Threatening-looking clouds were hovering overhead as we left our hotel for the historic city center of Quito. Herb and I were taking a tour of the old colonial city with a group of eight other travelers before our upcoming week in the Galápagos Islands. With rain jackets tucked safely inside our backpacks, we had come prepared for the weather. Like the movie Groundhog Day, the weather.com listings for the Ecuadorian capital had been suspiciously the same in the weeks before we left home: highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s and daily thunderstorms.
Quito sits in a valley on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano in the Andes. With an elevation of 9,350 feet, it is the second highest capital city in the world, behind La Paz, Bolivia, and the oldest capital in South America. The city was founded as San Francisco de Quito in the 16th century and lays claim to having the largest and best-preserved historic city center in the Americas.
Basílica del Voto Nacional
Our bus driver was maneuvering his way through impossibly narrow streets in the historic district as tour guide Paola was providing commentary about our visit. The first stop would be the Basílica del Voto Nacional – the Basilica of the National Vow – a massive neo-Gothic structure perched on a hill on the edge of Quito’s Old Town. Construction of the Basílica began in 1892, but it wasn’t consecrated until 1988, and today it still remains technically unfinished.
Although this would be an exterior-only visit, Paola explained that we would be in for an architectural treat. Instead of the grotesque and rather frightening-looking gargoyles typically found in Gothic architecture, the Basílica’s gargoyles are a delightful bunch, representing the birds and animals of the Galápagos Islands.
With some free time to explore on our own, Herb and I headed to the park across from the Basílica to take in the views. Artisans were lingering nearby, selling small paintings and textiles. Paola had told us that the items were made in the Cotopaxi region of Ecuador and that although we shouldn’t feel obligated to purchase anything, she could vouch for their authenticity.
Back on the bus, we rode about ten minutes south to Centro Histórico, the heart of Quito’s Old Town. Each one-lane street seemed to be narrower than the last and was lined with pastel-colored apartments and shops that appeared within reach of my window. The statue of the Virgin of El Panecillo came into view at almost every turn, offering different perspectives of Quito’s iconic landmark.
Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco
Rain was starting to fall when we began our walking tour at the Church and Convent of St. Francis. The sprawling Roman Catholic complex anchors an equally sprawling plaza of the same name. Founded in 1836 by Franciscan monks and built over 150 years, the complex features 13 cloisters, three churches, more than 3,500 works of religious art and a library holding thousands of books and historic documents.
San Francisco is considered an architectural masterpiece, with interiors that mix Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art into what is called the “Baroque School of Quito.”
Our group took a short break in the interior courtyard, a peaceful oasis of palm trees, orange-flowered shrubbery, a fountain and even a few resident parrots. This architectural style of a central courtyard surrounded on four sides by covered walkways leading to various rooms reminded me of California missions I’ve visited.
Paola led us inside to a back staircase, where we made our way to the choir loft. Our group stood at the railing while a service was being held below, taking in one of the most gilded, gold-leafed sanctuaries imaginable. Every possible inch was covered with lavish decoration that shimmered in the light pouring through small windows near the ceiling. As an added bonus, non-flash photography was permitted, an unexpected surprise that I quickly took advantage of!
Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús
The two green and gold domes we had seen from San Francisco Plaza belong to the Church of the Society of Jesus, another glittering golden Baroque School of Quito architectural gem. Constructed between 1605 and 1765, the church’s façade is carved in volcanic stone in the ornate Baroque style. Gold leaf dominates the interior design, blending with Moorish columns and cedar wood detail. I especially loved the beautiful star-filled blue dome, the only non-gold part of the interior. Unfortunately, we were not permitted to take photos inside.
It was nearing lunch time when we passed through a leafy square called Plaza Grande. Also known as Independence Square, the Plaza is Quito’s central gathering spot and symbol of government, surrounded on four sides by the Palacio de Carondelet presidential palace, Quito Metropolitan Cathedral, Municipality of Quito government building and Archbishop’s Palace. Independence Monument, an obelisk topped with a torch-carrying sculpture towers over the center of the Plaza, honoring the heroes of the Ecuadorian War of Independence in 1822.
An Interesting Lunch Venue
Our final stop on this wonderfully busy city tour was the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo. We entered a plaza of the same name – which was quickly becoming a familiar norm in Quito architecture – and were led through an entrance called the Museo Dominicano de Arte. This was not a church or museum visit, however; this was lunch, served in a dining room decorated in dark rich wood, a gold coffered ceiling and religious art. I later learned that this room was once the refectory, where the monks ate their meals.
Back outside, we made our way to the bus, which would be taking us about 45 minutes north of the city to the equator. As we passed through Santo Domingo Square, it made me smile to see pigeons circling about. Like any respectable city of 2.8 million people, no matter the country or continent, there will always be pigeons.
The Middle of the World
The equator that runs through our earth at zero degrees latitude has a rather complicated history. Its importance to Ecuador cannot be overstated. The country takes its name from the word equator and holds bragging rights for having the exact spot where visitors can stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time.
In 1736, an expedition called the French Geodesic Mission placed the equatorial line at a spot in the province of Pichincha, 22 miles north of Quito. To honor this expedition, the Ecuadorean Government built a 33-foot-high monument in 1936 called Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World City, on the exact location of the equator. Some 40 years later, the Government of Ecuador replaced the monument with an even grander 98-foot-tall structure made of iron, concrete and andesite stone.
And then along came GPS. Suddenly it seemed that the French Geodesic Mission’s equatorial calculation was off by about 790 feet. A new “true equator” site was dedicated at the nearby Intiñan Solar Museum, our destination for the rest of the day.
We were greeted by a museum guide, who led us down a pathway lined with tropical plants and flowers and a wooden staircase that spilled into an area decorated with totem poles from around the world. From there, we could see the infamous red line dividing the two hemispheres. The equator sign was more of a marker rather than a monument, a notable contrast with Citidad Mitad del Mundo.
Our guide demonstrated various experiments that she described as “simulations” to show the effect of the equator’s gravitational properties. Water traveled down a sink in a clockwise motion in the south and counterclockwise in the north; an egg balanced on a nail at the spot marking the equator; and a sundial’s time of day was visible in one hemisphere, but not in the other. There were life-size dioramas as well that depicted daily life of the Quechua-speaking people of the Amazon region. But the main event was the fleeting chance to stand on that red line.
On our way to the museum, Herb kept checking his phone, hoping to capture the moment when its compass would point to zero degrees latitude. It varied a bit as we traveled along, but somewhere on the road between the old and new equators, it hit the magic number, and he quickly took a screen shot.
Herb’s compass was a little off the mark at the museum, and he asked our guide why it registered zero degrees latitude on the road instead of at the marker. She told us that the iPhone compass has coding issues and proudly showed us the zero degrees measurement on her Android phone.
Whatever the reason and however accurate the equatorial site may have been, it didn’t really matter. It was close enough for us…and great fun to be there!