A Walking Tour of Colonial Quito

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July 17th 2009
Published: August 6th 2009
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Back 'home' to Quito and after a few lazy days recovering from an exhausting week at the beach (that sounds convincing doesn't it!) I decided to be slightly more cultured today and venture into the old town of Quito. I actually braved the bus system to avoid an extortionate taxi fare and was reasonably impressed with my success.

Despite being told the bus pretty much went through the Plaza de la Independencia, the closest stop was actually a twenty minute walk away but not to worry. I just hopped off when I realised we were doubling back on ourselves and just followed the tower of the Basilica which is fortunately viewable from quite a distance.

Ended up at the Basilica which seemed like a logical place to start. Went inside despite huge signs announcing that no tourists are allowed in - I can only assume this means during services as no-one seemed to mind and there were plenty of other tourists inside.

I'm never sure if you're allowed to take photos inside churches but there were no signs or guards so I took a few sneaky photos of the interior. Feels strangely like Europe inside - I guess all cathedrals the world over have that weird silence.

It was built to recall the consecration of the Ecuadorian state to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, during the presidency of Gabriel Garcia Moreno in 1873. It's 115 metres tall at it's worst point and it's made up of 24 internal chapels to represent the 24 provinces of Ecuador.

Its structure and style is compared with two of the great cathedrals worldwide: Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. But all that aside the best point of the Basilica del Voto Nacional is its substitution of the classic gargoyles by reptiles and native amphibians of Ecuador (see photos). Brilliant idea to have iguanas and pelicans in place of the usual little monsters!

It's free to enter the basilica but you have to pay to go into the towers and belfrey. I managed to get in for the grand total of one dollar. I can't believe the woman actually thought I was Ecuadorian (my Spanish isn't that good) but she was obviously feeling generous and decided I warranted the national fee instead of the tourist fee. Not going to complain!

Decided to be
Finally at the topFinally at the topFinally at the top

The highest point of the Basilica - more than 78 metres up!
energetic and climb the stairs to the belfrey stopping off on the second floor for views of the interior of the church from above and the organ. There is, surprisingly enough, a lift inside the cathedral for those people too lazy to walk but I figured with the amount of cuba libres I was consuming I needed the extra exercise.

Quite a trek to the top (naturally encountering the shop and the cafe on the way up) but came out onto a viewing platform affording views over the north of Quito and again south toward the Virgen de Quito atop her hilltop. Gorgeous views and the weather was amazingly enough holding out for me. A further couple of storeys led to the inside of the clock tower whereupon metal circular staircases took over from the slightly more solid-seeming stone steps.

I managed to get all the way to the top of the clock tower and even further by way of metal ladders to the top of the belfrey. Rather strong wind today so I didn't quite fancy following the example of a couple of Ecuadorian teenagers (obviously trying to impress their rather bored looking girlfriends) and step outside the tower onto the outer ledge. Nothing but a few inches of stone between me and a seventy metre drop does not sound like my idea of fun!

Got back down to (relatively) safe ground to view the old black and white photos that had been put up showing the construction of the Basilica. Obviously the workers had a better head for heights than me as there were photos of them balancing on nothing more than wooden beams at the very top of the nearly-finished tower.

Had to descend all the way back to the main floor to be able to cross the length of the cathedral. A wooden footbridge has been put on top of the stone vault of the cathedral roof in order to get to the towers. That part I could cope with though I remember from my last visit that I was not so keen on the ten metre high vertical ladder set against the far wall which enables you to reach the outside of the roof.

Made it up fairly quickly due, in most part, to the fact there was an eiht year old German girl behind me telling me to hurry up. I hate children showing me exactly how pathetic I can be at times though I've never been the biggest fan of heights!

Climbed all the way back down via the stairs as the lift had managed to get jammed. Ridiculously hot sunny weather outside compared to the last few miserable days we've been having.

Decided to head for the Plaza de la Independencia (or simply Plaza Grande to the locals) which fortunately wasn't too far as despite the rather obvious police presence I still don't really want to walk around with a couple of cameras in my bag.

Had lunch at a nearby cafe and the joined in with the national pastime of doing nothing in the sun for a while. No idea why there were so many people lounging around on a Friday lunchtime but I could very much get used to that lifestyle!

Headed over to La Catedral. Despite being one of the oldest cathedrals in South America and the official cathedral of Quito it has never struck me as being all that impressive. Quito has so many beautiful churches (including one with an entire interior of gold-leaf!) I can't quite figure out why they chose this one to be the cathedral.

