Quito (Villa de San Francisco de Quito), the capital of Ecuador, sits nestled at the lower slope of the volcano Pichincha. Not only is it the oldest of all the capitals in South America, but it remains a UNESCO World Heritage and a source of rich history and a melting pot of cultures.
Like most South American cities, Quito has changed hands a few times and has a long history of how it came to be. These tribulations are what shaped the city into what it is today: a territory of strong economic, industrial, and artistic worth.
History of Quito
Quito was originally inhabited by the Quito Indians, but they lost control of the land when conquered by the Cara Indians in the early 15th century. Soon after, the Incas took the region when passing through.
The city had its start as a major socio-economic hub when Inca emperor Huayna Capac designated it as a major military outpost and governmental center. After the Inca ruler left the region, warring between the sons he left in charge left the city ruined.
In December 1533, Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar claimed the area in the name of his king. Founder’s day marks this event, and the city still celebrates it in a weeklong celebration every year.
Much of Quito’s notoriety revolves around the amount of culture preserved in the city. It held strong as the focus of all national affairs until the early 1900s, when economic dominance shifted to the city of Guayaquil. While Quito remains a political and social stronghold, the rivalry of the cities is still palpable today.
The Cultural Preservation of Quito
Much of Quito’s reputation revolves around the way the city has not only preserved but maintained its history. It served as the birthplace for many influences in the regions, and the ghost of each cultural impact holds strong in the city.
Quito is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, marking its significant influence and significance in the world today. Despite the threats of time and natural disasters such as earthquakes, Quito remains the best preserved and least altered historic hub in Latin America, evidenced by its endless list of notable sites and places to witness.
The colonial atmosphere still holds a large atmosphere of influence in Quito’s environment. You can still see church towers line up along the volcanoes surrounding the Quito Basin. Their squares ring with a haunting reverence and hold well-maintained fountains, balconies, and gardens.
The Quito School of Art, founded at El Colegio de San Andres in 1552, kicked off a movement of religious art in the region and South America as a whole. Countless artists flocked to the school to study illumination, sculpting, and painting, and it thrived through the Spanish colonial period.
Churches and Convents
Many buildings in Quito qualify as museums, including many churches, mansions, and convents. These include:
- La Compañía (1765): a Jesuit convent that sits in the middle of Quito; marked by baroque styles of columns, gold leaf altars, and cathedral ceilings
- Monasterio Museo del Carmen Alto (1653): the home of Quito’s patron Santa Marianita de Jesus; still houses an order of nuns today
- Basilica and Convent of San Francisco (1650): Ecuador’s oldest religious site; a mix of styles from over a century of construction that started in 1535
- Church and convent of San Agustín: a latter 16h century cloister where Ecuador’s Act of Independence was ultimately signed in 1809
- Iglesia de Santo Domingo: known for its Capilla del Rosario, as well as its arches
- Iglesia de El Sagrario: a Renaissance Catholic church in the city; houses the mausoleum of Antonio José de Sucre, the hero of Venezuelan independence
In all, religious buildings and subsequent land take up an entire quarter of the Quito. These remain despite the earthquakes that frequent the area. Bigger earthquakes may only happen every 2 or 3 decades, but these buildings stood strong through many major events.
Other Notable Places in Quito
While churches and convents are a major attraction on their own, Quito is rich in museums of many kinds.
La Casa del Alabado
This privately owned museum is a house built in 1671 that sits in Quito’s San Francisco Plaza. While this is a historic masterpiece on its own, the museum holds a collection of ancient artifacts dating back thousands of years.
While it’s a small museum that you can devour in just a few hours, it’s full of over 5,000 pieces of world history that are mesmerizing to witness. Even walking through and observing the Spanish-colonial architecture is a joy to see, and the unique arrangement of the pieces helps you take everything in.
Museo de la Ciudad
Quito’s city museum is a perfect representation of the city and region at large. The city’s oldest building, originally a hospital in 1565, hosts the museum’s centuries of culture.
The Museo de la Ciudad explains the expansion and diversification of the city and the region, including major events and the transformation of daily life in the area. It serves as a staple of knowledge for both residents and tourists, although some exhibits change regularly.
The Quito Astronomical Observatory (La Alameda Park)
The observatory, founded in 1873 and finished 5 years later, holds a collection of scientific instruments from the period. It remains a stronghold for solar-physic studies around the year due to Ecuador’s central location.
The observatory’s museum sits inside La Alameda park, and it attracts tourists as well as students and scientists to the region.
While Quito was once isolated, the Guayaquil-Quito railway linked it to the coastal areas in 1908. Beyond this, the city has an international airport and now sits on the Pan-American Highway.
Quito remains one of Ecuador’s major industrial centers, and it’s major commercial contributions include:
- Crafted objects (primarily of leather, wood, gold, and silver)
While the city’s commercial center shifted with the construction of new banks, retail centers, and corporate offices in the later 1900s, the historic areas retain their economic importance.
The city is a blend of new and old, and serves as an international symbol of how modern life can thrive while preserving the marks of history.