The Neglected Andean Capital

 

 

 

As Bogotá is celebrated for its urban reinvention and Lima’s restaurant scene continues to receive tons of plaudits, the Andean capital in between Columbia and Peru still hasn’t gotten its due. Many visitors to Ecuador speed through Quito on their way to the Galapagos or into the Andes. This is a mystery, really. Quito has an historic Old Town more pleasing and atmospheric than either Bogotá’s or Lima’s, even if it has neither the concentration of wealth of the former nor the culinary scene of the latter.

My own trip transpired quasi-accidentally. After a planned visit to Santa Cruz, Bolivia was stymied by an insane visa application, I paid a change fee and made my way to Quito. Home for several nights was Casa Cultural, a sprawling mansion of a guesthouse at the edge of Mariscal Sucre. My room was as big as a barn. The place is studded with vases of local roses and smells just slightly of cooking oil. 

A few blocks away is the heart of Mariscal Sucre, also known as “Gringolandia,” which is full of loud nightclubs and loads of North American and European tourists travelling in couples and packs. There are many quiteños in the mix – and hookers, and copious numbers of policemen and women. Obviously lots of people get something from the neighbourhood, but I found it less than enthralling. By mid-morning it seemed empty and spent, like a vacated hotel room stinking of stale cigarettes.

Achiote, a good restaurant in the neighbourhood, is another story though, a simple restaurant serving Ecuadorian food to a high standard. A little salad consisting of cooked beans, corn, and potatoes and llapingacho (fried potato cakes) were highlights. Also good was La Choza in the upscale neighborhood of La Floresta – a trio of ceviches (heart of palm, fish, and prawn) followed by a plato tipico of little cheese empanadas, half an avocado, toasted white corn strewn with pickled chilies and onions, corn tortillas, and a fried banana. Only the pork, too dry, felt like an afterthought. At little Quito holes-in-the-wall I tried two other Ecuadorian items – empanadas de verde (with green plantain and queso fresco), and quimbolitos, a sweet corn bread inside a tamale.

 

 

The historic old town of Quito is beautiful – a colonial core pulsing with museums and cathedrals. Only a few corners, among them the once-decrepit, now well-scrubbed Calle La Ronda, feel antiseptic. The Museo del Carmen Alto, a monastery museum, had a fascinating exhibit on the lives of marginal Ecuadorian women, including Afro-Ecuadorian and transgender women. The modern art museum, which occupies a former military hospital, is a beautifully engaging space, free to enter.

After a few days I moved on to the mountains. Termas de Papallacta, in the Oriente town of the same name, provided a refreshing break from the city. Over the final 20 or so kilometers of the drive from Quito, the scenery along the winding ribbon of a highway starts to look almost Alpine. There are valleys in a mesmerising range of greens, little lakes, and lots of little hotels devoted to taking the waters. Papallacta is just 70 km from Quito but feels as if it is a world apart. People were wearing fleece and thick jumpers, and on my first walk around the property a rabbit spied me and froze before scurrying into brush.

It drizzled and it actually felt cold, not surprising at an elevation of 3300 meters. The resort operates two sets of pools – one free to hotel guests and available to day visitors for a fee, another, with spa facilities and an admissions charge, set among flowering gardens. In addition, there are also soaking pools strewn amongst the hotel rooms. Some guestrooms even have their own big whirlpool bathtubs, which felt like an overkill of riches. There are few greater blisses than soaking in hot water, resting, and soaking again, and Termas de Papallacta really delivered the goods.

On the ride back to Quito for my final night,  all external sounds were muffled, as if gauze had been stuck into my ears. I was so distracted by my own relaxation that the world had begun, ever so slightly, to fade.

 You can get Quito included in the Discoverer round the world


 

By Alex Robertson Textor