Why is Quito a UNESCO World Heritage City?

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You might know that Quito, the capital of Ecuador is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As early as 1978, UNESCO declared Quito (Ecuador) and Kraków (Poland) as “world heritage” cities, the first time that any city had earned such an honour.


↑ Sign in Quito’s Plaza Grande: “Cultural capital of America, 2011”

I am extremely curious about historical sites and recognitions such as these. So, armed with a list of criteria that UNESCO uses to select heritage sites, I started on my journey to experience Quito in a UNESCO way.

World Heritage city: Criteria for selection

UNESCO’s website lays down 10 criteria for selecting a UNESCO site. 6 of these criteria relate to cultural capital.

  1. “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius”
  2. “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  3. “bears a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  4. “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”
  5. “is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”
  6. “is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance”

Quito’s historic centre aka “Old Quito”

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and stands at an altitude of 2,850 m. Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America. The monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, and the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía, with their rich interiors, are pure examples of the ‘Baroque school of Quito’, which is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art.
Quito, on UNESCO.

1. Monastery of San Francisco

Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco, colloquially known as El San Francisco was built in 1604. When I was here couple of weeks ago, the facade was being repaired and the building was mostly closed except for mass at 17:00. I snuck in and took some pictures before the ceremony began.

2. Monastery of Santo Domingo

The Santo Domingo church was built in the first half of 17th century. The building occupies the eastern side of large Plaza Santo Domingo around which the public transportation system (Trole bus) winds.

3. Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía

La Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, known colloquially as La Compañia) is a Jesuit church in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador. It is one of the best-known churches in Quito because of its large central nave, which is profusely decorated with gold leaf, plaster and wood carvings. Located very close to the Plaza Grande, it costs $2 to enter this church and you are not permitted to photograph inside. hmph!

Quito School of Architecture: Fusion of European and Native American concepts

Between 1542 and 1824, under the influence of the Spanish rule and Catholic religion, the Quito School established its identity as an artform with a combination and adaptation of European and Indigenous features.

The main characteristic of the school is the technique of “Encarnado” (simulation of the colour of human flesh). I thought that the work looked quite real-life in comparison with European art from the same era in which human bodies were mostly bright white. In addition, characters from Christian stories appear “Latino” and you can clearly see the inclusion of ancestral indigenous customs and iconography such as natural forces and serpents.


↑ Church and Plaza Santo Domingo.

So, these were some of the principal world heritage sights in Quito and I took a lot of time checking these out. But it was only the tip of an iceberg, there was an entire UNESCO city to discover.

In addition to Quito, Cuenca is the other UNESCO world heritage city in Ecuador. Which UNESCO cities have you visited and what was your experience?

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