Start your journey in Ecuador by exploring the grand colonial monuments and the tiny local shops of Quito
The piercing blue light of a high altitude dawn breaks over the old town of Quito, as dogs chase pick-up trucks carrying produce to market. The trucks clatter over rambling streets cobbled with stones taken from the slopes of the Pichincha volcano looming above. Shopkeepers lift shutters, waving to one another as their wares are set out: sackfuls of cumin and cinnamon; aluminium pans; teetering piles of cows’ hooves; piñatas in the shapes of unicorns, Minnie Mouse and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Layers of commerce take place on these steep, narrow backstreets. In front of the shops, ladies in felt trilbies and woollen ponchos roll mats across pavements. From these they offer corn on the cobs, potatoes and avocados grown in the villages they commute in from each day.
‘All around us you can hear chismes,’ says Paola Carrera, a guide to the San Roque neighbourhood. ‘This is our word for the secrets – the news and the gossip – shared by these vendors, brought to our capital from across Ecuador.’
Paola’s mother runs a shop here selling agua de vida, the water of life. This intensely sweet tonic is made from 25 plants, including the amaranth flowers that give its bright pink colour, and herbs from as far away as the Amazon.
‘I’ve always enjoyed living here, above the shop,’ says Paola. ‘The buildings in the neighbourhood are so traditional, they have such character. The people who belong to San Roque have strong ties to it, and it has always drawn visitors.’
Like most locals who pass the imposing whitewashed church of San Francisco nearby, Paola crosses herself beneath its massive wooden doors; some also touch the sculptures of sun gods at its entrance, an action said to give energy.
The church’s foundation stone was laid in 1535, soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived here from Andalucía. In a pragmatic move to win local support, Franciscan monks allowed religious symbols familiar to the indigenous Quitu people to blend with the Catholicism of the invading forces. The conquistadors also brought with them a Moorish architectural style from Islamic North Africa, and saw their wealth reflected in the spectacular gilding of the interior; for the people of Quito, the gold reflected the ever-lasting power of their sun god.