Quito – Walking the Historic District
This is my first in depth post from a recent trip to Ecuador with Adventures Abroad. In a previous post I gave my top eight reasons why Ecuador should be high on every traveller’s list of places to visit in 2023. In this post we’ll accompany our AA guide Alfredo Meneses on a walking tour of the historic centre of Quito. In a subsequent post I’ll suggest a few other places in Quito you might want to consider visiting on your own as well as a few safety tips to make sure your trip to Ecuador gets off to a great start. So put on your walking shoes, sunblock and Panama hat and let’s get going.
Alison and I flew into Quito a couple of days before the trip was to begin for a number of reasons. At 9,350 feet (2,850 metres) Quito is the world’s second highest capital city. We had previously spent time in Bogota which is at 8,660 feet (2,640 metres) as well as a trip to Switzerland in June that saw us as high as 11,400 feet (3,500 metres) at the Jungfraujoch train station. While we did not get any kind of severe altitude sickness we knew that the body needs at least a day to acclimatize to these type of elevations, especially if you live at sea level, as we do. A second reason is that in this day of screwed up airlines, it is wise to arrive early rather than take a chance on the on time delivery that the airlines promise, but usually don’t deliver. Finally, we had a list of a few places in Quito we wanted to see that were not on the itinerary and if all went according to plan we would see these before meeting the others in the AA group.
We did arrive in Quito exactly on time which always seems to be the case when time is not of the essence. Clearing customs in the modern airport was a breeze and the driver we had prearranged was waiting for us. After ditching our Canadian sim cards for Ecuadorian ones at a kiosk in the airport we were on our way.
We spent the first two nights in Quito at the La Casona de la Ronda which is an excellent boutique hotel about which we had no complaints. In fact even though we arrived several hours after the restaurant was supposed to be closed, they were happy to remain open just for us. This is where I got my first taste of the great Ecuadorian soup locro de papa which we both enjoyed many times on this tour. It is a potato and cheese concoction that is both delicious and filling.
In retrospect I would probably have chosen to spend the first two days at the AA hotel in Quito, the Mama Cuchura which is also a great boutique hotel, simply to avoid having to move. This is the view from the second story balcony that extends all around the inner courtyard.
However, the Mama Cuchura is considerably more expensive than the Casona de la Ronda.
After moving to the Mama Cuchura we met our fellow AA travellers who were a mix of Canadians and Americans, couples and singles and all very excited about the upcoming trip. Over the next two weeks we would share many great experiences together and live up to the old adage, “Meet as strangers, depart as friends.” There were sixteen of us in total which made for a very manageable group, especially as everyone was reasonably fit and we had no people who were constantly late, which drives me nuts when that happens. Fortunately, it’s a rarity on AA trips in my experience. The patrons tend to be well-seasoned travellers who are considerate of others and don’t want to be ‘the one person who ruined the whole trip’.
History of Quito
The history of Quito is remarkably similar to that of Mexico City with the main events taking place within fifteen years of each other. In Mexico the war like Mexicas (aka Aztecs) had conquered all of central Mexico, inflicting horrendous damage on the Indigenous people who had first occupied the area. They built the great city of Tenochtitlan on the site of present day Mexico City, only to have the Spaniards under Hernan Cortes arrive a short time later and destroy it all. In Quito it was the Incas who were the first conquerors, pushing north from Peru and displacing the native Quitus for whom the city is named, at the end of the 15th century. They barely had time to build their city when the Spanish, following roads the Incas had built (thank you very much), arrived in the city in 1534 and displaced the ruling Incas. Unlike Mexico City where you can still visit the remains of the great temple of Tenochtitlan as I described in this post, there are no visible traces of the Incan city in Quito which was totally destroyed. Some histories say it was done by the last Incan ruler Ruminahui to prevent desecration by the conquering Spaniards and others say it was the Spanish. Either way, Quito was a blank slate in 1535 when the Dominicans arrived and founded the first of twenty monasteries and convents.
