The city at the centre of the world: Exploring Quito

One of the first cities to be founded by Spanish colonists, Quito has a rich and storied history that needs to be unwrapped…

Team Wanderlust
26 May 2023
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Discover Quito

Widely considered to be South America’s most visitor-friendly capital, Quito also has a rich and storied history. It was one of the first cities to be founded by Spanish colonists – in 1534 – and a focal point for the continent-spanning independence wars of the early19th century. Civic palaces and churches, monasteries and schools constructed over 400 years ago can still be seen today. Quito’s Historical Centre was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1978 – in the very first tranche of sites – for being “the best-preserved, least-altered historic centre in Latin America”. Quito was also the northernmost outpost of the Inca empire – and the Inca liked to build their citadels close to the sun. Modern-day Quito is spread out along the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano, with the Panecillo and Ichimbia hills as natural barriers. This high Andean setting makes for magical light and swirling mists, with every urban hike opening up dramatic vistas and chance discoveries. Here’s what to expect from the city at the centre of the world…

Go back in time

It is sometimes hard to believe that Quito’s Historic Centre has remained so well-preserved, especially when you consider that it was hit by an earthquake in 1917 (Visit Quito)

The heart of the Historical Centre is the Plaza Grande, a beautiful, palm-shaded square. Around its edges are the Palacio de Gobierno (with changing of the guards on Mondays),the former Archbishop’s Palace which is now a colonnaded arcade of shops and eateries; and the 16th-centurycathedral. Inside the latter are important pieces by the Quito School, including a famous painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and his disciples are shown feasting on guinea pig (an Andean delicacy) and a nativity scene featuring a llama. Visitors can go up onto the roof for panoramic views of Quito.

Perhaps the most striking rooftop is the green and gold domes of La Compañía, the most splendid of all the colonial-era buildings in the old city. It’s a masterpiece of Quito Baroque, with parts that are Churrigueresque and Mudéjar –styles with deep roots in Moorish and Catholic Spain – and some Neoclassical touches. Highlights include a trompe l’oeil staircase and chiaroscuro-styled paintings. The monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo are two other sublime examples of this distinctive local style.

The Basilica del Voto is a different kind of standout. The largest neo-Gothic church in South America, it’s 140m long and 35m wide, with two looming towers at the front. The first mass took place in 1924, but the building was inaugurated in 1988. While medieval cathedrals routinely took generations to complete, the local legend-cum-joke about this modern basilica was that if it was ever finished, the world would end. Fortunately, we’re still around to admire the vast central nave, 24 small chapels – each dedicated to a province of Ecuador – and the gargoyles representing iguanas, tortoises, armadillos and condors.

Ecuador’s national theatre, the Teatro Nacional Sucre, is arguably the city’s most important secular temple, with nine divine muses on the frontage welcoming theatregoers. It was built in the 1880s when the city was undergoing extensive beautification – a lot of South America’s capitals enjoyed belle époques around this time – and the Neoclassical facade and grand interior ape those found in Old World opera houses.

Another visual treat, the Casa del Alabado is an elegant period home that has been turned into a private museum dedicated to pre-Columbian artefacts. Exquisitely crafted ceramicware and jewellery are thematically arranged to explore shaman practices, belief systems, cosmovision and the after life – with captions and audio guides available in English and Spanish.

Get creative

The Comuna Serigráfica Quito is a shared space where artists gather to do screen printing and hold exhibitions (Visit Quito)

A must-see modern ‘church’ in Quito is the Chapel of Man, built by the renowned Ecuadorean painter and activist Oswaldo Guayasamín. The complex, perched high up on aback street in the Bellavista district, is extraordinary for its cavernous architecture and its credo of liberation and indigenous rights. The artist’s collection of pre-Columbian and colonial pieces in an adjacent building is well worth a look.

Arts and crafts provide a fascinating lens on Quito past and present, with art professors, cultural historians and others offering a range of art tours, focusing on colonial-era religious works and wood carving, classical paintings (with skilled artisans still producing contemporary copies of Quito School masterpieces)or the burgeoning street art scene. Time-honoured artistry is also on display at the city’s goldsmith workshops which can date their origins back to the times when Inca leader Atahualpa had his HQ here.

The narrow streets of Old Quito have a painterly quality. Most delightful of all is La Ronda which has retained its cobblestones and colonial houses – with most of the latter given over to bars, restaurants and shops. The street dates from the17th century and signs on the walls recount its history as a one-time Inca route and, later, a boho corner favoured by poets, musicians and artists. It’s also a lovely place to kick back in a local café and sample a fine cup of organic Ecuadorean coffee.

Or try an even more tasty brew, perhaps. Across Latin America, there’s a lot of competition when it comes to chocolate. Drinking cacao-based beverages took off in the New World before the fashion travelled to Europe, with colonial quaffers copying the indigenous tradition of adding chili peppers, cinnamon or nuts. Today, Quito has several chocolate-themed museums, shops and schools where you can learn the art of chocolate-making from pod to bonbon, or from pestle to perfect cuppa. More generally, Ecuador has started to establish itself as a culture of culinary interest. Cooking classes in restaurants and at some specialist institutes teach everything from preparing quinoa soup to guinea pig and tripe tasting.

Immerse yourself in nature

Ecuador is thought to be home to some 2,000 spectacled bears (Visit Quito)

Travel an hour from Quito – in just about any direction – and the world turns green. Just two hours away you’ll find some of the most precious, protected nature in the West.

One of the most biodiversity-rich biomes in the country is the Chocó Andino, the southern end of the Chocó-Darien region, which stretches from Panama down along the western flank of the Andes. It’s believed the meeting point of coastal, montane and equatorial ecosystems makes for greater variety of species than that found in the Amazon headwaters. A lot of the most alluring wilderness areas lie north of the city, so you can visit the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument en route –though bear in mind that the latest science places the official line of the equator about 240m north of here.

In state-run parks such as Cotopaxi National Park and Pululahua Volcano and Geobotanical Reserve, easy-to-access green areas such as the Mindo Valley and at the many private reserves – such as Verdecocha Reserve, Santa Lucía Reserve and Maquipucuna Protected Forest – the birdwatching is truly world-class. Chocó-screech owl and cloud forest pygmy owl can be heard, while vivacious birds including the rose-faced parrot, black solitaire and yellow-collared chlorophonia finch enliven the canopy and understorey. The orange-coloured, gregarious Andean cock of the rock – famed for its comical courtship displays– is a twitcher’s favourite. Many private reserves have eco-lodges or good campsites, opening up the opportunity to set off on night walks to see amphibians, bats and nocturnal bird species.

The Andean Bear Ecological Corridor is a verdant swathe of land northwest of Quito. It’s part of a major corridor connecting up with forests in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, that together provide the vulnerable spectacled bear (the inspiration for Paddington) with a protected area. Ecuador is home to an estimated2,000 spectacled bears and the ecotourism project helps support camera traps, ranger and guide training, and habitat restoration. Some of Quito’s outlying protected areas seem to boast everything, everywhere, all at once. The El Pahuma Orchid Reserve provides a home to more than 300 species of orchids, several spectacled bears and eye-catching birds including the plate-billed mountain toucan and the quetzal, and as many as 40 species of hummingbird. Hiking trails through mossy montane forests and under waterfalls link up the hottest sighting spots. At Yunguilla, another cloud forest reserve, the emphasis is more on community and ecotourism projects, including organic vegetable growing, tree nurseries, a cheese factory and jam production.

However you decide to spend your time, you’re in for an unforgettable adventure in Quito.

Feeling inspired?

For more information, head to the official Visit Quito website.

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