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Destinations

Exploring Quito’s Old Town treasures

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Walking the streets, stopping where you fancy, and perhaps getting lost a few times is the best way to get the feel of a city. So, although our two blogs about the Old Town will take you to the ‘must-see’ sights, have fun exploring and discovering your own Quito highlights!

 

The best way to get a feel for the Old Town’s geography is from on high. Therefore, consider making the neo-gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, the highest church in the country, your first stop. Take the lift in the left tower up to the lookout terrace.

 

 

 

From here, the Old Town with its dozens of spires and belltowers stretches across the valley, ending to the south with the Panecillo hill topped by the Virgin. On clear mornings, the views are breathtaking.

 

Looking across to the far left, you’ll see the small Church of San Blas. It marked the northerly limit to the old city, and was also one of the few churches open to Indians in Colonial times.

 

Slightly to the right of San Blas, downhill, you can make out the salmon pink façade of one of the buildings on Plaza del Teatro. Coming out of the Basilica, walk down Venezuela, past the wonderfully-ornate carvings on the doors of the El Carmen Bajo church, and downhill and back one block to this restored square. It’s dominated by the Corinthian columns of Quito’s most ornate theater, Teatro Sucre.

 

From the square, walk back along busy Guayaquil (once the street of wealthy commercial families) to the beautiful church of San Agustín begun in the sixteenth century. Much of the church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but its dark interior and large canvases are still captivating. The adjoining convent boasts a lovely cloister, housing a museum of important paintings, all recently restored.

 

One block uphill on the crowded, pedestrian Chile, you come to Plaza de la Independencia (known locally as Plaza Grande). The square is overlooked by a number of distinguished civic buildings and is the setting for the Victorian-style Liberty Monument in the midst of palms and flowerbeds, old men and children, shoe-shiners and benches.

 

 

The Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, the modern City Administration Building and the Cathedral command the locus of the Old Town.

 

You can poke your head inside the Presidential Palace, also known as the Palacio de Carondelet, and glimpse a huge mural of Francisco de Orellana cruising down the Amazon. You can also join an official guided tour around its salons and collections.

 

Heading west along García Moreno from the Cathedral’s corner, you pass the main chapel of the cathedral, the beautiful b, and then the excellent Centro Cultural Metropolitano, home to temporary art shows and a permanent exhibition about the Independence uprisings. Further along you’ll come to the magnificent volcanic stone façade of La Compañía de Jesús, considered the loveliest church in Ecuador.

 

Built by the Jesuits, it was only just completed before their expulsion in 1767. Its massive altars, baroque columns and ceilings are laden with tonnes of gold leaf. Its exuberance and extravagance are still incomparable in Quito, and perhaps Latin America.

 

On the church’s corner, walk up Sucre (once ‘Cotton Street’) to the cobble-clad expanse of Plaza de San Francisco. On its far side stands the huge, twin-towered Iglesia de San Francisco, begun soon after the city was founded, in 1536.

 

 

The church’s interior rivals that of La Compañía, with more gold leaf than a conquistador could have dreamed of. Highlights include the unique carving of the winged Virgin by Bernardo de Legarda, the altar and paintings of La Capilla de Cantuña, an adjoining chapel, as well as the beautiful choir with its wooden Mudéjar-style ceiling (see below).

 

To the right of the church as you face its twin bell-tower lies the Museo de San Francisco. Guided tours (ask for English) take you round the beautiful cloisters and the excellent collection of paintings, furniture and sculpture which once housed the city’s School of Painting and Arts — you’ll note the remnants of the pupil’s paintings on the walls. The tour also includes a visit to the church’s choir.

 

A good place to recharge your batteries or grab a light lunch is the café and artesanía shop at the foot of the church’s steps, Tianguez.

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From the Plaza San Francisco, you can choose to walk uphill to the Mercado de San Francisco, which lies four blocks north on Rocafuerte. This is the most interesting market in the Old Town, stuffed full of fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry vendors, as well as the fascinating limpiadoras who perform their ancestral medicinal treatments on locals (and visitors) on one side of the market. Get a limpia from one of them to feel thoroughly revived – you’ll have to find out for yourself what the treatment consists of!

 

 

You can also walk west from the plaza, on Cuenca or Benalcázar, until turning downhill on Rocafuerte. Stop to by some traditional sweets, and then pass under the Arco de la Reina arch at the corner by the Carmen Alto church, and on García Moreno to the Museo de la Ciudad.

 

 

One of the Old Town’s finest museums, it’s aimed at foreigners and Ecuadorians alike, imparting a dynamic and occasionally interactive view of the city’s social history, from its prehistoric inhabitants to the present day.

 

One of the Old Town’s finest museums, it’s aimed at foreigners and Ecuadorians alike, imparting a dynamic and occasionally interactive view of the city’s social history, from its prehistoric inhabitants to the present day.

 

The museum is housed within the beautiful Hospital San Juan de Dios, where the poor and sick were cared for until it closed 1974. It gives an excellent feel for the day-to-day lives of Quiteños, from candle-makers and forgers through to artists and artisans. Also of note is the gruesome display of self-torturing implements owned by Ecuador’s only saint, Mariana de Jesús, and the extraordinary series of three large canvases depicting the Conquest by contemporary artist Jaime Zapata. Guided tours are available in English.

 

Exiting the museum, you can pop across the road to the Carmen Alto museum, housed within the convent which is still home to 21 cloistered nuns. There’s a fine collection of religious art as well as recreations of sisterly-life at the turn of the last century.

 

For more of the city and its inhabitants’ lives, the Casa de María Augusta Urrutia on García Moreno and the Casa de Sucre (Sucre y Guayaquil) both do a fine job.

 

The Plaza de Santo Domingo lies to the southwest of Sucre’s house. The square, enigmatically floodlit at night, is dominated by the Iglesia Santo Domingo, one of Quito’s earliest.

 

 

The interior and altar were redesigned in the nineteenth century, and the Baroque Chapel of the Rosary to the right of the altar is a delight, while the adjoining Museo Fray Pedro Bedón showcases many beautiful Dominican treasures from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

 

At the western corner of the square at Guayaquil, one of the town’s most picturesque streets, La Ronda, loops down. It became rundown and unsafe in the past, but has been rescued through a concerted Municipal project.

 

 

There are some charming Spanish-style houses with balconies, with portraits of famous musicians and composers adorning some of the houses’ walls, along with artisans’ workshops, souvenir stores, cafés and a great place to find out more about Ecuador’s amazing chocolate, Chez Tiff.

 

The other delightful museums and streets of old Quito are found back to the east of Plaza San Francisco. At Cuenca and Chile stands the Iglesia La Merced, built to commemorate the eruptions of Volcán Pichincha that threatened to destroy the city. Paintings, amid the pink, white and gold leaf extravaganza inside, show scenes of erupting volcanoes.

 

One block across at the corner Cuenca and Mejía, lies the Museo Nacional de Arte Colonial. This stylish, restored Colonial mansion, once the home of the Marqués de Villacís, contains a good collection of work by some of the best artists of the School of Quito, including a striking Virgin of Sorrows by Caspicara.

 

The nearby Casa de Benalcázar boasts a beautiful courtyard, restored house and art collections. Lunchtime concerts are sometimes held in the courtyard.

 

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