What makes Quito remarkable is that unlike most other Latin American colonial cities, it was not destroyed by earthquakes, volcanoes or civil insurrection, even though all three have occurred at various times. There are still buildings standing that date back to the very foundation of the city almost five hundred years ago. Equally remarkable when you think about it is Quito’s location high in the Andes over a hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean with a huge mountain chain in between. Over seventy years before the first primitive English and French settlements were established on the east coast of North America, there were sophisticated buildings going up in Quito, roughly twice as far from Europe and a hell of a lot harder to get to.
The architectural integrity of Quito has been recognized by UNESCO who in 1978 included it in the very first list of World Heritage Sites with this description:
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and stands at an altitude of 2,850 m. Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America. The monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, and the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía, with their rich interiors, are pure examples of the ‘Baroque school of Quito’, which is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art.
With that brief background let’s join Alfredo who has arrived at the hotel along with his cousin to take us on a morning walk around historic Quito including the three buildings mentioned above.
This is a tourist map of the area we will be exploring.
Our hotel is at the end of Rocafuente Avenue which is on the lower right hand side of the map and Alfredo leads our group to our first stop at Plaza Santa Domingo with the church of the same name fronting it, #24 on the map. Before arriving at the plaza we pass underneath the Arch of Santo Domingo which was built in 1732 allowing traffic to pass directly under the Chapel of the Virgin of Rosario
The Church of Santo Domingo, pictured above, was founded by Dominicans in 1540 and expanded constantly for the next few hundred years in an architectural style that is known as Quito Baroque. The statue in the plaza is of the Ecuadorian national hero Mariscal Sucre, right hand man to Simon Bolivar.
By winning the Battle of Pichincha on the outskirts of Quito in 1822 he secured the independence of Ecuador and has been revered here ever since. You see his name and statue everywhere in Ecuador including Quito airport. After liberating Ecuador he skipped across Peru and liberated what is now Bolivia where he became its first president. The constitutional capital of Bolivia, Sucre is named after him.
In an all too familiar story in Latin America, after the Spanish were deposed the liberators started fighting among themselves and in 1830 he was assassinated on the orders of a rival general. In the next post we’ll visit his mausoleum in the Metropolitan cathedral. His house in Quito is not far from the plaza and is now a museum. While it was not open yet we did get a look into the courtyard of Casa de Sucre.
At the entrance, Alfredo pointed out a type of artwork apparently common in Quito, the use of animal vertebrae and stones to make unusual designs.
We were now on pedestrianized Garcia Moreno street which might be considered the main thoroughfare of historic Quito. Everywhere you look on this street there is something interesting to see. This is looking south toward the Virgin of El Panecillo which is the tallest aluminum statue in the world. Erected only in 1975 it is visible from almost everywhere in central Quito.
Here is a closer look. I guarantee you will be taking lots of photos of El Panecillo while in Quito.
Looking north you get see the white tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral with the twin spires of the National Basilica poking out above the Hotel Plaza Grande.
Our next stop is La Compañía or the Church of the Jesuits which is considered the pinnacle of Quito baroque. The Jesuits were relative late comers to Quito arriving only in 1586 well after most other orders and they didn’t get a spot on a plaza like the others. Instead of a grand exterior they were determined to create the most ornate interior in the New World. That being said, the exterior facade, while not as large as others in Quito is still pretty imposing.
We were here a few minutes before opening so Alfredo engaged us in conversation with a coca leaf vendor. They, along with many other itinerant salespeople are ubiquitous in the old part of Quito, but they are are easily avoided if you don’t like being pestered (that would be me). Technically the sale of coca leaves is illegal in Ecuador, but the authorities turn a blind eye to vendors like this who clearly aren’t selling the product to make cocaine. The leaves make a nice tea and there is also coca gum which I do purchase. Both are considered helpful in preventing altitude sickness and treating any number of ailments. I guess it must have worked because I suffered no ill health of any sort while in Ecuador.
On a more serious note, if you do buy coca leaves do not take them back home as the Canadian and American customs agents won’t turn a blind eye and you could find yourself in deep s***.
This is looking up at the ceiling over the entrance to La Compañía. It’s an interesting example of syncretism which is something I am always interested in, particularly the mix between Roman Catholicism and the Indigenous religions of the New World. At first glance you’ve got the usual Christian symbols – cherubs, the cross, the heart, but what about those rays emanating from the circle? That is the sun which is not a Christian symbol, but one very important to the Indigenous peoples of much of Latin America. The early priests linked Jesus to the sun in order to obtain converts who would not turn away from sun worship easily.
