My first impressions of Quito weren’t that great, I admit. However, after being admonished by several friends who had loved the city, I decided to put my first thoughts aside and focus on getting a feeling for the city instead. After spending a week running errands and sightseeing in Quito’s core, I’ve come to appreciate the place a lot more than I expected.

Quito feels very big, both in geography and population. I was staying far outside of town, and the buses into the Centro Historico were regularly packed, and often delayed by traffic where they didn’t have dedicated lanes. The buses felt very safe, though – even pressed into the throng of people, I didn’t fear for my wallet. Most of the time when I was standing, men would offer me their seats. Moments later, I had to give them up for mothers or fathers carrying infants, retirees, or young men with their limbs in casts, but over the course of one hour-long bus ride, I was offered at least six people’s seats. Considering the men offered me their seats without the usual pick-up line, I was doubly impressed.

Getting off the bus in the historical centre was an assault on the senses. Hundreds of people were going this way and that, selling, buying, and calling out to passersby. Dozens of women in traditional dress moved through the crowd, with bags of apples, avocados, mandarin oranges, grapes, and more kinds of local fruit than I could name. Their high-pitched sales calls reminded me of auctioneers, imploring us at piercing levels to buy their wares. “Mandarina, mandarina, un dollar, un dollar, mandarina un dollar, mandarina un dollar!” Vendors were everywhere, selling ice cream, gum, coca leaves, phone cards, jackets, coffee filters, TV antennas, anything you could imagine. None of the sales pitches were aggressive, though – I felt free to wander the area without buying anything.

Walking up the hill toward the main square of the Centro Historico, it occurred to me that I had been spoiled by beautiful cities in Colombia. The historical buildings in Quito were interspersed with concrete block monstrosities that ruined the effect for me. I had also come to expect window boxes bursting with colourful blossoms, and I wasn’t appreciating the architecture nearly as much without them. In places, though, I was stunned by the beauty surrounding me. Many grand buildings like churches used intense green roofing tiles – I couldn’t tell if they were some kind of stone or ceramic tiles finished in a deep green glaze.

Beautiful green roof tiles

Beautiful green roof tiles

While I was pulling out my phone to take a picture of one building’s incredible roof, a man in a yellow shirt stopped in his tracks, and then made a beeline for me. I looked at him, and he immediately pretended to be interested in something on the ground. I turned back to my photo, and he tried to sidle up behind me. I moved about ten feet away from him, and he started wandering in my direction, innocently looking at something else. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to pickpocket me, rob me, or do a snatch-and-run theft of my phone, but luckily his approach was unsubtle enough that I was able to get the heck out of there before he did.

I hadn’t planned to do anything particularly touristy, but ended up having a few extra hours to kill, so I walked up to the Basilica at the top of the hill. I had seen its towers from almost every corner of the city, but hadn’t realized just how huge it was! I spent almost an hour wandering around the outside of the building, trying to capture its scale and grandeur in a photograph. I came close, but I think the task was impossible.

My phone's new panorama software doesn't do the Basilica justice.

My phone’s new panorama software doesn’t do the Basilica justice.

There was less than an hour left before closing when I finally bought my ticket to go inside. (Worshippers can enter for free, but aren’t allowed to climb the cathedral’s towers and view the city below.) The second story was lit by incredible stained glass windows, full of bright images of flowers amongst the saints. There was a huge pipe organ in the corner, but the hymns echoing through the stone columns must have been coming from somewhere else. They were lovely to hear nonetheless.

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With every step I took, the building became more amazing. Peepholes in the stone staircases gave glimpses of gargoyles in the shape of local birds and wildlife. I stepped out at the top to see the lookout over the city below. It was high. Cars looked like tinkertoys, and people were the size of ants. The sound of hymns from the worshippers had receded and was replaced with the far-off noise of traffic, barking dogs, and car horns. I was alone at the top of the wall, and it felt like I was miles above everyone else in the world. I looked over at another incredible tower on the other side of the church, where dozens of people were snapping pictures, but decided not to go there. Instead, I got tempted by a tiny sign pointing to a winding metal stair – “clock tower and belfry”.

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Gargoyle

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View from the roof

I’ll admit here, I’m not comfortable with heights. The tiny staircase kept going up and up, six revolutions of white-knuckle climbing, gripping my bag in one hand and the rail in the other, as if my life depended on it. The ticking of the giant clock felt like the ominous soundtrack to my climb, drowning out every noise but the sound of my footsteps on the winding metal stair. And then, I reached the top and looked down. The only way I could think to describe it was “ass-clenching”. As I took a couple of pictures, I noticed it was time for the church to be closing. I gratefully retreated to solid ground, although I was proud of myself for making it to the top.

Yikes!

Yikes!

On the way back to the bus, the street was echoing with the sounds of rhythmic chanting and singing. A capoeira class was in progress in an open studio, and dozens of young men sat in a circle, keeping the beat while watching two black teenagers spinning and twirling in mock battle. A blond woman sat apart from the group, camera at the ready. I thought about popping in, but it was going to be dark soon, and I had a long bus ride back to the suburbs.

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