Its cheerful buzz and mixed-spice aroma meet you before you’ve even left the serene garden of your Quito hotel: Calle Cuenca, a street at the heart of Quito’s Old Town which perfectly encapsulates traditional life in the capital. Casa Gangotena, if not its founding member, is an integral player in this vibrant neighborhood.
The first name given to this emblematic street was Calle De la Corte and it was a favorite haunt of the so-called “chapetones,” some of the first Spaniards to arrive in Ecuador in the 16th century. Up and down they would parade, past what is now Casa Gangotena’s side entrance, distinguished in their capes and boots.
On this iconic street stand three of Quito Old Town’s most important churches: Santa Clara, just a block south of Casa Gangotena, San Francisco, and La Merced to the north. Wander along its length northwards and you’ll come to Colegio Simón Bolívar, a historic boys’ school; in the other direction, you’ll arrive at the foot of the Panecillo, the hill upon which the winged Maria protects the city.
But the part of Calle Cuenca which belongs to Casa Gangotena, and to which Casa Gangotena belongs, is found on the block between Plaza San Francisco and Calle Rocafuerte. Here, just steps away from the Quito hotel, the street is lined with shops, brimming with every kind of shiny costume and garish piñata, waiting to be displayed and destroyed at a children’s party or perhaps at one of the city’s many festivitieser.
Next door to these lies the source of the exotic scents wafting into Casa Gangotena’s garden: the shops selling dried herbs and fragrant spices. Great sacks of every kind of grain force you to squeeze yourself sideways through this traditional store: amaranth, mote, lentils, chunks of salt, beans of every kind, chia seeds, chickpeas – all beautiful and tactile, laid out artistically as if in formation.
These grains and pulses form a substantial part of the customary Quiteño diet; thrown into soups and stews, they provide protein in harder times. Like an old-fashioned candy shop, it displays panela-coated ginger and bonbons in jars – you’ll be itching to buy some, every time you leave your Quito hotel.
Doors down is the wonderful Casa del Alabado, a museum dedicated to Pre-Columbian artifacts. Dating back to 1611 (as a lintel above its entrance door helpfully informs), it is one of the oldest buildings still standing in the city, and its fine patio catches the morning sunlight with tables inviting you to sit and contemplate over a coffee. The darkened rooms of the museum hold 5,000 Pre-Columbian treasures arranged not chronologically but thematically into the Under World, Middle World, and Upper World, in which aspects of different Ecuadorian cultures and ethnicities are displayed. It ranks among Quito’s best museums, beautiful and mystical, a true immersion.
Still, with Casa Gangotena insight, a few more steps towards the glorious Virgin take you to a small shop on the corner with Calle Rocafuerte. Innocuous though it seems, this scruffy little eatery dates back more than four decades. Its best seller? A hearty soup whose main ingredient is the penis of a bull.
Crossing the street of Rocafuerte, you come to lovely Santa Clara, a church and convent housing cloistered nuns who rarely make contact with the outside world. They too must hear the same noises of the street and smell the same waft of spices on the wind as the guests of Casa Gangotena. The church rarely opens to the public, unfortunately.
On Calle Cuenca one finds a perfect intersection of barrio (neighborhood) life: the historic, the beautiful, the traditional, the tacky, and the bizarre. This is Casa Gangotena’s street, where its smart doormen await and greet neighborhood friends cheerfully, where guests come and go throughout their days of exploration, and where the story of the Quito hotel and the city itself are entwined.