The centuries-old cobblestone streets of Quito are so steep that the city's soundtrack is the metallic screech of worn brakes mingled with the blare of salsa and cumbia from the narrow doorways. One tiny fonda (shop) is crammed with canned goods and sweets. In another doorway, an ancient juicer rattles out fresh tropical drinks.
The streets are bursting with commerce. Elderly indigenous women wrapped in ponchos sit beside piles of fruit for sale, and on almost every corner someone hawks lottery tickets. A woman with an infant in one arm and a bag of avocados in the other scurries past a nun carrying a large black umbrella to shield herself from the sun. In this mix, a gaggle of Galapagos-bound, camera-laden tourists huff their way up the hills in this second highest capital in the world. This is Quito with all its Latin American urban randomness, turmoil, cacophony and its delicate balance on the edge of past and future. This is the only Quito most tourists see on their stopover to the Galapagos.
But this city, nearly 3,000 metres up in the thin air and surrounded by volcanoes, is on fire. The city's restored historical centre has long been recognized by UNESCO and, more recently, National Geographic Traveller ranked Quito as one of its must-see cities in 2013. But attention-grabbing Quito is about more than its colonial backdrop. Awash in oil money, the government has upped it's cool factor by spending more on the arts.
"We've never had more places to show our work. Art is exploding," young photographer Diana Punina says. We're standing in the midst of a wildly adoring crowd waving back to charismatic President Rafael Correa, who's appeared on the balcony of his home. This scene, replete with a brass band, is a regular Monday event. For all the criticism this self-described socialist head of state gets, even his detractors concede his government is doing right by arts and culture.
Museums and theatres have had facelifts and their programs funded. A film board was launched, and the National Ministry of Culture has been fuelling artists of all kinds with big and small grants. From festivals and theatre to offbeat galleries and venues for experimental music, the energy of contemporary Quito is volcanic.
One of those galleries is the brand-new, pocket-sized No Lugar. No Lugar, the dream of three art-college students, shows emerging artists such as Martina Aviles, whose black-and-white series of new immigrants gets gallery-goers talking about social issues. "Las cosas se mueven y pasan," or things are happening, things are moving, says gallery co-founder Pancho Suarez.
Another recent venue is Ecuador's only contemporary-art musuem, Centro de Arte Contemporaneo. The stunning white, arched courtyard, slate floors and long, airy gallery space have risen from an old military hospital. CAC is as committed to showing contemporary Ecuadorean art as it is to welcoming its neighbours from the nearby barrio, or slum, to help shape the museum's mission.
The current show highlights modern riffs on traditional tejido (woven) arts, and currently there is a retrospective of local artist Pablo Cardoso. But visitors are as likely to see a crew of scruffy teenagers using the museum's computers or practising dance moves with a boom box in one of the gallery spaces. "This museum belongs to the neighbourhood," Tomas Bucheli, one of the museum educators, tells me.
Outside of galleries and museums, many neighbourhoods are filled with art. All over the city, particularly in Floresta and Guapalo, graffiti artists create a lush backdrop in otherwise drab areas.
Quito's music isn't just dominated by Latin American classics such as salsa, cumbia and bachata, the scene here is as inventive as any in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Mile End, Montreal. In the nightlife hotspot of Mariscal, you'll find venues for mainstream tropipop and reggaeton, but also indie clubs. Miguel Loor, who runs the city's alternative station Radio COCOA, says "rare and cool" music is found at the new and very underground Catekil, under-the-radar El Aguijón and ultra-hip Naranjilla Mecanica. These edgy hotspots offer everything from electronic and metal to indigenous Andean hip hop.
But, as in the visual arts, Quito's alternative music scene isn't just about music. "We want our music to help create a more environmentalist and humanist society," says a passionate Esteban Falconi, drummer for the band L.O.B.A. (La Orden del Baile Atrevido). Falconi, who is also an environmental lawyer working on indigenous issues, is the embodiment of an artistic renaissance that, like a traditional tapestry, weaves these experimental arts into the environmental politics of Ecuador. Quito is, after all the jumping-off point for the threatened Amazon.
There's a boho-chic restaurant in Quito that serves up the Amazon's eco-issues along with organic native meals. La Cuchara de San Marcos has become an ad hoc Amazon River warrior clubhouse that serves imaginatively prepared authentic Andean cuisine using produce sourced from nearby Kichwa gardeners and farmers. It's owned by the local Amazon Watch co-ordinator and has become a frequent stop for environmental lawyers and volunteers heading into the jungle.
