Just after dawn, one boom, a second and a third roll down the slope of Pichincha volcano and through the narrow Machángara River Valley. Then the strains of a slow military march flow down into the narrow streets of the Centro Histórico of Quito.
Suddenly, this quiet 24 March morning is sliced by fighter jets flying in formation near the flanks of Pichincha. A church tolls its bell.
Down on the Plaza de la Independencia, the President of the nation walks from his palace to the cathedral with a military entourage. In that temple, they attend mass. Later in the day, the President will deliver his State of the Union address to the National Assembly and the armed forces will be present for a mass at Iglesia de la Merced, the Virgin that is patron saint to their ranks.
Thus begins the commemoration of the Batalla de Pichincha, one of the most decisive battles in South America’s independence.
I think about how it must have been for the denizens of this colonial capital at the time of the Spanish occupation, during the Mother Land’s vain attempt to hold onto her rebellious colonies. She lay in this valley like an Old World lion, digging her claws into the local people’s fervent desire for freedom.
Already many of Spain’s lands in the New World escaped her iron grip: Venezuela, Cartagena – even Cuenca and Guayaquil. Even though Quito first declared its independence on 10 August 1809, the rebellion was squelched within a year. Could Spain manage to hold on to Quito, the capital of the Real Audiencia?
What was life like for the 10,000 or so Quiteños of that epoch? Quito – in its girth – was yet a small town at an altitude of 2,850 meters (9,350 feet). It extended from the banks of the Machángara River flowing along the southern base of Panecillo hill and to San Juan Hill. Beyond those frontiers, El Ejido and other farms scattered the countryside and quilted the steeps slopes of this narrow valley.
The rebel troops, under the command of Mariscal (Field Marshal) Antonio José de Sucre came to liberate Quito from Spain’s hold. His army began its ascent from Latacunga, to the south of the city. In order to launch a surprise attack, his forces – made up of not only Gran Colombian troops, but also men from Paraguay and Argentina – swept along the flanks of Cotopaxi Volcano and across the Valle de los Chillos. But as they climbed up the slopes of Pinchincha, Spanish troops stationed on El Panecillo spotted the rebels’ advance towards Chillogallo.
On 24 May 1822, the opposing armies met in battle, at 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) altitude, near the summit of Pichincha Volcano.
When that skirmish began far in the hills to the west of Quito, what did the people hear? The shots from primitive firearms, the shouts of hit and dying men? Did Spanish troops quarter in citizens’ homes, was a curfew declared? Did troops march off in formation to the battlefield, a few lucky to return in a mayhem of makeshift hospitals?
After the battle, Sucre’s troops descended the flanks of Pichincha, to El Tejar where the Mercedario monks had a retreat church. Here, some of the wounded and dead were left.
The battered soldiers continued their march downhill, to the Mercedario’s main church, Iglesia de la Merced. Here, popular history says, was where a mass for all the fallen soldiers – of the independence regiments as well as royalist forces – was said.
And after the battle was won by the rebel forces, sealing Ecuador’s independence from Spain, what were these city streets like? Filled with wounded, with dying, with prisoners. Did the Spanish royalist forces quietly retreat – and to where? The seaports are many weeks of rough travel away …. Or did some of those soldiers hide away in the hopes of mounting an attack against those rebels, to recapture this city of gilded temples for the glory of the Motherland?
Some royalist forces fled, intending to force the independence forces to once more subject themselves to Spanish rule. The final blow to them came on 17 July 1823 at the Battle of Ibarra, led by the Great Liberator himself, Simón Bolívar.
Today, almost 200 years after the Battle of Pichincha, the city of Quito is a city of 2.5 million inhabitants busting at the seams of the Machangará River and surrounding valleys. The Centro Histórico, though, retains a slower pace. At night, when the traffic disappears, you can almost feel the ghosts of the country’s independence movement wander through the narrow cobblestone streets.
It is in this oldest part of the city where you may find places where the history of the Battle of Pichincha is explained.
In the Catedral (Calle Venezuela and Calle Espejo, Plaza de la Independencia) is the tomb of Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre.
Just a block south of the Plaza de la Independencia is the Museo Casa de Sucre (Calle Venezuela and Calle Sucre. Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Entry: Free; ID required). Here is where the Mariscal lived. It displays his military and personal effects.
A few streets away, on Plaza Santo Domingo (Calle Guayaquil, between Calle Bolívar and Calle Rocafuerte) stands a statue of Antonio José de Sucre. He points westward, towards the slopes of Pichincha where his great victory took place on that 24 of May, 1822. Around the pedestal of the monument are bronze engravings of the battle.
If you look up on volcano’s flanks, you see a low building with a tower on its left side. A large mural by Ecuadorian artist Eduardo Kingman decorates the front. This is the Templo de La Libertad, also known as Templo de la Patria (Avenida Los Libertadores OE13-997, Sector Cima de la Libertad. Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-noon. Entry: free; ID required. Take a bus marked “Libertad” from along Calle Benalcázar or Calle Rocafuerte; $0.25).
On the southwest flank of El Panecillo, about midways up, is one of the stone watchtowers (fortín) the Spaniards used to mount surveillance of the rebel troops’ movements through the valley.
Two blocks north of Plaza de la Independencia is Iglesia de la Merced, the purported locale of the post-battle mass. The Virgin to which this church is dedicated is the patron saint of the armed forces. A painting by Ecuadorian artist Víctor Mideros depicting Sucre in battle. This is one of many Mideros paintings – done in a luminescent Art Deco style – that grace Iglesia de la Merced. (Calle Chile and Calle Cuenca. Entry: free).
To the west of this church is El Tejar, another sanctuary of the Mercedario (Mercedarian) religious order and host of one of Quito’s oldest cemeteries (Calle Mejía and Avenida Mariscal Sucre. Entry: free). In a crypt are buried some of the fallen from the Battle of Pichincha.
In Chillogallo, on the southwest side of Quito, is another museum dedicated to the battle: Centro Cívico Mariscal Sucre (Calle Marcos Escorza y Carlos Freire, Parque Central de Chillogallo. Tuesday – Sunday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Entry: free). Every 23 May is a commemoration to the Batalla de Pichincha, as this is where Sucre’s troops spent the eve of the battle. One the anniversary of the skirmish, a hike (Caminata Libertaria) to Cima de la Libertad is offered. To get this rural parish, catch a bus with a “Chillogallo” sign ($0.25) from Avenida Pichincha in the La Marín sector of downtown Quito.
The Casa Museo de Sucre, Templo de la Patria and Centro Cívico de Chillogallo are all run by the Ministry of Defense; for more information about these museums.
To learn more about this historic battle, please see Christopher Minster’s article, “The Battle of Pichincha.”
To learn more about the Virgen de la Merced, please see my photo-essay about her.
And to see further images about Quito’s first Cry of Independence, see Ecuador : Día de la Independencia / Independence Day.
A curious footnote: Ask Quiteños about Pichincha volcano, and many old-timers will say it is the profile of Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre. On the old sucre coins that have his image, you can see the resemblance.