Quito's large, well preserved historic quarter of cobbled streets and impressive colonial buildings, many with ornate façades and richly decorated interiors, is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.
The city was founded a thousand years ago as the centre of the Kingdom of Quito, an alliance of regional tribes that eventually formed the northern part of the Incan empire. Razed in the conquest, Quito was reconstructed under the Spanish who built 40 churches and 16 convents and monasteries with cloisters, plazas, courtyards, chapter rooms and refectories. They combined European renaissance and baroque styles with indigenous and mestizo influences, often reusing Incan foundations and recycling fine Incan stone blocks. The result is a uniquely Andean capital, connecting centuries of changing civilisations.
Quito's altitude of 10,000 feet tempers the equatorial heat to that of a year round Mediterranean spring. Take it easy for the first few days while your red blood cells adjust to the noticeably thinner air.
Quito's Old City
At the centre of the whitewashed walls and pan-tiled roofs of Quito's Old City is the Plaza de la Independencia, a large and attractive square impressively surrounded by the four pillars of colonial society: the Cathedral, Presidential Palace, Archbishop's Palace and Municipal Palace (now a modern replacement). With its well kept flower beds this bustling location makes a good place for the city's well-to-do to congregate and talk, with a few having their shoes shined while they watch the world go by.
Entering from the heat of the equatorial sunshine through huge carved doors into the cool dark interior of a colonial church in the Old City you are first met by the rich scent of incense from palo santo wood. The interior sparkles with hundreds of twinkling devotional candles. On approaching the central aisle a vast altar gilded in gold or silver leaf succeeds in its intention of instilling awe. The most ornate, the Church of La Compañía de Jesús, constructed by the Jesuits in 1605, has a lace-work façade of twisted columns, sacred hearts and cherubs carved in volcanic rock, while the inside was laden with a reputed 7 tonnes of gold leaf. One can only imagine the impact such temples made on local people whose worship of the sun was to be converted to the worship of the Christian deity.
There are about a thousand private homes amid the fine religious and public buildings of the Old City. The most prestigious 19th century houses have three internal courtyards. The first, opening to the street, was used for receiving visitors and typically has a fountain in the centre. The second was for household chores such as drying the laundry, and the third was for livestock such as hens, guinea pigs and horses. For a glimpse inside one of these houses we recommend a visit to the highly decorated María Augusta Urrutia Museum.
Quito School of Art
To meet the need for religious art for the new churches the Spanish encouraged local painters and sculptors to adopt the European style, creating a blend of indigenous and European art that became known as the Quito School. In sculpture the features of Christ and the saints are European but the proportions of their bodies are Andean: broad-chested and short-legged. Andean plants and animals were introduced, and sun motifs were incorporated into church decoration. The great artists in this tradition worked between 1660 and 1765, but today a school for street children teaches the historic techniques and is open to visitors.
The Virgin of Quito, a painting by Bernardo de Legarda, a master of the Quito School, was the inspiration for the 30m high statue that stands on El Panecillo hill overlooking the Old City. It depicts the Virgin Mary with silvery wings standing on an orb with a serpent curled around her feet and chained to her arm.
Beyond the Old City, Quito is developing fast. Constrained by the steep sides of Pichincha volcano to the west, the new city extends north and east, with busy commercial streets, trendy shopping areas, modern museums and city parks giving way to light industry, poor barrios and comfortable suburbs. The Mariscal area is conveniently central, and has good shops, restaurants and hotels.
Quito and the Equator - the middle of the world
The pre-Hispanic people of the Kingdom of Quito knew full well that they lived at the equator: they had solar observatories and temples to the sun and used astronomical measurements to govern their agricultural calendar. To underline the point, the original meaning of 'Quito' is said to be 'centre of the earth'.
In European terms, the location of zero degrees of latitude was first derived by a mission led by Charles Marie de la Condamine in 1736, when Ecuador was still part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. A sturdy monument set in a small theme park now straddles the French line in celebration of this triumph of geodesy, which by measuring the length of a degree of latitude proved that the earth bulges at the equator and thereby that Newton's theory of gravity was superior to Descartes'.
200m to the north the eclectic Inti-Ñan museum is positioned at 00°.00'.00'' latitude according to modern GPS measurements and provides an off-beat take on equatorial phenomena such as spiralling bath water and eggs balanced on the point of a nail, with an introduction to how local people lived in the olden days.
Modern Ecuadorians take pride in their position in the middle of the world. Not only did it name their country, the equator brings unexpected benefits such as the ability to grow long straight-stemmed roses, now exported far and wide.