Colonial Quito

The
centro histórico
, Quito's colonial district, is a pleasant place to stroll and admire the architecture, monuments and art. At night, the illuminated plazas and churches are very beautiful. The core of the old city is quite safe with frequent patrols by the Metropolitan Police. On Sundays the area is closed to vehicles (0900-1600) and fills with pedestrians, locals as well as tourists.

Plaza de la Independencia and around

The heart of colonial Quito is Plaza de la Independencia also known as
Plaza Grande
or
Plaza Mayor
, dominated by the
cathedral
,
built 1550-1562, with grey stone porticos and green tile cupolas. The portal and tower were only completed in the 20th century. On its outer walls are plaques listing the names of the founding fathers of Quito. Inside, in a small chapel tucked away in a corner, are the tombs of independence hero, Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre, and other historical personalities. Also a famous
Descent from the Cross
by the indigenous painter Caspicara . There are many other 17th- and 18th-century paintings and some fine examples of the works of the Quito School of Art . The interior decoration, especially the roof, shows Moorish influence. A former refectory with paintings of all of Quito's archbishops and a display of robes used by priests in the 17th century are shown in a small museum.

Around the corner from the cathedral is the very beautiful chapel of
El Sagrario
, originally built in the 17th century as the cathedral's main chapel. It has some impressive baroque columns, its inner doors are gold-plated and built in Churrigueresque style.

The colonial
Palacio de Gobierno
or
Palacio de Carondelet
,
silhouetted against the flank of Pichincha, is on the west side of the Plaza. It was built in the 17th century and remodelled in neoclassical style by Carondelet, president of the Crown Colony and later by presidents Flores (1830-1834, 1839-1845) and Ponce Enríquez (1956-1960). On the first floor are a large mosaic mural of Orellana navigating
the Amazon and a painting by contemporary artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, depicting milestones in Latin American history. The ironwork of the balconies looking over the Plaza are from the Tuilleries in Paris. On Mondays at 1100 you can see the changing of the presidential guard in colonial uniform.

Facing the cathedral is the
Palacio Arzobispal
, the Archbishop's palace. Part of the building, the Pasaje Arzobispal, houses shops and restaurants around stone courtyards. Next to it, in the northwest corner, is the
Hotel Plaza Grande
, with baroque columns, it was the first building in colonial Quito with more than two storeys. On the east side of the plaza is the modern concrete
Palacio Municipal
which fits in surprisingly well.

Just southwest of the plaza, at García Moreno y Espejo, is an impressive colonial building which belonged to the Jesuits and later housed the royal Cuartel Real de Lima barracks. It is now the
Centro Cultural Metropolitano
, www.centrocultural-quito.com
. It houses the municipal library, several temporary exhibits (free), a museum for the visually impaired, Café El Buho, and the
Museo Alberto Mena Caamaño.
 This wax museum, well worth a visit, depicts scenes of Ecuadorean colonial history. The scene of the execution of the revolutionaries of 1809 in the original cell is particularly vivid.

One block south of Plaza de la Independencia, on García Moreno, is the fine Jesuit church of
La Compañía
. It has the most ornate and richly sculptured façade and interior. Several of its most precious treasures, including a painting of the Virgen Dolorosa framed in emeralds and gold, are kept in the vaults of the Banco Central and appear only at special festivals. Replicas of the impressive
paintings of hell and the final judgement by Miguel de Santiago can be seen at the entrance.

A couple of blocks west of Plaza de la Independencia, on Calle Chile, is the church of
La Merced
,
built at the beginning of the 17th century, in baroque and Moorish style, to commemorate Pichincha's eruptions which threatened to destroy the city. General Sucre and his troops prayed here for the wellbeing of the nation, following the decisive battle which gave Ecuador its independence in 1822. In the adjacent convent of La Merced is Quito's oldest clock, built in 1817 in London. Fine cloisters are entered through a door opposite the entrance. La Merced church contains many splendidly elaborate styles, the main altar has wood carvings by Legarda.

