The Monastery of San Diego is situated southwest of Centro Histórico. It is a lovely monastery from the 17th century, full of outstanding colonial religious art. There are works from both the Quito school and the Cusco school, and there are paintings, sculptures, furniture etc. It is absolutely worth a visit even if it is a little bit further away from many other places in Centro Histórico.
There were no other visitors here when I visited. I was shown to the different rooms and the church by a man who gave me some information, but then left me for a while to let me have some own time before he took me to another part of the monastery. Photography was allowed in the lovely courtyard and in the church, but not in the art exhibition rooms, so even if I was left alone there I didn’t take any photos.
Admission was $2 (August 2012).
San Diego church and monastery is open on Monday – Saturday, between 9.30 – 13 and 14 – 17.
A taxi from Plaza Grande to the Monastery of San Diego was $1. The first time I came here (the monastery was at that time closed for renovation) I realised it was not far to walk back to Plaza Grande. I asked a policeman standing in the corner if it was safe to walk in this part of town and he said no, I should take a taxi so I did.
The next time I visited I talked to a policeman about La Cima de La Libertad because a taxi driver had refused to take me there, saying it was not safe. The policeman also advised me not to go there. However he said it was safe to walk back from San Diego to Plaza Grande, not down along Rafael Barahona, but to the left along Chimborazo (and then to the right), because they had a policeman in every corner that way (at least that day). So, this time I walked.
Next to Iglesia de San Agustin is the San Agustin Monastery. It is housed in a large building from the 17th century, set around a nice courtyard.
I got a guided tour in Spanish when I visited. The tour started in the arched corridor around the courtyard where there are several large paintings depicting the life of San Agustín. They are made by the painter Miguel de Santiago. When you are here don’t forget to look at the ceiling which is very beautiful.
We then continued to Sala Capitular, where the signing of Ecuador’s declaration of independence took place on August 10, 1809. Below Sala Capitualar there is a crypt where many of the heroes of Ecuador’s struggle for independence are buried. The crypt is only open on August 2 (many of the freedom fighters were killed on August 2, 1810) so during this tour I could not see it. However, it happened that I was in Quito on the 2nd of August too, so when I passed San Agustin I decided to go inside and have a quick look at the crypt (on August 2 there is no admission).
On the second floor there is a collection of colonial religious art, like paintings and sculptures. In this part photography is not allowed.
San Agustin Monastery is open on Monday – Friday between 9 – 12.30 and 14.30 – 17, and on Saturdays between 9 – 13.
Admission was $2 (June 2012).
The large white building on the north-western side of Plaza Grande is the Presidential Palace, Palacio del Gobierno (or Palacio de Corondelet) . It has a long balcony with arches and columns. Originally there was a palace built on this site in 1650, which functioned as the governor’s office. However, it was burnt down in 1920, but it was immediately rebuilt.
Since 2007 the palace is open for visitors and there are several guided tours daily, mainly in Spanish, but also in English. When the government is in session, the palace is closed. When the Palacio del Gobierno is open to the public you will see people queuing outside the building. Be sure to bring your passport or identification card, without it you will not be let in. I visited in July 2012 and the queue moved quite quickly. When you enter there is a security check, but you are allowed to bring your bag and camera inside.
The guided tour started in one of the courtyards where there was an exhibition of woodcarvings. In the stairway to the second floor there is a large mural depicting Francisco de Orellana’s descent of the Amazon. This mural is made by the famous Ecuadorian artist Guayasamin. On the second floor we visited several of the staterooms, one of them Salón Amarilla where there are portraits of all presidents of Ecuador. Around the courtyard several of the gifts Ecuador has been given by other nations were on display. We also went out on the balcony, above the arched balcony below. From this balcony you have a very good view over Plaza Grande and the Cathedral.
The guided tours are free.
Iglesia de La Concepción is situated in the north corner of Plaza Grande. It is quite easy to miss this church and just walk pass as there is no tall bell tower.
The church and monastery of La Concepsión was founded already in 1577. It was founded by a group of women to protect the orphans and widows of the Spanish conquerors.
