Old Town Quito: A Walking Tour

By Mike Gasparovic

Plaza de Independencia, Quito, Ecuador
Plaza de Independencia

Walking in Quito, Ecuador is a truly marvelous experience.

Part of it is the visible presence of the past. As one of the two hubs of the Inca empire, and the second major city founded by the Spanish after their conquest of South America in the 1530s, Quito, with its winding cobblestone streets and whitewashed colonial houses, is the best-preserved capital in Latin America. Whole blocks of its Old Town are substantially as they were in the 18th century, when the city was a hotbed of revolutionary ferment. This state of preservation is what prompted UNESCO to make it their first World Heritage site way back in 1978.

Equally enticing is the palpable sense of peace that still lingers in Quito’s narrow alleys and sunny squares. The chaos and sprawl that plague Lima or Bogotá are nowhere to be found. Instead, the city enjoys efficient public transportation, safe streets, and—miracle of miracles, in Latin America—comparative peace and quiet. It’s South America’s version of a Swiss canton, with the same mountain-town blend of the aesthetic and the historical, the vibrant present and the deep cultural past.

To help you appreciate fully the loveliness that is Quito, here’s a suggested walking tour of Old Town Quito, the city’s historic center. When you go, be sure to wear comfy shoes: Quito’s altitude and steep hills can take the wind out of even seasoned hikers.

The Plaza Grande

All tours of Quito begin in the Plaza de Independencia, also known to locals as the Plaza Grande. When the Spanish set up towns in the New World, they did so in accordance with a tried and true formula: main square, cathedral, governor’s palace, city hall. Quito is no exception. Flanking the Plaza Grande you’ll find all the chief administrative buildings from the city’s colonial past. All have undergone striking changes.

Take, for example, the 400-year-old Palacio del Gobierno, officially the home of Ecuador’s President. During the three centuries of the colonial period, this edifice was the seat of the Real Audiencia de Quito, a large administrative division that included huge tracts of territory under its judicial umbrella. Later on, it was the site of much political intrigue and scandal, including the murder, on its steps, of President Gabriel García Moreno. (García Moreno, a strongman who turned Ecuador into a Catholic theocracy even as he modernized its roads, ports, and educational system, was having an affair with the wife of one of his subordinates, a botanist. When the latter discovered his boss’s perfidy, he came back from a forced trip to the Amazon and hacked the President to pieces.)

Today the Palacio is considerably less august. The current president, Raphael Correa, no longer resides there, choosing instead to live among the common people in the north of the city. But tourists can still enter to see the famous mosaic mural by Oswaldo Guayasimín of Francisco de Orellana’s discovery of the Amazon, or—reflections of a truly populist government—to buy snacks and souvenirs in the shops on the ground floor.

Another victim to time’s caprices is the Catedral Metropolitano, which has been restored numerous times since its construction in 1565 (the church of El Sagrario next door was originally its main chapel). Today this official-looking basilica is fairly staid, architecturally speaking, compared with the great ecclesiastical monuments just a block away, but it’s still worth visiting for the paintings from the Quito School of art that embellish the interior.

These paintings are a source of civic pride to quiteños. When the Catholic Church mandated, at the Council of Trent in 1545, that art be used to illustrate religious doctrine for the illiterate masses, art schools sprang up in the New World to supply paintings and statues for the evangelization of the indigenous peoples. The homegrown style that resulted was florid and sensationalistic: bloody statues of a dying Jesus, morbid depictions of martyred saints, and the like were the norm. For a representative example, check out the Descent from the Cross inside the Catedral by Caspicara, the greatest indigenous sculptor in this tradition. Its swooning Mary is hyper-dramatic, but curiously, the figures’ anatomy is medical-textbook accurate.

Meanwhile there’s nothing monumental, or even very religious, about the Palacio Arzobispal. The former archbishop’s residence has been converted into a gallery of food courts and sit-down restaurants, one of which, ¡Hasta la Vuelta, Señor! (Calle Chile OE-422; 258-0887), is a great introduction to Ecuadoran cuisine when lunchtime rolls around. Good bets: seco de chivo, a spicy dish of stewed goat; and a platter of empanadas, fried turnovers filled with ground beef and cheese.

Baroque Treasures

Facade, Compania de Jesus, Quito, Ecuador
Compania de Jesus

After feasting your eyes—and belly—at the plaza, head down Calle García Moreno one block to witness one of the most arresting architectural marvels of the Americas, the Compañía de Jesús (García Moreno and Sucre; 258-4175). Everything about this 16th-century Jesuit church is over the top: the soaring baroque cupola, the walls and ceiling overcharged with ornamental detail, the trompe l’oeuil staircase at the back, the gold leaf covering everything.

Such extravagance was no accident. When the Compañía’s foundations were laid in 1609, the Jesuits were embroiled in an evangelizing arms race with the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Mercedarians for the hearts and minds of the native quiteños. Impressive churches, so the thinking went, would overawe the indigenous peoples and inspire them to embrace their new faith. Hence the luxuriousness, and hence too the indigenous motifs incorporated into every detail of the structure: cherubs with dark complexions, solar emblems, a relentless emphasis on gold (gold was the tears of the sun-god Inti, according to native belief).

