With buildings dating back to 1534, a tour of Quito’s Old Town historical churches with museums is akin to going back in time to when Catholicism was the most important force – religious or otherwise – in Ecuador. But Quito’s top six churches are simply unmissable when you visit this city.
The city’s skyline, spiked with towers and turrets and bumped with coloured domes, is testament to the almost exaggerated concentration of religious complexes here.
So important are religious structures to the city that there is a route, Las Siete Cruces (The Seven Crosses) that passes seven of the most renowned stone crosses displayed around the streets. For some a worthy Catholic pilgrimage often undertaken during Holy Week, the course is also a good way to experience the architecture, history and culture of the city.
Another way to do this is to visit the museums attached to many of these wonderful churches, monasteries and convents, revealing the stories behind their construction, their legends, and their scores of centuries-old sculptures and paintings.
You might visit San Francisco, with its illustrious history and devilish legend behind its missing stone. There’s San Agustin church and monastery, peopled by traditionally robed monks, and Santo Domingo with glorious, tropical gardens and a litany of artwork.
The Basilica provides fabulous views of the city from its neo-Gothic towers, dotted by grotesque Ecuadorian animals where gargoyles should be, and Santa Catalina is the spot to pick up natural cures made by the nuns, and improve your chances of conceiving.
Finally, Carmen Alto is not only filled with wonderful restored paintings and sculptures, but with the stories, vividly brought to life in its museum, of its history.
San Francisco, Plaza San Francisco, Cuenca y Sucre
Its white-washed turrets, cobbled square and flurry of pigeons are true icons of a Quito cathedral, and the adjacent museum reveals its many secrets and idiosyncrasies. The largest religious complex in Latin America, San Francisco church and the Franciscan religious order have had, and continue to have, a profound effect on the Catholic tradition of Ecuador.
Built in 1535, San Francisco was Quito’s first church, and the base from which Franciscan monks would evangelize Indigenous locals. It is the home of Quito’s extensive Good Friday celebrations during Holy Week, the starting and finishing line of the iconic procession featuring purple hooded “cucuruchos” and self-flagellating penitents dressed as Jesus.
Set over a complex about the size of three-and-a-half soccer pitches, San Francisco is an impressive structure containing around 4,000 religious objects, including sculptures, paintings and furniture. The museum alone contains 250 works from artists including Miguel de Santiago, Caspicara and Legarda.
In a church riddled with mystique, one legend in particular stands out, repeated by Quiteños as sacrosanct.
In the 14th century, during the construction of the complex, a famous mestizo by the name of Cantuña was asked by the head priest of the city to build the main atrium in the San Francisco Church, a request to which he readily accepted. But realizing that he had bitten off more than he could chew and would be left humiliated having not completed the work in time, he prayed to God for assistance. God, it seemed, was otherwise occupied, and did not answer, nor the two times after the poor mestizo turned to him in desperation.
Seeing as God had refused to answer him, Cantuña turned instead to the Devil, who promptly appeared, and offered the man a contract: he’d finish the Atrium in exchange for the man’s soul. Cantuña reluctantly agreed, adding his own clause: that if the Devil and his little devilish helpers had not finished placing every brick by the tolling of the first bell at 6AM, the deal was off.
The Devil agreed, laughing that his diablitos were the best workmen the universe had ever known. The deal was signed. As the Devil’s creatures worked, Cantuña walked among them, and without anyone noticing, he removed one stone from a wall where the setting was not yet dry, slipping it under his poncho.
As 6 A.M. approached, the Devil asked the mestizo if he was looking forward to parting with his soul, but as the bell began to chime it was the man who laughed, telling the Devil to take a closer look at his walls.
Of course, there was a single stone missing from the wall, and as the bell tolled its final toll, the contract was broken. Cantuña had beaten the Devil, and today, the wall stands with a stone missing, as a reminder of its brush with evil.
DON’T MISS OUT: Casa Gangotena, our boutique hotel in Quito, offers guests an exclusive visit to choir of the church, climbing a bell tower usually only entered by the monks and bell ringers.
San Agustin Church and Monastery Museum, Chile y Guayaquil
A block away from the cultural hub of Plaza Grande is the San Agustin Church and Monastery Museum, the place where one of Ecuador’s most decisive moments, its declaration of independence in 1809, played out.
The beautifully quiet monastery is constructed in the fresh, intricate design of Spanish colonials, the white of its tower cutting through Quito’s vivid blue sky, and wonderfully preserved since its 16th century beginnings.
It is known for the fresh, colourful flowers adorning the courtyard, bringing lightness and exuberance to the solemn, tranquil atmosphere. Entering through a carved, stone doorway in the Spanish Baroque style, the church itself is made up of several lovely altars, candelabras and oil paintings by Miguel de Santiago, one of the country’s best-known artists who lived in the monastery for many years, seeking refuge from the outside world.
There are also brilliant examples of “claroscuro”: using light and shade for definition and to create atmosphere.
Top fact: The monks, still in the traditional robes of centuries past, are the ones who maintain the paintings on golden walls that speak of past luxury and richness.
Santo Domingo, Flores y Bolivar
Commanding one of Quito’s most significant plazas, the church and convent of Santo Domingo has an illustrious history. Built by Dominican monks, the whole complex was modernized in 1880 by an Italian priest, giving it some neoclassic updates.
