Night seems to have fallen quickly in Quito.
I recall a lingering warmth in the streets no more than an hour ago, the skies vast and peach-coloured and with just a sprinkling of the afternoon’s cloud. Now, as I’m wedged into the crowds on the Plaza de la Independencia, a series of fireworks shimmer and scatter against thick, grey clouds. At the same time, the Metropolitan Cathedral, stretching the width of the square, is shedding its white facade and coming to life with red, blue, and yellow light — the colours of the Ecuadorian flag.
I’m here for the colourful spectacle that is Quito’s Fiesta de la Luz (Festival of Light); think, the Latin cousin of Lyon’s longstanding Fête des Lumières. It’s the only one of its kind in South America, which might explain the droves of locals who’ve turned out in force. “Señor, señor,” cries a woman somewhere behind me. I turn to see her gesturing me aside. “We can’t see. We’ve been waiting for hours to see this.” She presents her relatives and five children. Apologetically I shuffle to my right.
Before long, the rotating blocks of colour on the church have finished their game of tricolour tetris, and the Metropolitan Cathedral is now blanketed in a swathe of blood red. Deference to Christ, I wonder? There’s hardly any time to muse on this as the crowds break away to the sound of a brass band, dispersing in every direction across the square. Belén, my guide, seems almost as disorientated as me; there are easily 50,000 people in eyeshot. But she gets her bearings and leads me into a flow of locals heading north, all tinged pink by the glowing scarlet of the cathedral.
The locals are as much a part of the show as the lights. There are faces peering out from the balconies and windows above the square, puffing cigarettes, sipping drinks, enjoying the spectacle. People weave through the crowds with boxes loaded with lollipops, plantain crisps, paper flags and garish light-up bracelets. Espumilla sellers pander to the sweet-toothed, parading trays of the bubblegum-pink meringue through the streets and dolloping it into mini cones. It should be chaotic, but bizarrely it works. Nobody is in the way, nobody pushes, and I find myself almost peacefully gliding along.
We stop outside the beautiful Teatro Sucre, its columns and portico teeming with tiny, luminous tadpole-like projections. They quickly cover the building, before giving way to a series of facades inspired by the faraway — from Paris’ art nouveau grandeur to the iconic white arches of the Taj Mahal. ‘De Quito al Mundo’ reads a sign as a train chugs through a silhouette of the capital, before passing the likes of Tower Bridge and the Eiffel Tower.
Belén signals for me to look behind us. The square is rammed with spectators, arms aloft with phones. It’s strangely captivating. Clocks and cogs tick and whir on the theatre, fading out to the sound of a tinkling piano. The crowd bursts into applause. The square, much as it did previously, scatters, and we find ourselves in the throngs once more.
The city’s old streets have been turned into a one-way chessboard, police playing shepherds to the hordes of people. Ushered forward, I suddenly realise what the heaving bottleneck I find myself in is all about. I look up to see the soaring towers of the city’s striking basilica beside me. It’s transformed — butterfly style — from its ordinary grey shell to a kaleidoscopic masterpiece, every brick drenched in dazzling colour. Purples, golds, reds, turquoises, blues and whites smother the enormous church; tonight it’s solely a temple to colour. “What do you think?” says Belén with a proud grin. Light certainly travels faster than sound — I’m speechless.