Although second to Guayaquil in population and economic clout, QUITO is the political and cultural hub of a highly centralized country, where power is wielded by an elite class of politicians, bankers and company directors, often from old, moneyed families. Far more conspicuous than these sharp-suited executives are the city’s eye-catching indígenas, who make up a large part of its population; Quito is still a place where Quichua-speaking women queue for buses in traditional clothing with metres of beads strung tightly around their necks, and where it’s not uncommon to see children carried on their mothers’ backs in securely wrapped blankets, as they are in the rural sierra. All this makes for a somewhat exotic introduction to the country, though the proliferation of ragged shoeshine boys and desperate hawkers is a sobering reminder of the levels of poverty in the city, and its considerable social inequalities.
The key to orientation in Quito is to see the city as a long, narrow strip. At the southern end is the old town, focused on three large squares: the Plaza de la Independencia (also known as the Plaza Grande), Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Santo Domingo. The street grid around these squares comprises a small, compact urban core dominated to the south by the hill of El Panecillo (the Little Bread Roll), crowned by a large statue of the Virgen de Quito. Fanning north from old Quito towards the new town is a transitional stretch around Parque La Alameda, while the new town proper begins a few blocks further north at Parque El Ejido. Known by Quiteños simply as El Norte, the new town stretches all the way north to the airport, but the only parts you’re likely to visit are the central areas of La Mariscal, just north of Parque El Ejido, where most accommodation and tourist facilities are located, and the business district further north, around Parque La Carolina.
Little is known about the indigenous people who, until the fifteenth century, inhabited the terrain Quito now occupies. Archeologists believe that by about 1500 a number of señoríos étnicos (“lordships” or “chiefdoms”), including that of the obscure Quitus, from whom the present-day city takes its name, inhabited the Quito basin. Quito was an important settlement and a major trading centre where visitors from the sierra, the coast and the Oriente came to exchange their produce. After the Inca expansion north into Ecuador during the late fifteenth century, the last great Inca emperors, Huayna Capac and his son Atahualpa, chose Quito as the political and ceremonial centre of the northern part of their empire.
The Spanish subsequently chose Quito as the capital of their newly acquired territory, despite the Inca general Rumiñahui burning it to the ground five days before its capture in 1534. The colonial city was founded as San Francisco de Quito on August 28, 1534, and its governor Sebastián de Benalcázar established the proper workings of a city on December 6 of that year, which is still celebrated as its official foundation date (see “Fiestas”). The major squares and streets were soon marked out and lots were granted to the 204 colonists present. It wasn’t long before the main religious orders moved in, including the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Sisters of Mercy, all of whom immediately set to work building their own churches and monasteries with Indian labour. Within thirty years, the cathedral was finished, the main streets were paved with stone, irrigation channels supplied the city with water, and the city council established regulations for slaughterhouses and markets. By the end of the sixteenth century, most of the great churches, monasteries and public buildings were in place, making Quito one of the great cities of Spanish America, and one of its great centres for religious learning.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was no real departure from the city’s early model: more houses and churches were built, along with modest public works. The population increased moderately, but not dramatically, and by 1780 Quito was home to just 25,000 inhabitants (a figure already reached by Lima, Peru, in 1610). Quito remained something of a backwater, its quiet pace of life interrupted only by the petty quarrels and rivalries between clerics, Creoles (Spaniards born in the Americas) and public officials.
This sleepy state of affairs ended abruptly in the early nineteenth century as the tide of revolution swept over the continent. Most of the important events marking Ecuador’s struggle for independence took place in or around Quito, and in 1830 the city became the capital of the newly declared Republic of Ecuador, the seat of national government, congress and the supreme court. The following decades would see prestigious buildings (including the Teatro Sucre and astronomical observatory) constructed, statues of revolutionary heroes erected, new bridges built and streets paved, and running water provided in many homes. Yet growth was still slow and by the end of the nineteenth century, Quito’s population was just 50,000.
As Quito entered the twentieth century it finally outgrew its original boundaries and slowly expanded north and south. The construction of new buildings became easier with the 1909 arrival of the Quito–Guayaquil railway, which facilitated the transport of heavy building materials and new machinery to the capital. Yet even by 1945, there had still been little fundamental change to Quito’s long-standing physical and social landscape: the wealthy still lived in the colonial centre, the working class occupied a barrio near the railway station to the south, and farms and countryside still mostly surrounded the city.
