El Convento La Merced is another of Quito’s architectural prizes, although it is a bit outside of the main Plaza Grande strip. Located at Chile and Sebastian de Benalcazar (some say Imbambura?), this massive church and convent features a mixture of Baroque and Moorish influences, the favoured styles of the builders of the original Colonial city. It is a massive structure, covering 29000 square metres, although a large part of that is devoted to the convent and not the church. The large cupola is also remarkable, although it is likely the Baroque campanile that will draw your attention. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the interior of the church, but the pictures I have seen show a beautiful, gilded Baroque altar and interior, with numerous statues by reputed religious artists. The Church was originally constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the majority of the Colonial religious institutions were erected in the city. It dominates the small streets of this part of the colonial town, making it seem almost like an impossibly large structure among the otherwise low residential and commercial buildings.
La Ronda is a rehabilitated section of Quito’s old city that is part of the municipality’s drive to turn Quito into a tourist destination to rival other Latin American metropolises. The area is a short, 15 minute walk from Plaza Grande and, although there are no spectacular architectural gems here, it does offer visitors with a cleaned-up and slightly yuppy version of the Colonial Centre. The white-washed houses in Colonial style are all prim and proper, the vast majority of them housing boutiques, restaurants and lounges designed to pry a few extra dollars from tourists with a taste for a unique cultural experience. There are also plenty of explanations as to how this part of the city played an important role in the development of Ecuadorian music, which is interesting but a bit mystifying for anyone who doesn’t know about the music scene here to begin with. An interesting point to note is that the original Panama hat store is in La Ronda. Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador, and you can find original and high-quality ones for sale on La Ronda (but don’t expect them to be cheap!).
The Teatro Nacional Sucre, located near but not directly in the Historic Centre of Quito (it’s actually in a part of the city called San Blas) is of the typical Spanish Colonial and neo-Classical style that is so characteristic of many of the city’s buildings. It is still a functional theatre where regular performances are put on, and you will likely have to buy tickets to a show in order to be able to see the inside. The exterior, however, is also quite beautiful, and there is not shortage of photo opportunities, especially given the image of the Mariscal Sucre on the outside of the structure. It was designed by Francisco Schmidt, a German architect who was the author of numerous works in the city during the 1920s.
Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo is another of Quito’s large and memorable churches, founded by the Dominican order in the 1580s and completed in the middle of the 17th century. The Church and Convent together are a massive structure, although the Church is the smaller portion of the ensemble. The Convent house a museum of religious art, in which Quito is quite rich, which the church is still a place of worship used by those in the central parishes of the city. The campanile and large parts of the exterior of the church are in clear Baroque style, with lovely ornamentation on the campanile. Inside the church, however, the influence of Italian Dominicans is more evident, with neo-Gothic design of the altar dating from the 19th century. The Church is also filled with examples of Quito’s rich religious artistic heritage, with numerous notable pieces. Outside the church, the large, wide square is a favourite spot for street vendors, usually women in traditional dress.
At the southern edge of the Alameda park is a massive monument dedicated to the Liberator Simon Bolivar. Ecuador, like Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Perú and Panamá, owes its independence to this great figure of Latin American history, and his memory is carefully preserved throughout the country. Bolivar has taken on new importance throughout the regional, particularly given Venezuela’s reliance on him as inspiration for the current political régime, and many new policies are connected to his name. The monument in Quito is a particularly impressive one and, as in other countries, it is one idealizing Bolivar as a man of action. It was erected in 1935, as this section of the city was developing. When I visited the country in early July 2010, it was also preparing for the festivities connected to the bicentennial of Venezuelan independence.
La Alameda is a large park that fills the northern edge of the Colonial section of Quito. It is accessible through the red line at the Simon Bolivar stop, and is a great place to relax and enjoy a bit of greenery before heading to the busy central section of the old city. La Alameda has numerous attractions designed to entertain residents of the city and visitors alike, although I imagine that this is primarily for the summer months. There are two small lakes with rowboats available for rent, and large bike paths for those who have overcome altitude sickness and are looking to work off some of the heavy, delicious Ecuadorian food.
