It’s a crisp Andean morning, and South America’s prettiest colonial capital is coming to life with people, pigeons and sunshine. “Papas! Aguita! Papitas!” A street vendor in a bowler and with a child strapped to her back carries a stack of golden crisps. City clerks in sharp suits scan today’s paper, while shoe-shiners get to work on their shoes. Schoolgirls in tartan skirts swap gossip and chewing gum. And watching over us all from her Panecillo hilltop is Quito’s famous Virgin.
While the city awakens, I sip coca-leaf tea at the window of the new Hotel Plaza Grande. Actually, it’s quite venerable, but like much of the old town has recently been restored to its former belle epoque splendor. The porters wear top hats and white gloves, and there are inkwells and gold-tipped quills in the rooms.
Here at the leafy Plaza Grande, the belle and the less belle epochs of the city converge. It is an historic hot spot that boasts the presidential palace and a baroque cathedral. And it was here that the first expeditions into the Amazon started, and where the lives of at least one president and one bishop ended rather messily. With an irony that is pitch-perfect, the bishop’s palace now houses a restaurant called Mea Culpa.
Vendors like the crisps seller are rare these days. Most of them have been given stalls in the new markets as part of a regeneration project. Well-groomed parks dot the seven sacred Inca hills, and Quito is now the continent’s greenest capital. Brightly colored facades jazz up the streets and derelict buildings have been turned into attractive homes for the wealthy.
Once a seedy backwater, the old town is becoming a trendy place to live and visit. True, it was exciting before, but now you are much less likely to be relieved of your wallet. Two years ago, it wasn’t safe to stay in the old town; today it would be madness not to. The nightlife used to consist of pickpockets and prostitutes, but now the cobbled Barrio la Ronda is the trendiest place to hang out.
You can watch the street from the new upstairs restaurant Los Geranios, while savoring yaguarlocro, a black pudding soup with a bloody history. If you’re lucky, you might hear the pasillo, Ecuador’s equivalent of Portuguese fado, sung in one of La Ronda’s bars. What delights me is that there are no scheduled tourist-pleasing events. Just turn up and stick around.
By day, La Ronda’s main street is lined with workshops, galleries and craft shops. An orphan mission run by Italian nuns has opened as a cafe. In the courtyard of Misioneras de la Ninez you can enjoy freshly-baked pastries and Ecuadorian hot chocolate. Two years ago, you couldn’t buy a bar of Ecuadorian chocolate because it was all exported. Now there are single-origin varieties for discerning chocoholics.
Shopping has also arrived in the old town. My head is encased in a Panama hat from Ecuador’s oldest hat-maker, Homero Ortega, who has a new shop in Plaza San Francisco. The gallery-shop Sinchisancha at San Francisco has top-notch Amazonian crafts, and the Corporacion Metropolitana has opened a shop in Plaza Grande, where you can buy Ecuadorian cigars and coffee.
Quito is still a relatively shy star, but new boutique hotels in old colonial mansions are already competing for the increasing flow of visitors. I spent a few days at the Patio Andaluz, a Moorish mansion whose courtyard restaurant serves Ecuadorian lunches. The staff wear red Andean capes, an extravagance that somehow stops short of being kitsch. This is the thing about the new, old Quito: it is made of such durable stuff.