Sometimes when I have passed the church it has been open and when I visited Quito in 2011 I did take a photo of the interior, but when I came home I had lots of photos of different church interiors and I couldn’t remember which one was which. When I visited in 2012 I just took one photo of the exterior.
Iglesia de Santa Barbara is situated a few blocks from Plaza Grande. It is a quite modern church with few antique items, but historically it has been an important church. Iglesia de Santa Barbara was originally constructed in the 16th century and was then one of five churches within the city. The church had to be reconstructed after damages caused by an earthquake in 1987.
Iglesia de Santa Barbara is open:
Monday – Friday 8.30 – 17
Saturday 17 (mass)
Sunday 8.30 (mass)
As in all Spanish colonial cities, at Quito’s heart lies its main square, the Plaza de la Independencia. Also known as the Plaza Grande, it is an attractive green space with the memorial to independence at its centre, plenty of benches for resting and people-watching, and is surrounded on three of its four sides by attractive old buildings. These are:
On the southwest side, the cathedral
On the northwest, the Palacio de Carondelet, the President’s Palace and seat of government for the republic
On the northeast, the Archbishop's Palace and the Palacio Hidalgo, built as a private residence (the only one of these that still remains on the plaza) for Juan Diaz de Hidalgo and now the Hotel Plaza Grande
On the remaining southeast side are municipal offices, including the police headquarters. The corners of the square also hold some interesting and attractive buildings, including the church of the Immaculate Conception and the Centro Cultural Metropolitano. We kept meaning to visit the latter, but never got round to it. We did however visit the cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace and I have covered these, as well as the Palacio de Carondelet, in separate tips.
The plaza itself, as a public square, dates back to 1612. The first significant buildings to be constructed here were those built by the powerful Catholic Church – the cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace. Later, private homes followed – the Palacio Hidalgo next door to the Archbishop’s Palace, and more on the northwest side. These latter were damaged in the earthquake of 1627 and the site then occupied by the Palacio de Carondelet. In the eighteenth century the square was further developed to act as a sort of garden for the latter, whose steps (since demolished to allow traffic to pass along this side of the square) led down into it. There was a fountain at the centre, but this was replaced in 1906 by a newly commissioned monument to commemorate the centenary of the country’s independence from Spain. This monument depicts the victory over the Spanish colonial troops through a triumphant condor holding a broken chain in his beak, and a fleeing Iberian lion which is limping away, dragging its cannons and standards as it goes (see photo three).
Only the rather ugly 1970s building on the southeast side of the square spoils its harmony. This was built as a replacement for an earlier city hall, presumably because the functions of the council of this rapidly growing city had become too numerous for the facilities available in the old structure, but it is a shame that this happened during a period so little renowned both for its respect for historic architecture and for its ability to create memorable modern buildings.
Any tourist who spends much time in colonial Quito is likely to pass through this square several times. We found it a pleasant haven when we wanted to rest during sightseeing walks (there always seemed to be a bench available) and particularly liked it at night, on our way to and from dinner at a nearby restaurant perhaps, when the surrounding buildings are nicely illuminated.
Next tip: let’s visit the Cathedral, on the plaza’s southwest side.
Quito’s cathedral was the first such building to be erected in South America, between 1550 and 1562, although it has been since restored several times owing to earthquake damage. It is today a fascinating mix of 16th century colonial Spanish design and local native influences. As an example of the latter, on the wall to the right of the altar there is a painting of the Last Supper with dishes that include cuy (roast guinea pig) and humitas (fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed) – it’s unlikely that either of these would have been on the menu in 30 AD Jerusalem!
On the whole though, the interior is less flamboyant than some of the other smaller churches in the city, but no less interesting for that. As well as the painting mentioned above, look out for the hammered-relief silver doors of the rear chapel, through which you enter, and the beautiful wooden ceiling which dates back to the turn of the 19th century. I also liked the dramatic altarpiece in sky blue picked out with lots of gold – as the most ornate piece of decoration in the cathedral it really draws the eye forwards to the altar, as it is of course intended to do.
