Before venturing down the road to the Cotacachi leather village, we first stop off at the impressive La Mirage Garden Hotel for lunch. Metropolitan has scored us the best table, with a view to the lawn where peacocks strut around showing off. This member of the gastronomic Relais and Chateaux group is known for its restaurant as much as its glamorous inn and our meal lives up to the reputation. The whimsical start to it all is a great introduction: an amuse-bouche served inside a music box. After that it’s a parade of local specialties finished off by desserts making the best of regional ingredients—in my case strawberry pyramid.
The village of Cotacachi exceeds my expectations when it comes to what is inside the shops. I see carefully crafted overnight bags that would be $500 and up in any New York City shop that are selling for well under $100. The same ratio seems to apply to purses I see ladies oohing and aahing over. If the leather jackets or boots don’t quite line up with what you’re seeking, stick around a while and they can custom make an item to your specifications. “This wouldn’t be a bad spot to stick around in for a few days…or a week,” I say wistfully as we get back into our vehicle.
On our drive back to the capital we pass more greenhouses, grazing cattle, and orchards, but there are signs that people need to be reminded this fertile land cannot be taken for granted. Billboards thank those making local reforestation projects possible and others remind residents that “Agua es la vida” (water is life) —to keep the watersheds and rivers clean.
Down into Quito from the Clouds
The next morning when Maria picks me up we pop by the Botanical Garden before driving up to the entrance of the telefériqo cable gondola. It whisks riders up the slopes of Mount Pichincha to 4,050 meters, sometimes literally into the clouds. It’s a windy day at the top for us, but a relatively clear one, so I can make out the long and skinny city of Quito stretched out in both directions, wedged against the imposing mountains behind us.
Quito is heavy with history though and I’m anxious to get back into the heart of it. This was the northern capital of the Inca Empire, connected by a series of mountain foot trails through the Andes to Cusco. At 2,850 meters (9,350 feet), it is the second highest capital in the world, but has a lot more going for it than the one occupying the top spot—La Paz, Bolivia.
At the San Juan Hill viewpoint the driver drops us off. We get a panoramic look at the historic center and the Virgin Mary with wings statue (El Panecillo) on a hilltop beyond. Even from up here it’s obvious that this is no longer a historic center in decline. In the past decade the public and private sectors have made major headway in rejuvenating the streets and plazas here and stepping up the police presence to push out the troublemakers. The transformation has been astounding, with this now being one of the most attractive city centers in Latin America.
I’m fortunate enough to see it on a Sunday too, when most streets become pedestrian-only and the churches are lively with parishioners in their Sunday best. A religious procession goes by as I stand in front of La Merced church, with trumpets blaring, drums pounding, and men in outlandish costumes following a statue of Judas carried on others’ shoulders. Hey, every saint has his day.
In the heart of the old city, on the main square, is Hotel Plaza Grande, where we stop in for lunch. The crowd is evenly split between upscale tourists and local business wheelers and dealers, but I’m pleased to see that the menu specializes in traditional Ecuadorian food, taking the typical carb–rich filling cuisine up a notch in refinement and adding some strolling musicians for accompaniment.
My lunch notes are hopeless, with scrawls about popcorn in the soup, trout and avocado, sweet tomatoes, and dry ice sending fog across the table during dessert. Apparently I was too enthralled with the meal to concentrate on writing.
You could spend days visiting the 86 churches scattered around the area, but the most impressive ones are clustered near each other. Each offers an astounding display of intricate carvings, centuries-old paintings, and glittering gold leaf. Even after going through this routine in a couple dozen Spanish Colonial cities now, I’m still taken aback by how much time and effort went into every small detail.
I keep seeing interesting structures a block or two over that I don’t have time to investigate. In some cities a day is enough and I’m ready to go. I’ve spent a few days in Quito and the high valley but I feel like the typical time–crunched American tourist. Scratching the surface doesn’t take so long in this compact region, but with this much beauty and natural wealth around, a few days is an appetizer that leaves you hungry for more.
If you go:
See the excellent Quito Tourism site for ideas and contact Metropolitan Touring for sightseeing tours and excursions from a day to several weeks. See our hotels link below for reviews of the best hotels in Ecuador.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott.