Ecuador Guápulo Quito

Guápulo: Centuries-Old Community in the Heart of Metropolis

Guápulo: Centuries-Old Community in the Heart of Metropolis

Below the high avenue of González Suárez, lined with skyscrapers, shops, and dense with traffic, there is a neighborhood that clings to the sheer side of the valley above the Río Machángara. Guápulo is far older than the neighborhoods above it–having been a rural parish town of its own before it was enveloped by a growing Quito of the twentieth century. Many of its houses have red tile rooftops and weathered white walls. They hug streets of old cobblestone that wind down toward a centuries-old plaza and its Santuario de Guápulo, a church built by the Spanish whose massive cupula glints in the afternoon sun.

Poised against the railing beside my companion, I gaze down on the bucolic sight from the mirador. Behind us are the shouts of traffic from the Gónzalez, a block away. The houses far below, built one atop the other, follow unseen paths like knots amid clustering foliage. A twisting stairway descends below the mirador to deposit us along a sharp curve-around of Calle Camino de Orellana, amid the uppermost houses of the neighborhood.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Stairway from mirador to calle Camino de Orellana. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“Guápulo is a very interesting place, no?” says Osmanys, a resident we would meet in the evening along this very street. “Well, the whole matter of the history that’s told, about how Orellana departed from here and discovered the Amazon, for example. Did you know that? […] That’s why that statue’s up there of señor Orellana. They say he stood here and… That’s why it’s called Camino de Orellana, Avenida de los Conquistadores, for example. So, imagine, in that period there wasn’t anything around. Then, there were some settlements, the first Shyris settlements–they were Shyris–with the arrival of the Spanish.”

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Calle Camino de Orellana. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

My steps are heavy as we make the steep descent along the cobbles. The beauty and seclusion of the place draw me in, despite the stream of passing cars and taxis. Their tires pummel against the worn gray stones, and we’re met with drifting fumes of gasoline. A variety of Graffitis covers age-old walls. We pass houses of pastel pink and yellow, peer over crumbling bricks to the valleys and a painted sky. 

Clouds roam across the mountains, hiding the sun. We turn down an alley to catch sight of dark climbing foliage and the high green ridge of the Cordillera Lumbisí, framed by old walls and cables. We come down a quiet street lined with short trees. Green moss climbs in the shade of lush foliage, clinging to trunks and the old stones of a wall that skirts the Spanish embassy grounds. The great cupula of the church rises before us, much closer than before. Its green and red tiles are bright in the warmth of the afternoon.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Santuario seen from calle El Calvario. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“Guápulo’s church, for me, has a lot of mystery,” Osmanys tells us. “The official history says it’s one of the first… I think it was the second built by the Spanish. […] because a settlement was immediately established outside of the city, for some reason which I don’t have clear.”

Historian Lucía Moscoso Cordero informs us that Spanish presence in the area begins with the establishment of a church dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe, which had been accepted by the local indigenous residents. Construction was completed in the seventeenth century. The church and its little plaza form the center of what would become a rural town on the periphery of Spanish colonial Quito. 

She writes, “[Guápulo] is an old indigenous settlement which passes through various processes that influenced in a reconfiguration of its territory. […] Guápulo’s history is marked by tension surrounding community land. As in other territories of the Real Audiencia de Quito, the usurpation and buying and selling of indigenous land came with intensity during the colonial period […].”

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Plaza de Guápulo, with statue of Francisco de Orellana. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

We reach Plaza de Guápulo. Perched above the skyscrapers of the González Suárez, a falling sun shines down on the trees and the old stone that surrounds us. People congregate around the open entrance of the church. The dim space within is populated with candlelight and centuries old decor. We wander the plaza, rest our feet on a stone bench, peer up at the houses climbing in the valley’s shadow. 