Atypical of Spanish city design, the cathedral has two main entrances: one is part of the nave facing La Plaza Grande where we were and the other is at the facade facing west. This is due to the geography of Quito when construction began as ravines prevented the facade from facing the plaza, as is customary in Spanish city design.

There were various plaques on the outside walls one of which commemorates the launching point of Francisco de Orellana's expedition to the Amazon in 1542.

Headed for the Museo de San Agustin but somehow managed to end up outside the Iglesia de la Merced (my map-reading skills are obviously failing me!) That said, La Merced was certainly impressive.

Originally built by Moorish architects in 1538, the current building was finished in the same style in 1737, after the original was destroyed in an earthquake, and contains many early paintings from the Quito school as well as a Baroque gold-leaf altar designed by Bernado de Legarda.

It also has the tallest tower and largest bell in colonial Quito though the bell hangs unrung and the clock stands still. Legend has it that the tower, the only unblessed part of the church, is possessed by the devil.

The only man strong enough to resist was a bell-ringer named Ceferino who died in 1810 and no-one has entered the bell tower since. Pity as it probably would have had a very good view over Quito.

Got back out with some rather disapproving glares for taking photos but there were no signs and no one actually told me not to. Headed for Museo de San Agustin which had been where we were initially headed before my map-reading skills (or lack thereof) led us astray.

Managed to find it this time, passing by a side door of the Presidential Palace where a car, three police cars and four police motorbikes were obviosuly waiting for the President to come out. The amount people here complain about the president and the rather proactive approach South Americans have to changing their politicians I would want that amount of security too!

Arrived at San Agustin - it was started in 1580 but actually ended up taking 70 years to complete due to contracting difficulties. Yup, it was a problem even 400 years ago. Francisco Becerra was initially contracted to design and build it but then the Spanish decided to move him to Cusco to work on the Cathedral there and forgot about poor little Quito.

It wasn't until nearly thirty years later that someone remembered San Agustin and commissioned Juan del Corral to design it, it was eventually completed in 1650.

The convent (part of which now houses the museum though it is still a working convent) was built almost entirely of stones and rocks from the Pichincha volcano. Rather aptly in fact because San Agustin later became the site for the signing of the Ecuadorian declaration of indepence following the decisive Battle of Pichincha in 1809.

The chair and table used for the signing still survives and is displayed in the Chapter Room in the museum. Strictly no touching with the exception of the film crew who came to film a documentary on the winning of Ecuador's independence and god knows how much they must have had to pay to get permission!

The building itself is very beautiful - colonial white washed building with garden courtyard. It primarily houses huge amounts of oil painting mostly from the Quito School and a large number depicting the Life of Saint Augustine.

Never been a huge fan of the paintings in South America. The majority just can't compare when you've been to European art galleries although there were some interesting ones.

One that used to be housed here but has since been moved is one of the most famous paintings of Jesus on the cross. Hugely disapproved of when it was first painted as it showed Jesus in pain, it actually had a live model in order for the artist to be able to capture the pain so well.

Spain and the church had a lot to say about the idea of Jesus being in pain but no-one seemed too bothered about the poor guy they grabbed to be the 'model' and who unfortunately died during the sitting.

The Eastern corridor has a Mudejar styled ceiling, implementing geometric figures with hanging pine fruits. Really beautiful floral decorations and gold leaf but in 1895, due to a confrontation between the Liberals and the Conservatives, the convents were turned into military quarters and the ceiling was used for target practice, destroying all of the beautiful decoration. Some replicas have been put up next to what remains of the original - must have been very impressive when it was complete.

Had a very good guide included in the rather reasonable one dollar entry fee (I'm still masquerading as Ecuadorian at this point!) and an excellent museum all in all though I can't say I'm particularly enthralled by religious art. Couldn't visit the convent as they are only open very few hours per week and then only for the nuns to sell the stuff they make.

Even then you're hidden from view by a wooden revolving hatch so you can't see the nuns. Very traditional convent that has barely changed in the 500 years since its creation. I think the only major difference is that their one hour of freedom a day can now be used to watch television instead of just talk!

Headed off in search of a bus after the museum as it was coming up to six and being in the old town after dark does not seem like something I want to try. Got attacked by a couple of kids trying to sell us stuff though I think they were rather more interested in our cameras.

We got distracted by ice cream and shook them off but they were still waiting for us when we came out of the shop so we hightailed it to a bus, that luckily was heading in the right direction, cameras firmly in hand. No little brat is going to steal my camera chips from me! I'd rather they relieved me of my credit cards!

Additional photos below
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7th August 2009

What a great blog post. Beautiful photos.

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