Quito is the capital of Ecuador, with a population of 1.4 million (2001 census). Founded by Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro in 1534, it is located in the northern sierra of Ecuador, 9,350 feet (2,805 meters) above sea level. The city sits at the foot of the active Pichincha volcano, which last erupted in October 1999. Quito claims credit for the first cry of independence in South America, on August 10, 1809, giving the city the nickname "Light of America."
Quito served as the northern Inca capital for Huayna Capac (c. 1493–1527) and as the capital for the half of his kingdom left to his son Atahualpa (c. 1527–1533). When the conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar approached in 1534, Rumiñahui, Atahualpa's leading general, destroyed the city. The Spanish focused their sixteenth-century colonizing efforts in Ecuador in the sierra because of its gold reserves and large population of sedentary Indians, who were compelled to work on haciendas in the surrounding verdant valleys. Quito became the leading residence for absentee Spanish landowners, the beneficiaries of forced Indian labor. In 1563 the crown named the city the seat of the newly created Audiencia of Quito.
Because of epidemic diseases introduced by the Spanish, the population of the Quito area fell from between 750,000 and 1,000,000 in 1534 to about 95,000 in 1590, a loss of 85 to 90 percent. However, the region soon enjoyed an uncommonly strong demographic recovery, doubling in population between 1590 and 1670; this increase has led scholars to surmise that some of Quito's sixteenth-century losses may have been due to migration. The growth of the workforce contributed greatly to the emergence of a successful textile industry in the seventeenth century after gold mining declined. Using forced labor, Quito produced ponchos and blankets for export to the silver-mining districts of Peru. However, in 1691 and 1695 a series of epidemics struck the region again: The sierra population fell by 25 to 50 percent, and the population of the city of Quito fell from about 50,000 in the mid-seventeenth century to 21,700 by 1830. The loss of workers and of the Potosí market crippled local textile production, which never recovered; demographic and economic stagnation continued until the twentieth century.
During the colonial period Quito acquired a reputation it still retains for particular devotion to the Catholic faith. Indeed, to critics Quito became a priest-ridden city. The church helped Quito earn acclaim for advances in the arts. Some of the best expressions of Spanish colonial art came out of the Quito School, notably the sculptures of Bernardo de Legarda (for example, his Nuestra Señora de Quito) and the work of painters Miguel de Santiago, Hernando de la Cruz, José Javier de Goríbar, and Manuel de Santiago.
Ecuador is a nation cut in half by the towering Andes, and thus profound regional differences, culturally and politically, have developed naturally. Quito and the coastal commercial center of Guayaquil have been the two principal rivals since the eighteenth-century rise of Guayaquil's cacao economy. Each has often regarded the other with contempt and suspicion. This cultural feud has also punctuated Ecuadoran politics. Import and export taxes collected at the port of Guayaquil have nearly always been the sole important source of government revenue, with the funds controlled by the national government in Quito. The two cities recurrently clashed over this system, but because the sierra historically had a much larger population than did the coast, Quito prevailed.
After World War II the advent of mass urbanization in Guayaquil, coupled with the banana export boom, began to tilt the political advantage to the coast, a development reflected in the rise of populist leaders such as José María Velasco Ibarra and Assad Bucaram. In the late twentieth century, however, the flood of tax revenue from the export of Oriente oil freed Quito from its economic dependence on Guayaquil. The city has drastically expanded, quintupling in population between 1947 and 2001, even as its public image remains that of a cloistered capital. In 1978 Quito was the first city to be named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This has led to increased municipal and national attention to rehabilitation of the colonial core and a corresponding increase in Quito's tourist economy.
Gauderman, Kimberly. Women's Lives in Colonial Quito: Gender, Law, and Economy in Spanish America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Kingman Garcés, Eduardo. La ciudad y los otros, Quito 1860–1940: Higienismo, ornato y policía. Quito: FLACSO Sede Ecuador/Universidad Rovira e Virgili, 2006.
Lane, Kris. Quito 1599: City and Colony in Transition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Salvador Lara, Jorge. Quito. Madrid: Editorial Mapfre, 1992.