Circling around the white walls of the sanctuary, past a graffitied stop sign, we’re graced with another vantage over the mouth of the river valley and the lower lands to the east. We skirt an overgrown lot enclosed in bricks. Plants hang from gaps in the weathered stone wall that encircles the church grounds. It sends shade across the street we’re following, A. Ninahualpa, giving us respite on our way down to the avenue.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
A. Ninahualpa, with view of Valle de Cumbayá. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

According to Moscoso Cordero, “Guápulo constituted a strategic and significant space, being one of the entrances to the city, especially for groups arriving from the Amazonía or from Valle de Tumbaco with products to trade, famous for its Sanctuary which bestowed devotional importance to the sector.”

The traffic along Avenida de los Conquistadores is constant in the afternoon. Using a narrow strip of raised pavement as a sidewalk, the walk down to Parque de Guápulo is somewhat bracing with the stream of vehicles climbing up from the valley. Green buses rumble by every 15 or 30 minutes, the signs in their windshields with the words “Cumbayá, Guápulo, Floresta” stacked one atop the other.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Avenida de los Conquistadores, with Cordillera Lumbisí. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

These climb the side of the ravine with taxis, cars, and weathered pick-ups, crossing paths with other buses along winding corners. The sector has held significance around faith and travel throughout its history, and this has not gone away in the modern day. Beginning in the centric Quito neighborhood of La Floresta and descending in a long line to cross beneath the highway of Avenida Simón Bolívar above the river, Guápulo’s Avenida de los Conquistadores remains a key route for getting between the valleys and the main city.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Avenida de los Conquistadores, with the Río Machángara below. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

Guápulo is a community that has maintained its traditions over the centuries, despite being enveloped by modernity. Moscoso Cordero writes, “It passed from being a town on the margins of a city to becoming an urban neighborhood where today there exists a heterogeneous population. In 1861 it was a rural sector, and in 1971 an urban sector.” 

Guápulo’s natural, unassuming beauty—the very way this pocket of colonial architecture hugs the side of a sprawling metropolis—has attracted many of its visitors to stay. The neighborhood is known for a concentration of artists, creatives, and the bohemian. A number of small commercial establishments have cropped up in recent decades. Guápulo is a place that people in Quito go to for a drink in a bar between cobblestones and a precipice. 

Its religious festivals held in the early weeks of September, dedicated to the Virgen de Guápulo, remain a vibrant tradition. These celebrations, in recent times, attract many from around the city to come down the snaking streets and take part in the festivities. Teresa, another resident who would later speak with us, says, “Before, when I was young, we were gente del […] pueblo, as they said before. Townspeople. All of us neighbors knew each other, saw each other […] But, little by little, our fiestas became famous. […] A lot of people would come down.” These rich traditions also face increasing pressures from outside authorities to change or adapt to the demands of a city trying to modernize.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Santuário de Guápulo seen from Parque de Guápulo. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

From where we now stand, far down the avenue, the church and the long walls of its convent are smaller, perched high above us on the rough sloping land. Amid the endless chain of rising cars is an empty taxi, which takes us quickly up, retracing our path along A. Ninahualpa, climbing to eventually rejoin the Camino de Orellana. We rise in the valley’s shadow with the ceaseless melody of cobblestones beneath us.

We leave the taxi and step into an establishment by the name of Palo Santo, one of the well-known cafe-bars on the slopes of the neighborhood, close to Avenida González Suárez. Here one can enjoy a coffee, michelada, hot chocolate, or a well-made canelazo with a bird’s eye view of Guápulo. While we rest after our long trek, watching a full moon rise through the clouds over the ridge, church bells resound hollow and metallic, wafting over cords of swollen lights in the dark. A stream of headlights populates the avenue, now far below us.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
View from Palo Santo. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

Osmanys

At the behest of my companion, we venture outside and meet a man by the name of Osmanys. Accompanied by the rumbling tires of climbing cars, he spins out a web of intriguing information about the area.

