Colonial Quito, Quito
Plaza Grande is the focal point of the Old Town. You can’t miss it and locals congregate there just about any time of day. Mornings are the least busy but you’ll never have it to yourself. Nice evenings are particularly busy. It’s a great place to relax and take in local life. It’s also particularly scenic with pretty landscaping and a few nice fountains and statues. Nothing is spectacular in its own right but the overall effect is quite satisfying. It’s lined on three of four sides with beautiful buildings that include an attractive cathedral, the exquisite presidential palace and the archbishop’s palace which now houses storefronts.
At the far south side of the Old Town stands the impressive Arco de la Reina, built in the 18th century to protect church goers and seemingly tourists of today as it more or less divides where you should and shouldn’t venture in the city. It certainly is not a sharp distinction as a very good museum lays just on the other side as well as the beautiful Monasterio de Carmen Alto. The monastery is a working one and the cloistered nuns cannot be viewed though do sell their wares (including traditional sweets) through a revolving door that keeps them hidden.
As if the Plaza Grande were not enough, Quito’s “other” square is perhaps Ecuador’s most spectacular man made sight. Coming across Plaza San Francisco is like stepping back in time with its massive cobblestone courtyard and the oldest church in Ecuador, the imposing Monasterio de San Francisco. I guess even the shoe shine boys realize this is the real deal as this is where they congregate to make a buck. Luckily they are not as persistent as in Cuzco and you can enjoy the square in relative peace. If it gets to be too much outside there is more than enough to keep you busy with the monastery including an extensive museum and one of the most beautiful altars in all of South America. Unfortunately, it was under construction while we were there so I guess that’s another reason to come back. The monastery dates back to the early 1500s and took nearly 70 years to complete.
Plaza San Francisco is one of the most beautiful places in Quito. It is a cobbled square with the whitewashed church and monastery of San Francisco standing along its north-western side. Construction of the square and church begun shortly after the foundation of Quito in 1534 and it is built on the site where Auqui Tupatauchi, the son of the Inca ruler Atahualpa, had his palace.
Plaza San Francisco is sloping gently and you will therefore get a nice view over the rooftops of Quito. In the north corner of the square is Café Tianguez where you will have a great view over the square from one of the outdoor tables. It is not a cheap place, but the food is good.
La Ronda is a narrow lane in Centro Histórico, lined by old colonial buildings from the 16th century. It is a picturesque place. On some houses you can read signs about artists and writers who once lived here.
La Ronda used to be a dangerous area, but it has now been restored and security has increased. It is a street for pedestrians only. Along the street there are restaurants, bars, art galleries and small shops. When I visited it was quiet, but at night, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, La Ronda gets lively with lots of people visiting the bars and restaurants. At many places live music is then played.
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.
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 Compania de Jesus is to churches as gold is to rings. If you like ornate and you like gold, this is THE church to visit in Ecuador. Dating back to the early 1600s the green and gold dome of the main altar is visible from around the city, most notably Plaza San Francisco but it's real claim to fame is the gold laden interior which reportedly is emblazoned with seven tons of gold. They charge an exhorbitant $2.50 to enter but if you go on Sundays right after the mass you can get in for free.
I found Iglesia El Sagrario when I looked for an entrance to the cathedral during my first day in Quito. El Sagrario was built as the main chapel of the cathedral, but it is now its own church. I passed many times during my visits to Quito and the church was often open
Iglesia El Sagrario dates from the 17th century. The ceiling and walls are painted to look like marble. Light is coming in through the windows in a cupola over the central nave. The façade is built in Renaissance Style.
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
When I visited Quito I passed Iglesia San Agustin every day as it was situated only one block from where I was staying., but I only went inside once, for a short visit. It is a church that dates back to the 16th century, but after an earthquake much of it was rebuilt in 1880. The bell tower is 37m tall and on the top stands a statue of St Augustine.
I should definitely come back next time I go to Quito to visit the adjacent monastery. That is where Ecuador’s declaration of independence was signed on August 10 1809, and many of the heroes of the battle of independence are buried in the crypt. There is also a collection of religious art. The monastery was completed in 1627. From one of the windows at El Cafeto there is a good view over the courtyard.
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
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 Gothic spires of Basilica del Voto Nacional are easy to spot from just about anywhere in town due not only to their height but also their vantage point high atop a hill on the northeastern side of the Old Town. Beautiful from afar the cathedral is stunning within as well with huge ornate stained glass windows galore. But its true calling card is the view from the top and perhaps more so the climb itself which involves some portions not advised for those with a fear of heights. Fear not, the whole thing is quite safe. Just don’t look down and enjoy the views from the top once there. Well worth the $2 entrance fee.
The whitewashed Quito Cathedral is situated on the southwest side of Plaza Grande. First I thought the cathedral was closed, but then I found out there is an entrance from Venezuela, and there you pay an admission of $1.50 (June 2011).
Quito Cathedral was built already in 1563, but has been restored a few times after being damaged by earthquakes. Inside you will find several paintings made by artists of the old Quito School. An interesting painting is the Last Supper where Christ and the Disciples have got cuy, humitas an chicha on the table in front of them. First I couldn’t find the Last Supper, but it is situated high up on the wall on the right side of the altar. In the cathedral you will also find the tomb of Mariscal Sucre, one of Ecuador’s heroes of independence. The Ecuadorian president Gabriel García Moreno died 1875 in the cathedral after he had been attacked with a machete outside the cathedral. Behind the altar there is a plaque indicating the place where he died.
When I visited there was a children choir practising and that was very nice listening to when I walked around in the church.
The cathedral is open for visits on Mondays - Fridays between 9.30 - 16.00 and on Saturdays between 10.00 - 16.00.