Visitors who walk through the north side of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, are bombarded by brand-name clothing stores and fast-food chains. But take a quick bus ride over to the south and you’ll feel like you’re in a different city altogether. Quito’s southern “Centro Historico” is stuffed with buildings that retained their original architectural features. These are so well preserved that they helped Quito become the first city in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. As a history buff’s dream, this district will allow you to experience hundreds of years of Quito’s past in just one walk.
Those who are more architecture-savvy may notice that almost all of the buildings in Centro Historical are Spanish colonial rather than Quitu. Although the Quitu people were the first ones to colonize the area, Incan armies eventually invaded them in the 15th century. Less than 100 years later, Spanish invaders came and conquered the city.
Logically, shouldn’t many of the buildings have retained their Incan architectural features in addition to the Spanish colonial ones? This might have happened if the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar did not have every bit of ancient architecture destroyed. He did this not only to annihilate any symbolism that the city had for its inhabitants, but also to look for a hidden treasure.
Previously, Incan General Rumiñahui, whose name means “Face of Stone,” razed the entire city in an attempt to prevent the Spanish from gaining any advantage. Supposedly, this powerful general had every valuable item in the area rounded up and hidden outside of the city. Many people have endlessly searched different places outside of Quito, such as in the crater of the Guagua Pichincha volcano and in the Llanganates hills, but this famous Ruminahui treasure has yet to be found.
Now there are pleasant street vendors and friendly tourists in place of the fighting conquistadors and stone-faced generals. But don’t let the quaint restaurants and elegant theaters distract you. One glance at the Spanish colonial-style stucco-clad walls will be enough to remind you of hidden treasure and torn-down buildings. Here are some must-see attractions to help you envision what it was like in Quito’s historical days.
1. Plaza de la Independencia
This plaza is great place to sit, relax, and soak in the sights. In the 16th century, it was used to house bullfighting matches and a large market. Although trees and benches have since replaced the fights and vendors, this is still an area of great importance because it is literally surrounded by important buildings on all sides.
While you’re sitting, take a look to the north. Here you’ll see the Archbishop’s Palace. This grand white building stretches along the entire block and was the residence of the bishop for many years. If you wish, you can have lunch in one of the cozy restaurants on the first or second floor.
Afterwards, take a glance to the east, where you’ll find a long similar-looking building. This is City Hall, and it is still the location of the Municipality of Quito.
The Quito Cathedral is on the south side of the plaza. It is one of the oldest churches on the entire continent. Although it was difficult to build this cathedral in a place with deep ravines, the building still managed to survive two earthquakes during its lifetime.
On the last side of the plaza, the west side, sits the Palacio del Gobierno. This white building topped with the colorful Ecuadorian flag is where Ecuador’s president works. The changing of the guards also makes this a popular attraction. If you’re interested in going inside, visitors can see certain rooms with a guided tour, which can be done in either Spanish or English.
2. El Panecillo
For anyone coming to Quito, a visit to the El Panecillo is a must. Although “El Panecillo” directly translates to “bread roll,” the sight you’ll see is miles better than a doughy pastry. At the top of this hill sits a huge statue called the Virgin of Quito, also known as “Quito’s Madonna.” From far away she only seems to be a small speck in the sky, but as you come closer and closer her intimidating 148-foot height and 7,000 aluminum parts will have you craning your neck up in awe. She is perched on top of a globe and is stepping on a snake, which helps increase her already impressive height.
This majestic statue is actually a recreation of a smaller version sculpted by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734. The original statue is known as “the dancer” because it shows Madonna in movement, which was an unusual and original idea at the time. Many people claim that this representation of Madonna is the only one in the world that has the wings of an angel.
To get a view of Quito in its entirety, visitors can climb steps to reach the base of the statue, which is on top of a 36-foot pedestal. You can also get a great view in a wide field past the line of food and clothing vendors.
3. Basílica del Voto Nacional
Have you ever seen St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan or the Cathedral of Notre Dame? The architecture of this basilica often makes people compare it to these cathedrals while its size makes it the biggest Gothic cathedral in Latin America. But instead of traditional gargoyles, this Ecuadorian church has little turtles and iguanas peeking out at its sides. Their colors help them blend well into the grey stone, so make sure to squint a little for a chance to see them. Inside, the ceilings are covered in colorful stained-glass windows. And don’t overlook the small chapel off to the side; the altar of Mary and mosaic tile floor makes this tiny space worth a lot more than it seems.
And the story of the Ruminahui treasure isn’t the only one that haunts this city. The basilica isn’t fully constructed yet and legend says that when it is finally finished the world will end. Some also say that the heart of Ecuador’s past president, Gabriel Garcia Moreno, is hidden somewhere in one of the hallways.
Daring visitors can ascend the nerve-wracking climb to the top, which is complete with steep stairs and a walk across a wooden plank. If that’s not enough for you, go up an additional round of stairs and a spiral staircase to reach the clock tower. The top is also accessible by elevator for an additional fee; however, don’t rely on this route too much because it is not always functioning.
4. San Francisco Church
Although Quito is home to a plethora of beautiful churches, this was the first one built in the historic city. This behemoth of a building takes up almost two blocks and holds court at the head of a large plaza. In front of the church, there is a small market where visitors can purchase clothes, hats, and other small goods.
The construction of San Francisco Church started in 1535, only about a month after the Spanish conquered Quito. But despite it’s quick beginning, it took over 100 years to finish. To get inside, you have to climb massive stone steps because it was actually built over an Incan temple.
And of course, this church wouldn’t be complete without it’s own mythical rumor. It is a known legend that Cantuna, a builder, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for help to complete the church on time. Right before the deadline to complete the church, Cantuna took out a single stone from the building so that it would not truly considered finished. This crafty idea helped Cantuna keep his soul and outwit the devil. In the Museum of the Convent of San Fransisco sits a small model of the church complete with figurines representing this legend.
5. Calle La Ronda
This street is fantastic for anyone who loves art or just wants to take a fun stroll through a vibrant atmosphere. Here, you can shop for traditional Ecuadorian sweets, listen to upbeat music, and eat at an amazing cookhouse. This place has a bohemian atmosphere and used to be considered a refugee for many artists and artisans. Some of the houses have signs that detail facts about the previous inhabitants. Inside, there are many small hidden courtyards, a popular feature of Spanish colonial buildings.
A particularly popular spot here is the House of Arts of La Ronda. It is a great place to visit and reminisce about the street’s past artistic inhabitants. This beautiful cultural center hosts many fun art exhibitions and workshops on a regular basis.
Although a lack of maintenance caused this street to become damaged and broken over time, a few years ago Ecuador’s municipality started to revive it. But this historical street definitely hasn’t lost its artistic touch; many artisans set up shop here to create beautiful works of art out of materials such as wood, chocolate, and textiles. If you’re looking for a place to get great souvenirs, this is definitely a street worth considering.