The cathedral has seen its share of bloodshed. A bishop of Quito, José Ignacio Checa y Barba, was murdered here during the Good Friday mass in March 1877, poisoned with strychnine dissolved in the consecrated wine. Only two years earlier, in 1875, the Ecuadorian president Gabriel García Moreno was attacked with a machete outside the cathedral and was brought inside – a plaque behind the altar marks the spot where he died. His is one of several notable tombs in the cathedral, and another is that of Mariscal Sucre, one of Ecuador’s heroes of independence. You will recognise both these names as they are commemorated in nearby streets – Moreno runs just behind the cathedral and intersects with Avenida José de Sucre just a block away.
While there appears to be an entrance from the Plaza de la Independencia, and indeed one from Moreno, in fact you enter through an unprepossessing doorway on Venezuela, almost lost in a row of small shops. Admission to the cathedral costs $1.50 (October 2012). No photography is allowed inside, as seemed (frustratingly) to be the norm in Quito, but I have to confess that I did sneak one of the altar, without using flash, obviously (see photo four).
Next tip: moving round the plaza in a clockwise direction to the Palacio de Carondelet
The Palacio de Carondelet or Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace is an attractive arcaded building on the northwest side of the Plaza de la Independencia. It is Ecuador’s seat of government and the palace of the president – indeed our local friend, Marcello, referred to it always simply as the President’s Palace.
It is a working government building and I had assumed that tourists were not allowed inside – it was only on our return that I read that it’s possible to go in. You can see the Yellow Room or Hall of Presidents, and the Banqueting Hall, and an exhibition of gifts given to the president, as well as, in the entrance, a mural by Guyasamin which depicts Francisco de Orellana's descent of the Amazon.
The first government building of the Spanish rulers was located a little to the north of the plaza, near the church of La Merced, but was moved to this site when a larger building was needed – a move made possible by the fact that the houses here had been damaged by earthquake and had to be demolished. This was in the early 17th century, but the building has since (early 19th century) been remodelled in neoclassical style by Carondelet, president of the Crown Colony, after whom it now takes its name. After independence from Spain in 1822 the new republican government continued to use this as the seat of government. The President himself lives on the third floor, in a luxurious colonial-style apartment.
The palace is guarded by a special unit, the presidential grenadiers, in a uniform dating back to the 19th century. You can apparently see the changing of the presidential guard every Monday at 11.00 am, but we were never in town on a Monday.
The website below has more information about the history of the palace, the museum and the ceremonial guards, but is unfortunately only in Spanish.
Next tip: continuing our walk around the plaza, we come to the Archbishop's Palace
On the northeast side of the Plaza de la Independencia is another attractive building, the Palacio Arzobispal or Archbishop's Palace. This is a two-story whitewashed building built in neoclassical style, with a colonnaded passage facing the plaza. Inside are a number of courtyards, around one of which are several restaurants (both fast food and smarter) and souvenir shops – also, conveniently, a good clean public loo!
It was built in the 17th century at a time when the Catholic Church was as powerful and important as the ruling Spanish government, if not more so. It remained the seat of power of the archbishops of Quito for centuries, undergoing various modifications as needed to preserve or improve the building. Its current restored appearance dates back to 2002 when the structure was strengthened and the courtyard given over to today’s commercial activity. We came here several times as we liked having the choice of restaurants it offered in such a convenient location, less than ten minutes’ walk from our hotel. My next few tips will describe the places we ate in here, starting with Querubin.
The Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, often abbreviated to just La Compañia, is a must-see in Quito, even if you are not normally keen to visit lots of churches! You will rarely if ever have seen such a richly adorned church, and in fact, La Compañía is considered one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in the whole of South America.
From the outside it looks interesting but no more so than many another church. It was built from grey volcanic stone over a lengthy period of time, between 1605 and 1765, to serve as the base for the Society of Jesus in Ecuador. Originally it had a bell tower, the tallest in colonial Quito, but this was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859, and although rebuilt, destroyed again in 1868. After that they seem to have given up, as it was never replaced. The facade is symmetrical in design and features Solomonic columns, which are symbolic of the Catholic doctrine that life’s journey starts at the bottom (on earth), but by following the holy path, it ends at heaven.
