitar and ladies would have a field day being picky. That sounded familiar. We grab some local gelato at Dulce Placer and go gaga over never heard of flavors like cuba libre and colada morada, the latter made of exotic tropical fruits including the local famous naranjiila. I spent a few moments regretting missing out on a chocolate workshop at Chez Tiff but Ovi pulled us into a traditional craftsman’s workshop next door. The craftsman gave us a live demonstration of his work, an ancient form that involves hammering and painting techniques.
Our tour ended at Compañía de Jesús, the stunning church that finally let us in once the crowds had dwindled. Work on this church continued for one sixty years and today it is thronged by visitors who walk in to admire its perfect symmetry and moorish elements. The Compañía boasts of gold-leaf work on its ceiling as well, and the interiors are every bit as dramatic as described by locals. After three hours of walking around, the quiet surroundings were just what we needed to recharge. Sitting on one of the benches, surrounded by finery of the past, we took the time to reflect upon all that we had seen since morning. We also visited Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas, and took an elevator up-to get a view of the city and its nearby mountains. Our day had only begun, but the city’s friendliness gave us a strange sense of déjà vu, reminding us of the warm feeling of kinship in an unknown but fascinating part of the world.
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