High in the Andes, Ecuador’s capital is enjoying a quintessentially contemporary turn that verges on hedonistic, perfect for those who want a taste of modern life rather than historical landmarks.
text: Marcela Ribadeneira | PHOTOS: David garcía hernández
F or nearly two centuries – practically since the country’s independence from Spain – Quito has been famous for its Inca and pre-Inca iconography and its magnificent, historic downtown. After all, what could be more interesting than the colonial quarter? The idea of a fun and contemporary Quito simply didn’t exist in tourists’ collective imagination. But now the colonial façade has given way to a thoroughly modern urban environment, and the city has opened its doors to the world.
The people of Quito say that their home – improbably situated in the Andes at an altitude of 9,350 feet above sea level, higher than the peak of Vesuvius – is inherently bipolar. There are no seasons when you live at the equator: it’s either sunny or rainy, hot or cold – often swinging from one to the other on the same day.
With the city’s penchant for paradoxes, it makes sense that the largest contemporary art center – the CAC – is located in a hundred-year-old building that was the site of the Vicente Rocafuerte Sanatorium in 1900. When you arrive downtown and start walking up one of the sloping streets, you’ll see a neo-classical beast that seems to be sticking out a tongue of steps. Inside, ten pavilions fan out symmetrically from the main hall. It’s like being in an Escher painting, if the Dutch artist’s works were populated by shadowy figures wearing giant headphones. The exhibitions prove that contemporary art abounds in Quito, like (Ya no) es mágico el mundo (The World’s Not Magic… Anymore) made up of installations, paintings, performances and videos from ten Ecuadorian artists.
Biking to La Floresta
Near the CAC, you can immerse yourself in the city’s Old Quarter and appreciate the subtle Gothic flare of Teatro Bolívar and Teatro Sucre. The latter is actually an Italian-style opera house that has seen performances by John Zorn and Mike Patton and hosts the International Ecuador Jazz Festival every year.
The colonial quarter is also home to the Museo del Agua YAKU, where you can see the water treatment tanks that once supplied the city. It sounds like a school fieldtrip, but it’s actually a highly entertaining outing for adults and children alike. There’s a lot to see and do, but be warned: you may end up soaking wet after making bubbles the size of a car.
From the CAC, you can continue on to the city’s most bohemian neighborhood: La Floresta, the stomping grounds of filmmakers, photographers, painters and musicians. Hop on a free public bicycle – the city’s BiciQ program has a station in front of the Banco Central building – and pedal your way to the drop-off station at the corner of Avenida 12 de Octubre and Veintimilla. Just a few blocks away, you’ll find the legendary La Floresta neighborhood, filled with old houses, gardens, vine-covered walls and folks walking their dogs. Stop in at La Cleta, where bicycles hang on the walls and the chairs are made out of old wheels. The menu features pizzas, pastas, beer and coffee. Belén, a young customer, offers a tip: “If you arrive on a bike, you’ll get a discount.”
An afternoon at the movies
The independent movie theater Ochoymedio is a La Floresta landmark. It’s located kitty corner from the ruins of a house whose visual charms have earned it cameos in a number of books by local authors. Lucas Taillefer is responsible for the theater’s programming. “In Quito, entertainment was long monopolized by private companies that brought in films from the United States or state-funded places that tried to support a different kind of programming,” he explains. Currently, in addition to its daily offerings, Ochoymedio hosts iconic festivals like Ecuador Bajo Tierra (low-budget, amateur productions), and El lugar sin límites (short films and full-length features).
The colonial façade has given way to a thoroughly modern urban environment, and Quito has opened its doors to the world.
Another La Floresta essential is El Pobre Diablo for live performances by artists from Ecuador and around the world. This café-bar also has a small space for art exhibitions. Located on the outskirts of the neighborhood, on the road that leads to one of the most exclusive sectors, you’ll find the restaurant/café La Liebre. Inside, it looks as though someone used a huge shredder to tear apart enormous posters for your favorite cult films and then knit the pieces into lamps and chairs. Without looking up from his MacBook Pro, a cinephile sitting at the back explains that it’s a regular recycling practice used by the establishment.
There are no seasons when you live at the equator: it’s either sunny or rainy, hot or cold – often swinging from one to the other on the same day.
In the western part of the city, there are two worthwhile landmarks. Near the Plaza del Quinde – once the epicenter of Quito nightlife – you’ll find the Mariscal folk-art fair. In this deliciously chaotic maze, there’s just one rule: you can haggle over everything. Nearby, the gallery Arte Actual exhibits contemporary art and offers talks and workshops in a minimalist space.
The other essential landmark is the downtown avenue of República de El Salvador, where a new building seems to spring up every day. On one of the cross streets is Cyril, a treasure trove of chocolate instead of gold and gems. These treats combine perfectly with a walk to the Jardín Botánico de Quito in Parque La Carolina, just a few blocks away. It’s an oasis of orchids, ponds, hummingbirds, cacti, carnivorous plants and other local flora that silences the noise of the city.
If you’re looking for a cathartic musical experience, you should head to the slopes of Pichincha, where the city is gradually encroaching. Hidden amidst the vegetation is La Casa de La Música, one of the finest concert halls on the continent. The curved lines and geometric flourishes of the building’s façade give way to a warm, perfectly symmetrical interior. The stage has welcomed the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, the Kremerata Baltica, Daniel Barenboim and Philip Glass. These and other lauded artists have proven the words of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis who said, “Making music or architecture is to create, to generate environments containing poems, musically or visually.” And it’s impossible to not lose yourself in this poetry. in
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (CAC)
Montevideo & Luis Dávila, Antiguo Hospital Militar
YAKU Museo del Agua
Calle el Placer Oe11-271 (ingreso peatonal). Calles Bolívar & Rocafuerte (ingreso peatonal y vehicular )
Galleries & Theaters
La Pradera E7-174 & Av. Diego de Almagro (FLACSO)
Valladolid N24-353 & Vizcaya
Theaters & Concert halls
Manabí N8-131 entre
Pasaje Espejo 847 & Guayaquil, Centro Histórico
Casa de la Música
Valderrama s/n & Av. Mariana de Jesús
Dining & Nightlife
El Pobre Diablo
Isabel La Católica N24-274 & Galavis, esquina
Av. González Suárez N31-54 & Gonnesiat
Calle Lugo N24-250 & Guipuzcóa
Mercado Artesanal de La Mariscal
Jorge Washington, entre Reina Victoria & Juan León Mera
Jardín Botánico de Quito
Rumipamba E6-264 & Av. de los Shyris (interior del parque La Carolina)
Irlanda E10-124 & Av. 6 de Diciembre