In the heart of Old Town Quito, just two blocks North of Plaza Santo Domingo, is an unexpected ambience in this downtown more known for colonial churches and plazas: Barrio San Marcos.
This neighborhood, centered around Calle Junín, today is home to middle-class families, artisan workshops and a parish church. It also has several interesting museums, a dance center and restaurants.
San Marcos is one of Quito’s oldest sectors. During the Inca reign, the Aclla Huasi (House of the Chosen) was where Convento de Santa Catalina is now (Flores and Espejo). The convent has a natural medicine shop (Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.) and a museum (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Entry: $1.50).
The barrio was founded in the 1580s. Spaniards, indigenous and mestizos lived here side by side, an anomaly for the era. It was home to Francisco Javier Ascásubi and Miguel Antonio Rodríguez, two important players in the 1809 uprising against Spanish rule. This was where, too, Manuela Sáenz lived. In the late 19th century, painters Brígida and Gertrudis Salas, and the musicians Aparicio Córdova and Carlos “Pollo” Ortiz created here.
Calle Junín is lined with homes showing the centuries of architectural styles. A few late-16th century buildings remain, and there are some designed by Antonio Russo, an Italian who erected many of the early 20th century buildings in the Centro Histórico. Flowers spill over second floor balconies. Neighborhood stores, barbershops, tailors and other family-owned businesses speckle the landscape all the way down to the tree-shaded plaza and the parish church. Calle Junín continues two blocks more, to a cul-de-sac.
Eight artisan and artist workshops also adorn Calle Junín, including the gallery-studio of Sonia Rosales (Junín E2-143 and Almeida. Tel: 239-6320, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), who studied for several decades in China. She creates her women-centric art with natural pigments on handmade paper.
Other artisan workshops are those of José Barrera who crafts wood (Junín E3-03 and Gutiérrez. Tel: 228-0753) and Arte Colonial Quiteño of Señor Marcelo Ruiz (Junín E2-61 and Almeida. Tel: 295-2529).
Twice a year, San Marcos hosts a street fair with artisan stands, traditional foods and live music, and showcasing the neighborhood’s creativity. Its patron saint celebration is on April 25.
In recent years, Barrio San Marcos has quietly become a cultural mecca in downtown Quito. Three museums lure visitors to this neighborhood. Museo Manuela Sáenz (Junín OE113 and Montúfar) highlights the life of this Quiteña who played a major role in the Wars of Independence. Further down Calle Junín is the Museo de Arquitectura (Tuesday-Saturday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Junín 610 and Ortiz Bilbao. Tel: 228-0446. Entry: $1), where you can learn about Quito’s architectural history. On the next block is Museo de Acuarela y Dibujo Muñoz Mariño (Junín OE227), dedicated to Ecuador’s most important watercolor artists.
La Casa de la Danza now has its center in Barrio San Marcos (Junín and Gutiérrez. Tel: 295-5445). Every Saturday night, it hosts performances in its Carpa de la Paz (Peace Tent) (7-11 p.m. Entry: $2). It also has a café (Tuesday-Thursday 3-7 p.m., Saturday 7:30-11 p.m.).
Several restaurants, run by young Sanmarqueños, are open for lunch and dinner. Tradicional Colonial has tremendous views over La Marín (Junín E3-167 and Segunda Escalinata. Tel: 258-0124, Cel: 087-522-599). Restaurante Las Cuevas de la Colonia is in the barrio’s oldest building (Junín and Montúfar. Cel: 092-422-828). Across from Plaza San Marcos is a traditional picantería. Octava de Corpus, a wine and grill bistro-art gallery, is open only in evenings (Junín E2-167. Tel: 295-2989, URL: www.octavadecorpus.com).
If you would like to stay in San Marcos, experiencing the neighborhood’s peace and creativity, there is Casa San Marcos, an up-scale boutique hotel (Junín 655 and Montúfar. Tel: 228-1811, E-mail: email@example.com, URL: www.casasanmarcos.com). The inn also houses Cafetería Quindihuasi, serving Ecuadorian fusion cuisine for lunch and dinner.