But it is the interior that will take your breath away! Not only is it ornately carved throughout, but almost every surface is covered with gold. I have read variously that there is almost half a ton of gold, and that there is nearly seven tons – but whatever the weight, it is almost overwhelming in places. You need to take the time to adjust and to start to see through the richness of the surfaces to the detail of the plasterwork itself, and to take in the paintings and other treasures.
At the centre of the main altar is a statue of the local saint, Mariana de Jesús, whose remains are entombed at its foot. Look out for the paintings by Nicolás Javier Goribar of prophets from Old Testament on 16 of the pillars, and for the symbol of the sun on the main door and on the ceiling. The sun was an important symbol for the Inca, and the Spanish thought that if they decorated the entry with such a symbol, it might encourage local people to join the church. Another thing to note is the absence of figurative designs in the plasterwork, reflecting the Moorish influence – only geometrical shapes are used.
Photography is unfortunately not allowed inside (I would happily have paid extra to do so, as is the case elsewhere, but that option doesn’t seem to be offered in Quito). However I have found some photos on the web which really give a good idea of the impact made by all this gold – check out this forum on Skyscraper City.
The church is open Monday to Friday 09.30 to 17.30, on Saturday 09.00 to 16.30, and on Sunday from 13.00 to 16.30. We paid $3.00 to go on, which included an information leaflet in English. As no photos were allowed I also bought two postcards of the interior from the stall in the sacristy (to the right of the altar) for 50c each.
Next tip: my favourite spot in Quito, the Plaza San Francisco
Although it lacks the greenery of the Plaza de la Independencia, and the relative grandeur of its surrounding buildings too, I found myself developing a special fondness for the Plaza San Francisco, just a few blocks up the hill from our hotel.
The plaza is one of the oldest in the city, constructed on the site where the palace of the Inca ruler Atahualpa´s son, Auqui Francisco Tupatauchi, once stood. It was used for centuries by indigenous groups as a trading center, or tianguez – and a shop with that name now occupies the arches under the church (see separate shopping tip). The plaza is cobbled and built on a slope, with the result that from the upper side, by the church and conveniently located Tianguez café (again, see separate tip) you get some excellent views – of the life of the square, of the surrounding Quito rooftops (including the domes of La Compañia) and of El Panecillo and other hills of the city.
And there is plenty of life to be seen here, as you sit over a coffee perhaps or on the steps of the church. Young shoe-shine boys tout for business; women in traditional dress try to sell their colourful scarves; local workers hurry to their offices; children play in the fountain; tourists wander, cameras at the ready; and the tourist police watch over it all. If like me you regard people-watching as one of the essential pleasures of a city-based holiday, you will be very happy to spend time here.
Next tip: the Museo Fray Pedro Gocial in the convent of San Francisco
I had not read as much about this church as many of the others in Quito before our arrival, but as our walk took us past it one day we decided to pop inside for a look. Approaching the church along Cuenca gave us an excellent view of it, and as it was morning and therefore sunny it was shown to best advantage, its white walls gleaming. Entering we found that there was no fee to pay and no restriction on photography other than a request not to use flash – unusual here in Quito.
The church dates from the early part of the 18th century, having replaced an earlier one that was destroyed by earthquake in 1660. The tower is the highest in colonial Quito, at 47 metres. According to a legend this tower is possessed by the devil. Supposedly the only person strong enough to resist the devil was a black bell-ringer named Ceferino, and no one has dared enter the tower since he died in 1810. The clock therefore stands still and the bell is never rung.
The church has an unusual grey stone door frame, with images of the sun and moon carved above the lintel – the two heavenly bodies worshipped by the indigenous people who no doubt quarried the stone. Inside two features dominate – the beautifully painted dome (photo three) with its dedication to Mary, and the altar (photo four). The latter has a life-size stone statue of the Virgin of Mercy, to whom Sucre dedicated his victorious sword after the Battle of Pichincha. The statue was carried in procession during the eruptions of Pichincha volcano.
All this we saw, as well as a number of interesting paintings. But I wish I had done more research, as I found out after returning home that the cloister here is considered one of the most attractive in Quito, with pillars of stone and dazzling white archways, as well as a wide stone courtyard with a magnificent carved stone fountain in the centre. Furthermore, from this cloister you can apparently access the library, with two floors of ancient parchments and gold- and leather-bound books. How I regret not having seen this! Nevertheless we enjoyed our visit to this slightly off-the-path church.
