As South American capitals go, Quito – with a population of fewer than two million – is not the biggest; it is not even, at 2,850m, the highest; but right now, it is the most talked about. A decade-long restoration of its rich historic centre is drawing to an end, but has already resulted in a 2011 Cultural Capital of the Americas award. The cleaned-up cobblestone plazas and gleaming church interiors have induced a newfound pride among its inhabitants, and a creative energy has seen a small but significant flowering of hotels and museums in the previously run-down, no-go areas of the old town. Meanwhile, the new district boasts gourmet shops and restaurants, where sleek, chic Quiteños enthusiastically expound on their local culture and share their indigenous flavours.
A new airport is set to open in February 2013, providing a longer runway at a lower altitude – allowing the long-hauls in and out, and rendering obsolete the alarming drop that pilots had to negotiate between active volcanoes and apartment blocks. All this and a stable government, which seems set for re-election in February 2013, bodes well for the tourist industry. Quito, once just a stopover on the way to the wonders of the Galapagos Islands, has reclaimed its old title – City of the Heavens – earned as much for its beauty as its proximity to the sky.
Re-founded in 1534 by the victorious Spanish, who imposed their Catholicism architecturally on top of the ruins of the defeated Inca city, Quito’s rich historical layers stretch back to pre-Columbian times. Artefacts from this era are displayed (in a thematic, rather than chronological, order) in the Casa del Alabado Museum, which opened in 2010 in the old town and offers a fascinating insight into the country’s ancient spiritual past, with its customs, myths and traditions – from shamanic medicine to parallel worlds, all captured in clay and stone.
It didn’t take long for the Spanish monastic orders to harness local artistic talent as they competed to construct their churches. Within 50 days of the foundation of Quito, the Franciscans had begun work on San Francisco Church and Plaza, making it the oldest such building in town. The combined work of converted Muslims brought from Spain, the Spanish monks and the indigenous people resulted in the amalgamation of cultures evident in these edifices, which typically include Mudéjar ceilings and Inca sun motifs.
The local art scene is no less vibrant today, as you will find if you dip into the new National Museum of Contemporary Art, which offers temporary, often socio-political exhibitions. Or explore La Capilla del Hombre, the masterpiece of Oswaldo Guayasamín, which houses paintings including Tears of Blood – part of his moving tribute to the suffering of fellow Latin Americans.
Then there are the artisanal products, which are so abundant and varied in Ecuador. Panama hats, made with toquilla straw found near the coast, can be bought at Homero Ortega, while textiles woven from alpaca or cotton, wooden bowls, delicate embroidery and rugs can all be found in boutiques such as Tianguez in San Francisco Square, and in markets including the Mercado Artesanal in the Mariscal area. The best-known shop in this district is Folklore Olga Fisch. Fisch was the first to elevate the local craft motifs into a more mainstream form; her talent, and her shops, have passed on to her great-niece, Margara Anhalzer, who creates bold wall hangings and stocks many of her aunt’s designs in wood and metal, as well as jewellery.
Testament to newfound national pride can be found at Galeria Ecuador Gourmet, which showcases Ecuadorean designers and producers – 93 at the last count. The ground floor is given over to gourmet products that are well worth taking home, particularly the range of dark, organic Pacari chocolate, which includes a 70 per cent raw bar, as well as flavoured versions such as uvilla (cape gooseberry) fruit. The floor above is dedicated to books, prints and jewellery, while designer Jacqueline Muñoz’s collections in alpaca, rabbit fur and leather are also on show.
The other designer of the moment is Diego Arteta, responsible for the interiors of Quito’s 31-room Casa Gangotena, which opened in October 2011. It took more than 500 workers to renovate the grand colonial residence’s painted tin ceilings and intricate stucco work, but Arteta’s mix of art nouveau and contemporary design creates a welcoming atmosphere. Bedrooms, flooded with Andean light, vary in size; some overlook El Panecillo hill, crowned with its winged Virgin, or the peaks of the Pichincha volcano, while others have the ancient San Francisco Plaza at their feet. Bathrooms are elegant marble and the service is spot on, starting with the shots of Agua de Frescos, a refreshing mix of herbs and flowers from the Andes, with which you are greeted on arrival. In the dining room, chef Andrés Dávila has opted for traditional Ecuadorean cuisine served in a contemporary style; the menu includes coastal dishes such as biche de pescado, a fish stew with green plantains, sweet potato and manioc, and the Andean favourite, locro Quiteño, a potato soup topped with cheese and avocado.
Traditional, too, is the Plaza Grande, the 15-suite boutique hotel a few blocks down from Casa Gangotena, and the historic centre’s most luxurious option when it opened in 2007. Walk there, to pass La Compañía de Jesús, considered by many to be the finest church in the Americas and worth seeing for its recently restored opulent gold-leaf interiors and sculptures by the famous Ecuadorean, Bernardo de Legarda. Rooms here are richly appointed and slightly dated in our minimalist era, but the views onto the main square are wonderful. It’s here, more than anywhere, that you see the provincial charm of the capital as barbers do a roaring trade in the arcades under the Presidential Palace and people queue for a pork-leg sandwich by the cathedral.
Another old-town gem opened in December 2011, not long after the whole La Ronda area – the bohemian heart of Quito – was cleaned up of its drink-fuelled crime. Now its narrow streets are lined with small, white-washed galleries and bars and geranium-filled window boxes tumble from every sill. In among these is the charming La Casona de la Ronda, its 22 cosy rooms bursting with hand-carved wooden furniture and artistic decorative detail.
Another stalwart, Café Cultura, is set to open in a new location in 2013 in the same lively Mariscal district. At the moment it is all roaring fires, book-strewn sofas and shabby-chic bedrooms, but the new incarnation will be more high end, in keeping with its classified heritage status. Guaranteed, though, is the same excellent food.
And indeed, alongside the robust development of the boutique-hotel scene, the gastronomic one is also burgeoning. Highlights include the cuisine at Verde Esmeralda, with its range of encocados – a stew of shrimps or fish served in coconut milk with rice and thick plantain chips. Then there’s the bright lights of Boca del Lobo, where young expats gather to sample delicious empanadas; the just-opened gastro-bar Z(inc); and Zazu, considered Quito’s top spot. Unlike the cuisine enjoyed by neighbouring Peruvians, Ecuadorean food has no Asian influences. But Zazu’s former executive chef Alexander Lau, who was born in Peru and is of Chinese-Italian descent, created an acclaimed menu that combined the strands of his culinary heritage, producing a signature style he called “Nuevo Latino”.
Lau has since left Zazu to set up on his own; in January he opened a new restaurant called Lua, which hums with a crowd of businessmen enjoying dishes such as the Japanese-inspired Peruvian speciality tiradito parmesano (raw grouper fish served with a light Italian cheese sauce), or an Ecuadorean tuna steak glazed with soy, ginger and pisco – syncretism to savour. Something that’s true of all of Quito, in fact.