QUITO, Ecuador (AP) - As the sun descends, street lamps take over, illuminating grandiose colonial plazas, antiquated historic buildings and romantic balconies that line the major streets of capital city Quito's "Centro Historico" district in Ecuador.
The streets buzz with activity. Indigenous women in colorful dress bustle around. Young hombres whiz by on motorcycles. Mustached men sell warm peanuts and pastries. Restaurant patios crowd with hungry patrons. And all those in the central square, Plaza Grande, jostle about to the musical backdrop of an impromptu jam session from curbside guitarists and accordion players.
It's a scene in stark contrast to Ecuador's Centro Historico of its historical past. An evening stroll down these parts eight years ago was a stroll into a world of crime, ghettos and dilapidated buildings. But it's amazing what $200 million and a vision to attract tourists can do for a capital city. In 2000, under the direction of Mayor Paco Moncayo, the city embarked on an extensive restoration project to save its historic center, deemed a world UNESCO site in 1978, from increasing decay and rid its streets of crime.
The plan is not quite completed — and street crime remains a problem — but architects and restoration crews have finished more than 200 rehabilitation projects including the city's cathedral; three historic theaters; plazas; monasteries; churches; entire blocks of colonial homes and buildings; and the narrow picture-perfect street known as La Ronda.
Four historical buildings have been converted into luxury boutique hotels, and several restaurants specializing in gourmet Ecuadorean fare have recently opened. This rebirth has transformed Quito from a mere transit point en route to the Amazon and Galapagos into a veritable destination in its own right.
"Before, tourist operators wouldn't bring travelers into the Old Town and tourists wouldn't come here on their own either," says Andrea Swigilsky, general manager of the upscale boutique hotel Patio Andaluz. "Only the brave stayed the night in the Old Town. But now everyone wants to come here, the locals, tourists, and even new businesses, local and foreign, are vying to get into this part of Quito."
It's not hard to see why tourists now want to come to Quito's Centro Historico.
More police are now stationed throughout the district and formerly dark and dreary streets, some newly pedestrianized, glowing under lampposts. Cobblestone pathways have been scrubbed and swept.
Recently painted facades of peppermint green, cotton-candy pink and powder blue make you feel as though you've walked into an Easter egg wonderland. Mansions that had been sectioned into small apartments over the years have been restored to their former glory. And, in a hotly contested move, the throngs of street-side vendors that crowded the district with their neon signs and tacky cumbersome stalls, which made navigating the sidewalks challenging, have been relocated to indoor shopping centers.
"Viva la ciudad!" calls out a jovial shopkeeper in the Centro Commercial Granada to passers-by.
Long live the city indeed — a city bursting with new culture and life. For example, the former Naval Archives is now the Centro Cultural Metropolitano, a bustling museum housed in a 400-year-old complex that today contains several extensive public libraries, a museum, and performance spaces. The San Juan de Dios Hospital has become the innovative Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum), which documents Quito's past with displays recreating daily life from prehistory to the 19th century with wax figures and sound effects.
The Neoclassical Teatro Sucre has been restored to its former glory, along with its nearby cousin, the Variety Theatre. Fronting the northeast side of the main square, Plaza Independencia, the two-story, colonnaded Palazio de Arzobispal (Archbishop's palace) now houses two excellent restaurants, Internet cafes, public restrooms and a tourist information office.
The new Hotel Plaza Grande, which faces the Old Town's eponymous central plaza, caters to the indulgent traveler. Luxurious rooms in the restored Spanish colonial mansion go for $500-$1500 per night. Six blocks away, the charming and far less imposing Villa Colonna opened its doors two years ago, offering six classy rooms and B&B hospitality.
Despite all the recent additions, however, the center has not forgotten its past, which the district has brought back to life through its renovation initiatives. Today, the Old Town's 15th-18th century buildings shine anew, notably, the monochrome Church of San Francisco, a hybrid of Spanish, Mudejar and Incan architecture built in the Plaza San Francisco in 1536 shortly after the founding of Quito.
Next door is the Monastery of San Francisco, the country's largest colonial structure, which has shed its makeshift corrugated tin roof and now, with its newly whitewashed walls, includes a renovated museum with paintings from the Quito School of Art, a renowned body of gothic Catholic religious art produced by indigenous sculptors and painters during the 17th and 18th centuries.
A few blocks away is La Compania de Jesus, arguably Ecuador's finest church. Built by Jesuits between 1605 and 1765, it boasts a newly scrubbed Baroque facade of carved volcanic stone and twisted columns, sacred hearts, angles and saints. The opulent interior, renovated after a fire in 1996, showcases a downpour of gold leaf, reputedly seven tones that covers alters, galleries and the Moorish tracery and pulpit.
Take a few steps east to the Plaza de la Independencia, also known as the Plaza Grande, which still preserves its dimensions from when it was first laid out with a string and ruler in 1534. The square houses the glistening white Cathedral, built in 1678, and the dazzling two-story Neoclassical Palacio Arzobispal. The white-stuccoed Palacio de Gobierno, built in the 17the century, is still the seat of the government and presidential palace today, and is often the chosen spot of weekly protests and rallies by passionate Quinteros.
In fact, a stroll down any of the Old Town's colonial plazas takes you on a journey of the capital city's rich and renewed history, with an optimistic sense of where the district's future is headed.