In the centre of the Plaza de la Independencia is an impressive statue known as the Monumento a la Independecia. It was ordered constructed by Ecuadorian President Eloy Alfaro in 1898, as a start to the festivities commemorating the primer grito de la independencia hispanoamericana, or the first call of independence, which is supposed to be the sort of Latin American Lexington and Concord. The Monument was constructed in France and installed in the centre of the Plaza in advance of the centenary of the event (i.e. 1909). The sculpture included is typical of turn of the century French monuments, which seems a bit out of place in a country that is now trying to focus more on its native heritage than on the Creole influence.
El Palacio de Carondelet is the seat of the Ecuadorian government and the Presidential Palace. It dominates the Western side of the Plaza de la Independencia, the centre of Colonial Quito and the original nucleus of Colonial and then Republican power in the country. The original name of the building was the Palacio Real de Quito, as it was built to replace the seat of the royal representative that had traditionally been located at the corner of Conde and Chile, not far from the Plaza Grande. The plans were drafted in 1799 and construction was begun soon after, with the façade left to the architect Carondelet, who also designed the northern façade of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Once Ecuadorian independence was secured in 1822, the Liberator Simon Bolivar official changed the name of the building to Palacio de Carondelet from Palacio Real, and it became the seat of government for the Governorate of Pichincha. The Palace is now open to visitors as a museum, as President Rafael Correa declared it a part of the country’s cultural heritage. I didn’t go in, but admired the exterior and the impressive Colonial and neo-Classical façade of the building, with its stone columns. There is a massive loggia or gallery that allows for government dignitaries not important enough to get a place on the second floor balcony to observe official functions in the square. The Palace has been renovated several times, and while the exterior has been kept in its original format, the interior (allegedly) has been completed redesigned, giving the building the distinction of being a bit like a chronicle of the history of the city.
The Plaza Grande, or Plaza de la Independecia, is the equivalent of the Plaza Mayor that is a feature of every Spanish town. It is here that people gather for important events, and that the main structures of the city are located, including the Presidential Palace, the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace. The bicentennial of independence for Colombia and Venezuela has caused quite a bit of patriotic fervor throughout the entire Andean region, so the centre of the Plaza is now dominated by various billboards and signs explaining various unsung heroes of Ecuadorian independence and resistance to Spanish rule, including a number of female resistors. It was originally conceived in the 1620s, although it was not a major component of urban life, occasionally used as an improvised bull fight ring, until the 19th century. In particular, after the country gained independence in 1809, city officials decided to convert it into the European-style central plaza that it is today.
The Church of Saint Francis, adjacent to the Convent of Saint Francis, was also built over a 130 year span in the 16th and 17th centuries and its exterior is also marked by the same Renaissance and Mannerist styles. The interior is also largely Baroque, especially the altar, but it includes an interesting addition of a Mauresque choir, which was constructed in the 18th century. The choir is accessible from the Convent (not from the Church), which provides visitors with a bit more explanation as to the specific features of the space and the particular mudejar accents that are unique in the city’s architecture. Like most other churches in the city, services are held here on Sunday, so it is a good idea to come on another day if you are looking to be able to take pictures of the interior.
The Convent of Saint Francis (El Convento e Iglesia de San Francisco) is truly an awe-inspiring house of God, one that leaves a deep impression on visitors to the city of Quito. It’s not just that this structure is a massive tribute to the absolute refusal of the Colonists to adapt to the local culture and architectural tradition, it’s also that there are still Franciscan monks here, and their presence in the church and the surrounding area gives an aura of being transported back to the 17th century. The Convent and Church were first begun in 1550 and were not completed until 1680, although they were inaugurated in 1605. The exterior of the façade is reputed to have elements of early Mannerism (apparently the first apparition of this style in the Americas) as well as a heavy reliance on Renaissance architecture, but the interior is largely influenced by the Baroque school and its love of intricate design and elaborate decoration. The interior courtyard and its fountain are very reminiscent of Castille or Andalucia, although there has been a nod to the local flora and fauna in the form of gardens and the presence of local birds (including parrots). The Convent, despite being the home of Franciscan monks, is partially open to the public. In its exhibition spaces, visitors are treated to a history of religious art in Quito, with beautiful examples of early works all the way through to the 18th century. The displays are particularly informative, as they demonstrate the evolution of an art from that was at first heavily reliant on Spanish and particularly Flemish influence to a distinctive Quiteño style in both plastic arts and painting.
