A Time Traveller’s Guide to Quito

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Travelling from Old Quito to New Quito fells like stepping out of a time machine

Almost like travelling in a time machine (which I hope becomes a reality sometime soon), but not quite, it is possible to experience sights and smells from two entirely different time periods in Quito. Quito’s old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, was built in the 16th century over a destroyed Inca capital. The area to the north of the historic centre, known as “La Mariscal”, is a late 20th century construct, with plenty of entertainment avenues such as bars, restaurants, discos and associated tourist attractions.

↑ Plaza Grande or Plaza de la Independencia, the centre of universe.

Since I had some time the other day, I walked from the historic centre to the Mariscal neighbourhood. Guidebooks call it “unsafe,” but do it during the daytime and use common sense, it’s a busy area.

Colonial charms of Old Quito

Starting my journey from Quito’s central plaza (known as Plaza de la Independencia or Plaza Grande), I headed north on Av. Venezuela which runs along the eastern face of the square. Walking on these narrow streets with even narrower sidewalks, flanked with decorated and brightly painted two or three story buildings on either sides, one is bound to smell a variety of smells coming from different stores along the street. There are small bakeries, spice stores, grocery stores, mechanics, hardware stores, barber shops etc. dotting the street. You will also run into a host of hawkers, selling everything, from a bag of oranges to lottery tickets. A church here and a plaza there, it’s a surprise what you will find.

↑ A typical street in Quito’s historic centre.

After a few blocks, when you fancy, turn east and you’ll hit Av. Guayaquil. This is a busy street because one of Quito’s main public transportation line (El Trole) runs through here, stopping at the aptly named Plaza Grande station near the point I started the tour, so the stretch is always filled with people.

Walking north along the Trolley bus line is a smoke filled blur. Because the streets are so narrow and the terrain his hilly, cars, buses and other vehicles happily burn tons of fuel making it quite smoky. After inhaling sufficient amount of carbon dioxide, continue walking.

Couple of blocks north is the Sucre Theatre (Teatro Sucre station southbound) and the Theatre plaza (Plaza del Teatro station northbound). I took a break here, breathing in the open air of the plaza, watching kids chase pigeons and gazing at people go around doing their daily chores. It feels so nice to be on vacation.

Continuing east on Av Manabi that flanks the Theater Plaza, I reached Mercado Central, the central market. The main reason to go to the market was to try Corbina, a white fish. Although a delicacy from the coast, I was told that Corbina was quite popular in Quito and the cheapest place to find it was at the market. The market was very real. Unlike sanitised markets of North America, here you’ll notice animals being brought in, cleaned and put on display. By now, I am a pro at looking at stores with meats and animal body parts just hanging there, and shrugging it off as “cultural experience”.

↑ Corvina (white fish) with a huge serving of rice n peas, potatoes, salsa and popcorn. I saw the lady slicing meat and putting it in a bucket, and I was so certain I’d get sick after this. But I emerged unscathed!

After sufficient market touring, turn north on Av. Montufar. Quito’s second busy public transportation line, the Ecovia, runs partially on this avenue. Ecovia is a newer line compared to the Trole, so buses are nicer, less loud and more comfortable.

Two worlds at the Hermano Miguel Plaza

↑ Walking in Old part of Quito with the new part visible straight ahead. Notice how the architecture changes abruptly.

The Ecovia and the Trole lines meet and branch off at the Hermano Miguel intersection. It is here that Old Quito ends and New Quito begins. It is possible to draw a line here to identify this time shift. In fact, the transition is so abrupt that I was taken by surprise as small streets and sidewalks grew bigger, buildings grew taller, colonial decorations were substituted by tinted glass and metallic windows and mom-and-pop stores operating for generations in the old town were replaced by swanky stores selling washing machines and motorbikes.

↑ Hermano Miguel Plaza, next to one of the busiest intersections of Quito. The Trole and Ecovia public transit lines meet around here.

Avenida 10 de Agosto (yes! a street called “10th of August”) emerges from the chaos of the old town and runs northwards towards Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport. The Trole line occupies two dedicated lanes on this broad tree-lined avenue. The Banco Central station on the Trole bus line and the Simon Bolivar station on the Ecovia line are located next to each other and are convenient transfer points.

↑ Large street signs in modern part of Quito.

Further along, near the La Alameda station at Alameda Park, I saw a huge gathering of students. They appeared like high school kids, in their blue uniforms but I am not used to seeing teenagers pouring in from all sides on a busy street, stopping traffic and thumping their fists on cars and buses. They were shouting something, in unison, as the shop in front of me pulled its shutter down. I suddenly noticed people started walking hurriedly, trying to get away from the scene while I was trying to find a place to take pictures.

↑ Students gathering to block the street. Shouting, whistling, clapping and stopping the traffic near the Alameda Trole bus station.

I think it was a wise decision to move away. The student demonstration was confronted by the police and it was the first time I smelled tear gas. The tear gas DOES make your eyes water. FYI.

La Mariscal, a place full of foreigners

Park El Ejido (aye-hee-doh) is the third largest park in Quito and technically this park divides the old part of the city from the modern one. Maybe this park is just an administrative division, because visually, the city had already transformed its landscape at the Hermano Miguel plaza. If you have been to Quito and disagree with this observation, do let me know!

↑ Stone Arch on the northern edge of Parque El Ejido. Av Amezonas, the principal avenue of Gringo land starts here.

From the middle of the northern edge of this park emerges Avenue Amazonas, the showcase street of La Mariscal neighbourhood. This neighbourhood is popular with tourists and has therefore earned the nickname “Gringolandia” which I completely agree with. With north American style cafes, fast food, sports bars and stores, it is easy to confuse this place with another street in Canada. I rewarded myself by buying a croissant at a French bakery and sitting on a bench in the Plaza Foch watching fellow tourists. It cost me the same as my lunch, but whatever!

↑ Plaza El Quinde or Plaza Foch, at the heart of Mariscal

So that was my three hour walk from old Quito to modern Quito. I hope you found it enjoyable and informative.

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