Let’s start from the top (or the bottom, rather), at Santo Domingo Church, where our journey from Quito to Otavalo begins. The Pan-American Highway’s official starting point is said to lie at the corner of Flores and Maldonado, where this religious landmark stands, one of the most colorful and memorable in Old Town Quito.
Santo Domingo is dominated by high coffered ceilings with Quito-sky-blue frescoes and screaming pink and gold Moorish-influenced woodwork overlooking the pews below. Wood actually gives the entire experience of walking inside the monument the breadth of time kept safe for centuries. Described as the “creeking church”, visitors approach the altar over hardwood floors, scenting an undeniably warm aura that first-timers are quick to call “eerie”. In one sense, the church is a hybrid. Italian Dominican priests in the 19th century threw out much of the original Baroque artwork, (which some say were saved and taken to the small-town church of Perucho) in favor of Neo-Classical elements.
To the right of the main hall we find the church’s true pièce de resistance: the Rococo-style Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary. Set within a dramatic scarlet and gold-leaf niche, this short-of gaudy altarpiece and surrounding carvings make the entire inset a feast for the eyes.
From 1586 onwards, Fray Pedro Bedón (visit the adjacent Fray Pedro Bedón Museum) lived and worked in the church, beginning its legacy of artistic importance. Other artists, including Bernardo de Legarda, Caspicara, Padre Carlos — basically the crème de la crème of religious colonial art — display their fine technique and cultural syncretism with “mestizo” virgins and starkly vivid nativity scenes.
As you walk north on Flores, you find a string of yarn stores where those in the know receive cheap one-hour classes (you’ll see the pros knitting away), as well as candle stores, “Luz de América” being the oldest (over a century old, at Pereira).
At the corner of Santo Domingo Church, look for the arch over the street adorned with cupolas, and turn uphill, west up Calle Rocafuerte, into the neighborhood of San Roque. The proud and industrious community throughout this working-class Quito barrio organizes a series of guided visits to show people around (log onto caminosdesanroque.com). As you are taken to different corner stores and workshops, churches and markets, you’ll discover a profound desire to preserve things just as they were in the days of old. Seamstresses, tailors, embroiderers, woodcarvers and milliners — Rosa González’s eclectic bazaar offering love potions and lucky soaps — are a voyage that spans over a century of popular culture in Quito.
The sweet scent of simmering peanuts fills the air at Arco de la Reina (Queen’s Arch), part of the former San Juan de Dios Hospital and venerable walls of Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum, on García Moreno). At the arch, note the Carmen Alto church and convent still populated by cloistered nuns, who sell creams and sweets from the turnstile that keeps them hidden (or else from the store on the left of the patio).
Continue uphill to the recently-renovated Plaza Santa Clara, dominated by the white-washed walls of its convent (another nun retreat, rarely open to the public). Right on Calle Cuenca, Museo Casa del Alabado, arguably Ecuador’s finest archaeological museum, is housed in a beautifully restored old colonial residence.
Back on Rocafuerte —curiously, a hub for home- made piñatas —you’ll also find stores selling Amazonian guayusa and other spices, as well as the last remaining flour mill in the Old Town. On the left, across the street from San Roque Church, lies a veritable living “museum” of local hustle and bustle: San Francisco Market. Notice the stalls run by healers, swishing clutches of medicinal branches over their patients to perform traditional limpias, Andean spiritual cleansing.
Detour la Ronda
La Ronda demarcated Quito’s southern border up until the 19th century. Its official name is Calle Morales, but it’s known as La Ronda since it was where guards would patrol (rondar) the city-limit streets. The historic neighborhood, from which the famed Decapitados (“Headless”) literary movement spurred, was also inspiration for much of Quito’s popular music. La Ronda fell on hard times until a city regeneration project restored its fortunes.
Today, the curved cobblestone street is lined with craft shops, eateries, galleries, hotels and bars. Boisterous marching bands and acoustic guitar duos color the evening, while canelazo dives rekindle a dormant Bohemian past. Look out for emblematic characters like the ‘hojalatero’ (the tin tinker), the piano “doctor”, the hat-maker or the bone-setter… By day, La Ronda has forever kept its “morning-after” vibe, but you can visit the traditional games set up in the middle of the traffic-free street or El Quinde Bookstore, with an interesting catalog of historic Quito-related material.
La Ronda (Calle Morales) runs one block to the south of Rocafuerte. Start your walk from behind the Museo de la Ciudad.