Way back when I was still in Ecuador, I posted photos of some of the delicious foods I had while there. Here are some more. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the names of these, so join in if you recognize a dish.
Every major city is similar to every other major city in a lot of ways–crowds, vitality, cultural activities, traffic–and every one has its own qualities, as well. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, wedges itself between two ridges of the Andes mountains, and as a result it’s a narrow city, so all the important stops are easily found along the small strip running north to south. This includes the cathedrals, the government buildings, and also the more mundane civic places, like the parks and shopping centers. It never feels squeezed, but it does feel compact, so the largeness of the parks comes as a welcome surprise.
I spent several afternoons lying on my stomach on the green grass of the Parque de la Carolina or one of the others in the area, watching families play soccer or volleyball, people from all walks of life sharing a game of cards, vendors hawking real silver necklace, real silver for you.
Quito also has several large malls, which are hugely popular. I was a little surprised to find myself wandering the halls of giant malls, since that’s something I try to avoid at home, never mind when I’m traveling, but sometimes it’s a Sunday afternoon and you’ve just arrived at your host family’s house and you haven’t had lunch and dinner isn’t for many hours, and you gotta go to a mall for an overpriced sandwich.
In Ecuador, by law, no one can sell alcohol three days leading up to an election, as well as the day of the election itself, since you’re supposed to be focusing on your civic duty of voting and not getting wasted. Of course, my last weekend in Quito was an election weekend! Still, there were lots of people out when I went to La Ronda, a revitalized street that’s now popular with artists and musicians. I had a proper Quito hot chocolate–with queso fresco that you can chew on separately or crumble into your drink–and listened to a guitarist serenade us, and afterward, walked down the street watching dancers advertise an upcoming traditional performance.
One of the last things I did before I left town was to visit the national museum, which has an astonishing collection of pre-Inca artifacts, as well as a lot of Inca gold. There’s also a floor of Catholic art after the conquest, but that is not nearly as interesting as the pre-Inca floor. The artifacts are taken from all over Ecuador, so they’re from a lot of different ethnic groups, and the variety is amazing.
Anhtropomorphized pots, skinny arms hugging their bellies, the left cheek bulging from chewing coca leaves. Erotic art, showing the Kama Sutra was not alone in ancient peoples knowing a lot of ways to get it on. Llamas, condors, snakes, pumas–the important animals of the region. A mother suckling her baby. A man proudly holding his giant erection (a good luck figure). A half-cat, half-snake creature in the same skewed dimension sof a Picasso painting. A vase in the shape of a foot. I only had an hour and a half in there, but I could have easily spent twice that long looking at the weird and wonderful art.
I’d never before received a photo of myself in the garden of a presidential palace, accompanied by a printed note from the president welcoming me to the capital, but that is exactly what I got when I visited the palace in Quito, Ecuador. Officially Carandolet Palace, it’s also known as the presidential palace, or the governmental palace, and it’s where former presidents have lived and worked.
President Rafael Correa converted it into a museum open to the public in 2007, and all you need to do to get in is to show up early enough in the day to get a free ticket. I got a little hassle because I only had a photocopy of my passport rather than the actual document, but eventually the guards let it slide. You pass your things through a scanner and walk through a metal detector, and then you’re given a little pass that says you’re on the tour.
The tour was entirely in Spanish, and I caught maybe 20% of it before tuning out and just admiring the lavish setting. As far as I can tell, the building is an oft-reconstructed colonial one from the 16th century, with major renovations done by Baron de Carondelet in the early 19th century. Simon Bolívar named it Carondelet Palace when he saw it after liberation in 1822.
The front hall is dominated by a huge mosaic detailing war between the indigenous people and the Spanish, underneath quotes about the noble sacrifice of the people at the hands of the conquerors. It’s a striking piece, made by none other than Guayasamín.
We passed through grand rooms befitting a presidential palace, including a comically long dining room table. We stood on the same balcony that Correa stands on every week he’s in town for the changing of the guard. We saw the many, many items that he’s received from various nations while in office. I bet all heads of state get gifts like these–oversized keys to cities, tasseled medallions, traditional crafts–but you never really get a chance to see them, do you? I liked that part.
Finally, we saw the giant room used for important press conferences. The ballroom is lined with portraits of past presidents, and it’s interesting to see how many there were in a few periods, when the country was undergoing change. There was also some truly magnificent facial hair going on in those 19th century portraits.
The tour of the palace took maybe 45 minutes, and when it was over we collected the official photos of ourselves standing in the palace grounds, and then we left via the long portico and down the steps, back to the plaza of the people.
