Quito – The Highest Capital in the World
Walking further into the neighbourhood, Paola introduces some of the artisans who inhabit the shops here. Don Gonzalo Gallardo specialises in restoring religious effigies: he shows us a plastic baby Jesus singed in a house fire, and an armless plaster-of-Paris Virgin Mary accidentally knocked from a living room shrine. César Anchala runs Sombrerería Benalcazar, a hat shop established by his father 65 years ago. He uses the same molds and irons to form the varied styles of trilbies on offer, made with felt from sheep, goats and rabbits. His is a diverse business, selling masks to be worn at festivals such as Inti Raymi, with origins that can be traced back to the Incas who came here in the 15th century. They depict mildly terrifying demons, plus a few Ecuadorian politicians.
In San Roque’s market, a queue has formed outside Rosa Correa’s stall, despite the screams coming from within. A young couple emerges from behind a curtain, eyes agog.
Like many of Rosa’s clients, they pay US$9 a week for a treatment aimed at removing stresses and influence from the evil eye. Rosa is a fourth-generation shaman who practises a technique that involves cheerfully whipping her clients with a succession of plants; her shelves are piled with chillis, marigolds, rose petals, mint and nettles. The old beliefs continue to run deep here, and occasionally sting a little.
Leave the traffic of Quito behind on the highway towards Mindo, wending your way for two hours through heavily forested hills. You’ll turn off onto an unpaved road, so hire a 4×4 – ideally with driver.
Enjoy considerable comfort at Casa Gangotena, set at the edge of Plaza San Francisco and with views far across the Centro Historico from its rooftop terrace. Spacious rooms have gigantic beds and bathrooms clad in Italian marble (from US$396).
Casa Gangotena has a Live Quito Like a Local tour for guests (US$200, including lunch). The church and adjacent monastery of San Francisco are free to enter.