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When Egypt decided to build the Aswan dam in 1954, they set in motion the start of what would eventually become the UNESCO World Heritage program.

By July of 2017 there would be 1,073 published sites… but the very first official sites declared in 1978, known by their UNESCO ID as 1bis and 2, were the Galapagos Islands and the city of Quito.

Number 2 is often treated simply as a stepping stone for getting to Number 1, but we would like to tempt you to stop and consider Quito for a moment.

San Francisco de Quito, by its very nature, lends itself to an unhurried approach.

Even the Spanish is spoken slower here (perfect for practising your language skills) and when you first arrive you are physically moderated as you breathe the thin, high air (yes, you are in the world’s highest constitutional capital). If you are still moving the rich, pure ‘Baroque school of Quito’ interiors of the monasteries will stop you in your tracks as you unpuzzle their Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art.

The Geography
Churches to See
Museums that are Churches
Museums to See
The Best Views
Where to Shop + Local Entertainment
Near Quito
What to Eat
Should you take the Children?
Best time of the Year to go


Geography

The city was built by the Spanish in 1534. They founded it on the ruins of an Inca city that had thrived from around 1450 until early in the 16th Century. It is long and narrow and hemmed in by mountains. Despite having four active volcanoes within 50 km and an earthquake in 1917 it remains the best preserved and least altered historic center in Latin America.

It feels like eternal spring in the Florence of the Americas. With a wet season between October and May. Days warm up delightfully from cool nights so you will need your layers. As the city is over 2,500 m above sea level altitude sickness might be a possibility.

Only 25 kilometers north of Quito you can visit the middle of the world according to the early French cartographers at Mitad del Mundo. If you are more nitpicky about your geography you can cross the actual equator after travelling another 175 km north. And 150 km in a north-northeast direction from the city will bring you onto the equatorial bulge to the summit of Chimborazo which is the point on earth’s surface that is situated furthest from its center.


A PIOUS Side

Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus

Ever wonder what 160 years’ worth of gold leaf, gilded plaster and wood carvings would look like? Here is your answer. Construction began in 1605, inspired by two Roman Jesuit churches and if bling is your thing you might agree with Quiteños that this is Ecuador’s most beautiful church. Art lovers consider it one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America but will also point out the Moorish, Churrigueresque and Neoclassical features woven into the construct. (If you are traveling with children have them find the Ecuadorian faces hidden along the pillars.)

Highlights:

  • The made-in-the-USA organ is circa 1889.
  • 16 Prophets by Nicolás Javier de Goribar
  • Hell and Final Judgement from 1879 (after a mysteriously disappeared original, painted by Hermano Hernando de la Cruz in 1620)

Iglesia de San Francisco (Church of Saint Francis)

Franciscan monks began building their church in 1536 and they would not stop until, 150 years later, they had created the largest architectural ensemble of colonial Latin America. It may seem austere as it stands within its namesake Plaza de San Francisco, but it is a very different, glittering story inside.

Highlights

  • The city’s beloved Virgin of Quito (1734).
  • Over 3,500 works of colonial art, of varied artistic styles and techniques, most notably those of the famous Quito School of art, which had its genesis precisely here.
  • A magnificent Franciscan library, described in the 17th century as the best of the Viceroyalty of Peru.

 

Basilica del Voto Nacional

The 20th Century wanted to make its own mark on Quito, and a massive neo-Gothic church sprang to life in 1892, complete with Ecuadorian jungle animals like turtles, armadillos and iguanas. Not wanting to be outdone by the other religious buildings in any way, building is also continuing on this church over a century later and locals will tell you that the world may come to an end when construction is complete (making one wonder if the same legend accompanied the building of the earlier churches?). So far there are 24 chapels, a clock tower and a bell tower.


Between HEAVEN and ART

Santuario de Guápulo

First Marian Sanctuary of the Republic of Ecuador , the current sanctuary construction is a third building that was begun in 1490 and completed in 1696

Highlights

  • Side altar and pulpit carved by Juan Bautista Menacho in 1716.
  • The primitive image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was carved by the artist Diego de Robles and painted by the painter Luis de Rivera.
  • Other artists include Miguel de Santiago , Nicolás Gorívar, Juan Bautista Menacho, Gualoto, Caspicara , Samaniego.
  • This altar is unique in its kind due to its originality of Chinesca or Moorish , Baroque or Churigueresque .
  • Since December 2001, the old sacristy has been converted into a museum.


MUSEUMS worthy of MUSINGS

 Casa del Alabadao

 Pre-Columbian art, housed in a small 17th century house with eight galleries and over 5000 archaeological pieces with 500 on display. It is an exploration of the cultural aspects of ancient Ecuadorian cultures: their cosmology, their relationship with their ancestors, their religious ideas and rituals, shamans and the afterlife and their relationship with their environment.

The free audio is useful for navigating the thematic arrangement and the souvenir shop is stocked with lovely local handicraft.

Fundación Guayasamín and Capilla del Hombre

Painter Oswaldo Guayasamín was born in 1919 and when he died in 1999 did not live to see the completion of his life’s work: this beautiful, purpose-built art museum and workshop dedicated to the history of human suffering and struggle against oppression of the peoples of Latin America.

Highlights

  • Guayasamín’s work as well as his personal art collection, including pre-Columbian ceramics and metals and colonial religious artwork.
  • An eternal flame in the temple’s lower level is dedicated to those who died defending human rights. Guayasamín himself is buried on the property, beneath a tree he planted, renamed “El Arbol de la Vida” (The Tree of Life).