“El Panecillo,” which means “the little bread loaf,” is the wonderful nickname given to the small hill that rises above downtown Quito. In pre-Inca times, it was the site of a temple to the sun god, and in 1822 it was one of the last stands in a battle between the indigenous people and the Spanish.
In 1976, Augustín de la Herrán Matorras was commissioned to build a giant statue of the Virgin Mary of the Apocalypse to look out over the city. The statue is based on one from the 18th century by Bernardo de Legarda. She has wings like an angel and a crown of stars, and she is standing on top of a globe with a serpent. Unlike almost every other representation of the Virgin, she’s not standing still with her hands demurely folded; she has a hand up and she’s almost dancing.
My friends and I took a cab up the hill and wandered around, admiring the views of the city, which runs down the narrow valley and out of sight over the Andes Mountains. The first impression I got from up there is just how big Quito is, and the next thing I noticed was how colorful so many of the buildings were. The churches and official government buildings downtown were all severe gray stone, but the houses running up the hill are a marvelous mix of bright reds, blues, yellows, and oranges.
After we looked around up there, we took a cab ride to the Itchimbia hill, which overlooks downtown and El Panecillo both. We went to Café Mosaico and had a drink while we watched the sun go down over the colorful city, and the lights go up.
In a misunderstanding straight out of a sitcom about traveling in foreign lands, I almost didn’t visit Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre when my language school offered an excursion there. The school sign simply read “Capilla del Hombre,” which my friends and I correctly translated as “Chapel of Man.” I didn’t connect this to the much-lauded museum mentioned in my guidebook, and I dithered about whether we wanted to go to yet another church; it seemed like I’d been to a lot of churches lately. Happily, I did decide to go, and once our taxi shuddered to a stop at the top of the steep hill the building’s located atop, I made the connection. Oh, this is the museum and house of the famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.
The Chapel of Man, designed by Guayasamín himself, is pitched as a tribute to the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the indigenous of South America, and in fact is a museum for many of Guayasamín’s works. There’s nothing wrong with that, and his commitment to social justice is apparent, but I do take some issue with using exclusively your own art in a building dedicated to all of humanity.
Still, his art is amazing. He was a Cubist and Expressionist, and he painted huge canvases of elongated figures, huge eyes, bold colors. He had three major periods, which have been dubbed tears, suffering, and tenderness. Darker colors in the first, brighter in the second, warmer in the third. One painting was called “The Mutilated,” and it showed pieces of bodies torn apart by war. He painted them on six panels, and those panels can be moved around in different configurations, to show the random cruelty of war, the way we’re all reduced to body parts when violence takes us. The panels themselves are fixed in place by the museum, but there’s a computer nearby that lets you move them around on the screen, in a sort of gruesome game.
One of my favorites was a reworking of a 14th century Pieta, which removed the halos, stigmata, priest, and Christ’s clothes of the original and put in a blood-red background and Mary’s hands held up to heaven in grief rather than pressed together in prayer. It stripped away the religiosity and presented a mother’s grief, a man’s death. It was striking and beautiful.
Many pieces were dedicated to the enslaved indigenous peoples (Mayans, Quechuans, Incas, Aztecs—not much seemed to be made of the fact that many of these were conquerors themselves, that was not his focus), and enslaved Africans. The walls boasted several quotes about helping each other, being the light in the world. One said “I cried because I did not have shoes until I saw a child that did not have feet.” The center of the museum contains a giant bowl with an eternal flame inside, because when he was dying, Guayasamín said, “Keep the light on, I will be back.”
Unfortunately, the museum guide knew about as much English as I know Spanish, and our school guide had much more interesting asides, so I wish our group had just gone around alone with the school guide. Also, the museum guide would ask for interpretations of the paintings and then tell us we were wrong! As in, “What do you see here?” “I see despair.” “No, not despair. Anyone else?” A different approach to appreciating art, for sure!
The ticket price includes admission to Guayasamín’s house and studio, which are on the same grounds. We caught up with a tour midway through, but I zoned out for most of it and just stared at the amazing number of beautiful things Guayasamín amassed during his life. A handmade guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl, erotic statues from various parts of the world, Catholic icons, traditional paintings, etc., etc. It would be a privilege to wake up in this house every day, never mind then going to work in your own cavernous studio next door.
I’m glad I didn’t let my own ignorance get in the way, and I decided to go to the Capilla del Hombre. It was my first introduction to Guayasamín, and an impressive one at that. I saw his art in all sorts of places after that, seeing his style and influence through Ecuador (including in the governmental palace in the center of Quito).
Guayasamín died before construction was quite complete, but he got to see the beginning of the realization of his vision. He’s buried under a tree in the corner of the yard. Flowers dot the ground and wind chimes sing in the breeze over his final resting place, with his chapel just behind and his city in the distance.
