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Old town Quito

Plaza de la Independencia

The heart of colonial Quito features a winged statue to independence atop a high pillar. A park surrounding the base often echoes with the cries of evangelical preachers ignored for the most part by the legion of old men out to feed the pigeons and enjoy the sun.

On the plaza's Southwest side, the grimy Catedral Metropolitana is actually the third to stand on this site. José Antonio Sucre, the number-two man in South America's independence battles, is buried here. Behind the main altar is the smaller altar of Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores, where on 6 Aug. 1875 President Gabriel García Moreno drew his last breath after being shot outside the presidential palace.

A long arched walkway to the Northwest lines the front of the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace). The balconies over the plaza, originally from the Palace of Les Tuilleries in Paris, were a gift from the French government just after the French Revolution. At the entrance to the main courtyard off the walkway stand two long-suffering guards in full uniform who must be among the most-photographed people in the country (it's probably for the best that guns aren't a part of the ceremonial outfit). Inside the gate is a large painting of Orleans descent of the Amazon.

The former Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop's Palace) on the Northeast side now houses a series of small shops and boutiques. Cobbled courtyards, thick whitewashed walls, and wooden balconies make it worth a peek. The plaza's colonial spell is broken only by the stark City Hall to the Southeast, whose simple glass lines still manage to echo those of the Palacio de Gobierno opposite.

Plaza del Teatro

This plaza at Guayaquil and Sucre is home to the Teatro Nacional Sucre, one of Quito's finest theatres. The gorgeous building, erected in 1878, hosts frequent plays and concerts. The theatre was closed as of early 1997 for extensive renovations.

Monasterio de el Carmen Bajo

Enter this monastery on Venezuela between Olmedo and Manabí (there are three bells to ring--keep trying). Whitewashed stone pillars support a two-story courtyard inside surrounded by nun's quarters and schoolrooms.

Iglesia El Sagrario

Formerly the main chapel of the Catedral Metropolitana, this separate church was begun in 1657 and completed half a century later. The walls and ceiling of the short nave are painted to simulate marble--even the bare stone is speckled black and white in a half-hearted granite imitation. Impressive paintings and stained glass windows decorate the centre cupola.

Iglesia San Agustin

Ecuador's declaration of independence was signed at this church on Chile and Guayaquil on 10 Aug. 1809. Many of the heroes who battled for independence are buried in the floor of the church. No surface is left unpainted, including the likenesses of saints, which line the arches against a pastel background. A black Christ occupies a side altar.

The attached Convento/Museo de San Agustin on Chile and Flores features loads of colonial artwork on the walls and surrounds a palm-filled courtyard. Don't miss the incredible carved benches and altar of the Sala Capitular on the first floor.

Plaza San Francisco

This gently sloping, cobbled expanse can easily keep you occupied all afternoon. Head up the set of circular stairs to the front of the Iglesia San Francisco, where vendors of religious souvenir keep visitors stocked with rosaries, candles, incense, icons, and amulets. This largest colonial edifice in the city is also the oldest, begun on the site of an Inca royal house within weeks of the city's founding in 1534. The first wheat grown in Ecuador sprouted in one of its courtyards, and Atahualpa's children learned to read, write, and add in its school. Much of the original construction has been lost to earthquakes, but some original work remains--look to the right of the main altar in the chapel of Señor Jesus de Gran Poder for an example.

Two white spires flank a glowering stone facade, which sets the perfect mood for the interior. Inside bare bulbs are almost swallowed by the dusty gloom, with little help from the small, high windows. It's easy to imagine yourself in the 16th century; a musty odor drifts up from the creaking wooden floorboards. They didn't even bother to paint the walls here, choosing instead to gild first and ask questions later--thick encrustation cover almost every square inch. Seeing the carved roof alone is worth a visit. Notice how many of the design motifs come from the Inca, including the smiling/frowning faces of sun gods, repeated several times, and harvest symbols of flowers and fruit.

To the right of the main entrance the Franciscan Museum, tel. 221-1124 or 221-2545, houses one of the finest collections of colonial art in Quito, dating from the 16th-19th centuries. On the other side the Capilla de Catuña (Catuña Chapel) also has colonial art on display. As the story goes, this chapel was constructed by an indígena named Catuña who promised to have it completed in a certain length of time. When it became obvious he wasn't going to come close to his deadline, he offered his soul to the Devil in exchange for help to get it done on time. Catuña finished and had a sudden change of heart, begging the Virgin Mary to save him from his hasty agreement. Sure enough, a foundation stone was discovered missing during the inauguration, negating his deal with the devil.

