“I love how the sun paints the city,” says Julio Rivas Garcia as he gazes over Quito’s historic heart from the roof of the Church of La Merced.
Where we’re standing, at 9,200 feet and only 15 miles from the equator, the late-afternoon sun still has the power to make 400-year-old stonework glow as though it’s lit from within. Cloud shadows swoop across tiled roofs, church steeples and narrow cobblestone streets filled with cars, buses and crowds walking home from work.
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.”
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.
On the south side, the new El Quinde store and visitor center is full of high-quality local crafts, with lockers to hold any excess, and information on just about anything to do in or near the city, such as riding the double-decker sightseeing buses that recently started operating. The open-top buses drive an hourly loop among 11 stops in Old Town and the newer part of Quito, and you can hop on and off as often as you want in a day.
During “cultural nights” on Saturday evenings, another new development, you can take a guided walking or biking tour through the Colonial center, past freshly restored and illuminated historic buildings, stopping at music performances or art exhibits along the way.
I chose to head uphill to the new Yaku Museum of Water, in an old water treatment plant in the hillside neighborhood of El Placer. Supposedly built on the site of an Inca ceremonial bath, the plant is still in use, but it now also includes a museum of high-tech displays on the science of water. Groups of schoolchildren stream through rooms dedicated to bubbles, storms, currents and water conservation. The view of Old Town from the outdoor terrace, on Pichincha’s lower slope, may be the best in the city.
That night was my first at the Casa Gangotena, a 1920s mansion on the west side of the plaza that recently underwent a $10 million transformation into a 31-room luxury boutique hotel. The level of service approached the ridiculous: Every time I turned around, it seemed as if someone was folding my clothes, leaving chocolates on the pillow or handing me a welcome drink made with seven Andean herbs. The windows in my second-floor room reached almost to the painted tin ceilings, opening onto a full view of the wide, gently sloping Plaza San Francisco.
Over the next few days, I found more and more surprises along the familiar streets of Old Town. At the Interactive Science Museum, a former textile factory is filled with hands-on displays explaining everything from insects to earthquakes, a subject the residents of this geologically hyperactive country are more than familiar with. (Ecuador has endured five major earthquakes in the past 100 years and boasts at least 11 active volcanoes.)
The discoveries weren’t limited to Old Town. At 10,700 feet up the slope of Pichincha, I found the Hacienda Rumiloma adventure lodge, with six suites decorated in a cozy Andean-eclectic style. Each one contains handicrafts, textiles and old posters, and has a woodburning stove for the chilly nights. Horses, llamas and peacocks roam the grounds, and the complex includes a high-end restaurant with a 200-bottle wine cellar and what the owners claim is the world’s highest Irish pub.
On Sunday I joined thousands of bicyclists for a weekly ride called the Ciclopaseo, in which almost 20 miles of Quito’s streets, including major traffic arteries, are closed to cars and opened to riders. It started as a monthly event organized by a cycling advocacy group, but it became so popular that it’s now held every Sunday.
I rolled down Avenue Rio Amazonas on a rented mountain bike, passing other riders on high-end road machines and barely-functional cruisers, parents with kids on tricycles, even a few wheelchairs and rattling skateboards. Vendors sold drinks and snacks along the way, and temporary bike rental and repair stations were ready to help with flat tires and unruly chains.
Every side street was still full of cars, so it felt like cruising through a parted Red Sea of traffic that would all come crashing back in the next day. For now, though, we cruised together in peace.
Fortunately, not everything has changed. The Mercado Central (Central Market) on the south side of Old Town is still the place to go for cheap and tasty meals. The most famous of the stalls selling such local specialties as locro de papa (potato soup with avocado and cheese) is Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy, which boasts a wall of newspaper clippings and photos of famous customers over its 50-year history. I paid $4.50 for a plate piled with tender, salty chunks of deep-fried corvina (sea bass) over rice, served with a side of popcorn and tiny limones, complete with mini-squeezer. Jimmy’s self-promotional approach has spread to other stalls: Within a few steps I could sample Don Marco’s Unequaled Natural Juices or Mrs. Margarita’s Delicious Tripe Stew.
At night I explored La Ronda, a narrow, winding street lined with cafes, bars and restaurants full of night owls gathered over pitchers of hot canelazo, a potent drink flavored with cinnamon and herbs. La Ronda is open only to pedestrians and practically dripping with atmosphere, from the antique balconies to the traditionally melancholic corta vena (“cut-vein”) music pouring from every other doorway.
I spent a few nights at La Casona de La Ronda, another historic home-turned-boutique hotel, with a three-story atrium surrounded by thick, quake-proof (in theory) walls. Stone steps led past blue niches filled with colorful figurines. Up a final spiral staircase was a sitting room with a view of El Panecillo, Quito’s famous “Little Bread Loaf” hill, topped with a 150-foot winged statue of the Virgin Mary like a huge holy hood ornament for Old Town.
Another night ended in Itchimbia, another hilltop neighborhood on the east side of Old Town, where a huge old glass-and-steel market building designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, has been relocated and reborn as a cultural center. By day it’s surrounded by a popular park. After dark, it’s Old Town’s hot new nightlife district, with glittering views and restaurants such as Pim’s Itchimbia, Cafe Mosaico and Vista Hermosa 2, full of stylish Quiteños.
I saved Garcia’s tour for last. As we clamber across roofs and up and down ladders, we talk about Quito’s recent changes and a few that are still in store. A controversial new airport is slated to open in February in a valley 12 miles east of town. It would replace the overloaded airport in the middle of the city, which pilots loathe for its white-knuckle approach and thin high-altitude air (less lift for the wings). But as of June, the access roads weren’t even half-finished. (Imagine opening Dulles and closing Reagan National at the same time, with the Dulles Toll Road and Greenway still unbuilt.) New bypass roads hadn’t done much to tame the traffic, but work had already started on a metro line, due to open in 2015, running the length of the skinny city.
Our final stop is the bell tower of the church of San Agustin. As we enter the building, Garcia points out Colonial-era design features to resist earthquakes: walls that are slightly curved and others with empty ceramic pots built into them to act as shock absorbers. We climb three increasingly steep staircases — more like ladders, actually — that become so narrow I have to take my backpack off to fit.
We reach the brass bells and keep climbing, ending up in a tiny room with four round open windows, just as the sun dips behind the peak of the volcano. The lights of Old Town are winking on and we can hear accordion music drifting up from somewhere far below.
Even Garcia is out of breath by now, but his face is aglow. “At night sometimes I feel like the city is all mine,” he says.
And no matter how much Quito changes, I know that some part of it will always be mine, too.
Smith is the author of “Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure” (Harper Perennial).