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An urban expedition through Quito’s natural spaces

Quito, the legendary and historic capital city of Ecuador has been the center of the Ecuadorian nationality for thousands of years, way before the Incas expanded their Kingdom towards the north of the continent and, of course, much before the Spanish conquest and colony. In addition to its rich history, the city’s natural setting is one entirely unique in the world.  Present day Quito expands along a narrow and winding Andean valley, more than 25 miles in length, “crushed” between the flanks of the gigantic Pichincha Volcano, the millenary tutor mountain of the city to the west and a series of hills and elevations to the east.

Located in such a staggering natural location, Quito has managed to incorporate a host of green spaces within its urban premises as well as on its nearby surroundings. This is why, today, we have chosen to explore, discover or “rediscover” some of the fantastic natural spaces of this fascinating city.  It is relatively early in the morning, and, as in most of the year, the sky has a brilliant and unique, rare tone of blue… Being at over 9.200 feet of elevation, the city crawls and creeps over the irregular topography marked by the eastern foothills and flanks of the Pichincha Volcano, while many neighborhoods and natural observatories allow for amazing views of the mythical Avenue of the volcanoes with their spectacular snow-covered summits, while the city seems closer to the sky than any other urban center on earth…

We start with a fascinating walk through the city’s oldest park: La Alameda.  When the Spanish conquerors founded the city in 1534, these were rural pastures, often dubbed as the “King’s Gardens”. Now it is well inside the city and marks the northern entrance to Quito’s Historic Center. In 1735, almost 280 years ago, the then President of the Royal Audience of Quito, still as a Spanish Colony, started the construction of an “Alameda”, a space for trees and gardens, the Spanish style.  With a small surface of 6 hectares, La Alameda hosts many (and often unknown) landmarks of the city’s rich history.  We begin by admiring the monumental equestrian statue to the Liberator Simon Bolivar, located at the Park’s southern tip, inaugurated in 1935.  The park is home to dozens of “patrimonial” trees and plants, many of them very old and native Andean species like the 14 palm trees of the endemic “Quito palm” species; two Andean cedars and more. The winding lanes become a showcase of natural species and take us past the amazing structure of Ecuador’s oldest Astronomical Observatory, built in 1873, a bizarre yellow construction of three adjacent cylindrical-shaped buildings.  The Astronomical Observatory currently functions, more like a museum, since modern day technology has created new and more modern ones in the city and nearby.  A small monument in honor of the French Geodesic Mission that, based in Ecuador in the 1700’s, located the planet’s Latitude Zero, just a few minutes north of Quito, also adorns the park, while a small artificial lagoon crossed by a bridge is the venue for youngsters and a few adults to enjoy a short row-boat ride, in the heart of the bustling city. At the northern extreme of La Alameda Park, we visit the small and picturesque church of El Belen, the city’s oldest, dating from 1534 and the place, where the first Catholic mass was celebrated in the Spanish city of Quito.

Leaving La Alameda we now ride a few blocks uphill, past the steep streets of the traditional El Dorado neighborhood, to the Itchimbia Hill which, according to many historians, hosted a Pre-Inca temple in honor to the Moon Goddess. The esplanade atop the hill is nowadays another park with nice gardens, lanes for joggers and routes for bikers.  Its most stunning characteristic is, however, the truly spectacular view that the Hill offers right over Quito’s Historic Center, that magnificent scenario dotted with dozens of church towers and domes, narrow streets and colorful plazas, historic monuments and the awesome backdrop of the Pichincha Volcano and the Panecillo Hill with its giant statue of the Winged Virgin of Quito.  Looking at such a sight, one has no questions about why UNESCO declared Quito’s Historic Center as the First World Cultural Heritage Site in the world, back in 1978.  In the center of the Park stands the  “Crystal Palace”, a steel and glass structure, said to had been built under the direction of Gustav Eiffel, the legendary French architect who built one of the world’s architectonic icons: the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  Originally built as a Market for “old Quito”, today it functions as a Cultural Center, ran by the City, and the venue to permanent art, culture, gastronomy exhibits, fairs and glamorous events….

The story will continue with much more on the next issue……

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