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Quito Cotopaxi Volcano eruption for several days
Quito colonialarchitecture
Quito plaza

The first thing you notice about Quito is that it takes your breath away.

Not in a clichéd 'look at the amazing scenery' way; it's more of a literal 'I've just stepped off the plane at three thousand metres above sea level and I feel like I've got a 30-cigarettes-a-day habit.

Squeezed between Volcán Pichincha and a cloud-shrouded mountain range which looms broodingly over the city, Quito is moulded into an elongated strip that is thin enough to cross by foot but so long it vanishes into the horizon. Almost 1.5 million people live in this strand of urban spaghetti but despite its endless suburbs, the city's gems are conveniently concentrated in the few blocks that make up the Unesco World Heritage site of Quito old town.

As the sun sets behind Pichincha, you can see the spires of the old town and beyond it a small hill, El Panecillo ('bread loaf,' so named for its odd shape) on which stands the towering Virgin of Quito looking down over the city. In the foreground runs a long strip of park linking the old town with the anarchic bustle of the new town and in the other direction, a few kilometres north of the city, is the equator and the 'Centre of the World' science museum, a favourite of hemisphere-hopping tourists.

A stroll through the old town is a lesson into the long history of war, conquest and cultural assimilation that occurred in this city ever since the Spanish arrived in South America in the mid 16th century. The original Inca city had been destroyed by civil war immediately before the conquistadors' arrival and the Spanish wasted no time in capitalising on a divided opposition. After the annihilation of the Inca empire, the city was rebuilt according to Spanish designs but by the hands of enslaved indigenous labourers, a process which produced a unique cultural fusion, the 'Quito school of art' which is still visible in the architecture and galleries of the old town.

Meanwhile, with the winds of the Inquisition in their sails, the Spanish set about converting the native population to Christianity; churches were established on the remains of sacred sites, imposing statues were built, and the gore-filled tales of the Bible were depicted in grotesque exaggeration on carvings and paintings. In the Basilica del Voto Nacional, an emaciated Jesus, face locked in agony and with blood dripping down his arms and feet, stands crucified above crowds of genuflecting indígenas. In the Monastery of Santa Catalina, paintings warn sinners of their ultimate punishment in graphic and brutal detail.

Yet despite their best efforts, the Spanish strategy of terrifying the natives into conversion only partially worked. Cultural cross-pollination touched the religious world too, blending ancient tradition with this new faith, with often spectacular results.

Outside the cocoon of the old town, the rest of Quito carries on with its daily life. Only the occasional passing of an indígena, burdened by loads that are often larger than they are, reminds you that this busy, noisy bustle is merely the latest phase in Quito's long history.

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