Plaza Santo Domingo

A statue of Sucre pointing to his victory site on the slopes of Pichincha decorates this plaza at the southern corner of Old Town. Crowds often surround performance artists in front of the Iglesia Santo Domingo, begun in 1581 and finished in 1650. Four clock faces and an off-centre tower decorate the stone facade. Despite the stained glass behind the altar, the decorative elements inside somehow don't seem to work together; especially jarring is the baroque (read: Chinese-restaurant) filigree of the Chapel of the Rosary to one side.

La Compañia

What is said to be the most beautiful church in the Americas is definitely among its most ornate. Seven tons of gold supposedly ended up on the ceiling, walls, and altars of "Quito's Sixtene Chapel," which was built by the wealthy Jesuit order between 1605 and 1768. Renovators are attempting to restore extensive damage done by the 1987 earthquake.

Even the outside is overwhelming, crammed with full-size statues, busts, sculpted hearts, and a garden's worth of leaves carved in stone. The interior has eight side chapels, one of which houses the guitar and remains of Santa Mariana de Jesus. Some of the more expensive relics--including a painting of the Virgin framed with gold and precious stones--are locked away in a bank vault in between festivals.

One of the more eye-catching objects in La Compañia is a painting depicting hell, which Paul Theroux described so glowingly in The Old Patagonian Express: "From a distance this mural seemed to me an accurate representation of a night time football game in El Salvador, but on closer inspection it was pure Bosch." Sinners with labels like vanidad (vanity) and glotón (gluttony) each receive an imaginative, excruciatingly appropriate punishment. Theroux continues: "Schoolchildren from Quito are brought to the church and shown this mural so that, suitably terrified, they will stay on the straight and narrow."

Monasterio El Carmen Alto

This monastery at Rocafuerte and García Moreno was the home of Santa Mariana de Jesus from 1618 to 1645. Abandoned children were once passed through a small window in the patio to be raised by the nuns. The Arco de La Reina (Queen's Arch) over Rocafuerte marks the original southern entrance to Quito's centre.

Museo Nacional De Arte Colonial

Works by renowned artists Miguel de Santiago, Caspicara, and Bernardo de Legarda make up part of Quito's finest collection of colonial art in this museum at Cuenca and Mejía, tel. 2-212-297; the collection includes sculpture and furniture as well. The building itself began as the home of a wealthy Quiteño in the 17th century.

Museo Municipal De Arte e Historia Alberto Mena Caamaño

The main draw to the Municipal Museum of Art and History, Espejo 1147 and Benalcázar, tel. 2-214-018 or 2-210-863, is a set of wax figures in the basement, depicting the death throes of patriots killed here in 1810 by royalist troops. The collection upstairs includes colonial and contemporary art.

Casa de Sucre

The one-time home of Bolívar's southern counterpart has been preserved in its original, early-1800s state. Located at Venezuela 573 and Sucre, tel. 2-512-860, the home is open Tues.-Sat. 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 1:30-4 p.m. Entrance costs US$1 pp.

Casa de Benalcázar

Colonial art and furniture fills this house, Olmedo 962 and Benalcázar, tel. 2-215-838, constructed the year of Quito's refounding. Classical music performances are occasionally held here. It's open Mon.-Fri.; call for specific times.

Museo Camilio Egas

Canvases by Ecuadorian painter Camilio Egas (1889-1962) are overseen by the Banco Central, Venezuela 1302 and Esmeraldas, tel. 2-514-511. Hours are Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-1 p.m., 3-5:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

La Cima De La Libertad

Follow the Av. de Los Libertadores west into the foothills of Pichincha to reach this monument to Sucre's decisive victory over the royalist forces on 24 May 1822. An expansive mural by Eduardo Kingman competes with the view of the city below. The Museo Temple de La Pátria, tel. 2-512-860, open Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m., has a display of historical military tools and weapons.

El Panecillo

A huge statue of the Virgin of Quito punctuates this small hill at the southern end of Old Town. Mass is often held at the statue's base on Sunday, and the observation platform gives a great view of the city.

La Ronda

One of the best-preserved colonial streets in Old Town, also called Calle Juan de Díos Morales, La Ronda is nicknamed for the evening serenades (rondas) that once floated through its winding path. Old balconies almost touch over the narrow lane, lined with a few shops and budget hotels toward the end. It's reached most easily via Guayaquil, sloping down from the Plaza Santo Domingo.

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