Dubbed ‘The Reliquary of the Americas’ with some 40 churches and chapels, and 16 convents and monasteries with their respective cloisters in the Old Town alone, it’s easy to understand why.
We are so glad we have longer to explore this interesting city.
Arriving in Quito late afternoon our first instinct is to get out and wander around. We quickly discover that the Plaza Grande is just a few blocks away and the centre of all the happenings in the city!
The Plaza is vibrant and a great place to take a seat and watch the city pulse with life. Surrounding the plaza are historic buildings: to the east stands the Palacio del Gobierno where the president works and free tours are available (some in English) throughout the day.
Old Town boasts church towers, belfries and spires everywhere you look in this incredibly well-preserved historic centre. 2006 saw the completion of a massive restoration project that spruced up buildings and churches, brought historic theatres back to life and made the old town’s formerly sketchy streets safe to explore once again. It feels like no other place we have visited and takes our breath away – or maybe that’s the thin air at an elevation of 2850m?
To the south of the Plaza is Quito’s rather austere main cathedral, a 16th-century building with a glazed ceramic roof and belltower. It is not the most ornate of Quito’s many churches, but it contains some intriguing works from the Quito School (indigenous artists trained by Europeans working from the 16th to the 18th centuries).
Don’t miss the painting of the Last Supper with Christ and his disciples feasting on cuy (roast guinea pig), chicha (a fermented corn drink) and humitas (corn dumplings).
Opposite this cathedral is the Palacio Arzobispal, which is the former seat of Quito’s archbishop. The building now houses restaurants, shops and cafes and a fountained courtyard, and is a great place to relax and be served some traditional Andean dishes from about $10 USD each.
The nearby de Jesús church was built over 160 years and has a dramatic gilded interior, complete with Moorish elements and perfect symmetry (right down to the trompe l’oeil staircase painted in the rear). It is widely considered Ecuador’s most beautiful building. And with its golden altar, La Compañía is probably the richest church in South America.
The city’s full title was San Francisco del Quito, and it was the capital of the province or presidency of Quito down to the end of Spanish colonial rule. The public buildings are in a heavy Spanish style while most of the houses are built in the old Spanish style from sun-dried bricks, covered with stucco plaster on the better houses. Quito is the second-highest capital in the world after La Paz, Bolivia, and has suffered from earthquakes. The most damage was generated from the big quakes in 1797 and 1859. However, it is still considered the best preserved and least altered historic centre in Latin America.
San Francisco, the most imposing of all Quito’s architectural monuments, is a series of chapels, and a convent. All this together takes up nearly two whole blocks, and rises up above a wide stone paved court.
The historical centre – or ‘old town,’ as it’s called – is a maze of colonial splendour, and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1978. Despite intensive restoration, the old town retains its vibrant indigenous atmosphere with narrow streets full of stray dogs, women in traditional garb carrying impossible loads, busking musicians, shoeshine boys, vendors shouting their specials, and cooking smells from food stalls and restaurants.
We are greeted by many locals and kids enjoying themselves and there are noticeably very few tourists! We enjoy photographing some children at play. Most of them are shoe shine boys around 6-8 years old. We give them some coins to share and they are thrilled.
After dark the place lights up and we momentarily lose our bearings after dinner. Oops; Quito after dark is not a place to lose your way. In fact, after 8pm there are very few people around at all. The problem is quickly solved by retracing our steps, with no worries, although we feel safer (and a tad intimidated) seeing all the police with machine guns walking the streets. So far we love the historic old part of Quito where we are staying.
Quito is a beautiful city with an exquisite colonial centre packed with architectural treasures that must be awarded generous time to explore.
Two separate days was no way near long enough for us to make the most of what was on offer in Quito: picturesque plazas, friendly people, baroque cathedrals, and majestic surrounding scenery.
Quito’s ‘new town’ is only a twenty minute walk away from the ‘old town’ and is completely different. It is full of multi-storey hotels, high-rise apartments and modern government blocks. For travellers, its heart is Mariscal Sucre, which has hip cafés, foreign restaurants, internet cafés, and bars.
The area definitely lives up to its nickname gringolandia (gringo land), but quiteños (people from Quito) love it too, so it keeps its Ecuadorian flair.
Quito is a vibrant city in motion just waiting for us to explore more…