Many of the heroes of Ecuador's struggle for independence are buried in the convent of
San Agustín
.
The church has three beautiful cloisters, where the first act of independence from Spain was signed on 10 August 1809; it is now a national shrine. The church was extensively renovated due to earthquake damage, the wood-carved columns and gilded altars are among the few remains of the original 16th-century construction. The convent was once the home of the Universidad de San Fulgencio, Quito's first university, founded in the 16th century, and has a large collection of paintings by Miguel de Santiago in its
Museo Miguel de Santiago
.

To the east of Plaza de La Independencia are the monastery and museum of
Santa Catalina
, said to have been built on the ruins of the Inca Palace of the Virgins, has religious art and depicts the history of cloistered life. Nearby is
Teatro
 Bolívar
, www.teatrobolivar.org
, which was damaged by fire in 1999, but is still operating; proceeds from presentations and tours are used for its rehabilitation.

North of Plaza de la Independencia

A couple of blocks north of Plaza de la Independencia is
Plazoleta Benalcázar,
with a stone scale model of the colonial city. Here is the
Casa de Benalcázar
, built in the 18th century on land that belonged to Sebastián de Benalcázar, the Spanish founder of Quito. It now houses the
Instituto Ecuatoriano de Cultura Hispánica
, www.iech.org. The house with a courtyard and some religious statues and paintings is open to the public. Its façade was part of the Quito House of Inquisition.

To the northeast of Plaza de la Independencia is
Plaza del Teatro
with the neoclassical 19th-century
Teatro Nacional Sucre
, www.teatrosucre.com,
a lovely theatre and Quito's main cultural centre, and the smaller
Teatro Variedades Ernesto Albán
, both beatifully restored and run by the Fundación Municipal Teatro Sucre. Open-air cultural events are held at Plaza del Teatro.

Not far from Plaza del Teatro is
Museo Camilo Egas
,
housed in a restored 18th-century home. It exhibits the work of the Ecuadorean artist Camilo Egas (1889-1962). It is interesting to see the evolution of style over time, the life of the Ecuadorean
indígena
in the 1920s and life in New York during the Great Depression. There are also temporary exhibits and children's workshops.

Further north is the large
Basílica del Voto Nacional
,
with many gargoyles depicting Ecuadorean fauna from the mainland and Galápagos, stained-glass windows with native orchids and fine, bas-relief bronze doors. Underneath is a large cemetery. Construction started in 1926 and took 72 years; some final details remain unfinished due to lack of funding. It is possible to go up to the towers, where there is also a cafeteria. The towers of the
basílica
are great for viewing the city. If you want to go all the way to the top have your hands free for the upper ladders and walkways; this part is not for those with fear of heights.

North of the Basílica, in the neighbourhood of San Juan is the
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo
,
housed in the nicely refurbished Hospital Militar dating to the early 1900s. An exhibition about the 1809 Quito Revolution is in place until the end of 2009, part of the bicentennial celebrations. A contemporary art gallery will be housed here afterwards.

Plaza de San Francisco and around

Plaza de San Francisco (or
Plaza Bolívar
) is southwest of Plaza de la Independencia. On the west side of this square is the great church and monastery of
San Francisco
. Built in 1553 on the site of Inca Huayna Capac's palace, this is Quito's first and largest colonial church. It is here that the famous Quito School of Art was founded. The two towers were felled by an earthquake in 1868 and later rebuilt. A modest statue of the founder, Fray Jodoco Ricke, the Flemish Franciscan who sowed the first wheat in Ecuador, stands at the foot of the stairs to the church portal. Worth seeing are the fine wood carvings in the choir, a magnificent high altar of gold and an exquisite carved ceiling. The church is rich in art treasures, the best known of which is
La Virgen de Quito
by Legarda, which depicts the Virgin Mary with silver wings. The statue atop El Panecillo is based on this painting. There are also paintings in the aisles by Miguel de Santiago, the colonial
mestizo
painter. His paintings of the life of Saint Francis decorate the convent of San Francisco close by. Adjoining San Francisco is the
Cantuña Chapel
,
which has impressive sculptures.

In the convent, the
Museo Franciscano Fray Pedro Gocial
,
has a fine collection of religious art; there are pieces by many renowned local and European artists. The architecture of the convent is also of interest.

