Ecuador’s colonial past and colorful street life enchant travelers who explore its well-preserved Old Town.
Following a six-day cruise in the Galapagos Islands, we extended our stay in Ecuador with two hotel nights in the country’s capital city, Quito. The post-cruise visit was arranged for us and other Sea Star Journey passengers by Latin Trails, the Quito-based boutique tour outfit that operates the ship.
Our Quito home was, appropriately, a Latin Trails boutique property, the new Illa Experience Hotel. Located in the cozy San Marcos neighborhood, it made a good base of operations for exploring the colonial Old Town, with its cobbled streets, lively plazas and beautiful churches. Sitting at an elevation of 9,350 feet in the Andes Mountains, Quito is the second highest capital in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia) and has spring-like weather year-round.
Latin Trails’ small-group “Quito Six Senses Tour” (limited to seven people) kept us busy the first day with a mix of traditional sightseeing and hands-on experiences. We met with a master craftsman in his woodcarving shop and tried our hand at metalworking in the same artisan complex in La Ronda, a pedestrian zone with shops, restaurants and bars in postcard-perfect 17th-century houses with wrought-iron balconies decked with pots of geraniums. At Pacardi, a chocolate cafe owned by a cacao producer, we donned chef hats and aprons to make truffles. Then we stocked up on chocolate bars to bring home, choosing flavors like yucca, fig and Andean rose.
Luckily, we were touring Old Town on a Monday and got to see the weekly changing of the guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace on Plaza Grande, formally called Plaza de la Independencia, the heart of the historic center. With a marching band, soldiers on horseback and speeches by political leaders from the balcony, it’s quite the patriotic spectacle.
The most eye-popping historical sight on our tour was La Compania de Jesus Church, an ornate Baroque masterpiece bathed in tons of gold leaf. It’s often termed Latin America’s most beautiful church. We also visited El Monasterio de San Francisco, another sumptuously decorated Baroque house of worship.
Our group lunch was in a festive patio setting under a skylight at Notasanto, a restaurant housed in the former Archbishop’s Palace, now a collection of kiosks, shops and eateries. Colorful artwork for sale ringed the courtyard, and the tables were covered with equally vivid tablecloths and runners—the kind we saw in the craft markets.
In addition to a main course of chicken and rice, we feasted on other Ecuadorian foods like empanaditas, a trio of doughy pockets (corn, flour and plaintain) filled with cheese or beef, served with salsa; locro Quiteno, a traditional potato soup topped with cheese and avocado; and llapingachos con chorizo y huevo, a cheesy potato cake with fried egg and sausage slices. For dessert I had two big rolled crepes stuffed with strawberries and drenched in chocolate sauce.
Outside the building, craft and snack vendors, along with shoeshine stands, occupy the arcade facing Plaza Grande. Many vendors manning Old Town’s kiosks and hole-in-the-wall shops specialize in products like brushes or dog sweaters. And wherever you go, you’ll see strolling purveyors of cake slices and other treats.
The second day we had a chance to shop in New Town at the Artisanal Market, whose narrow lanes are crammed with vendor stalls stuffed with brightly colored bowls and trays, wall hangings, tablecloths, ponchos and blankets. We loved the electric pinks, yellows, oranges and turquoises. Also tempting were the silver jewelry, Panama hats, and alpaca gloves, hats, scarves and shawls. Religious items included crosses, nativity sets and statues of saints. Similar wares were offered at nearby Elijido Park.
For lunch in New Town, we had Ecuadorian specialties at a spotless, modern place called Ethnic Coffee. Our complete meal ($20 for two) included a plate of chicken, rice and salad that was preceded by a filling potato-and-pork soup with carrots and hominy, and chocolate cake for dessert.
The plush Illa Experience Hotel (www.illaexperiencehotel.com), which opened last December in a high-ceilinged building dating to the 1700s, features 10 rooms on three floors, each floor decorated to mark a historical period—colonial, republican and contemporary. Top-hatted bellmen greet guests at the door, and stately touches like decorative brick arches and stone-like columns in the central courtyard also set the stage.
Exquisitely appointed with fresh flowers, artwork and drapes with padded valances, not to mention plush robes and towels in the spacious baths, the Illa Experience Hotel has a sophisticated ambience and emphasizes personal attention.
To immerse guests into the culture of Ecuador, the hotel invites guests to attend an “experience” scheduled for late afternoon in the lobby. One day we learned how to make hot chocolate like grandmother did. Following tradition, we dropped in cubes of white cheese (eaten with a tiny spoon).
The hotel’s Nuema restaurant, a foodie favorite, showcases innovative Ecuadorian farm-to-table fare in a six-course tasting menu, and has its own herb garden and wine cellar. The dining room and rooftop bar offer great views of El Panecillo, a hill dominated by a statue of the Virgin of Quito, a city landmark. And the charming tourist sights of Old Town are just steps away.
For information on Galapagos cruises, the Illa Experience Hotel and Quito sightseeing tours, email Latin Trails at email@example.com or log on to www.latintrails.com.