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The charms of Old Quito, Ecuador

The city's restored historic area is a lure for tourists and locals alike who pack churches, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries. And then there's the equator nearby.

November 11, 2012|By Amanda Jones
  • The Plaza Grande, once rife with crime and drugs, now attracts tourists and locals alike.
The Plaza Grande, once rife with crime and drugs, now attracts tourists… (Quito Tourism Corp. )

QUITO, Ecuador — "Not long ago, we wouldn't think of coming to this area," Dominic Hamilton tells me as we stand on a street corner in Quito's historic area at 1 a.m. "It was horribly seedy. And dangerous."

Hamilton is a Brit who, after having spent many years writing guidebooks on South America, fell for an Ecuadorean woman and her country and made a life here. That was nine years ago.

"Old Quito is one of the most beautiful cities in the world," he continues. "But it had become a shabby shadow of its former self — with drug dealers, thieves and other illicit industries. Street peddlers had taken over the plazas. It took 20 years of planning and over $250 million to reclaim this part of the city and begin to restore it. An amazing feat."

In 1978, UNESCO named Quito, along with Krakow, Poland, the first two World Heritage Cities. Quito is the largest and most historically preserved of all of Latin America's colonial cities, but the town did nothing but go downhill until some politicians and a few prosperous businessmen decided it was time to bring it back.

Nowadays, the historic center is en fuego with energy. Tourists are staying longer than the obligatory one night en route to the Galápagos or the Amazon, and locals, who have moved into restored 17th century mansions, and suburbanites are coming to experience theater and music performances or dine at the burgeoning number of chic restaurants.

Earlier in the evening, Hamilton and I had eaten in La Ronda, an area he was determined to show me. "This street used to be the worst of the worst," he says. "It was just above the train station, and it was a red-light district."

Now the cobblestone pedestrian street wends up the hill lined with flower-hung, whitewashed buildings housing hip bars, nightclubs, art galleries and coffee houses. We'd dined at La Primera Casa, a restaurant in an old adobe on La Ronda serving traditional Ecuadorean food among modern quiteño art.

In a corner, a band played pasillo music, and we drank cinnamon canelazo, a local Andean hot toddy, while we ate empanadas and langoustines in garlic butter. Afterward, we caught a cab to La Mariscal, the neighborhood northeast of the Centro Histórico, to Seseribó, an underground salsa club where locals shimmied and swiveled on the dance floor.

In the wee hours, Hamilton dropped me at Casa Gangotena, a new hotel and possibly the boldest move yet in Quito tourism. It's set on a prime location on the Plaza de San Francisco, an area previously so thick with vendors' stalls that it was impossible to see its beauty. In 2002, the government built a covered market for these "informal sector" vendors and relocated them. It upped the police presence downtown and drove out crime.

Gangotena, formerly the home of a wealthy 1920s merchant of the same name, was purchased by one of Ecuador's largest tourism companies, which, determined to see Quito revived, transformed the ruined mansion into a 31-room boutique hotel that opened in 2011. The building kept its grand aspect, with soaring tin ceilings, cavernous rooms, marble floors and frescoed walls, but the modern-classic furnishings and avant-garde palette are most certainly this century. The same company also opened the wondrous Mashpi Lodge, a 21/2 -hour drive out of Quito in the Andean cloud forest.

There are so many historic churches and cathedrals in Quito that you could make an entire trip out of houses of worship, such as the gilded La Compañia, the simpler Santo Domingo, the Baroque San Francisco and the Gothic Basilica, among scores of others.

These days, however, Quito's cultural life thrives as the religious one once did. Almost nightly there is an event in one of the city's plazas — a concert, a dance, a choir performance, a speech, a play or a political rally. In addition, there is an extraordinary number of excellent restaurants with food unlike anywhere else in South America.

Blessed with a fecund land producing exotic fruits and vegetables, an ocean of fish and a refined European influence, Ecuadorean cuisine is imaginative and farm-to-fork fresh. I was here just before Easter, when fanesca, the traditional Easter soup, was being served.

This heavy, stew-like potage made from 12 grains representing the 12 apostles has no on recipe, I discovered. Every cook has her secret version, and it appeared that the town was having a fanesca cook-off, comparing one household or restaurant's recipe to another.

After sampling Quito's eating establishments, I decided the restaurant at Casa Gangotena had the best food and most certainly the best fanesca (the general manager's great-grandmother's recipe). One evening, I slunk into the empty restaurant for dinner at the shockingly early hour of 7:30. (Ecuadoreans generally start showing up at restaurants around 9 p.m.)

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