But even the environmentalists take Sundays off in Quito. Every plaza is filled with music, street theatre and informal and intergenerational dancing. Wander the streets carefree in the historic section of the city – it's closed to traffic, as is the main drag Amazonas. Sunday is also a good day to stroll the Calle de La Ronda, a historic narrow cobblestone street.
Film aficionados can indulge in Quito's film scene at art house Cine Ocho y Medio. The cinema industry has received a 300-per-cent boost from Ecuador's recently implemented government program, similar to Canada's National Film Board.
Quito has long been the stepsister of its more sophisticated South American siblings, Buenos Aires and Rio, but no longer, says University of Andina professor Michel Levi, a close observer of the arts scene. "The social class for this sort of thing used to go abroad to see all this. The landscape has finally changed."
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO DO: Join the adoring crowds at 11 a.m. on Monday mornings at the Presidential Palace for the changing of the guard. It's a chance to see El Presidente wave from his balcony. There are brass bands, high stepping horses and guards in 19th-century sartorial splendour. All just this side of a Sacha Baron Cohen send-up.
Straddle both hemispheres, but not at La Mitad del Mundo, the reputed middle of the world. That site is the fake equator, off by 240 metres. The real geographic equator latitude is a few minutes away up a dusty, unpaved road lined with cacti. There you'll be met by some indigenous people who will do hokey but fun science experiments at the outdoor Intinan Museum. You'll also find the hemisphere dividing line and a stone solar clock.
WHERE TO EAT: the new hip, nine-table La Cuchara de San Marcos features organic Andean cuisine, and you'll likely run into young people from around the world working on protecting the Amazon. Wonderful food and inspirational conversation. Junín E3-121 y Manuel Jijón; lacucharadesanmarcos.blogspot.ca
At the elegant restaurant in the hotel Casa Gangotena, chef Andrés Dávila serves up regional variants of traditional dishes such as locro, a thick potato soup, and, of course, aji – a hot sauce made with tart tree tomatoes. Bolivar Oe6-41 y Cuenca; casagangotena.com
WHERE TO LISTEN: Decades ago when Quito was still a sleepy traditional town, painter/photographer Pepe Aviles did something unheard of. He opened a club for jazz and new music, El Pobre Diablo. This is still, says drummer Esteban Falconi, "a mandatory place for young musicians to play." Isabel La Católica N24-274 Galavis esq. La Floresta; elpobrediablo.com
El Aguijón with its cool industrial vibe, is a multigenerational nightspot and one of the few alternative clubs in Mariscal. Aguijon showcases independent bands like Latin ska kings Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, has riotously amusing karaoke with live bands, and every tourista's dream, salsa night on Wednesday. José Calama E-7-35 y Reina Victoria.
Brand new Catekil (a.k.a. Centro Cultural Catekil) is the darling of alternative Quito. The underground place is a welcoming venue for the work of young and disaffected artists and musicians. Foch OE 5 43 y Reina Victoria
WHERE TO DANCE: Grab a taxi to Mayo del 68 and your driver will be surprised that you, a tourist, have found the most local dance spot. Lizardo Garcia y Juan León Mera
If you aren't quite ready to make a public appearance, sneak in a few dance lessons at Academia Salsa & Merengue Foch E4-256 y Amazonas
WHAT TO BUY: Chocolate and coffee are Ecuador staples, but your conscience will be clear when you shop for your take homes at the tiny Kallari Café. The organic chocolate from bean to bar is 100-per-cent owned by a Kichwa people's co-operative high in the Andes. kallari.com
La Tienda de CAC, the museum shop at the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo, has art pieces from $4,000 (a woven and recycled fabric doll by one of Ecuador's most well-known artists, Paula Barragán) to under $10 (a clever bit of handiwork turning tire treads into a pencil case. centrodeartecontemporaneo.gob.ec
WHERE TO STAY: The sweetest of hotels, Hotel Patio Andaluz, is in a genteelly restored colonial building. It's atmospheric in an Old World Latin-American style, with kind and attentive staff. Rooms from $245 (U.S.). García Moreno N6-52 between Mejía and Olmedo
The little 10-room City Art Hotel Silberstein is right in the heart of the city and convenient to bars, restaurants and shops on every dutiful tourist's list. The hotel is a kind of ongoing garage sale since you can buy any of the funky antiques you see in your room. Rooms from $122 (U.S.). Wilson E5-29 y Juan Leon Mera; galextur.com/city-art-hotel-silberstein
The writer travelled courtesy of Quito Visitor Bureau. The agency did not review or approve the story.