“I’ve lived in Guápulo for 30 years. […] I’m an actor and stage director. I’m cuban. I studied in la Escuela de las Artes de Cuba, in Havana. And I came to live here very young. And where I’ve lived most in Ecuador is in Guápulo. I was 22 when I arrived here. Now I’m 51. […]

“Guápulo is a very, very interesting place. I could tell you a thousand interesting things, which to me seem interesting. For example, you climb from the bridge over the Río Machángara up to the González Suárez, you rise almost 200 meters in altitude. You’re at fifteen-hundred-something meters, and at the top you’re at sixteen-hundred-something. Something like that. I remember I measured it years ago, with an altimeter. That’s very curious. It doesn’t happen anywhere, right? That you can climb such great heights.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Avenida Simón Bolívar, seen from Guápulo’s mirador; Avenida de los Conquistadores lower right. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“There’s a web of subterranean tunnels here in Guápulo. I don’t know if you know, there’s a tunnel here that’s now covered up, which, in the furthest generations back of those of el Oso here…” Osmanys refers to an elderly gentleman seated there with a cane. “I don’t know if you also, in your childhood, used those tunnels to climb up to the city?…No? Some people have told me–and I’ve gone to see the tunnel that’s just down here–that there’s a strand of caves, that they went to la Floresta, from underground they came out up there, [in la Floresta]. […] It seems like the whole city has that network, and Guápulo has some arteries of that network. There’s another which they say connected with El Ejido park–La Carolina, sorry. Or El Ejido, I don’t quite remember. That, to me, seems very interesting. I think these tunnels merit an investigation, to see what’s there. Because it’s been 30 years, more than 40 years maybe, that they’ve been decommissioned. They were used by the city’s potable water system. For some reason, they were eliminated at some point in history.

“What else can I tell you that’s interesting about Guápulo? There are so many things. The diversity of the people. Well, currently, places everywhere are turned-off now. Because there’s a story after the pandemic and there’s a before the pandemic. […] [T]he bohemia of Guápulo was very nice before. Now, it’s all turned-off, just like in nearly the whole city. But famous people have come here, like Manu Chao, like Kevin Johansen, Chick Corea. A ton of people have played here in the bars. 

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Calle Camino de Orellana. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“The diversity of the people […] Here we’re mixed-in gringos, latinos, indios. There are even Martians going around here. And this makes Guápulo very rich. At least in the last 30 years, there has been a richness in that regard, no? […]

“Las fiestas de Guápulo, unfortunately, are always the same. It’s the same everywhere. The same idea of partying, the same waste of funds, which serve to fix many things. They’re dedicated to that sort of activities. They’re traditions. They can be interesting. To me they were very interesting. I always come to fiestas de Guápulo. […]

“It’s centered around that. It’s centered around drink, entertainment, having fun…the misrepresentation of old customs, right? In any case, I do think that there could be fiestas of more quality, more cultural, a bit more educational in its content, while at the same time having fun. Because there’s nothing wrong with having fun. But, to look for a bit deeper of an understanding in it all […]

“In Guápulo there hasn’t been any change, really. It’s a small town, it functions like a town. Its beauty makes it so that people want to set up bars and cafes. But it’s not a touristic place, nor a productive place. Here, nothing is produced. […] For example, here there is no bakery. They just put a bakery here, it lasted a few months, and it died. There’s no pharmacy. There is no laundromat, nor greengrocer’s. There are a couple of stores. Because it’s not necessary. The city is very close, so. 

“A positive change has been–the only change that’s positive that I’ve seen is that they closed the route to go down to the valleys. Because the traffic really affected the natural infrastructure. Because this is a wall.”

 As he says this, Osmanys moves his hand up and down at a stark angle to illustrate. “This is a wall, right? We live on a wall. […] So, there has been a reduction in the impact from the traffic. That’s very good, but in Guápulo there are a lot of things to be done. In Guápulo there is a need for vertical parking [garages]. This is needed in Guápulo for the residents themselves–as you can see, everyone parks in the street. So far, it’s not a dangerous place where they break in your window and rob you. It’s happened sporadically. Normal. It seems normal to us now. But that’s something that Guápulo needs. Guápulo needs parking. […]

“But we’ve never come to be considered a neighborhood that’s actually dangerous. Rather, we’re a safe neighborhood. Here, if something happens to you, you shout and people come out and help you. And it’s happened. In the area up there, along the stairs, there are times when people go there and rob people. But […] they do it once and they get lost because people become alert right away.

“But, here, there haven’t been any changes. If you have some sort of project, you need to study it well so that you don’t mess up. Here, projects in themselves aren’t really of interest. Here, projects would be ones that have to do with the Río Machángara and its contamination. The Río Machángara affects daily life quite a bit, because at times it stinks, and emanates fumes. It’s a problem for the whole city. Some project that has to do with the Río Machángara would be very interesting. Despite its being contaminated, the Río Machángara can produce electricity, for example. 

 

 

Río Machángara, seen from the bridge of Avenida de Los Conquistadores. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“[…] I’m a project developer, and I have a lot of experience in environmental work. And I would like to put hydro-electrics in Río Machángara. Like a pilot project that can generate electricity for Guápulo and la Vicentina, which is the next neighborhood over. And we can do it. Even for all the neighborhoods. The neighborhood of Monjas, which is on the other side. 

“Electricity can be generated with the power of Río Machángara, despite the fact that the water’s contaminated. It doesn’t matter. A lot of electricity can be generated, a lot of kilowatts. It can be established as a pilot project to expose the large hydroelectric mega-projects developed by the governments, which are large business-deals that affect the ecology. Because the impact caused by a hydroelectric mega-enterprise is so great that after five, four years, in that area it stops raining. The area was selected because it rained a lot. But afterward it stops raining, because of the environmental impact that mega-constructions have. 

“On the other hand, small constructions are much more viable, but they aren’t businesses for politicians. So, with these kinds of projects, it needs to be demonstrated to the world, to the people themselves, to the communities, that it is possible. So, a micro-hydroelectric plant can be developed, which doesn’t have an environmental impact and which generates electricity for everyone here.”

 

 

A branch of Guápulo’s houses, with Cordillera Lumbisí. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

Diana

Stepping back into Palo Santo, we meet the cafe’s manager, Diana. She recalls the neighborhood over the years, changes that have happened, and reminisces on what makes Guápulo special to her.

“I’ve been living in Guápulo for 36 years. The business–well, it’s not mine, it’s my mom’s. But I manage it. My mom established it in 2005. I think we’re going on like 18 years. Well, we’re one of the third locales here, in Guápulo. Because first comes Café Guápulo, Ananké, and then comes Palo Santo.  And, well, my business, it’s a family business. It’s my mom’s, my dad’s, mine.

 

 

Guápulo Quito Ecuador history
Palo Santo’s front door, along calle Camino de Orellana. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“It’s nice, because, let’s say, Guápulo is traditional. Well, the tourism has declined since the pandemic. But we want to work with Quito Turismo again, to reactivate things. Because before, there were walks on Sundays which we organized with the city. And we closed the street, and people came down walking. And every place, let’s say–here I also had […] painting expositions, and people went walking. And that’s what we want, to reactivate Guápulo, because unfortunately Guápulo is dying down. 

“[…] Guápulo is magical. It’s like people say, when you set foot in Guápulo… Here there are–we have neighbors who are from Argentina, spaniards. And people say, ‘I set foot in Guápulo and I don’t want to leave.’ Because it’s welcoming, it’s pretty, it’s centric as well. So–and it has its, well. Who did we have here? There’ve been painters. We have Alejandro, who is Chilean, who is a famous painter that lives here […] Hugo Idrovo [lived here].”