Looking up at this, I could not help thinking of the old joke about a priest talking to a supposed heathen convert. “To think that before we came along you were worshipping the sun.” The reply, “At least the sun is real.”
This is the main door and it gives you an inkling of what might be inside.
Many of the churches in historic Quito forbid interior photography and La Compañía is one of them. However, I cannot in good conscience not include pictures of the interior because I have never seen anything like it. While baroque is synonymous with covering every square inch in some form of decoration, La Compañía takes it to a new level and does it with gold. When you first walk into this church and have this view don’t be surprised if you audibly gasp in wonderment. I know I did. You expect to see a fairly dark interior, but instead are hit with this explosion of light.
The feeling of awe does not diminish as you venture further into the interior. Thank goodness they have a mirror that lets you see the ceiling without having to stretch your neck, because you would stretch it to see this.
The altar, which is usually the star attraction in Baroque churches, here blends in with the rest of the interior almost seamlessly.
There is a reason that La Compañía has been called the Temple of Solomon of South America and you’ll appreciate that from the moment you enter the premises. There is a museum connected to the church, but frankly it’s an afterthought. There’s nothing that wouldn’t be anticlimactic after seeing this place.
While La Compañía is definitely the highlight of the historic Quito walk there is still much more to see starting with the oldest religious complex in the city, the San Francisco church and convent which dates back to 1537. It’s an imposing structure that houses a huge collection of artwork from the Quito school. As with La Compañía no interior photography is permitted, but trust me it’s second only to that church in splendour.
The church fronts a huge plaza which along with the Plaza Grande which we will visit next, is the heartbeat of old Quito, alive with vendors, tourists and local families, not to mention hundreds of obnoxious pigeons.
This is the view from the terrace in front of San Francisco church. The dome on the right side is La Compañía and you can see the National Basilica in the distance.
Looking south you get this view of El Panecillo with the dome of the Casa Gangotena hotel in the foreground.
I mentioned the many street vendors in old Quito and our group is approached by two Indigenous women in their native dress selling really beautiful hand made fabrics. Alfredo poses with them before helping some of the people in the group get a good bargain.
We now head to the ‘official’ heart of old Quito, the Plaza Grande and grand it is with Metropolitan Cathedral on one side, Carondelet Palace, the seat of the Ecuadorian government on another, the Archbishop’s Palace on a third and finally the Municipal Palace and Plaza Grande Hotel on the fourth. In the plaza itself is the National Independence Monument. This is one spot where a wide-angle lens would really come in handy.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the buildings that surround the plaza. This is the Metropolitan Cathedral which has roots that go back to 1535, but most of what is there today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. The almost blindingly white bell tower is quite unique. While we did not go inside the cathedral on this walking tour, Alison and I did on the day before and in the next post I’ll have more to say about this really interesting building.
This is Carondelet Palace which was formerly the Governor’s Palace until independence in 1822. It is now the seat of the Ecuadorian government and open to visitors when the President is not staying there. The photo is from the Wikipedia entry as it is extremely difficult to photograph without a wide angle lens.
Then there is the Municipal Palace which is actually a new building dating from the 1970’s, but constructed in a style to fit in with the historic buildings around it. This type of insightful thinking and planning is what makes sure that Quito maintains its reputation as the best preserved colonial capital city in Latin America.
Lastly we gather around the National Independence Monument which is topped with the country’s version of Lady Liberty.
At the base there are a number of exquisite cast pieces representing episodes in Ecuador’s decade long struggle for independence from Spain. In the one depicted below the lion represents Spain which has a fatal spear wound in its side.
The lion is looking up at this figure which is a condor representing Ecuador holding the chains it has just removed. As national monuments go this one is pretty good and the symbolism really works.
This is where we wrap up our tour of historic Quito. I hope I have given some idea as to why it was the very first place designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the next post I’ll take in a few places in Quito that we visited in the two days we were here before we joined the Adventures Abroad tour, including a gondola ride in the sky. I hope you’ll join us.