A cab from the bus station takes us toward the center of Quito, where we will be staying for several days. With over two million residents, it is no surprise that this city has neighborhoods of normal busy-ness, where life goes on along graffiti streets with too many vehicles. I think we are driving through most of these neighborhoods on our ride today, and marvel at the new yellow school buses, the traffic lights that impose order and the general rush I notice in the streets. We pass through bleached-out urban spread and then up-up-up to the high plateau of historical Quito.
Once we reach Hotel Casa Gardenia, in the center of the city and settle in, my impressions change. Urbane, international, less hurried, welcoming.
But all those descriptions of Quito – the bustle and the serenity – surprise me.
The last time I was here, traveling in a pack of two or four or six hamburger-starved young Americans, we sought out Rusty Burger the moment our feet hit the last step of the bus. We ate hamburgers translated into the South American experience and called them glorious. We stayed at a ramshackle hostel that was often packed to the brim with Peace Corps volunteers – like ourselves – and young back-packing world travelers from countries I had never been to. The streets of Quito I came to know 40 years ago had been a mixed-salad of old cars, old horse carts, aging homes inside tall stucco walls, and newer buildings along one section of a street near the hostel. It was a small landscape that I came to know well. I visited the historical section of the city only once or twice, after I had eaten my fill of homesick hamburgers.
Today, our hotel, built into an ancient building, lies along a curving and narrow cobbled street, and is guarded from that street by a thick wooden door from Colonial times. But inside, a modern glass-and-chrome structure offers a massive picture window that frames the entire central square in one gorgeous view. A storm approaches as we check-in, then passes by, cleaning our perspective and setting up our visit to be just as new and refreshed as the view itself.
Our location offers an easy walking-tour visit to old Quito. We start out holding a tourist map and head down, down the narrow street. It contracts so much at one point that we have to yield for cars. At another passage, the sidewalk has steps that simply dissolve into a gutter from the 1700’s. We walk through a tunnel of stonework from that era, as modern cars compete with us for space.
Then we are at the central square. People call it the Grand Square (Plaza Grande) and Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia). Ancient stonework continues from the street, but the square itself blooms with color from plantings of flowers mixed with grassy sections and lush trimmed bushes. People are everywhere: walking along, and sitting on the grass and on benches. Massive two- and three-storey buildings line the square, each with a historical purpose: the cathedral, the presidential palace, a grand hotel.
The building that attracts us most is the Archbishop’s Plaza, and the reason we choose this place is predictable. We are in search of food. Inside this former residence of Quito’s archbishop is a beautiful warren of tourism. The interior of the building holds several patios, one with a quintessential fountain, another with a zigzagging covered walkway. There are hallways linking the interior patios and enough entrances and exits to confuse any visitor. And there are restaurants.
We have a hard time deciding which menu to choose, and end up taking a table on an upstairs outdoor patio and eat a wonderful humita ( similar to tamales.) Another rain storm passes as we eat, and the patter of the rain into the interior courtyard is exactly enough to bring a pause to the day, but not enough to change our plans.
After the meal, we continue walking downhill to the city market. The two-story concrete structure contains fruits, vegetables and every imaginable meat. Cascading boxes are hidden behind multi-colored produce: purple and yellow potatoes, orange- and white-speckled corn, light red-skinned plantains. Because there are ingredients, there are also food stalls. Fresh juices, roasted whole pig, llapingacho (stuffed potato patties.)
There is so much more to see, and we have some days to catch our memories of this city we had loved. Forty years later, I am joyful at discovering this modern transformation of Quito. Eating hamburgers from home seemed important at one time. And maybe that is a good personal memory. But Quito itself is so much more than Rusty Burgers, and I am very happy to know that now.
Please join the Monday Walk with RestlessJo and friends: