December 2013 issue

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Quintessential Quito

High in the Andes and just 15 miles from the equator, the Ecuadorian capital of Quito is a city with a vibrant culture, born of 8,000 years history, as Freddie Hendry finds out.

Even before looking into the heart of the city, Quito stands out as a beautiful, cultural destination for international students. Andrew Kirby, Executive Director of the Yanapuma Foundation and Spanish School enthuses, “The city itself is a Unesco-declared world heritage site with a beautifully preserved historic centre and a [...] well-developed modern centre with plenty of hotels and hostels, bars and restaurants, making it an ideal destination for [...] tourists who want to spend some time in one place studying Spanish.”

Kirby continues, highlighting that students who wish to learn Spanish should do it in Ecuador’s capital. “Quito has probably the clearest Spanish anywhere in the world, making it very easy for the beginner to understand what is being said.” Sofia Valdivieso, Administrative Director at Simon Bolivar Spanish School, confesses she believes that Quito has the best Spanish diction, adding, “We don’t speak with any accent or much slang, so it makes a perfect destination to learn the language.” María Isabel Aguinaga, Director of the International Relations Office at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) , agrees. “Our Spanish accent is easy to understand.”

Aside from the language benefits, all of the educators are equally effusive about the city, especially its historic centre, which is considered one of the most important historic areas in Latin America with over 130 monumental buildings. “Students can find some of the most beautiful and best-preserved churches, plazas and colonial buildings in South America,” in historic Quito, according to Gustavo Guzman, Executive Director of Amazonas Education and Travel Group. Sites of interest are clustered around a number of what Kirby describes as “beautifully restored plazas [...], including the Plaza de Independencia overlooked by the President’s Palace, Carondelet, and the Plaza San Francisco, with its impressive church and monastery”.

Martha Oña, Director of Atahualpa Spanish School, singles out the historic Quito area as one that evokes the “history, traditions and customs” of the city. She also recommends the famous ‘Ciudad Mitad del Mundo’, or ‘Middle of the World City’, in the peaks of Pichincha, a place which contains the monument that marks 0 degrees latitude. Oña says this as an important site to visit, and suggests visiting the Intiñan museum there, which offers the chance to perform “experiments that can only be performed at latitude 0”, such as balancing an egg on a nail. Another fun thing to do at the Equator, as Valdivieso encourages, is to “take pictures with one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other in the northern”.

For an amazing view of the old town and the rest of the city, Karla Torres, Director of GET Ecuador, recommends the Teleferico, one of the highest cable cars in the world, ascending from 10,226 ft to 12,943 ft. At the top, where the Pichincha volcano is, Torres says there is “a complex of restaurants and an amusement park”. From there, Oña recommends taking a walk to the Ruco peak, an inactive part of the volcano.

For those who want to see more of what Ecuador itself has to offer, situated just 45 minutes away from Quito is the Cotopaxi National Park, “a must-visit place” according to Torres, especially for fans of hiking and nature. Valdivieso agrees, “Anyone can climb up to the first refuge of Cotopaxi and enjoy the panoramic views, local wildlife and breath-taking sights of the volcano.”

Just north of Quito, about an hour and a half’s drive away, is Otavolo, a town famous for weaving textiles. Guzman notes, “Otavolo is the right place to visit if students want to buy some nice souvenirs at very affordable prices.” It is home to the famous Otavolo Indian Market, which Maria Isabel Aguinaga commends for its “handicrafts and nice textiles”. She also remarks that nearby is the town of Cotacachi, which has many leather jackets, shoes, boots and purses for sale. Also, just 30 minutes from Otavolo, Oña suggests a trip to Cuicocha, a lagoon created by the eruption of the Cotacachi volcano. Good bargains on clothes aside, Guzman adds that Otavolo and its surrounding area is a place where “students can learn a lot about the culture and history of the local people that lived there before the Spaniards came to Ecuador”, as the locals “still maintain their own language (Quechua) and customs”.

For another local trip, Valdivieso suggests going to the Panecillo, “a hill directly in the middle of Quito that is full of history with beautiful views of the city”. Another attraction of the Panecillo is its “360-degree view of Quito Colonial and the surrounding mountains,” Guzman says.

In addition, Guzman highlights the city’s more orthodox attractions. “There is the House of Culture that has a busy schedule of concerts and plays, and there are many hotspots, such as the Plaza Foch with bars, coffee shops and clubs that young people love to hang out at.” Kirby, meanwhile, suggests a walk down La Ronda, a newly restored historic street, where you can find many cafés, restaurants and bars that serve local food and snacks. On certain weekdays, it also plays host to “plenty of live music, featuring local musicians singing and playing in traditional styles”. He adds that several bars also feature dancing, and there are regular performances by indigenous dance groups and musicians. “This is a great way to appreciate the traditional life and culture of Quito.” For those interested in dancing themselves, he even identifies many salsa dance schools, such as one of the first in Quito, Ritmo Tropical Salsa, and “many excellent clubs where students can practise what they have learned in class”.

