Return to Quito – Old City Plazas & Iglesias

A few weeks ago, we boarded the what-we-thought-was-eight-but-really-turned-out-to-be-ten-hour bus to Quito. We’d only been to Quito a couple times before – once to fly back home to Philly, and once last March at the beginning of our jungle trip. Poor Quito hasn’t had a visit for its own sake; this trip was also just the beginning of a bigger adventure to the Galapagos! But I digress (and you’ll have to be patient), as Quito really does have a lot to offer and I feel it’s often under-rated by the inhabitants of Cuenca.

Last time, we were only there for a day, and we had time to do just a few things – eat a local almuerzo, walk through the basilica, ogle at the gold in La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, and check out a craft market. A small sampling. This time, I was intent on exploring much more of what Quito has to offer. Plus, Dad and his wife Ann flew in from Philly to meet us, so I got to play tour guide!

Elliott and I stayed at the Radisson Royal Quito Hotel La Mariscal (New Town). We used points of course, and we were very happy with our room, bathtub (ahhh, my first bath in months), the free snacks and drink each night during Happy Hour at the bar, the Ecuadorian chocolates on our pillows each night, and the gym where we could burn offal those free calories. Our location was about two miles northeast of Old Town, which is a very walkable distance for us.

I found a great place in Old Town for Dad and Ann, who don’t have a zillion hotel points and can’t walk as much as we do. San Francisco de Quito offers a gorgeous courtyard, private rooms, free breakfast and Wi-Fi for about $75/night. It’s also at a fabulous location at Sucre and Guayaquil where cars aren’t allowed. Truth be told, we were a little jealous! But our two locations allowed Elliott and me to get lots of walking in each day before and after our adventures. And at 2800 meters (270m higher than Cuenca), that would be some good exercise.

Of course the altitude is always difficult for those who aren’t used to it, so we took it easy on Day 1 with Dad and Ann. They had arrived just before midnight the night before, and were feeling effects immediately. I mapped out some places to see in Old Town – mostly plazas and churches. This is what we saw:

San Francisco Plaza and Iglesia (church) San Francisco – A large, “empty-feeling” square, San Francisco is one of the few squares in Quito without trees and benches. It has a beautiful view of the Virgin de Quito on the hill. The church has twin bell towers, several buildings and seven courtyards, making it the largest religious complex in South America!!

La Merced – Built between 1701 and 1747, this church has Quito’s largest bell in its clock tower outside, a lavish Baroque and Moorish interior, and an altar with tons of gold leaf. Elliott and Dad paid a local a few bucks to take a tour and get more detail about the inside, but Elliott’s favorite thing was still the frog water fountain outside.

Museo Numismatico – A small museum showcasing Ecuador’s various forms of currency over time. We went through once ourselves and later a second time with an English-speaking guide. Really interesting stuff for us money lovers – like how they used to use spondylus shells for money. And we learned a lot more detail about Ecuador’s financial crisis in the beginning of this century, which resulted in a change from the Ecuadorian Sucre to the US dollar, as well as a migration of two million people out of the country.

(La Compania is right across the street but has an admission fee. We saw it on our last trip to Quito and Dad and Ann were happy to see all the free churches! Plus you’re not allowed to take photos so we have to point you to these generic ones

Plaza de la Independencia – This beautiful square is complete with many trees, flowers and a fountain, and still retains its original dimensions as laid out with a string and ruler in 1534! It’s also surrounded by many important buildings, including the cathedral, Government Palace, Archbishop’s Palace and City Hall. Ann and Elliott and I explored the Quito Visitor Center and cathedral while Dad actually witnessed someone more or less bathe in the fountain. We couldn’t take photos in the cathedral (and Dad was too polite to photograph the bathing guy), but we learned that during Good Friday Mass in 1877, the Bishop of Quito was poisoned with strychnine in the holy wine! Another murder took place in the Government Palace in 1875 when the President was macheted to death. Not a good couple of years….

El Sagrario – Just off Plaza de la Independencia is El Sagrario, a 17th century church with a pale blue dome. Inside the church has turquoise walls and geometric designs. The dome is covered with frescoes and the altar was decorated in lilies, as opposed to the roses found on most church altars in the area.

It was a great first day, giving us a good overview of Old Town and its beautiful churches and museums.

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