When you go, be sure to hire one of the English-speaking guides lurking in the vestibule. If you’re lucky, he’ll take you to see the dome, whose view of the city is worth the entrance fee in itself.

Equally not to be missed as you continue your tour is the Monasterio de San Francisco (Cuenca and Sucre; 022-1124), just one block away in Calle Sucre. The oldest church in the Americas, San Francisco was built on the site of a former Inca temple—note the sloping courtyard in front, which conceals pre-hispanic ruins. Originally the monastery precinct was a village unto itself, with cloisters, a library, an inner courtyard, a winepress, and even a jail where wayward priests were disciplined. Today, however, much of the complex has been converted into a museum of religious art, where you can check out more masterpieces from the Quito School.

As you take in San Francisco’s baroque splendor, don’t overlook the main altar, which boasts two of the most renowned sculptures in Ecuador. El Jesús del Gran Poder, by Fray Pedro Gocial, depicts, in good, masochistic escuela quiteña fashion, a wounded, bleeding Christ weighed down by a heavy cross; it’s only taken out once a year during a combined religious procession/bullfight on Good Friday. Meanwhile La Virgen de Quito, by the great Bernardo de Lagarda, portrays a winged Mary trampling the Serpent of the Apocalypse; it was used in the late 20th century as the basis for the 100-foot aluminum statue atop the Panecillo hill that overlooks Quito.

Heroes and Heroines

Inner Courtyard, Casa Urrutia, Quito, Ecuador
Inner Courtyard, Casa Urrutia

After so much churchly excess, your senses will likely be overloaded, so the clean lines and republican simplicity of the Casa Sucre (Calle Venezuela 593; 295-2860) will be a welcome change. To get there, walk back down Calle Sucre two blocks; the house-turned-museum is on the corner.

Aficionados of Latin American history will know Antonio José de Sucre as the trusted commandant of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar (Bolívar nicknamed him “Abel” to set him apart from the treacherous Cains that surrounded him). Quiteños, by contrast, know him as the hero of the battle of Pichincha, which took place in 1822 on the slopes of the volcano that overlooks the city and effectively brought about the liberation of Ecuador’s future capital. What almost no one knows about, however, is the Mariscal’s domestic side, which emerged only at the end of his life after he married Mariana Carcelen, Marquise of Solander, and moved into this understated house in the city’s downtown. Alas, his domestic bliss was to prove short-lived: Just six months after his wife gave birth to a daughter, the great liberator was assassinated on a dark mountain deep in the wilds of Colombia.

When you visit the house, there are guides to show you the living quarters, kitchen, stables, and salons where the Mariscal spent his final days. Especially worth checking out are the Heroes’ Hall downstairs, with its manuscript copy of the only existing poem by Bolívar; the intimate prayer room upstairs; the gallery, with its full-size portraits of the liberators on horseback; and the couple’s bedroom, where the Mariscal’s guitar still hangs on the right-hand wall.

Just around the corner is another architectural must-see, the Casa Maria Augusta Urrutía (García Moreno 760; 258-0103). Born in 1901, Urrutía was a wealthy Ecuadoran woman who turned to philanthropy after being widowed at age 30. She would go on to turn her house into a kind of dispensary, supplying food, health care, and education to the poor children of Quito until her death in 1987.

Today her casona is a charming blend of colonial-era architecture and republican-era elegance. The interior patios are graced by delicate arupo trees and windows of stained glass, while the salons and sewing rooms provide a fascinating glimpse of upper-class life in South America a century ago. (Visitors love the antique grain-masher and wood-burning stove.) Also of interest is the small gallery dedicated to the work of Victor Mideros, a decadent symbolist painter similar to Odilon Redon that Urrutía sponsored in her final years.

Hospitals and Huts

Last stop on your stroll through the centro histórico is one of the city’s hidden gems, the Museo de la Ciudad (Calle García Moreno S1-47; 228-3882). The building itself is the oldest in all of Ecuador: constructed in 1565, it originally housed the San Juan de Dios Hospital, where treatment was given to countless victims of the epidemics that periodically ravaged Quito. It was also the place where Eugenio Espejo, one of Latin America’s first indigenous doctors, did the research that led him to discover the airborne theory of illness in 1785—80 years before Pasteur stumbled upon the same conclusion (and was promptly given all the credit).

While the museum’s first floor is dedicated to its former medical function and still features alcoves that once served as hospital beds for terminal patients, it’s upstairs that you’ll find the most fascinating exhibits. These include a spectacular reconstruction of a hut used by the Quitu people (the original inhabitants of the Guayllabamba valley), a huge early map of the city, weaving tools used by indigenous workers, and—creepily—implements of self-torture belonging to Mariana de Jesús, an ultra-pious young ascetic associated with the city’s Jesuits who was canonized as Quito’s first saint. The net effect is a panoramic view of 500 years of history in Quito’s resplendent capital.

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