Dressed as a Quito woman from the early 1900s, a guide leads a tour of a house museum. Quito Eterno

By stirring pride in Ecuador's history, the tour group Quito Eterno contributed to the revival of its capital city.

For a city that has the best preserved, least altered historic center in Latin America, Quito, Ecuador's capital of 2 million people high in the Andes, certainly didn't used to show it off.

Damaged by an earthquake in 1987, crowded with vendors and choked with traffic and smog, the narrow, steep streets of Quito's old town, which date back to the 16th century, became home only to those who couldn't afford to move elsewhere.

UNESCO named Quito a World Heritage Site in 1978, but to Quiteños at the time, their colonial churches and historic buildings seemed rundown and unsafe.

That has changed, and one organization has contributed greatly toward the shift in attitude.

The Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito's historic center (NCG/Shutterstock)

Quito Eterno ("eternal Quito") was founded in 2002 by young people who wanted to introduce visitors to the forgotten history of their city. More than a decade later, their tours of the city center have become a staple in the upbringing of young Quiteños, slowly acting on the country's collective mindset.

"It used to be unimaginable for a school director to organize a tour in the old town," says Javier Cevallos, Quito Eterno's current director. "Ecuador used to have a defeatist education ... The past became something that we all wanted to forget about."

When Quito Eterno first launched, the context was far from rosy. Ecuador has historically had one of the lowest GDPs in South America, with deep economic divides among the rural indigenous people and the land-owning elites.

In 2000, the country was forced to adopt the U.S. dollar after a period of economic and political instability. Seven presidents came and left in 10 years, while hundreds of thousands of citizens migrated abroad.

Spirits were low, and interest in the country's heritage was even lower.

"We put ourselves forward as an alternative education project," says Cevallos of Quito Eterno at the beginning. The idea was simple: dramatized tours to explore the city's history and jog cultural memory.

Costumed guides lead groups of people, often students, along their Rutas de Leyenda (Legend Tours) through different areas of the old town. The guides personify historical characters who give an insight into the social history of Quito through their anecdotes.

A guide portraying a chichera (Quito Eterno)

For example, there is the chichera, a seller of a traditional corn-based drink called chicha, whose tour explores the city's culinary habits, and the farolero, the lamplighter who used to light the streets and is in charge of night tours.

Over the years, Quito Eterno has sustained itself through the tours, which it charges for, and some consulting work. Its guides are paid employees, and most of the tours are in Spanish and aimed at locals. Quiteños have become prouder of their city and more knowledgeable about it as a result.

For example, earlier this year, Augustinian nuns opened the doors of their cloister for the first time in 150 years. Quito Eterno was in charge of the visits, and all the available tours were fully booked weeks in advance.

Quito Eterno is only one part of a larger process of reviving the center, including changes in policy as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment to restore historic buildings. A strengthened tourism police also helped make some of the main streets safer.

Still, "Quito Eterno managed to open up a niche that had not been exploited so far," says Alfonso Ortíz, an architect and academic who led the renovation efforts in the historic center. "There used to be no instruments to get to know the old town. Quito Eterno created a way to enjoy the city without leaving academic accuracy to the side."

La Ronda street in downtown Quito (Guillermo Granja/Reuters)

With the many positive changes have come some negatives: slow gentrification of the area, with apartment complexes going up, prices rising, and foreigners and five-star hotels moving in.

La Ronda street is a classic example. The area used to be very traditional, with many craftspeople working out of their homes. Now it is known for its nightlife and prices are too high for many locals, who are moving out.

Quito Eterno works out of an office on La Ronda in a conscious effort to reverse this trend. "We are still trying to find a balance: up to which point can tourism be managed, so that it doesn't ruin the atmosphere and veracity of the old town?" Cevallos asks.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: An elderly resident of a village in Japan's Gunma Prefecture.

    In Japan’s Vanishing Rural Towns, Newcomers Are Wanted

    Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.

  2. Design

    How Advertising Conquered Urban Space

    In cities around the world, advertising is everywhere. We may try to shut it out, but it reflects who we are (or want to be) and connects us to the urban past.

  3. Equity

    Bernie Sanders and AOC Unveil a Green New Deal for Public Housing

    The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over a decade to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

  4. Life

    Tailored Place-Based Policies Are Key to Reducing Regional Inequality

    Economist Timothy Bartik details the need for place-based policy to combat regional inequality and help distressed places—strategies outlined in his new book.

  5. photo: Chilean police clash with anti-government demonstrators during a protest in Santiago, Chile.

    What’s Behind the Wave of Urban Protests?

    The slums of the world’s growing cities have become staging grounds for demonstrations against corruption, inequality, and municipal dysfunction.