Of Chocolates and Churches

It was an eventful first day in Quito! After breakfast and morning classes learning about the biodiversity of Ecuador, we set out to explore the city with our guide, David.

Quito is the best-preserved old city in the Americas and is full of fascinating historic sites. First, we made a stop at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a towering, neogothic edifice that, like all basilicas, remains unfinished (there's a myth that if any one is completed, the earth shall come to an end). It is unique among other basilicas for its lack of gargoyles: water spouts are instead shaped like various endemic species, such as marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and Andean condors.

Next, David asked if we had time to stop at a premium Ecuadorean chocolate store. Unsurprisingly, there were no objections. We sampled varieties of chocolate ranging from chile pepper to goldenberry, and from 60% to 100% cacao (all locally and organically grown). Many of us left the store laden with treats to remember this trip by.

On our way to the Jesuit church of the Compañía de Jesús, David led us through a small mall, assuring us that our destination was on the other side of the mall, not within. Before we arrived, he informed us that la Compañía is regarded by many as the most beautiful church in the world.  We entered in a single-file line with our eyes closed, and opened them on David's instruction, revealing to us the ornately-carved, gold leaf-encrusted interior. It features three architectural styles (Baroque, Moorish, and Churrigueresque) and took 160 years for 6 generations of indigenous laborers to complete. Sadly, indigenous people were not even allowed to take mass until many years later. However, some of these builders had the last laugh, secretly incorporating indigenous religious imagery in the suns and crosses. Unfortunately, no photos were permitted within the church.

Our final stop was the Convento y Museo de San Francisco, less impressive from the outside than our earlier destinations.  However, on entering, we found ourselves in an island of serenity. There was a courtyard of greenery, trees, and parrots that had been rescued from illegal wildlife trafficking. Nearby a Franciscan monk sat on a bench consoling a sobbing woman, while two other brothers walked silently past on the flagstones.  Quiet religious music was being broadcast in ecclesiastical Latin and Spanish. We proceeded into the museum, admiring dozens of nativity scenes (first created by St. Francis), seeing the first church graveyard for indigenous peoples, and learning how the Franciscans taught them to paint based on 14th- to 16th-century German engravings. Finally, we made our way into the old choir loft overlooking the sanctuary and a service in progress, using both Latin and Spanish. Interestingly enough, the Franciscans didn't censor art as much as the Jesuits did, and so artists were allowed to paint Incan warrior heads amongst the Cherubs, the Roman soldiers leading Christ to the cross were dressed in Conquistadors armor, and the ceiling contained indigenous religious images of the sun.

Tomorrow we're off to the Amazon! Anticipate an update on either the 15th or 16th.

Basilica del Voto Nacional
Gargoyles? No, Galapagos giant tortoises.
Shopping for local Ecuadorean chocolate at Pacari Chocolate.
The exterior of the Convento y Museo de San Francisco.
The interior courtyard of the Convento y Museo de San Francisco (parrots not pictured).
A Saturniid moth at confession.