Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Old Quito, Ecuador

With a population estimated at close to two million, Quito is Ecuador’s capital and second largest city. It also claims to be the second highest capital in the world after La Paz, Bolivia.

Quito’s air may be thin, but the city is thick with history. Quito sits on the ruins of an Incan city that the Incas burned to the ground rather than have it fall into Spanish clutches. The Spanish Conquistadors established the city of San Francisco de Quito in 1534. They proceeded to Christianize local Indians and use them as laborers to build splendid churches, convents, and monasteries. Most of these architectural treasures are still around. In fact, downtown Quito is so well preserved that it was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.

I felt protected by an angel while wandering through old Quito’s plazas and labyrinthine streets. Wherever I went, I could see the winged Virgin of Quito, hovering above the low-rise colonial architecture like a guardian angel. This huge statue stands on a hill called El Panecillo or “Little Bread Loaf” to the south of the old town. It is said to be the only depiction of a winged Virgin in the Americas. The monument was apparently modeled after an apocalyptic vision from the biblical book of Revelations. Quito’s unusual Virgin wears a crown of stars, and she balances on top of a chained dragon and a large globe of the world.

The heart of Quito’s Old Town is the Plaza de la Independencia, which locals usually call the Plaza Grande. This large square dates back to the 16th century and is flanked by some of the city’s most important buildings, including Quito’s austere-looking cathedral, and the white presidential palace or Palacio de Gobierno with its handsome colonnades. Looking like a wallflower on the north side of Plaza Grande is a nondescript modern administration building that was built to replace a crumbling colonial structure. Tall marble columns surmounted by a bronze statue of Liberty marks the center of the plaza.

The Plaza Grande is one of the best places for people-watching in old Quito. I visited the plaza on a Sunday when it was packed with Quiteños – as people from Quito are called – relaxing and chatting on wrought-iron benches. Quito is a conservative place, and most of the older people were dressed in their Sunday best. Some ladies had brought parasols to protect themselves from the strong equatorial sun. Children were running about dipping their hands in the splashing baroque fountains, chasing flocks of pigeons, and dodging people strolling to and from the area’s numerous churches.

I soon discovered that it was difficult to walk more than two blocks in old Quito without bumping into a church. Quito’s churches tend to be plain and formal on the outside. However, I found a notable exception one block west of the Plaza Grande. La Compañia de Jésus church has the most ornate baroque facade in Ecuador. It reportedly took 160 over years to build La Compañia and carve the collage of cherubs, sacred hearts and other icons ringing its stone entranceway.

The church’s gilded nave and towering altar smothered in gold leaf are truly a Conquistador’s dream come true. Tourism brochures often refer to La Compañia as “Quito’s Sistine Chapel.” Peering up at the church’s vaulted ceiling, I could see why: Moorish geometric designs inlaid with gold glittered in the diffuse light, and dozens of somber paintings depicting saints and religious scenes hung from the sweeping arches.

If Plaza Grande is the heart of Quito, then the Plaza San Francisco is the city’s soul. This vast cobblestone square is ringed by colonial buildings and bordered on its west side by the high white walls and twin spires of the San Francisco Church and Monastery. The plaza was built on the site of the original Inca city’s marketplace, which buzzed with traders from all over the northern Andes.

When I was there, Indian women wearing their signature narrow-brimmed fedoras approached me hawking multicolored weavings, and men bent double under enormous loads strapped to their backs plodded by. I joined the Sunday crowds filing into San Francisco Church. Once inside the church’s dark interior, I found myself engulfed by a sea of glinting baroque carvings and the echoes of hundreds of feet shuffling across creaking wooden floors as they have for centuries.


Quito’s Old Town has few services for travelers. Most stay in the Mariscal Sucre district in new Quito. This compact neighborhood northeast of the old town is full of budget hotels, restaurants, and stores catering to tourists. The best way to get to old Quito from Mariscal Sucre is on the efficient and inexpensive (fare $0.30) trolley bus system. The trolleys have their own lanes and can zip right through Quito’s frequent traffic jams. Taxis are also cheap and plentiful. Most of old Quito’s museums are closed on Mondays. The tourism information office on the Plaza de la Independencia supplies a good map of Quito and brochures.

Below is a slide-show featuring some of my Quito photos. Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on images to see larger views and for information about ordering prints or leasing for personal or editorial use.

Old Quito, Ecuador - Images by John Mitchell

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