Participate in an exclusive San Francisco experience in Quito, only available to guests of Casa Gangotena. Please inquire with our staff for more details.
In the lobby of Casa Gangotena, the customary aristocratic serenity is interrupted by a frisson of anticipation. A group of six or so guests have gathered and speak in hushed voices, not certain of what is about to come.
They are waiting for Casa Gangotena’s newest guest experience to begin, a tour of San Francisco monastery with exclusive access to some very special parts of the emblematic complex. And I, a privileged outsider, have come along to see what happens.
Casa Gangotena’s history is entwined with that of the 16th century church: built on the same plaza, the hotel (formerly a family home) had front-row seats to the religious events and ceremonies there hosted by the mysterious Franciscan monks, like the massive Good Friday penitents parade, and the two establishments have maintained a close relationship.
As the first church built in Quito in 1535 (though it took 100 years to finish), constructed on top of an Incan temple, San Francisco has great significance within a city enthralled to Catholicism.
San Francisco is the dominating structure that demands attention before arriving at the hotel, it’s what guests gaze upon as they eat their breakfast in the restaurant, and sip their wine on the terrace at sunset.
He leads us out towards the light into a great courtyard flanked by arches. In the centre, a stone fountain commands all around, trees and pillars hung with orange blossom. The green of the domed roof in the south-western corner clashes brilliantly with the sky, now vivid pink as the evening draws on.
Then, up a flight a wide, unwieldy stone staircase, and the group emerges in the choir, at the back of the church. A mass is underway, and we spy on it unobserved, the priest commanding the earnest congregation.
The ceiling is an Arabic-style mosaic of different kinds of woods for perfect acoustics, and the three sides are covered in paintings of Franciscan monks bearing the signs of how they were murdered, broken hands and bleeding eyes abound.
Daniel beckons us back through out onto a landing where he unlocks a padlock on a colossal wooden door, the sort of door that you’re not supposed to open but yearn to do so. It creaks ajar enticingly.
One mystery gives way to another: we’re met by a turret housing a spiral staircase barely wide enough for one portly monk. The temperature drops. We wind up 50 – 50! – steps and when we finally reach the summit everything becomes clear.
We emerge on the roof – the real rooftop – of the monastery, higher than almost anything. There’s Plaza San Francisco below, crisscrossed by people hurrying home before dark; there’s the Basilica, shanking the darkening sky; there’s Casa Gangotena and the tiny people drinking cocktails. The Andes and the rest of the city roll behind and the sky is a fiery red. It is the king of all views.
We’ve been taken up the tower usually only accessed by the bell-ringers. The great bells chime on the hour, and in years past were used to deliver news to the city. Smaller ones, meanwhile, heralded information for the monastery. Now, they are silent, hanging provocatively overhead. Everyone would love to ring one. No one dares to.
With an unsurpassable climax reached, the visit ends, and we descend the staircase, back through the garden and the secret door, and out onto the square. A light rain begins to fall and the guests dissipate into the night.
We didn’t just pull back the curtain of San Francisco, we climbed its very rafters.