Somehow I ended up on a Trole bus on the way to the historical centre of Quito with an Argentinian girl who spoke very little English. Our conversation was minimal and in Spanglish, but we laughed lots. From our drop-off we walked up cobbled Chile Street heaving with a complete range of characters selling anything you could possibly want from toothbrushes to lottery tickets to ice-cream cones filled with sticky, sweet, pink foam.
Arriving at Plaza Grande, we handed over our photo ID and joined the free tour around the Palacio Presidencial. As it was in Spanish and only the odd word was comprehensible to my untuned ear, my imagination had to come into play. As we walked around the impressive, wood laden building and arrived at a banquet hall with a huge, sturdy table that went on forever and heavy chandeliers that would crush you, I couldn’t help but picture a raucous party with elaborate dress, seat switching after every course and drunken dancing down the length of the table. I’m sure in reality it’s a much more civilised affair. Pity.
Quito old town is famed for its elaborate churches and in terms of decadence and glitz, they did not let the side down. La Compañia was excessive with the gold and ornate intricacy on show, but the San Francisco church was almost obscene in the amount of gold splattered about the place and I guess that the entry fee would go some small way towards a piece of gold leaf (if you don’t want to pay then you can easily see enough of the place from the payment area). La Basilica, although a bit of a trek across the town, has a completely different feel. Although still somewhat architecturally showy with towers, grotesques and stained glass, it foregoes the ornamentation of the previous places. While churches ain’t my thing, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the effort, design and greatness of these places.
Continuing our exploration of the old town, we headed down what is often cited the prettiest street in the historical centre, Calle de Ronda. Away from the crowds and returning to a cobbled theme, it was indeed a sweet area, spoilt only by a pickpocketing attempt on my new friend who managed to save her wallet but lost a couple of other items. Taking a taxi to avoid the walk up to El Panecillo that is renowned for vicious muggings (although having done the drive, I do wonder whether the travel guides are in cahoots with the taxi drivers!), we spent only ten minutes or so climbing the statue and gazing out over Quito. The scale of the city is striking from this height, uniquely framed by mountains and mist.
Many travellers I’ve met were bored by the old town, but then that possibly reflects their age and interests more than anything else. Visibly it is a feast for the eyes and a great place to take a seat and do some serious people watching. The historical centre is alive with entrepreneurial spirit and a complete mix of modern Ecuadorians, traditionally dressed locals and tourists passing through. It does indeed have a completely different vibe to the La Mariscal area of Quito, much more diverse and less inhabited by gangs of gringos, and for that reason alone it is well worth a visit.