There is also excellent cycling provision, as Kirby explains, “Recently, bike paths have been extended across the city and the council has put in place a system of very low-cost bikes for people to get to and from work. On Sunday, bikes reign supreme as a 25-kilometre corridor is closed off through the city and thousands of cyclists take to the streets.” Those who prefer to run will not be disappointed. Valdivieso notes that many of her students enjoy competing in races around Quito, or just running in them for fun. She explains, “A really great one is the ‘Ruta de las Iglesias’ (Church Route), where the race begins at night and winds through the seven historic churches of Quito.”

For those who would rather take in the city in a more leisurely way, there are double-decker buses that give extensive city tours through Quito’s colonial and historical parts. There is even a city tour by night, “which includes all the views of the city, the historic centre [and] tasting local dishes and beverages like canelazo made with water, sugar, cinnamon and liquor”, says Valdivieso. For the more adventurous, she suggests puenting, which is “like bungee jumping, but instead jumping off with a harness and rope and swinging like a pendulum for a while before being brought back up”. While these activities are particularly popular, Valdivieso stresses that there is something for everyone, “[Students] can still participate in an activity that they enjoyed at home – they don’t have to abandon their interests.”

Finally, for students with a few free days who want to go exploring, Guzman’s tip is to take a trip to “the enchanted Galapagos Islands or the exotic Ecuadorian jungle, two of the most beautiful and bio-diverse places in Ecuador”. The Galapagos Islands boast extraordinary wildlife, such as: the Galapagos tortoise, the largest living species of tortoise in the world; the Galapagos penguin, the only species of penguin to live above the equator in its natural habitat; and the marine iguana, the only extant species of lizard able to live and feed in water. Guzman puts the Galapagos Islands among his top three places to visit and with the best that Ecuador has to offer on its doorstep, the capital city of Quito is a great study abroad destination. freddie@hothousemedia.com

A brief history of Quito

Quito is located on the Guallabamba river basin with most of the city built on a long plateau of the Andes. It is the second highest capital city in the world at about 9,150 ft above sea level. To the east of Quito lies the Pichincha volcano, an active stratovolcano with two peaks: the Guagua, meaning ‘child’, 15,696 ft and the Rucu, meaning ‘old person’, 15,413 ft.
The roots, revolutions and culture of Quito’s history can be seen through the many buildings and in the architecture of the modern city. Although, it has received much restoration, Quito still retains its historical and indigenous charm. Once part of the Incan empire, the city was conquered by the Spanish in 1534. Some years later, Quito was declared a city and so began its urban evolution into what can be seen by visiting the Ecuadorian capital today.

Built on the ruins of the Inca city in the 16th century, Quito’s architecture is dominated by Jesuit, Dominican and Augustinian influence along its narrow lanes. La Compañía, a Jesuit church in the heart of the city, is often referred to as the most beautiful church in Ecuador. Although this may be disputed, it is certainly Quito’s most ornate church with gold leaf and guilded sculptures almost completely covering the Baroque design.

Agent viewpoints

“As an agent for language studies worldwide we have [had] until now only very good experiences with Quito as a travel destination! It’s an especially nice location within the Andes. Volcanoes and evergreen nature make it a perfect departure point to discover the surroundings and Ecuador. It’s a large city, of course, but not as huge [as] other South American cities, where foreigners sometimes feel lost – that is why we also like to recommend Quito. What surprises our students is the changing weather, but all in all they are happy with the spring-like weather year-round. But [above all] what our students love most about Quito is the very beauty of its large and well-preserved historical city-centre! Our clients do not report any security problems and in their feedbacks we can read that they feel safe and welcome in Quito and with Ecuadorian people!
Ulrike Weizsäcker, Yalea Ltd, Switzerland/Chile

“[Students] like the old town and its churches and places all over and the nice La Ronda Street with its typical locals, bars and restaurants. In the modern town, they can visit the colourful handicraft market and also a lively place called Plaza Foch where you can eat a lot of different food and have a drink or a nice cup of coffee. All of them visit the Mitad del Mundo and go up with the Teleferico to the Pichincha to have a spectacular view over the city and all the mountains and volcanoes around. Depending on what the students do, they get in touch with a very different way of life. Wherever you are, there is music all around. There are also a lot of clubs where everybody is dancing and enjoying the night, having a lot of fun.”
Sandra Stahel, Switzerland

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