Old Quito: The Cure for Altitude Sickness

Feb. 17th 2012

I popped out of bed starving and ready to get some food in me. Cary rolled out wondering what the hell was wrong with her. We made our way downstairs and as we had breakfast the effects of altitude sickness took hold of Cary. After politely excusing herself from the table, Cary rushed back upstairs to eject what little she had already eaten. She allowed me to eat the rest of her meal, which in addition to 3 cups of Luis’ fabulous coffee, made me all right with the world. Cary demanded a ‘pharmacia’ to get some ‘ibuprofeno’ for her headache, so we hobbled on down to the local drug store for provisions before moving on toward the attractions of Old Town Quito.

The Churches

We made our way first to the Plaza Grande as Luis had suggested. When we arrived the Iglesia de San Agustin had just opened, so we paid the nominal fee and went inside. The church grounds feature the room where the declaration of the independence of Quito was signed and a small museum featuring local Catholic artwork, much of it dating from the 17th and 18th century. Of special note is the wooden remains of the figure that used to adorn the dome. Sorry folks, few pictures here as ‘photografia es prohibitada’ in the churches.

We left San Agustin and headed for another church, El Sagrario, situated on the South end of Plaza Grande just past Quito’s Cathedral. The sanctuary of Agustin and Sagrario are very similar, though Sagraria is much larger. The Sagrario is more richly adorned than Agustin, and feels more active in terms of parishioners.

LibraryExiting the Sagrario we found ourselves directly across from the Ciudad Municipal. It looked surprisingly modern inside, so we stepped in to check it out. We found ourselves immersed in the modern day educational lives of young Ecuadorians. In the central hall there is a library of books translated into Spanish, rebound from earlier editions, on subjects ranging from Physics to Computer Science. We wandered around for a while viewing various art galleries and verandas, before exiting.

CarnivalAs we stepped out onto the street a parade of Carnival celebrators was passing by. A small marching band accompanied by dancing residents dressed in traditional garb, the parade marched on carrying the banner of their troop. The celebrators ran around spraying a colored soap, which is a bit like silly string, on spectators. Cary and I were gawking and naturally made easy targets. I was blasted furiously but it was all in jest. After the parade had marched away Cary perused the fabric and yarns marts nearby. We wandered the streets for a few more hours, down the main stretch of the Ave Agostos de 24th.

CornCary had finally acclimated to the altitude and the light breakfast had caught up to her, so we went in search of some lunch. We made our way to La Ronda, a rejuvenated area of town filled with restaurants and art galleries. We stepped into one of the nearby restaurants and had a traditional lunch. I ordered a fritada, fried pork chunks. It’s a bit like carnitas in an American Mexican restaurant, served with mote and toasted corn. Mote is a boiled white corn, each kernel about the size of a thumb. The toasted corn tastes a bit like corn nuts. Together they make for a unique side dish. We split a Pilsener, the local beer, and headed out for the Panecillo.

The Panecillo

StatueThe Panecillo is a hill in the middle of Quito, that divides the city into Northern and Southern halves. It features a statue of the Madonna trouncing a chained dragon. It offers a fantastic view of the entire city, especially if you climb the stairs inside the statue and walk out onto the veranda. The name Panecillo means “little piece of bread”, reflected by the round shape of the hill.

We made two attempts to reach the Panecillo. Our city map pointed us in a direction that took us around the hill before ascending a side street and up a few switchbacks. On our way a local stopped his car, rolled down the window, and politely cautioned us to be careful up ahead; their were thieves about. We thanked him and promptly turned around. The map showed a few ways to get their so we decided another way might be best. Cary suggested we just get a cab but I refused. I wanted to walk the hill.

SignsWe met a similar fate on our second attempt. Near the base of a hill is a long stair case, which seemed to be the most direct route up the little piece of bread right to the top. We began to ascend (much to Cary’s chagrin), before being stopped by a group who informed us that unless we were traveling with a larger crowd, this wasn’t the safest way to go. We turned around and walked with them back to the base of the hill, passing a very obvious sign indication to gringos that the way was not safe. It stated bluntly

Caution Tourists

Robery Zone

Do Not walk

This Street


I shrugged while Cary scolded me for being so reckless.

Finally, near the base, we flagged a cab and paid the $3 for a ride to the top. We took in the view, climbed the statue, and descended the little piece of bread safely in our cab.

The Basilica

Daylight was in short supply so we took off for our last destination for the day, the basilica. We had saved it for last because we were told you can climb all the way to the top of the tower for a fantastic view of the city. We figured we ought to spend some time walking around the city and acclimating to the altitude before climbing higher.

The Basilica del Voto Nacional was commissioned in the late 1800’s and like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. remains unfinished to this day. Wikipedia says that locals believe the world will end when the church is completed, but none of them mentioned it to us. Finished or not, it is the most beautiful sight in the city.

The caretakers of the Basilica were clearly going through their end of day rounds, but we had a little more than an hour before they closed, so we made our way around climbing various belfries and towers, and taking in the city from the top. The climbs, up ladders made of rebar with “mesh reinforcement” couldn’t possibly pass inspection in America, but oh well, “When In Rome”. Braving the clearly unsafe ascents was well worth it however, a the vistas of the city were better here than at the Panecillo.

Basilica After climbing we made our way to ground level and into the sanctuary itself. The enormous sanctuary was completely unlit, and I imagined this is what most medieval churches must have felt like. To round out the unfinished look, the once colored panes in the stained-glass panels have been replaced with clear glass. We roamed around as the last visitors inside, peeked inside the much small inner sanctuary (which is off limits to tourists), before an attendant let us out onto the streets again. This is the only church we visited that allowed photography inside.

The day had come to a close so we cleaned up, grabbed a quick dinner at a restaurant near Jumbo, and took a cab to the New City. We stepped into the Ghoz Bar, a Swiss-owned 80’s themed bar. We grabbed a few more Pilseners, played a round of foosball and billiards, then caught a cab back to Jumbo. Tomorrow we would rise early for a trip to Otovalo and the northern side of the country with Luis.