The changing face of Quito Ecuador

| May 18, 2010

An adopted son of the Ecuadorian capital, Dominic Hamilton, recounts the remarkable efforts made to transform Quito’s historic centre.

Quito cityscape with Cotopaxi Volcano

Quito cityscape

Quito, like Ecuador itself, has a split personality. To the south, the Old Town, all dreaming spires and towering belfries, gleams white wedding-cake finery in its valley beneath the high Andean sun. To the north, the new town, with its mirrored tower blocks, swanky hotels, overpasses and roundabouts, is congested with modernity. The contrast couldn't be greater.

The great South American liberator Simón Bolívar was charmed by Quito before, in characteristic style, seducing and then falling head over heels for its most renowned beauty, Manuela Sáenz. He likened the city to a monastery when he first marched in with his victorious troops and, walking round the Old Town today, you can understand why. The church of the 16th and 17th century here probably enjoyed more power than the Spanish Crown. In the historic centre alone, over two dozen churches, chapels and convents rise above the two and three-storied houses.

Basilica of the National Vow, Quito

Basilica of the National Vow in the historic Old Town

Quito is also home to South America’s largest religious complex. As soon as the town was founded in 1534, the Franciscans began building their temple. As the original 200 colonists measured and squared off their parcels of land, the Franciscans swallowed up a whole hillside on the site of the Incan temples, which the defenders razed rather than leave to the Spanish. In rolled the Dominicans, the Jesuits, the Augustinians and all the original sin caravan of Inquisition Spain. The Cross and the Bible were just as much a part of the Conquest as the arquebus, horse and sword. The colonists brought sheep, horses, cattle and wheat. They transformed the local countryside and economy. Quito's families grew rich from mining and the textiles their Indians wove, supplying the colonial cities and demand in Spain. They built mansions on streets that still bear their mark: Calle del Comercio, Calle del Algodón. The city thrived. Not for nothing is it dubbed the ‘Reliquary of the Americas’. Next year, Quito will celebrate 40 years as a World Heritage Site – the first city ever to receive the accolade. And it remains the largest, and possibly most beautiful, historical centre in the Americas.

Plaza de San Francisco

Plaza de San Francisco with the Church and Monastery of St. Francis and Casa Gangotena

Until the turn of the century, medieval Quito lived on in the Old Town. To all intents and purposes it was an open market, where traders took up nearly every last inch of space. A huge effort was made, in what has become an example for other Latin capital cities, to transform the face of the historic quarter. Millions of dollars have been invested over the last decade in infrastructure, restoration and regeneration projects. Today, it’s true to say the jewel in the crown of the Ecuadorian Andes shines brighter than ever.

Plaza de la Independencia

Plaza de la Independencia

When showing friends round today, I end up sounding like a pub bore: "Oh, it never used to be like this, you know. You couldn't walk down this street for love nor money in my day..." Now you can amble the streets in safety. Traders were peaceably moved into purpose-built markets 15 years ago. The rectilinear streets have been re-organized with new lampposts and traffic-calming measures. At night, amid the colonial chessboard grid, the city's largest churches and squares are bathed in spotlights. One can clop along the cobbles in horse-drawn carriages. There are signposts in brushed steel indicating nearby tourist attractions.

Mansions have been restored and cultural spaces opened up. Quiteños have rediscovered and, more importantly, revalued the heart of their city. The transformation has been dramatic, encompassing not only churches and cultural centres, but neighbourhoods and streets, open spaces and whole hillsides. The city that greets visitors today is a million miles from the one I encountered for the first time in 2001.

Plaza Grande, Quito

Plaza Grande, Quito

In 2004, the first 4-star hotel opened up, followed by a clutch of boutique hotels, and then the Plaza Grande, a 5-star hotel, opened in 2007 – the most expensive hotel in the country at the time, no less. Today there are dozens of boutique and upmarket hotels, some housed within converted historic buildings like Casa Gangotena.

View from the Casa Gangotena terrace

View from the Casa Gangotena terrace

Change is apparent everywhere you look. For most of the 20th century, the houses along the street known locally as La Ronda had served as cheap board and lodging for poets, writers and musicians. In a concerted effort by various municipal institutions and neighbourhood associations, the street has been reborn and is now lined with cafes, galleries, shops and cultural spaces, with small hotels in the pipeline. There can’t be many people who lament its former incarnation. Quiteños from all walks of life have rejoiced at the blossoming of one of the capital’s most enigmatic streets.

La Ronda

La Ronda

From the new Water Museum, the Interactive Science Museum and the Centre for Contemporary Art to the regenerated parks and riverside walks, the cable car up the Pichincha Volcano and the Botanical Gardens, I have witnessed spaces transform and seen citizens rediscover their own heritage and start to believe in their future.

Cable car over Quito

Cable car over Quito

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