The four winners of our 2009 Travel Photo of the Year amateur categories picked up this assignment to Quito as their prize
Quito will take your breath away – literally. It sits – or, rather, soars – at nearly 3,000m above sea level, at the heart of a region that 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt dubbed the ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’.
Stand in the palm-tree-dotted Plaza Grande, at the heart of the Centro Histórico, and it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago it was considered seedy and rundown. Since being lovingly restored, its distinctive architecture and mellow vibe have earned it a Unesco listing and made it the loveliest colonial capital on the continent.
Here, shoeshiners doze in the sun, teenagers sneak kisses, schoolkids chew gum and the dapper gentry gossip. The odd hemp-robed monk scuttles across on his way to one of the nearby monasteries. The Archbishop’s Palace is now full of shops and eateries, but the city’s most important civic buildings are still here, ornate and crammed with history.
The Plaza is also known as Independencia – it has long been a favourite spot for protests and murders; in 1877 a bishop was despatched during Mass at the cathedral by poisoned holy wine. The plush Hotel Plaza Grande was originally the home of a rich conquistador, but now they put rose petals in your bath. In the souvenir shop across the way, you can buy the best quality Ecuadorian chocolate, cigars and coffee.
More esoteric yet, in the nearby Carmen Alto Monastery, the resident nuns sell herbal potions and velvety hand-cream through a revolving wooden door – you’ll never see the nuns themselves; they’re wedded to Jesus.
Among the architectural masterpieces is the walled San Francisco Monastery, which is the size of a small neighbourhood and took generations to build. Here lie sublime statues and carvings from the baroque Quiteño school, which exported all over the continent in its heyday. Its passionate aesthetic of agony and ecstasy still has the power to shock, with lifelike faces, blood and gore, and an eerie hyper-realism – artists used human hair, glass eyes and imitation nails and eyelashes.
But colonial art is only part of the story: the other is the rich indigenous tradition. Colonial Quito was built in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city, for whom it was all about the sun – a motif still obvious today. The sun-shaped spires of churches are aligned along a ‘sun-line’ and signal the union of the Inca and the Spaniard. In reality, it was a shotgun wedding, but the visual effect is transcendent.
Transcendence, yes: take Mariana de Jesús de Paredes y Flores. Three centuries ago she came to Quito to ‘converse’ with Jesus and ended up giving her life to save the city from a plague of earthquakes and epidemics. She is Quito’s first patron saint.
Such beneficent overseeing is needed here, however. Active Pichincha looms darkly over the whole, visible from every spot and last heard from in 1999, when its 15km-high billows covered everything in ash. If you really like heights, a telefériqo cable-car glides up Pichincha’s flanks, all the way to a breathless 4,100m. I once counted 37 peaks from up here – not to mention several tourists with vertigo.
Elsewhere, from one of the seven sacred Incan hills that make Quito so surreally scenic, a winged Virgin, 45m tall, overlooks it all; from Café Mosaico, on Itchimbia Hill, the spectacle of the illuminated city will rather detract from your dinner.
The place to finish up is the sublime but religion-free Capilla del Hombre in the suburb of Bellavista. This ‘chapel’ is the work of Ecuador’s great humanist artist Oswaldo Guayasamín; he felt there were too many temples to God, so he created one for mankind. The visionary canvases from his three periods – Tears, Rage and Tenderness – moved me to all of the above, and it was here that I hyperventilated to the most dramatic view so far. “Leave a light on for me,” Guayasamín said before he died – and, looking out over the shifting sky above Quito, I saw that other-worldly light.
South, along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, sits a handful of the world’s highest rumblers, rising on every side. And yes, they’re all active – all 30-odd of them.
Perfectly conical Cotopaxi (5,897m) is a favourite for climbers, but equally haunting is the stretch of stark, high-altitude páramo grassland that makes up the surrounding national park. It looks like the surface of another planet.
A stay in a traditional hacienda is compulsory if you want to go horseriding, see soft-furred llamas and meet local chagras, the cowboys of Ecuador. Many of the haciendas feel as cosy as a family home – which, of course, they are. With luck you might catch a rodeo in Machachi, or glimpse fields of flowers: this is where most of the world’s cut roses come from. At the Tambo plantation, at the foot of Cotopaxi, I saw 2m-high blooms – the world’s tallest rose.
Take the coastal road north-west of Quito and you’ll cross the middle of the world. Step over the equator, which gives Ecuador its name, and enter the Andes’ last cloud forest reserves, a prehistoric world of hummingbirds and swirling mist.
At El Pahuma Orchid Reserve, a trail takes you past a 45m-high waterfall and several hundred of the country’s endemic orchids. Bellavista Reserve has beautiful views and teeming wildlife along well-marked paths. Mindo is a birdwatcher’s dream.
Otavalo, north of Quito, is along a road flanked by volcanic giant Cayambe (5,790m) on one side and imposing Imbabura (4,609m) on the other. The town is the place for Andean crafts, an explosion of colours and textures.
At the Saturday market at Plaza de Ponchos you’ll find everything from woollen capes to llama-fur cushions, roast piglets to guava smoothies. Women wear traditional embroidered white blouses, black wrap-skirts and felt hats. And there’s always a wrinkly guy in a sombrero who strums a guitar and sings like there’s no tomorrow. “Ecuadorians,” Humboldt wrote, “are happy people who listen to sad music.”