Between Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Santo Domingo is the
Museo Histórico Casa de Sucre,
in the beautiful, restored house of Sucre, with a museum about life in the 19th century and Sucre's role in Ecuador's independence. Nearby,
Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia
,
was the home of a Quiteña who devoted her life (1901-1987) to charity. It shows the lifestyle of 20th-century aristocracy, with furniture of the colonial and republican period.

In
El Placer
, to the west of Plaza de San Francisco, is
Yaku Museo del Agua
,
one of Quito's old waterworks now converted into a interactive museum, its main themes are water and nature, society and heritage. Good for children and with great city views.

Plaza de Santo Domingo and around

In Plaza de Santo Domingo (or
Plaza Sucre
), to the southeast of Plaza de la Independencia, stands a statue of Mariscal Sucre, pointing to the slopes of Pichincha where he won the decisive battle for the independence of Ecuador. Here, the 17th-century church and monastery of
Santo Domingo
,
has a carved Moorish ceiling over its large central nave and rich wood carvings. In the main altar is an impressive silver throne,
El Trono de la Virgen
, weighing several hundred pounds. To the right of the main altar is the remarkable
Capilla del Rosario
, built on top of the arch of the same name. Santo Domingo housed the Colegio Mayor de San Fernando, where Latin and philosophy were taught in colonial times. Nowadays it houses the fine
Museo Dominicano Fray Pedro Bedón
. Named after the friar and painter who created the first brotherhood of indigenous painters, Bedón's work and that of other renowned colonial artists is displayed here. On the south side of the plaza is the colonial
Arco de la Capilla del Rosario
. Going through the arch you enter
La Mama Cuchara
(the 'great big spoon'), a street which ends on a circle, in the authentic residential neighbourhood of
La Loma Grande
. Here is the
Centro Cultural Mama Cuchara
.

Leading off Calle Maldonado, which runs south from Plaza de Santo Domingo, is Calle Morales, better known as
La Ronda
, www.callelaronda.com
, one of the oldest streets in the city. This narrow cobbled pedestrian way and its colonial homes with wrought iron balconies have been refurbished and now house restaurants, bars, cultural centres and shops. It is a quaint corner of the city growing in popularity for a night out or an afternoon stroll. The Policía Metropolitana patrols this street and it is considered quite safe.

Just north of La Ronda, housed in the restored 16th-century Hospital San Juan de Dios, is the
Museo de la Ciudad
, www.museo ciudadquito.gov.ec
. It takes you through Quito's history from pre-Hispanic times to the 19th century. One floor has an interesting wooden parquet mosaic of a city map.

Northeast of Plaza de Santo Domingo is
Museo Manuela Sáenz
, www.museomanuelasaenz.com, a tribute to a legendary Quiteña, Simón Bolívar's lover, who played an important role in the struggle for independence. Some of her personal belongings, as well as works of art and weapons, are on display. Close by is
Museo Archivo de Arquitectura
,
housed in a lovely restored building. It has sketches of different buildings in the city and rotating exhibits with scale models.

El Panecillo and around

To the south of Plaza de San Francisco is a rounded hill called
El Panecillo
. Gazing benignly over colonial Quito from the top of El Panecillo is the impressive statue of the Virgen de Quito, a replica of the painting by Legarda found in the San Francisco Church. There are excellent views from the observation platform up the statue.

Walking up to El Panecillo has long been considered a risky business, but neighbourhood brigades are patrolling the area and have improved public safety. However, taking a taxi up is still safer than walking.

Just west of El Panecillo, by San Diego cemetery, in the restored convent of the same name, is the
Museo de San Diego
. Guided tours (Spanish only, 40 minutes) take you around four patios where colonial architecture, sculpture and painting are shown. Of special interest are the gilded pulpit by Juan Bautista Menacho and the
Last Supper
painting in the refectory, in which a
cuy
and
humitas
have taken the place of the paschal lamb.

To the southeast of El Panecillo is the neighbourhood of
Chimbacalle
where Quito's train station is located . Here is also the city's newest museum
Museo Interactivo de Ciencia
,
opened December 2008. Housed in
La Industrial
textile factory (1935-1990) it is an interactive science museum for kids and children at heart. North of the museum is
Teatro México
, www.teatrosucre.com,
the largest theatre in the city, refurbished in 2008 with the most modern equipment.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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