La Mitad del Mundo is the name given to the large complex built north of Quito to mark the equator. As everyone will tell you, it’s not actually the proper middle of the world; the French did the best they could with the instruments they had in the early 18th century, but they weren’t entirely accurate. A different museum, built 200 meters away, purports to be on the actual equator, as determined by GPS, but apparently even this might not be accurate, as the GPS used is unreliable. (I don’t know how that works.) Certainly there’s an appeal in believing that you’re on the exact spot, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter.
I went on what has to be the most well-supervised school trip ever–the ratio of teachers to students was 1:1, with two professors escorting two students from the school to a taxi, to a bus, to the museums. We optimistically took the Spanish tour of the Museo Intiñan, and using context clues and intense concentration, I understood a whopping 20% of what our guide said. But hey, that’s better than nothing.
We passed dusty cases of dead animals–splayed spiders, a giant boa constrictor, other venomous spiders coiled up inside mason jars. Just when I was getting used to looking at those, I turned and saw a small glass case containing a shrunken human head. Well, hello. The Shuar people made shrunken heads as part of a ritual involving the personal power of the person whose head is involved. I later learned (in a great museum in Cuenca) that the Ecuadorian government has outlawed it, and now they’re only allowed to shrink anteater heads.
Our guide showed us a couple rebuilt homes from indigenous groups in the area; pointed out the cui (guinea pigs) that are raised much bigger and fatter than those in the US, because they’re a delicacy here; gestured to the reconstructed archaeological site filled with pottery and other signs of life from a couple thousand years ago; and named the statues erected in the main plaza, one for each South American country (and one for Hawaii too).
Finally, we got to the main event, the tests that supposedly prove exactly where the equator lies. First, I took this awesome photo:
Next, I watched water drain in a swirl this way, then that way, and then straight down:
Then I balanced an egg on the head of a nail. I don’t know why this is a thing, but it is a thing. I even got a certificate for it:
I’ve heard and read that none of these actually have anything to do with the magnetic force of the equator, which is what our guide told us made all these things possible. I’m not sure which is true–anyone care to enlighten me?
Anyway, we left the museum, my egg balancing certificate firmly in hand, and headed down the street to the big Mitad del Mundo complex. I was looking forward to exploring the ethnographic museum in the center of the complex, but when we arrived at the gates, the teachers said, “Okay, we’ll wait out here. You have 15 minutes to take photos in front of the monument, and then we’re heading back.” Buuuuut, what? Seeing the ethnographic museum was advertised as part of the trip. This was an unpleasant surprise. I could just stay and see the museum on my own, but a cab back to town cost $15-20, and the bus back would drop me somewhere utterly unfamiliar, after dark. So I went in, took some fun “I’ve got the world in the palm of my hand” photos, and went back as instructed. The happy ending to this story is that I thought the ethnographic sections of the Museo Pumapungo in Cuenca were really good.
I haven’t spent much time in Spain, so I haven’t seen the churches that inspired those built in Latin American countries. The churches I saw in Quito were very different from the English, French, and North American ones I’m familiar with; much more elaborate decoration, the Virgin Mary featured more prominently, less emphasis on stonework and more on paintwork. I love the cathedrals of Chartres and Salisbury, but La Compañia and San Francisco were magnificent in their own right.
My guidebook described the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus as gaudy, but I loved it. Every square inch was covered in gleaming gold–the ceiling, the walls, the giant columns lining the aisles, the baroque columns framing the paintings. Some other colors crept in here and there, in the paintings and altar pieces, and okay, the pews were made of wood and the floors were a mix of stone and wood, but everything else was gold. It was stunning. They were really strict about not taking photos, but I snuck a couple.
The San Franciscan order of monks was the first to settle in the area, and the church and monastery they built here is now the largest religious complex in South America. The church is elaborately decorated, with paintings and an interlocking pattern on the ceiling. Saints form a semicircle around the altar, and the ceiling above is a deep blue and gold. The choir is made up of intricate wood carvings, and it affords a good view over the nave.
The attached museum contains sculptures and paintings done in the Quito style (one of the four main schools of art in the colonial period in South America). One of the halls was filled with figures carried during religious parades, like Carnaval and Holy Week, including a wooden bed for carrying statues. I tagged along on an English-speaking tour of the museum, learning about how the position of the statue on El Panecillo is a specific form that is found in statues elsewhere (like a couple in the museum), and how Santo Domingo is always depicted with a devoted dog at his feet.
The cathedral that forms one side of the main plaza has a stark exterior and a lovely interior, sky blue patterned with gold and pink, transporting you into the heavens as soon as you walk inside. They were starting a service when I ducked in there, so I didn’t spend much time.