QUITO, Ecuador — Jan. 6, 2020 — When my wife, Jialin, and I arrived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, late yesterday evening, I expected it would be one of those “déjà vu-all-over-again” experiences that occur upon returning to a destination visited once long ago. But I recalled little about the city I visited on a whirlwind Pan Am tour around South America in 1974. Perhaps partly because we landed at a new airport an hour outside the city rather than at the one then dangerously located in a residential area inside Quito. By the time we reached our accommodations to turn-in for the first of a two-night stay at the Illa Experience Hotel in Quito’s Centro Historico (Old Town), it was past midnight and too late to seek for anything that might be familiar.
The Illa Experience Hotel is a beautiful mansion of ten spacious rooms in a stylishly restored early 18th-century building in the traditional Old Town neighborhood of San Marcos. It is a showcase of key periods in the capital’s history with each of hotel’s three floors decorated, respectively, in Colonial, Republican and contemporary styles. A unique feature of the hotel is an “experience” for the guests every afternoon in the lobby. These range from demonstrations by local artists, artisans, and musicians, to a demonstration of how gramophones worked, to today’s scheduled making of a tropical Amazon fruit-flavored ice cream hand-churned in a copper pot with ice gathered from the summit of a volcano, a recipe traditionally made by indigenous Ecuadorians.
Drinking a special morning tea recommended by the hotel manager to clear our heads from the effects of Quito’s 9,200 feet altitude, we began our first day at the Illa with a tray of tasty breakfast selections from which to choose. Guacamole, duck pate, cheeses and chocolate were some of the condiments that added a little variety to the usual breads and omelets served.
At 9:30 we were ready to go on a walking tour with guide Gina Castillo and Paula from the staff of Latin Trails. The schedule for the day was planned by Gina to provide insight into the daily lives of Ecuadorians — their culture, religion, and favorite foods.
Our first visit was inside Santo Domingo Cathedral – founded in 1558 by the Dominican Order. Gina was able to unlock a gate to an adjacent chapel, built with donations from the city’s privileged elite, La Campillia del Rosario. Renowned for being the most beautiful in the city, the rose red and gold chapel designed in Italian Baroque style, was stunning.
Following our cathedral visit we reached touristy La Ronda, a street of popular restaurants, galleries, and artisan shops, to meet beekeeper/soap maker Rene Gutierrez. Rene’s bees produce several kinds of natural organic honey that he combines with tropical fruits in his shop to make deliciously fragment artisanal soaps in a variety of shapes and sizes. With Rene’s instruction, Jialin had a fun experience making soap with organic ingredients.
Next on La Ronda was a stop for ice cream at ‘Dulce Jesús Mío’ (“Sweet Jesus of mine”) Heladería Artesanal. The shop, noted for the best ice cream in Quito, regularly creates exotic new ice cream flavors, including some sorbets containing alcohol such as mojito, margarita, sangria, and caca de perro (dog poop). Flavors may be tested before choosing a cone with a scoop or two. You can check them out on their Facebook page.
Further down La Ronda is the workshop of the last artisan in the city with the special skills required to produce artistic carved woods, including his signature treasure boxes, Jose Luis Jimenez Arteaga.
Gina, being an exceptionally knowledgeable guide, told us more about Quito and Ecuador than we could possibly remember, including the names of some of the 600 types of potatoes that originated here. But one pronouncement that stood out was that “Ecuador is the country of love, chocolate, and roses.” To prove her point, at least about the chocolate, she took us to a shop where Jialin and I could learn to make our own chocolate truffles from Gustavo, an employee of Ecuador’s premier chocolatier, Pacari.
Even though Ecuador produces less than 10% of the world’s cacao (cocoa), it is home to some of the highest quality beans in the world.
More than 70% of Ecuador’s product is grown for Pacari, a company founded in 2002 that pays double to 3,500 Ecuadorian farmers to grow the finest organic cocoa beans. The quality maintained is so high that since 2008 some of that prized chocolate is being exported regularly to countries known for their quality chocolates, such as Belgium and Switzerland.
Food was next on our menu with a cooking class on making ceviche taught by Santiago at the EcuadorArt shop near bustling La Indepensia Plaza (commonly called the Plaza Grande). Santiago uses the best vegetables available, all grown in Ecuador. His secret for great ceviche: lemon, lots and lots of lemon.
While the ceviche was a tasty appetizer, a late lunch of Ecuadorian cuisine followed at the “Hasta la Vuelta, Senor” restaurant — named for a legendary Franciscan priest who liked to drink — on three levels that overlook the courtyard of the Bishop’s House, a palatial building facing Plaza Grande.
Tomorrow we fly to the airport on San Cristobol Island in the Galápagos to board Latin Trails’ newly refurbished Sea Star Journey – my first live-aboard cruise on a yacht. I am enthusiastically anticipating this cruising experience, not only for its uniqueness, but particularly because it will finish a years-long project photographing for my large format book, Cruising the World, From Gondolas to Megaships, to be published in March.
Cover photo: La Campillia del Rosario in Santo Domingo Cathedral
Photos ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews, All Rights Reserved
Dennis Cox is All Things Cruise Writer and Official Photographer
Editor’s Note: Latin Trails offers cruises of the Galapagos Islands with two 16-passenger yachts for six-day cruises, plus a small catamaran for day trips. Certified naturalist guides onboard each cruise will share their local knowledge of the area.
To learn more about Latin Trails and to book a Latin Trails yacht cruise, go to https://allthingscruise.com/browse-cruise-lines/latin-trails/