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.