In his purple silk cravat and Panama hat, Garcia cuts a dapper figure against the church’s green domes and white bell tower. He specializes in guided walking tours of Quito’s Old Town, as the historic district is called, and his work as a historian and volunteer restorer opens doors — such as the hip-high one we’d squeezed through a minute before, at the top of a steep wooden staircase in a dusty side room on the second floor of the church.
Garcia had insisted that I go through first. “It’s different if you open the door yourself,” he said.
He was right. Even if you have permission, stepping onto the roof of a church built in 1737 is a thrill slightly tinged with sacrilege. Stone stairs worn low in the middle from centuries of feet lead up and over the curves of the vaulted ceilings beneath us.
We find ourselves at the crenellated roof edge as the sun inches toward the 15,696-foot peak of Pichincha, the active volcano that looms over Ecuador’s capital. Garcia points out a dozen of the 50-odd churches, chapels, convents and monasteries that fill one of the largest and best-preserved Colonial districts in Latin America.
I lived in Ecuador’s capital in the 1990s while writing a guidebook to the country. I developed a serious soft spot for the city, warts and all: its vital intensity and insane cabdrivers, its spectacular mountain setting and climate of constant springtime.
Since my last visit seven years ago, the city has transformed — especially Old Town, which underwent a $200 million, seven-year facelift to celebrate its selection as the 2011 American Capital of Culture and its 30th anniversary of becoming one of the first cities to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The petty thieves who haunted the area are gone, the streets have been scrubbed and are better lit, and some of the vehicle traffic has been slowed and redirected. Now Old Town is clean, safe and full of new hotels, upscale restaurants and lots of new things to see and do.
It has been wonderful to see the changes, but also a little bittersweet, like bumping into a once-bitter ex who’s thriving and happy without you.
Garcia, whose family roots reach back almost to the founding of the city, seems to read my mind. “Quito is very personal to me,” he says. “The city has a special energy, almost like a personality.”
Getting to know you (again)
I had started my reacquaintance tour a week earlier, at the Plaza Grande, flanked by City Hall, the Metropolitan Cathedral and the stiff-backed guards in Colonial uniforms outside the Government Palace. Old Town’s real activity center is a classic Latin American plaza, full of vendors selling snacks, musicians playing for tips and old men on benches feeding pigeons.