Freelance writer and photographer Dominic Hamilton explores Quito and Cuenca, Ecuador's two great cities.
The great liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar, called San Francisco de Quito ‘a monastery’ when he first marched in with his victorious troops - before, in characteristic style, falling for the city’s most renowned beauty, Manuela Saenz. Walking round Quito’s old town today, you can understand why he made the remark. The Church of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries probably enjoyed more power than the Spanish Crown. In Quito’s historic heart alone, over two dozen churches, chapels and convents rise above the two- and three-storied houses. Not for nothing is it dubbed the ‘Reliquary of the Americas’.
In 2008, Quito celebrated 30 years as a Cultural World Heritage Site - it was the first city ever to receive the accolade. In 2004, it was nominated Cultural Capital of the Americas. And it remains the largest, and possibly most beautiful, historical centre on the continent.
Until recently, Franciscan Quito lived on. The Saturday street market would teem like a trout farm. Stalls clogged either side of the chessboard-grid of thoroughfares. Their blue awnings virtually webbed the narrow streets, knitted with cords and ropes to hold them up, trip you up, or garrotte you. One couldn’t move in some parts. Much of this medieval menagerie has been cleared away. With the help of the mayor and the local authorities, the street stalls have been dismantled, the vendors moved on, the cobbles scrubbed and swept. The city built various concrete indoor markets, and relocated the comerciantes there.
The historical heart of Quito is virtually unrecognizable. Streets have been reorganized with new traffic-calming measures, while on Sundays the entire area is closed to vehicles. Mansions have been restored and cultural spaces opened up. The former Naval Archives, redolent with musty files rotting unperturbed, has been transformed into the elegant Centro Cultural Metropolitano. Boutique hotels opened up, an ex-hospital now houses the not-to-be-missed City Museum, and the Bishop's Palace on the handsome Plaza de la Independencia now boasts a posh restaurant, called, of all things, Mea Culpa - blasphemy!
At night, the city's largest churches and squares are bathed in spotlights. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of wandering the old town at night. Now, as an adopted son of the city, I’m only too pleased to take friends on night-time tours. It’s a sign of the quiteños' great pride, but also their Andean industriousness, that they have transformed their city so quickly, and so strikingly.
As the main hub for all travel in Ecuador, most visitors pass through the city at various times on their trip to the country. Most spend a day in the old town, before visiting the museums and sights in the more modern, northern part of the city. Here, there are several excellent displays of Ecuador’s rich archaeological and cultural heritage, some impressive art from Ecuador’s modern painters, and no end of markets and handicraft shops to keep shoppers happy. Quito’s only possible drawback is its polluted and rarefied air. At 2,800 metres high, it’s the third highest capital in the world, and visitors often find they have to slow down to compensate for the lack of oxygen.
Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca, on the other hand, sits at an easier 2,500 metres, and is far cleaner. "Of all the earth, as far as I know it," wrote the early twentieth century traveller Harry A. Franck, "Cuenca has the most perfect climate." Most visitors wholeheartedly concur. It’s considered the most beautiful city in the country, proud of its colonial and independence architecture, its many churches and its artistic and intellectual heritage. The University of Cuenca is rated as one of the best in Ecuador and Latin America, while it also ranks among the most Roman Catholic cities of the continent: its motto is Primero Dios, Después Vos (First God, Then Thou). No doubting who’s boss there, then.
While traditional, religious and provincial, Cuenca is also intriguingly progressive. It’s one of the few cities in South America where one can drink water from the tap: all the water entering and leaving the city is purified. The three rivers that course through it are clean, their banks sewed with multicoloured patchworks of clothing laid out by local women doing their washing. And you won’t find the usual hair-raising spider’s web of electrical cables in the streets of Cuenca, since they’re buried beneath the cobbles, alongside fibre optic cables which bring fast internet connections to its citizens.
The city is also a great centre of handicrafts, lying at the heart of the misnamed ‘Panama’ hat trade, as well as gathering the crafts of the surrounding region’s dexterous silversmiths, carpenters and weavers. Its highlights for me include the magnificent sky-blue domes of the new cathedral, the flower market of the nearby Plazoleta del Carmen, the religious art of the Museo de las Conceptas and its surrounding crafts shops, and simply ambling along its cobbled streets down to the banks of the river.
Like Quito, Cuenca makes a great base for exploring the surrounding countryside. A short drive to the north lie the country’s most extensive Inca ruins at Ingapirca, to the west the wilds of El Cajas National Park, and to the east a number of pretty and welcoming crafts villages which can all be visited in a day.