La Merced is open Monday-Saturday 7.00-12.00 and 14.00-17.00, and 13.00-17.00 on Sundays.
Next tip: another church, that of San Agustin
The church of San Agustin is one of the oldest in Quito, having been constructed during the first half of the 17th century, but much of it has been rebuilt after damage by earthquake in 1880. It has a distinctive tall bell tower (37 metres) topped with a statue of St Augustine. Unfortunately we didn’t get a good look inside. The first time we passed it was closed, and the second time we were in a hurry as it was our last morning in Quito and we had to get back to our hotel to be picked up for the airport. But we did manage to get a quick look at what seemed to me to be a somewhat plainer church than some of the others in Quito but with attractively painted walls and ceiling – almost more in the style of a grand house than a place of worship.
The most noted part of the church is in fact its cloisters, which we had no time to visit. These are decorated with paintings depicting the life of St Augustine, dating from the mid 17th century and the work of an important artist of the Quiteño school, Miguel de Santiago. The chapterhouse opens off the cloister and was the location for an important event in the city’s history – the signing, on August 10th 1809, of Ecuador’s declaration of independence from Spain.
A more thorough exploration of this church and its treasures will be one of my priorities should we ever return to Quito.
Next tip: a café that shares its name with this church, the Heladaria San Agustin
The church of Santo Domingo was our “next-door neighbour” while we were in Quito, but somehow we never got round to going inside until our last morning in the city, and when we did so there was a service in progress so we couldn’t look round properly. But while we were hesitating at the back a local lady motioned to us to indicate that we should go ahead, so we did just walk quietly along the right-hand side to peer into its most noted treasure, the Chapel of the Rosary (see photo four). This alone is worth a visit to this church! It is richly decorated in deep red and gold, with a stunning rococo altar-piece, and quite takes your breath away. We had been told by our guide in the museum (next tip) that this was the only part of the church to retain its original appearance, after the rest was redecorated in what later Dominicans considered more appropriate to the worship of God – this being thought perhaps too rich and worldly. But can you imagine what the church must once have looked like if it were once all like this?! It isn’t possible to enter the chapel (or at least, wasn’t possible when we visited) but photos are allowed from the gate that closes it off, as long as you don’t use flash. Despite resting my camera on that gate, the gloom has meant that my photo is a little blurred but I had to share it so you can see a little of the dramatic effect of this chapel.
The rest of the church is much plainer although still worth seeing, with some notable paintings – apparently. As I said, we weren’t really able to look around properly, but didn’t mind at all, as once we’d seen that chapel we were more than happy that we’d made time to come inside our neighbour church.
The church stands in, and dominates, the plaza of the same name. In the centre of the square a statue of Antonio Jose de Sucre points to the Pichincha volcano where he led the winning battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822. I had read that the square is considered unsafe at night, but we walked along its north-eastern side several times on our way to and from La Ronda, once stopping to take photos, and never saw anything to concern us. However, we may have been lucky, so do be careful if you visit at night.
From the southern corner of the plaza you can walk under the arch that the church forms over the road, Rocafuerte, and look back for some rather different views – see photos two and three.
Next tip: the museum attached to this church, the Museo Domenicano de Arte
La Compañia de Jesús is said to be the most beautiful church in Ecuador, and the most ornate church too. Construction of the church was begun in 1605 by the Jesuits, but it was not completed until 160 years later, in 1765. Since than it has been restored after damages caused by earthquakes and a fire.
The baroque façade is built with volcanic stone and it is full of stone carvings. Inside La Compañia de Jesús is decorated with gold in the ceiling, on the walls and at the altars. There are many paintings and sculptures. One famous painting is a large painting of The Final Judgment and Hell, others are the 16 paintings made by Nicolás Javier Goribar of prophets from the Old Testament on the pillars.
The admission to visit La Compañia de Jesús was $3 (June 2011).
The church is open between 9.30 - 13.30 on Monday - Friday, between 9 - 16.30 on Saturdays and between 13 - 16.30 on Sundays.