By: Matthias Abram
Matthias Abram, a passionate of Quito and a proud San Marcos neighbor, shares what he calls his “Itinerarium quitense”, a where-to-go and what-to-do-and-see of the Historic Center. Discover the landmarks, art and history of the old town (and have a coffee in a special place in between).
*Disclaimer: the route can take you several days, years or a lifetime to explore well.
Chapter One: The Fringes of Old Quito
Built as a retirement retreat for Dominican friars, the church and museum at La Recoleta was deeply afflicted by the earthquake of 1868. It was rebuilt by conservative President García Moreno and donated to the nuns of the Good Shepherd, who arrived in Quito from France. The eclectic, late-nineteenth-century church possesses a discreet charm, with its stained-glass windows and attractive murals. The nuns’ museum is full of embroideries (the presidential bands are apparently confectioned here) and curious objects like the chalice from which Archbishop Checa y Barba drank poison (and died, on Good Friday, 1877).
Opposite the semi-abandoned park stands the façade, surely impressive at the time, of the 1909 National Exhibit’s main headquarters, an event organized by President Eloy Alfaro to show the world the progress of his liberal government. Today, it belongs to the Ministry of Defense.
– The Buen Pastor Convent –
Walking up Calle Maldonado, a street opened by engineer Sebastián Wisse, teacher and friend of García Moreno, we find, on the left, the old and new churches of San Sebastián. This was one of Quito’s seven original parishes. The new church is a loquacious demonstration of popular devotion, full of reproductions of Colonial paintings. In the parish house, a beautiful Spanish sculpture of San Sebastián is worth eyeing.
Before reaching Plaza Santo Domingo, to your left, stands a house in which famed Quito intellectual, doctor, writer and historian Eugenio Espejo lived. In front of it, rises the former house of Mejía Lequerica (the famous orator who defended Spanish America’s plights for independence) and his wife Manuela, Espejo’s sister… all three are crucial historical figures.
– Our Lord of Miracles at San Sebastián –
Chapter Two: Mamacuchara
As we head up hill we walk under an arch, which is in fact the “dressing room” of Our Lady of the Rosary (Virgen del Rosario), venerated in one of Quito’s most beautiful chapels, decked out in sumptuous red and gold. In front of us, the lower part of calle Rocafuerte, also called Loma Grande (the Great Hill), stretches off into the distance, a busy, bustling street with early 20th-century residences and some older, in need of TLC.
At the end of the street, we come to a round square that gives the neighborhood its name: the Mother (or Big) Spoon, mamacuchara; cuchara also meaning a dead-end street in popular lingo. Here we find Mejía again, his bust adorning a tall central column and to one side, the building of the former Clínica Pasteur, with painted walls and a traditional Spanish courtyard. Today, it is the neighborhood’s cultural center.
– Mama Cuchara’s roundabout, with pretty views and a boutique hotel –
Retracing our steps back about 50 meters, we can descend Calle Fernández Madrid on the right to the Capilla de los Milagros (Chapel of Miracles). We cross into another, peaceful world to find the chapel, built around an image of Christ that appeared on a stone. The walls were all painted in the 1920s, with saints, allegorical stories and a surprising panorama that takes us straight to biblical Jerusalem. Next door, in a small house, the Café de los Milagros is a great find, offering reviving guayusa tea (and good coffee) to keep us going for the next chapter.
Chapter Three: My beloved San Marcos
From here we can easily walk down to calle Sucre – what was once a steep gully (Manosalvas) – and then climb the stairs up to San Marcos square, the heart of a neighborhood that in recent years has become more attractive thanks to the many local resident initiatives.
– Matthias has made San Marcos his home –
The newly-restored Priest’s house is home to a gallery and a silk-screen workshop. Further on we pass the workshop of master woodsmith Pepe Barrera and next to it, a pretty antique store. The imposing Casa Benalcázar, formerly the Caspicara Foundation headquarters and later, the Casa de la Danza (House of Dance) hems the square’s west side.
We walk along Calle Junín, past several Early-Republican houses, two of which were built by the Russo brothers in the 1920s and some modern ones, too. There are three museums in San Marcos, the College of Architects’ Museum, the Muñoz Mariño Watercolor Museum and the Manuela Sáenz Museum. You can fine dine at Octava de Corpus and even stay in the boutique Illa Experience Hotel or Casa San Marcos, the former with an excellent New-Ecuadorian restaurant, Nuema, inside, while the latter doubles as an antique shop and café. Another romantic café is located in the courtyard of the Ortiz residence, today CEDIME.
San Marcos has truly become a neighborhood worth getting to know. Its true secret, without a doubt, are its friendly neighbors, among whom I have the privilege of living for over 35 years. Kind, warm and welcoming, I’ve come to know them well. We organize ourselves as a community to solve our issues; take care of our homes and together defend our neighborhood and its peaceful life.
Chapter Four: Heading to the Plaza
As we leave San Marcos, we join Calle Flores and turn right to Santa Catalina Church. You may see reused stones here, which possibly come from an earlier Inca building, a house of sun virgins (aclla huasi in Kichwa) located at the site. In the sixteenth century, it was owned by a brother of Santa Teresa, who donated it to build the convent. Both side and main portals, with their eye-catching designs, were created by Spanish architect José Jaime Ortiz, who owned three houses in San Marcos. The yellow house on the corner, with its elegant lines, is also his, completed in 1703 and home of the Marquise of Maenza.