Aside from its large, peaceful courtyard, filled with tropical-looking trees that attract birds, Santo Domingo is best known for its beautiful of the Virgin of the Rosary statue, brought all the way from Seville in the south of Spain. In 1586, a gifted friar by the name of Pedro Bedón sculpted and painted a body of important artwork for the complex. The same man is credited with having founded the Quito School of painting.
Within the museum the works of Diego Robles are displayed, the artist who created the Virgin of Guápulo and the Virgin of el Quinche. His high relief of San Pío V and San Antonio de Florencia are some of the standout works in the church of Santo Domingo. The museum, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of works by the city’s most eminent sculptors, like the Santo Domingo de Guzmán by Father Carlos, the San Juan de Dios by Caspicara, and San Tomás de Aquino by Bernardo Legarda.
DID YOU KNOW: In October 2016, the white of the exterior of the church was used as the canvas for an altogether different kind of art: an illumination in the Festival of Lights, in which colours, patterns and animations was projected onto the walls in a thrilling display of creativity and technology.
Basilica del Voto Nacional, Venezuela y Julio Matovelle
One of the most extraordinary religious buildings in Quito’s Old Town, the Basilica cuts a unique form on the city’s skyline, its two ornate clock towers jutting fiercely upwards.
Opened in 1988 after nearly a century of construction, the basilica is the most significant work of neo-Gothic Ecuadorian architecture, and one of the finest examples of the style in the Americas as well as the largest of its kind in the region.
Technically, it is not yet finished, and local folktale states that if it were to be completed, the world would end.
One of the structure’s most interesting – and alarming – features, is its guard of grotesques shaped like Ecuador’s most famous animals.
Instead of gargoyle’s or dark angels common to the style, dolphins, armadillos, iguanas and tortoises instead leap out in stone. Within the church are incongruous displays: garish dolls representing the Virgin Mary and saints, lit with seedy neon lights.
In the crypt, meanwhile, there is a pantheon holding the remains of several of the country’s most illustrious heads of state.
The true highlight of the basilica comes when you enter through the back door into the sanctuary. Climbing up dozens of stairs (not for the light-hearted!) you first emerge in the ceiling of the church, picking your way along the rafters.
From there you emerge outside, by one of the turrets, with one of the most spectacular views of the city that you could hope to see.
From 74m (243ft) high, rising to 115m (377ft) high in the two frontal towers (if you don’t suffer from vertigo), you can take in the sprawling metropolis, surrounded by green mountains and volcanos. A vista of celestial standards, one might even say.
Santa Catalina, Flores y Espejo
Built in 1613, the convent of Santa Catalina has been subject to a series of restorations, some due to damage caused by earthquakes.
Beginning as the sanctuary of 30 women of eminent and well-to-do backgrounds: daughters or granddaughters of Spanish conquerors, or widows of presidents or judges, it remains a sacred space for nuns, who only have contact with the outside world through the various goods they sell.
These cloistered nuns don’t just sing and pray all day, far from it, they make wines and treatments for ailments using natural ingredients like garlic and eucalypts for cough, as well as others for the heart, and even to treat cancer.
Though the adjacent museum might have a somewhat meagre offering of artwork, an attraction of the complex is a bench with alleged powers – it is said to enable women who sit on it become pregnant.
One of the noteworthy facts about Santa Catalina is that the remains of the fearsome former president Gabriel Garcia Moreno stayed here for more than 80 years, after he was assassinated in 1875.
According to local legends, the same corpse was at first stored in a nearby building, now a restaurant called Café Díos No Se Muere (God does not die) after the murder, allegedly the work of a “secret society”.
This quirky little eatery makes for a great pit stop while exploring the city. With its eccentric owners serving up New Orleans-style food and a decent selection of wine, the history of the place comes to life as you dine on the ancient, creaking wooden floorboards.
Carmen Alto, Garcia Moreno y Rocafuerte
Another impressively longstanding convent in Quito’s Old Town is Carmen Alto, completed in 1653 after five years of construction.
To this day, it still belongs to the cloistered Carmelite nuns who live reclusively within its walls, rarely venturing into the outside world. Life in the convent was once reportedly arduous, with austerity and penitence as guiding principles – in the past they were known to practice self-flagellation.
The convent was built on the grounds upon which Mariana de Jesús, Ecuador’s first saint, used to live. Every day she would go to the nearby church of La Compañía and pray for the salvation of Ecuador, at a time of highly destructive earthquakes, in the end giving up her life for the cause.
According to legend, the moment that Mariana died, a stunning white Madonna lily sprouted on the corner of the garden of the convent, with a beautiful aroma that filled the neighbourhood. The roots of the plant were covered in blood.
The complex is one of the Seven Crosses, a route passing through the seven most important religious buildings in the Old Town.
Some 400 pieces are found in the museum, some dating back to the 16th century, among them oil paintings, sculptures, precious metals, as well as an exhibition of the everyday life of the cloistered nuns of bygone eras.
Like their fellow nuns at Santa Catalina, the sisters of Carmen Alto ferment wine in large oak barrels, made from Chilean grapes. The proceeds go towards the upkeep of the convent and the restoration of its impressive catalogue of artwork.