 

 

Santuario de Guápulo seen from the plaza. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“[…] More traditional than fiestas de Guápulo? Because fiestas de Guápulo are like fiestas de pueblo. And it’s lovely. And the nicest thing, I think, to emphasize about fiestas de Guápulo, we–a Vísperas, let’s say… It starts on Friday, but in the early hours of the morning on Friday, we come down with la Virgencita.

 “Like at four, five in the morning we come down with la Virgen, the band. And that’s what’s nice about it, because, even though there’s celebration, it’s in honor of la Virgen de Guápulo. But it’s something lovely because it’s la Misa de la Aurora, because it’s in the early hours of morning. And we come down, we go singing. And that’s what fills us, and you say, ‘This is Guápulo, and this is ours.’ 

“And if you ask the kids who dress up–the clowns–you ask them and say, ‘Why do you dress up?’ ’Well, because I like Guápulo, because I love Guápulo and la Virgencita, and it’s a way to give thanks to la Virgen.’ And the fiestas–no, they’re the best, I think. And it marks you, and you say, ‘I’m guapuleño!’ […]

“I think the change would be more security, up around the stairs. And that they give us a little more…what would be the word? That they give us the value that we have as Guápulo, because it is a traditional neighborhood. And the church of Guápulo is one of the second, first churches here, in the city of Quito. And Guápulo has history, because Orellana came down through here and everything. So I think they do need to give Guápulo more attention. Because Guápulo is a little abandoned, compared to other parts like the historic center or the Itchimbía, or other areas that are traditional. But Guápulo is forgotten, and it would be cool if they […] made it more visible. […]”

 

 

Alley off Camino de Orellana, looking on Cordillera de Lumbisí. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

Teresa

A woman behind the bar speaks to us. Reggae plays from speakers behind her. Calm, with a soft voice, she walks us through the layers of Guápulo’s rich customs.

“Well, I’m Teresa […], I’ve lived 53 years in Guápulo. The tradition of our name of Guápulo is brought from the Spanish, who brought la Virgencita de Guadalupe. But our indígenas, who were native to the land, could not pronounce the name of gua–[…] of Guadalupe. So they said, ‘Gua-, Gua-, Guá[p]ulo,’ but they couldn’t pronounce ‘Guadalupe.’ It stayed with the name of ‘Guápulo.’ Ya, that is our tradition. We have the name of la Virgencita de Guápulo thanks to our indígenas. And our neighborhood is called Guápulo thanks to our indígenas.

“And with the passage of our history, little by little, our generations have moved forward, from generation to generation, especially our customs. And one of our customs are our fiestas de Guápulo, which in the old days were celebrated only by the town. Because before, we were a town, not a neighborhood.

“The town had the custom of, every year, eight days before, their fiestas, and eight days after. In the eight days before, it started with the mass in thanks to la Virgencita de Guápulo. And her fiestas began. On a Saturday come las Vísperas, which they call las Vísperas. And they celebrate la Virgencita with a procession. And they come down in the early morning each Saturday of Vísperas in the Rosario de la Aurora, with their band and the people praying.

 

 

Plaza de Guápulo. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“More than anything, the fiestas are traditional because the very Saturday of la Virgen, they burn the castles, they come down in costumes from all the sectors, and they come together in the Plaza de Guápulo. All of the fiestas are celebrated in the Plaza de Guápulo. We have the procession on the day of Sunday with la Virgencita. La Virgencita goes around all of Guápulo in procession. We come to Entrada de Naranjas. That same Sunday we have Entrada de Naranjas which is enjoyed very much in our fiestas de Guápulo. We come to Monday with the close of the fiestas de Guápulo. It’s called la Corrida de Gallos

“But, unfortunately, each year the city takes away more of our customs. Each year they reduce our customs, and the days of the fiestas de Guápulo are lessened. There are lot’s, for example, the Grand Marathon. It started here back in the day with the marathon, which they ran Thursday at night, after mass. Anyone who wanted to participate would run, and they came down to the Plaza. They also took from us the car race, which was held on Saturday, made of wood. Now we don’t have that. And they also took away […] la Carrera de los Gallos, which is what we call it. 

