Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sidetrip Report: Ecuador, Days 1 and 2

Probably from our trip to Huaraz, I acquired a tenacious cold that laid me out for the going away party we hosted at the apartment on the 26th. All the cousins and aunts and uncles showed up bearing cases of beer, and bottles of wine and rum, most of which they ended up taking home as the party died down and ended, uncharacteristically early for a Peruvian party on a Saturday night, by 10:30 pm. Well, while it lasted people had fun. We had hooked up Diego's new stereo which has a karaoke function and those with decent voices sang all evening.

Day 1

On the 27th we departed Lima en route to Ecuador. We landed in Quito in the early afternoon and as soon as we settled into the hotel we went out exploring. Quito has grown upward since Liz and I last saw it seventeen years ago. New and tall buildings abound, at least on the north end of the city. In that regard it is like Lima, but, unlike Lima, traffic is relatively light and drivers respect traffic signals.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the city more or less shuts down on Sundays. Thus, we found ourselves exploring mostly-empty and shuttered streets in the La Mariscal district, where our hotel was located. We had selected the hotel -Jardin del Sol- based on its location in that area, and it turned out to be a fortuitous selection, although it was not so apparent on that first afternoon.

We walked a few blocks down to Avenida Amazonas, which had been a center of activity and one our haunts when we lived in Quito. To our dismay, we found it torn up for repairs and devoid of activity.

Nonetheless, a few businesses were still open despite the disruption, including one that we had been wanting to return to: El Hornero pizza.

At El Hornero they cook their pizza in a big wood-fired oven, which gives the pizza a nice smoky background taste. The oven gives the restaurant its name, as its shape resembles the nests of the ovenbird (hornero) of South America, particularly the Argentine pampas. In fact, there is an ovenbird nest on display in the restaurant. The pizzas are quite good, large, and compared to pizza in the US, well-priced, and definitely hit the spot after a day of travel.

Day 2

Before we left the US we had hired ourselves a morning-long city tour of Quito for our first morning in the city. We were picked up a nearby hotel and taken by bus to the city's historic center.

The first stop on the way was at the Basilica del Voto Nacional. The Basilica stands out in the skyline of the old part of town because of its height (plus being built on a hill) and due to its architecture. The neo-Gothic structure stands in marked contrast to the colonial and neo-classical facades of the rest of downtown. It is alsno noted for its gargoyles. On the posterior end, they are traditional gargoyles, but along the more recent and front end, they take the form of Ecuadorean animals such as iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, Magellanic penguins, frigate birds, anteaters, or monkeys.

Begun in the late 1800s, construction was stopped in time for it's blessing by Pope John Paul II's on his visit to the city in 1985. The interior is lit through by stained glass panels brought from Spain and installed in time for that visit.

The next stop was the Plaza Grande, Quito's main square. Despite its name, which means "large square", the plaza is not particularly large (in fact it seems smaller than the nearby Plaza San Francisco). On one side of the plaza is the former Archbishop's Palace, and across from it, the cathedral. On the two remaining sides, facing each other, stand city hall and the Carondelet Palace, seat of the Presidency.

Because it was the 28th of July, there was a floral offering in the form of a Peruvian flag by the plaza's central monument to the heroes of independence.
The Plaza Grande with city hall in the background

The Quito Cathedral

Courtyard of the Presidential Palace

It being a Monday we were also fortunate to be able to observe the mid-day changing of the guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace with President Rafael Correa in attendance.

The Granaderos de Tarqui (Tarqui Grenadiers) during the changing of the guard ceremony

President Rafael Correa (center) oversees the ceremony from the Palacio Carondelet

Granadero and flag atop the Palacio Carondelet

Our last three stops downtown were at colonial-era churches: the Church of El Sagrario, at the west end of the Cathedral, the church of the Company of Jesus (i.e. the Jesuits), and the Franciscan order's Church of San Francisco. The latter two were undergoing repairs -the first from a fire, and the latter from earthquake damage, but were still well-worth visiting.

Burial in the entryway of El Sagrario Church

San Francisco Church (built 1536-1580)

One of the cool things about Plaza San Francisco is that there are tunnels under the church. On the right side of stairs (and visible in the image above) these have been taken over by a cafe and cultural center which sells native handcrafts from all over Ecuador. The tunnels run deep under the church and seem like great fun to explore while admiring the exquisite crafts for sale (they do have some of the best we saw in Quito). Unfortunately our schedule did not allow time enough to really appreciate the place and precluded a return visit.

The final stop on the tour was at the top of El Panecillo hill, a volcanic mound which overlooks the Old City and sits squarely amidships the city, separating the more prosperous north from the working class south. The Panecillo is made all the more visible by the 45 meter-tall aluminum statue erected on its summit in 1976. Though it is often claimed that the statute represents the Madonna of Quito, it is in fact a representation of the woman in Revelations 12:1-18.

Afterward, desirous of traditional foods, we headed to Mama Clorinda a restaurant the the tourbooks and our tour guide recommended as one of the best, if not the best, place to eat Ecuadorean cuisine.

I started off my meal with an Ecuadorian classic: cebiche de chochos. Chochos are lupini beans and are a characteristic of Ecuadorean cooking where they are used in cebiche (as they are also in Peru's Ancash region) and incorporated into aji sauces.

I followed up with the local version of chicharrones, fritada, which came with lots of corn -in the form of corn on the cob, cancha, and mote- and, this being Ecuador, fried banana. The rest opted for llapingachos, cheese-filled potato pancakes acompanied by fried egg and either sausages or a thin steak, and an old favorite of Liz's.

I don't know if their cooking was uninspired or whether that's the way Ecuadoren food is, but I wasn't very impressed. I think that Mama Clorinda, while a solid restaurant, is recommended to tourists more on the basis of being clean and in a decent neighborhood than anything else.

After lunch we hopped on the trole bus and headed north to wander around Parque La Carolina and our old neighborhood near the stadium. There wasn't much to look at there, so we ended up wandering inside the revamped Quicentro shopping center.

We finished off the day with dinner at a spot that Susana had wanted to go to since the moment she saw it - as I think did the rest of us: La Boca del Lobo restaurant on the corner of Calama and Reina Victoria.
La Boca del Lobo restaurant

La Boca del Lobo has got to be the funkiest and coolest restaurant any of us have ever set foot in. The walls of the converted house are decorated in vibrant tones and dozens of painted dythirambic sheep cavort across the ceilings, yet it all somehow managed to remain cozy and intimate. The food was as great and imaginative as the setting (just don't order a pisco sour), and although it was busy, we never felt crowded or rushed. It was a fun meal in a fun place, and a good way to wrap up the day.

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