All this changed dramatically in the postwar years, fuelled initially by the banana boom of the 1940s, which turned Ecuador into an important exporting country and gave it the resources to pay for new infrastructure in Quito, including hospitals, schools, universities, prisons and an airport. When the city’s wealthy moved out to the fashionable new barrio of Mariscal Sucre (La Mariscal), Quito’s social geography underwent a fundamental change as well. Further transformations followed the oil boom of the 1970s, which funded the construction of high-rise offices, new residential districts and public buildings, including the Palacio Legislativo. Accordingly, the population exploded and passed the one million mark in 1990 – due in part to the migration of workers from the countryside to the capital. Since then, Quito’s boundaries have been spreading farther outwards, literally stretching the city’s resources to their limits; at 1.6 million people and rising, the population boom shows no signs of fading, putting an ever-greater strain on housing, employment, transport and even sanitation and water supplies. Yet the metropolitan authorities have made real progress in developing a cross-city bus system and rejuvenating the historic centre – the architectural jewel of the capital and spiritual heart of the country – meaning Quito is more than ever a city to explore and enjoy.Read More
Colonial religious art and the Quito School
Colonial religious art and the Quito School
After the conquest, the Spanish Crown was faced with the task of colonizing its new territories and subsuming their indigenous population into its empire. From the beginning, conversion to Catholicism became one of the most powerful tools to consolidate power. Accordingly, religious art and architecture took on an enormous importance very early on: splendid monasteries and cathedrals dazzled and instilled awe in the natives, while paintings and sculpture were used both for visual religious instruction and to provide icons of worship that would replace their former idols.
In the early days, religious art was imported from Spain, but the need to disperse large quantities of it around the continent prompted the growth of home-grown artists’ workshops and guilds in the colonial centres, where Spanish teachers trained indígenas and mestizos. This resulted in a unique blend of indigenous and European elements: carvings of biblical characters were frequently clothed in typical native dress, for instance, and sometimes given indigenous traits and colouring.
The main production centres of religious art were Quito, Bogotá and Cuzco, each developing its own style. Over time, Quito artists became known for their mastery of polychromy (decorative colouring), particularly in their carvings of Mary, Christ and numerous saints, made out of cedar or red oak. Characterized by bold colours and exuberant decoration, the style found its greatest expression between 1660 and 1765, when the proliferation of high-quality Quiteño artists gave rise to the Quito School of art.
Led by Miguel de Santiago and Bernardo de Legarda in the early eighteenth century, and later by Manuel Chili, known as Caspicara, the Quito School’s most delicate and beautiful creations were its polychrome carvings, often of the Virgin, covered in sumptuous attire and exposing only the head, face, hands and feet. One of the most peculiar aspects of the style was an excessive take on realism, using human hair and false eyelashes, nails and glass eyes. The school’s paintings were characterized by vivid shades of red against darker, duller tones.
The movement began to wane towards the end of the eighteenth century, when secular subjects such as landscapes, portraits and town scenes began to replace religious ones. It finally died out after Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1822, when the type of religious art the school produced was rejected for its associations with the old regime.
Learning Spanish in Quito
Learning Spanish in Quito
Home to more than seventy language schools, Quito is the most popular place in South America to learn Spanish, partly because rates are so cheap – $4–10 per hour for one-to-one classes – and partly because Spanish is spoken much more clearly here than in many other countries, or even in Guayaquil and the coast. Ecuadorian serranos (highlanders) tend to speak slowly and pronounce all the letters in each word (elsewhere, consonants are frequently dropped), making them easy to understand.
Nearly all schools offer one-to-one lessons or classes in small groups, but not all use books or visual aids. It’s a good idea to ask if you can rotate your teachers, as this keeps the lessons fresher and allows you to compare techniques and decide what suits you best. Visiting a school and enquiring about facilities or methods, or perhaps even asking to sit in on a lesson, will give you the best idea if it’s right for you before enrolling.
Some schools will encourage you to sign up for seven hours a day, but most students find that exhausting – four hours a day is a better bet, whether studying for just a few days or several weeks. The majority of schools offer the option of staying with a family (usually $10–15 per day, with meals included), while others now offer daily classes as part of full tours to the jungle or coast. Many schools also offer activities such as cookery classes, dancing lessons or day and weekend trips – all good ways to meet other students.
Fiestas in Quito
Fiestas in Quito
Aside from the national public holidays and mischief of Carnaval (see Basics), Quito features several of its own colourful fiestas that are worth a look if you’re in town. The city’s most prominent religious festival is Good Friday, when hundreds of barefooted penitents solemnly cross through the old town in mourning, many dressed in purple robes with pointed hoods, others dragging huge crucifixes and a few even wearing crowns of thorns. Another major event comes on May 24, honouring the day in 1822 that the colony finally threw off the Spanish yoke at the Battle of Pichincha, when Quito erupts in a spectacle of booming cannons and military parades. The biggest fiesta of the year kicks off at the beginning of December and lasts for a week until December 6, marking the city’s foundation. Celebrations include street parties, music and dancing, processions, bullfights at the Plaza de Toros, the election of the Reina de Quito (beauty queen) and general high spirits. December is generally regarded by Quiteños as a party month, topped off on New Year’s Eve with a street parade of años viejos – effigies, often of current political figures, which are burnt at midnight.
Quito is currently caught between two street-numbering systems. A few years ago, an attempt was made to modernize addresses, whereby north–south streets would be prefixed by the letter N (for norte) if north of Calle Rocafuerte at the edge of the old town, while addresses on east–west streets would be prefixed by E (este – east) or Oe (oeste – west) to indicate their orientation to Avenida 10 de Agosto. Following these letters come street number, a dash and then house number. However, both old and new systems are currently in use, with many people being slow to adopt their new numbers, so throughout the chapter we provide the form of address used by the establishments themselves.