We are now on Calle Espejo, a section that becomes pedestrian. On the left stands, in all its majestic and art deco grandeur, the Teatro Bolívar. Until the 1970s, the theatre ranked among the best cultural centers in the Old Town. After a fire decimated the interior and closed it for decades, it has now taken on new life. On the ground floor, find excellent Galletti café and Ecuadorian restaurant La Purísima, and on the second floor, Wonder Bar, famous for its ceviches (and its special event nights).
“Quito is a city full of nuances and history, layers one atop another that make every experience in this city a journey through the ages.”
Before crossing the street, spot on the right a curious French-style building with a dome and green bricks. It’s Intellectual Chiriboga’s mansion. They say he had three daughters who never left the place in order to preserve their “whiteness” (they were known to spy on everyone from behind the mansion’s curtains).
A few meters away extends the Plaza Chica (Little Square), today lined with benches and flower stands. The house of the marquises of Miraflores was located here. In January 1802, Juan Pío Montufar received the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in this house. The Prussian Baron would befriend his son Carlos, who would later follow him to Europe and fight in the wars of liberation against Spain. Here, decades ago, stood the original El Globo store, where two statues of Atlantis held up the façade in front of its enormous front gates.
These sculptures now adorn the entrance to the Atahualpa Stadium in northern Quito. Looking serious atop his imposing pedestal, Archbishop González Suárez, surveys passers-by. He was an illustrious historian well-known for his treaties on Ecuadorian history, among the most comprehensive to date. The statue was originally located in Plaza San Francisco. Also, don’t miss the grandiose building of La Previsora, with its art deco detailing, including impressive wrought iron gates with “indigenist” figures. A little further on, walking west, stop for a moment to observe the bustle: we’ve arrived at Plaza Grande, the Old Town’s heart.
Chapter Five: Towards Mount Pichincha
From here, we could continue up Calle Mejía to the Museum of Colonial Art (but first you might want to taste a delicious “seco de chivo” or have a fruit smoothie at Fabiolita, below the Cathedral). The more adventurous may want to continue, still on Mejía, to El Tejar, passing street stalls and lots of commercial activity, crossing the main peripheral highway —Mariscal Sucre Avenue (La Occidental)— up to San José Chapel (beautiful baroque altars, and in the cripts, Eugenio Espejo’s grave, if by any chance you might want to pay your respects to this magnanimous Quito intellectual).
– As we climb Calle Mejía, we meet this mural by Quito artist Luigi Stornaiolo –
Or we could also travel a kilometer south, by bus, to the San Diego Cemetery, visit the Franciscan convent, the cemetery and then head back to the city center along Calle Imbabura, to Plaza de la Victoria (Victory Square), where we find the stately house where writer and Quito connoisseur Cristóbal Gangotena used to live (and where they say the grand soiree celebrating independence from Spain took place in 1822).
We then reach Avenida 24 de Mayo, where the great ravine of Jerusalem (also known as Vulture Ravine, la Quebrada de los Gallinazos) was filled in the 1920s to make a street, today pedestrianized. As you look up towards the hills from here, you can observe the area where Don Francisco Atauchi, the son of Atahuallpa, the last Inca, had his domains and where the few families of Inca nobility that survived the Conquest settled. The blacksmith Cantuña also had his home and smithy here.
– Walking the old town is a pleasure for curious eyes –
On the north side of 24 de Mayo, rises the small Capilla del Robo (The Chapel of the Theft), built in memory of the day a chalice was stolen from Santa Clara Church, a sacrilege for which a humble Indian was judged and executed – although he confessed under torture and probably had nothing to do with the affair.
Chapter Six: At the Gates of San Francisco
We now must turn towards right, uphill, on Calle Cuenca, to come to Santa Clara, a sumptuous temple with altars from the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods and an unusual number of sculptures from the Quito School of Art. Unfortunately, it remains closed most of the time.
– Hidden courtyards at the Santa Clara cloisters –
Advancing northwards on Cuenca, we pass by the beautiful museum of Casa del Alabado, home to 500 spectacular and beautifully-displayed pieces of pre-Columbian art (without a doubt one of the most elegant museums in all the Andes). Further along the same street comes the Franciscan complex. First stop: the Cantuña Chapel, a precious example of the Quito School of Art, all smothered in ornamental angels, garlands, mirrors and stars.
The church of San Francisco, and the church, always visited by and the third to be built in Quito, opens atop a curious staircase half concave and half convex. This staircase and parts of the façade show influence of Italian mannerism and are based on drawings found in an architectural treatise by Sebastiano Serlio, published in Toledo in 1565, which served as inspiration for many architectural details throughout Quito’s churches and convents. The original copy used by the master builders with their notes still exists.
– Pedro Gocial Museum hallways, at the San Francisco complex –
San Francisco is a good place to spend some time, with its beautiful Pedro Gocial Museum devotees, stunning chapels, pulpit and altars. The Gangotena Palace, which today houses the Casa Gangotena hotel, on the right side of the square, was the home of the prominent Gangotena landowners. The previous house burned down in the 1910s and Italian architects, the Russo brothers, were hired to build a palazzo that, in the Quito of the time, must truly have been a sight to behold.