Casa de Sucre

The former home of Venezuelan independence leader Antonio José de Sucre (also the 6th President of Perú from 23 June 1823 to 17 July 1823 and 2nd President of Bolivia (which was named by de Sucre in honor of Simon Bolivar) from 29 December 1825 to 18 April 1828), and his wife, Mariana Carcelén. Known as the “Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho” he played an important role in the history of Ecuador. He liberated Quito in the Battle of Pichincha from the Spanish in 1822 and after his assassination on 4 June 1830 in the Columbian jungle his wife brought his body back to her home town  where it remains.

Highlights

  • With original 19th-century furniture, clothing, household items, photographs, and maps and documents fill the second floor.

Museo Casa de María Augusta Urrutía

The former home of Quiteña philanthropist María Augusta Urrutía.

Highlights

  • The 19th-century home has many of its original furnishings—including exquisite dinnerware and Ecuadorian art spanning several centuries—lovely stained-glass windows, and a verdant courtyard.


POINTS OF VIEW

Basilica del Voto Nacional

Climb the steep stairs and three ladders (with handrails) to the top of the basilica’s 380-foot (115-meter) towers for a sweeping view of the city.

El Panecillo

From the top of the 200 m high ‘The little Bread Loaf’ you will see all of Quito and its surrounding volcanoes, as well as the 45 m tall statue of the Virgin of Quito which took over 20 years to complete. The total elevation is 3,016 meters above sea level and a Jesuit historian claims that the hill was once topped by a temple where the Indians worshipped the sun, which the Spanish conquistadores destroyed. A large cistern north of the Madonna has been dated to after the Spanish arrival.

Volcán Pichincha

A cable car departs from the base of the active strato volcano to just over 4000 meters within 10 minutes. The summit of Volcán Pichincha is another 700 feet of climbing (which should only be attempted by those who are fairly fit, acclimated to attitude and wearing suitable shoes and warm clothes). On the eastern slopes of the volcano Quito is wrapped snug against Ruku Pichincha but it is the western peak, Wawa Pichincha that, is the active caldera


SHOPPING & ENTERTAINMENT

Casa de las Artes la Ronda

An arts and cultural center with two artisan’s shops. At Humacatama, Luis Lopez makes hats according to techniques passed on from generations before him. There is also the tin workshop of Hojalateria Silva.

Parque El Ejido

Here, local artisans set up on weekends to sell jewelry, paintings, textiles, and miscellaneous souvenirs.

La Ronda House of Arts

Located in one of the traditional neighborhoods of Quito, called “La Ronda”. Recently renovated, this area, south of the main square is a center of entertainment and good food with specialty shops and galleries.

It was the southern limit and the entrance to the San Juan de Dios Hospital, unique in this city for the 1900s, and the most important in Latin America. It has also been a public bath and a sawmill; as well as serving as housing and a carpentry works. In 2007, it was opened as a Cultural Centre, has shown the works of several contemporary artists and it is the official stage of the Quito Chiquito Festival (small Quito) which is a demonstration of art created by adults for children.

Teatro Bolívar

Built in 1933 off plans by American architects, this 2,400 seat Art Deco and Moorish theatre was once the center of the art universe in the region. Having been destroyed by fire in 1999 it was renovated and reopened in 2016. Now, the grand dame is once again staging dances, concerts and plays


OUT of the CITY

To the coast

Take the train. The Tren de la Libertad (Liberty Train) runs from the ‘White City’ of Ibarra and then climbs and drops 600 m through the Andes, through seven tunnels dug from the mountains over 100 years ago, to the thriving Afro-Ecuadorian Salinas. It once transported textiles but today it mostly caters for tourists. The entire journey only takes around two hours and you can explore the salt museum and the city or Salinas before taking the train or a driver back to Quito.

More commonly a tourist attraction, Quito’s rail system is used for transport, running through the Andes Mountains between cliffs, canyons and rivers.

TIPS

  • Spend the night before your train journey in Otavalo, to reach Ibarra in time for the train.
  • Bring water, sunscreen, insect repellent and a jacket.

Into the Cloud forest

A short drive up into the Andean cloud forest from Quito, where the trees plays with sunbeams in the breeze you can head out on a walk to encounter a collection of incredible creatures. Dozens of glorious butterflies, small groups of birds, members of the largest dragonfly family on earth, frogs with puppy dog eyes, giant nocturnal snails the size of a small kitten, tiny beetles who change color to match their food, the ubiquitous millipede, whip tailed striped lizards, glittering hummingbirds and eye poppingly large grasshoppers.

1. Atthis Longwing, 2. Seven-Lined Ameiva, 3. Giant Snail, 4. Tortoise Beetle, 5. Labiated Rainfrog.

6. Empress Brilliant, 7. Millipede, 8. Flame Skimmer Dragonfly.

9. Tettigoniidae Grasshopper, 10. Anolis Gracilipes, 11. Black-Chinned Mountain Tanager.    


A PAUSE for the PECKISH


With CHILDREN?

Yes! Children are very welcome in busy, noisy Ecuador. The parks are full of families after school and on weekends. Some hotels have pools.


Talking Quito WEATHER

It is temperate but from June to September days are sunny and clear and in October and November there will be occasional afternoon showers. December to May is low season in Quito with daily rain – but this is high season for the Galápagos (January to May).


Images via Andreas KayAnita RitenourRobert Nunn