The majority of visitors to Quito stay in the new town, where there’s a huge choice of accommodation in all price ranges. The area is also lively after dark, and convenient for changing money, booking tours and sorting out laundry. Many streets are noisy, so it’s always worth asking for a back room.
Thanks to its ongoing regeneration, staying in the old town is becoming a genuine alternative, especially if you have the money to splash out on one of several new luxurious colonial conversions. Just accept that you can’t explore freely after dark beyond the central heart in the blocks around the Plaza Independencia.
Wherever you stay, it’s always best to take a taxi from your arrival point straight to your hotel and to avoid wandering the streets with your luggage. The following accommodation is marked on the maps.
The new town
Most new town accommodation is in the downtown zone of La Mariscal, with the biggest concentration on the streets around José Calama, where new hostales keep springing up all the time. There are lots of restaurants, internet cafés and a steady stream of backpackers around here too.
The old town
Accommodation in the old town can be less expensive than in the new town, though many of the cheapest places are quite unsavoury, particularly those around the bus terminal. Yet the recent smartening up of the colonial centre has seen the appearance of a new generation of luxury hotels and exclusive restaurants in refurbished historic buildings, outstripping anything the new town has to offer for antique charm with both comfort and location. Still, the old town remains behind the new town in terms of quantity and variety of services – but the reward is waking up in the very heart of things and not feeling as if you’re surrounded by hundreds of gringos.
Outskirts of Quito
If the hurly-burly of the city centre is too daunting, you could consider lodging in any of several good hotels on the outskirts of town, where you’ll have the benefits of a more peaceful and spacious setting, but still be within range to visit the city sights.
Restaurants and cafés
Restaurants and cafés
Quito boasts the best and most varied choice of restaurants and cafés in the country, from humble canteens to classy outfits offering a wide range of world cuisines, along with tasty seafood restaurants and typical Ecuadorian and Latin American restaurants. In Quito, comidas típicas generally comprise hearty food based around a fatty meat dish, such as roasted or fried pork (hornado or fritada), delicious cheesy potato cakes (llapingachos) and a range of soups (caldos or locros) and stews (secos); see Basics. Restaurants here are markedly more expensive than those outside the capital, but even the priciest are cheaper than their equivalents in Europe or North America. Set-menu meals, almuerzos at lunch and meriendas at dinner, are even better value, sometimes consisting of two or three courses for a dollar or two.
Many restaurants, particularly inexpensive and informal ones, have long opening hours (usually 8am–10pm), while more traditional establishments just serve lunch and dinner (often noon–3pm & 6–10pm); most places close on Sunday afternoons around 3pm.
The focus of Quito’s nightlife is La Mariscal, particularly the streets north of Wilson between Juan León Mera and Diego de Almagro, which are crammed with small, steamy disco-bars and clubs pumping out high-decibel dance music. It’s not all ear-shattering volumes and seething dancefloors, though; plenty of bars are geared more for drinking and chatting and others put on live music, often Cuban, rock, jazz and especially salsa, which is played almost exclusively in the ever-popular salsotecas, while peñas specialize in live folklórica (traditional folk music).
Most places tend to be fairly quiet through the week, totally packed Thursday to Saturday, and closed on Sundays. Bars are usually open from 8pm–3am, while clubs stay open from around 8 or 9pm until around 4am or longer, but often only from Thursday to Saturday. Although cover charges are usually minimal, some disco-bars and clubs have a small cover, which sometimes includes your first drink; others may have a consumo mínimo, meaning you have to spend a specified amount at the bar, usually the price of one or two drinks. Remember to take a taxi when travelling around Quito at night.
Arts and entertainment
Arts and entertainment
Culture in Quito is thriving and thanks to the recent regeneration, renovation or reinvention of some key institutions, including the Teatro Sucre and Edificio El Bicentenario, the artistic scene has been enlivened throughout the city. The best way to keep track of what’s on in town is by checking the municipal events website wwww.quitocultura.com; the same body also produces a monthly information booklet. El Comercio newspaper also covers everything from cinema listings to theatre programmes.
The national centre for the arts, the Casa de la Cultura, 6 de Diciembre N16-224 and Patria (t02/2902272, wwww.cce.org.ec), is a leading venue for theatre, dance and classical music, showcasing international performers and home-grown talent, as well as frequent appearances from its own choral group and ballet company.
Quito can hardly be bettered for the range and quality of handicrafts on offer, so you can do all your shopping here rather than haul a bagful of souvenirs around the country. With the exception of a few expensive boutiques sourcing the very best from regional workshops, the prices aren’t generally that much higher than at the point of production. For general goods, locals head to Quito’s shopping malls, where the best supermarkets, electronic goods and brand-name clothes chains are, or its street markets, especially for cheap clothes, food and hardware. For cheap food and produce – including wonderful exotic fruits – try the bustling Mercado Santa Clara in the new town to the west of the Santa Clara Trole stop, at Versalles and Marchena, or the Mercado Central, at Olmedo and Pichincha, in the old town.