Quito’s Cathedral is a lovely, white-washed colonial building that makes up one of the four sides of the historic city’s central square (La Plaza Grande). Its two-toned green cupola is visible from a bit of a distance, but the fact that it is not on one of the hills means that it does not form a truly memorable part of the city’s skyline. The Cathedral was constructed in the 1560s and is in the typical Spanish baroque style of much of the rest of the historic centre, although the interior is wooden and contains far more traces of Gothic influence. The northern façade, which is not the main façade of the church, is the length of the structure and gives onto the Plaza Grande. There is an exquisite, large staircase leading onto the Plaza, which helps to create the monument image of the Cathedral from a side that is not its main side. The interior is remarkably dark and contemplative considering the exterior, and its walls are covered with chapels dedicated to various saints.
The Basilica of the National Vow (or Basílica del Voto Nacional) is an incredible neo-Gothic structure that is perched on one of the hills that makes up Quito to the north of the historic city. It is impressive at first glance because it seems like a neo-Gothic structure was simply dropped among the much more typical Ecuadorian buildings of the neighbourhood by a tornado. This is the largest neo-Gothic structure in South America, and it is modeled on the famous Notre Dame de Paris by the French architect Émile Terlier. The plans were drafted in the 1890s, although the financing of the work was arranged in the 1880s. Construction was undertaken throughout the 1890s up until 1909, although the church was not formally consecrated and inaugurated until 1988, three years after a visit by John Paul II. The interior of the church, in particular the main nave, is cavernous and massive, reminiscent of similar structure in France. There are two lateral naves, along which twenty-four separate chapels represent the provinces of the country, with each chapel containing the provincial flag. As with many neo-Gothic churches, the altar was intended to be at the end of the nave, past the transept. Instead, a late change to the plans called for a raised platform at the start of the transept, placing the large altar closer to the pews. There are numerous stained-glass windows (a wonder given that this is a seismically active zone) and the rosetones at the entrance to the Basilica are truly impressive. As the Basilica was built on the side of a hill and not on its crest, the entire area was carved out of the hill, creating a level artificial plaza containing a café and statues of the Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul II.
Iglesía la Compañía de Jesús is billed as being the best example of Baroque architecture in South America, and it is easy to see why. The exterior of the church, replete with a richly ornate façade reminiscent of churches in Spain, seems a bit on the drab side and does not properly prepare visitors for the dazzling display in the interior. Once inside the church, however, visitors are greeted by more gold leaf than ever expected, a product of the counter-Reformation in an area that was likely more prone to apathy and pseudo-conversion than to Protestantism. The walls are covered with paintings, some of them copies of European works, others the product of the native Quiteño school, known for its bloody depictions of a crucified Jesus (thought to be a better tool in converting the local population to Catholicism). The church was begun in 1605, but the impetus for this masterpiece was received only in 1636, with the arrival of a Jesuit architect named Marcos Guerra. It was finally completed in 1765, and has remained in its originally splendour, despite the revolutionary uprisings and wars of the early 19th century and the fact that Quito is in an active seismic and volcanic zone. Photography is not permitted in the church, but visitors can purchase postcards of the spectacular interior for 50 cents each. Once you are finished touring the magnificent nave and altar, a small museum attached to the church in one of its chapels provides visitors with exhibits of the garments of priests and the various religious implements used over the preceding centuries.
The original church here dates back to the 1600's but had to be rebuilt in 1700 after an earthquake. Legend has it the architect had to make a deal with the devil in order to build the bell tower and that its now possesed by him.