“La Carrera de Gallos is, I mean one would imagine, right?, that there’d be roosters, or something like that. No. It’s that, those who are dressed up go from house to house asking for something in donation. And they hang–at the end, at three, four in the afternoon in the Plaza de Guápulo, they hang on a rope what all the residents of the neighborhood have gifted. And the people take it off–liquor, food, clothes. Whatever there is. Or, say, even a cuy. It’s hung up and you–like that, one takes it and brings it home. […] That’s not around anymore. It’s been two years now, that they’ve taken away the Carrera de los Gallos–la Corrida de los Gallos. […]

“Well, the wooden cars, rather than dangerous…Of course people die, right? But, like they say, ‘We like adrenaline […] We like that,’ they say. But, more so they took that away because of the traffic that comes through Guápulo. On basis of the traffic that exists, as much descent through here as descent through las Conquistadores, there’s a lot of traffic. So it’s because of this that they took away the car race. […] 

 

 

Calle Camino de Orellana. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

“The thing is, unfortunately the city gives priority to the traffic. They don’t give priority to our fiestas. Ya, so because of that they took away the wooden car races. […] They took la Corrida de Gallos from us, as well, because they say that’s old now, that it’s no longer… But as residents, we have wanted them to respect our customs, our values. But the city, each year–because it’s the city that authorizes permits. Without permits, there are no fiestas. 

“For example, this past year–and it was the saddest thing, that they didn’t let us burn the castles on the specific day, which is Saturday. The very Saturday of the fiestas de la Virgencita, they didn’t let us burn […] Because they said that we have, that the denizens… Unfortunately the plaza isn’t an immense space, no? It has its reduced space. And the firemen were asking that we needed to be in a wide open area so that nothing would happen. 

“But the dressed-up are those who dance in honor of la Virgencita. They spend the whole night dressed up and dancing, and so they didn’t want to leave the castles behind. Because the tradition for them is to dance under the castle that’s burning. […] Ya. But they took all that from us, no? And they didn’t let us burn…” Teresa tells us how the neighborhood celebrated, “That’s the anecdote we have. They thought they defeated us, but no.”

 

 

Plaza de Guápulo from calle El Calvario. Image Credit: Liam Tello.

 

 

Guápulo is a center of centuries-old tradition, lineages that extend beyond the arrival of the Spanish. A neighborhood of Quito for five decades, its community maintains a strong connection to its customs well into a century of modernity.

“[…] With the passage of our history,” Teresa describes, “little by little, our generations have moved forward, from generation to generation, especially our customs.” 

The residents we spoke to reveal the depth and richness of culture which unfolds in this valley amid the avenues of Quito. The stories they share speak of a community that is aware of its history and importance, a community that holds deep love for its space and its practices. Despite restrictions imposed by the city, Guápulo’s traditions, especially its fiestas, remain a vibrant celebration of faith and heritage.

“But it’s something lovely because it’s la Misa de la Aurora,” Diana recounts, “because it’s in the early hours of morning. And we come down, we go singing. And that’s what fills us, and we say, ‘This is Guápulo, and this is ours.’”

 


Liam Tello | Latin American Correspondent

Raised in New England and born in Peru, I have always been interested in Latin America. In my adolescent years I discovered a love of writing and story, which I cultivated alongside my proficiency in the Spanish language. Being fortunate enough to spend some years in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, these affinities only grew. After some time in college and a few years working in restaurants, I am currently studying for a B.A. in Spanish at the University of Rhode Island. I’m interested in stories that explore environments and people’s relationship to them, the day-to-day experiences of individuals in particular communities, how history and tradition live on in the material world, and community-based projects that operate, experience, or produce outside of larger systems. I believe these kinds of stories play a key role in better understanding our present. Not only can they help develop a more nuanced public perception of Latin America and its underrepresented communities, but these stories allow us to consider and reimagine possibilities for living and creating a good future.