As faithful followers of Partout know, traveling South America has piqued our interest in the question of “what did the Spanish do for South America besides introducing the Inquisition, extinguishing civilizations, plundering the natural resources, etc.?”
One defensible answer might be its introduction of well-ordered street grids, people-friendly central plazas and squares, dazzling churches and chapels, romantic balconies and and courtyards, and extravagant art to fill them. To our Western eyes, at least, these are lovely.
What has been eye-opening for these same Western eyes is that much of this beauty is not actually Spanish or colonial at all, and that the handiwork itself often came from the hands of pre-Colombian peoples, not the interlopers.
The street in the photo below is definitely colonial (minus the street lights and mural). We know that because the buildings have no windows, and that was the signature feature of a Spanish colonial home in the 1600s.
But it was the Moors of North Africa who introduced arches, geometric design and shaded interior courtyards with splashing water to Spain and thus they who bequeathed arches, geometric ornamentation and leafy courtyards on New Spain.
Other flourishes that strike us outsiders as “colonial” turn out to date from long after the colonial period. Cuenca’s iconic “new” cathedral was begun in 1885, designed by an Alsatian monk and not completed until 1975. The signature blue tiles of its domes were imported from Czechoslovakia and its exterior pink marble from Italy.
Cuencans of the early 20th century also embraced French architecture with a passion, stamping a distinctive European feel on many streets that has nothing at all to do with the Spanish.
Meanwhile, up north in Quito, the neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional would not look out of place in any medieval French market town except that its construction began in 1926 and its gargoyles are iguanas and armadillos.
And, deep under the earth across the border in Zipaquira, Colombia, one of only three underground salt churches in the world was shaped not by the Spanish but by local salt miners in the 1950s on a site that had been mined since the 5th century by the pre-Columbia’s Muiscas.
All the same, there also endure many decidedly colonial Spanish influences, and they can seem the stuff of fairy tales.
It is hard to imagine a time when there was no such thing as UNESCO World Heritage sites yet it was only in 1978 that the international program began, and it is because of a Spanish church that Quito was the first city in the world given the UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval.
The Jesuits were the last of four Catholic orders to evangelize what is now Ecuador. The crown said there was no land left in Quito for the late-comers so they would have to make do with converting the countryside. The order dutifully headed to the sticks. There, in the great tradition of don’t get mad get even, the brothers managed to become so rich they came back to Quito and bought up an entire city block. The next 160 years went to building Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, a baroque splendor gilded from floor through ceiling with 23-karat gold leaf and today filled with art, detail and the remains of a former president.
Elsewhere, the founder of Tunja, Colombia, was a devotee of Mary mother of Jesus. In the 1570s, he financed a chapel in her honor within the exquisite Templo de Santo Domingo, now all but lost in a teeming university city of little other distinction. Suárez Rendón’s Capilla del Rosario is a wonder of carved wooden columns painted deep crimson and gold-plated with flowers. Elsewhere in the church, transporting frescoes are decidedly Spanish despite the occasional pre-Columbian godhead.
Rendón and his fellow conquistador, Don Juan de Vargas, also left a trail of exotic wild animals and Greek mythology on their ceilings, the likes of which are found nowhere else in South America or maybe Spain itself. They even paved pathways in fossils.
And then there are the haciendas, the estates of invaders who settled and farmed rather than mining and warring. Ecuador, which didn’t have much in the way of mineral wealth, is peppered with these grand houses brimming with history, some of them exquisitely restored.
Hacienda La Cienega near Lasso is among the oldest in the country, built in the late 1500s and visited many times by Simón Bolívar in his campaign to liberate the region from Spain. The approach through an alley of eucalyptus (planty much later) is worthy of a lord, the gardens remain magnificent and the private chapel otherworldly.
Hacienda Cusin north of Quito remained in the same family from 1602 until it was broken up in the 1960s during Ecuadorian land form. For a few decades, the estate fell derelict to bad ideas and neglect, but it has now been revived as a magical lodging for Quinteño weekenders and lucky foreign travelers like us.
Lest we give the Spanish undue credit even for these legacies, it should be remembered that virtually all the construction and art attributed to them in the New World was actually produced not by Spaniards but by armies of indigenous artists, who were conscripted if not enslaved by the church and who were viewed as mere tools through whom God spoke, not as human artisans. They were not allowed to sign their works.
And yet, these hundreds of years later, from the countrysides to the city centers, the art and architecture from earlier times continue to stun the eye and refresh the soul, immortalizing their creators one and all.
FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
One of the bonuses of traveling long-term the way Partout does is flexibility. Without being on much of a schedule, we can make make adjustments — adding, deleting or shortening stays — without big financial penalties and sometimes with budget windfalls. Back in the States, we eliminated the Galapagos from our Ecuador itinerary for a lot of reasons, one of them the expense of cruising. Once on the ground here, we found flights to the islands an eye-popping 40% to 50% what they cost from the States and cruises priced as little as half what comparable cruises cost from home.
If you are traveling for a month or more to a destination and can stand the suspense of not having every room and transport nailed down, booking on the fly can be more economical and even spice things up with the unanticipated.
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