Going where no other tour has gone before…

22/Junio/2012 | 16:50

By Lance Brashear

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Midway through a walking tour of Quito with guide Julio Rivas he says to his visitors, “In my opinion, there is something really important in life.  One thing is when you have the opportunity to cross an open door. Another thing is when you open the door and pass through it.” 

A tour with Julio Rivas is unorthodox, mysterious, remarkable, and even suspenseful.  Rivas gives regular tours in the central historical district of Quito - a labyrinth of the unknown that requires a certain spirit to discover it.  But sometimes, even that is not enough.   You still need access to some important places, something Rivas seems to have a monopoly on. 

Rivas enters the convents and the churches of El Centro, climbing the back stairs and maneuvering through restricted passageways, and it seems, always exiting onto the rooftops. 

Even if other guides could get the same access as Julio, few could dissect the labyrinth in all of its man-made and surrounding, natural glory. 

“I spent lots of time inside the churches when I was a kid,” explains Rivas.  He grew up near Alameda Park, just on the outskirts of the colonial shell of Quito, and fell in love at very early age with the art and treasures inside the churches and monasteries.   And along the way he befriended many of the priests.

His friendships with the gatekeepers of Quito’s centuries-old religious orders - friendships that still endure today - explain why Rivas can open doors that nobody else can.   And his love for the religious art led him to a teaching career of more than 30 years – one in which he took thousands of students to see the churches, the architecture, and art, and learn the stories that accompany them.

Twelve years ago Rivas began offering the same kind of education to tourists through customized walking tours and roof-top tours for those who want and have the nerve to see Quito from a different angle.

Rivas’s tours are never the same, he says.  He plans them according to his client’s time and interest, but almost always they end up in the same place: on a rooftop.

On my first tour with Rivas we began by entering La Merced Monastery.  After an interesting discourse about why a statue of the Greek god Neptune adorns the patio (you must take the tour to find out), Rivas pauses to introduce us to one of the workers in the monastery, something he never overlooks, as he would go out of his way in the other churches to do the say.

We then wind our way up some steps, enter a room below the bell tower and climb a steep, ladder stairway to the lower roof. 

From here we advance further and are soon overlooking Neptune from above with a view of the rest of the city.

As Julio guides and talks, his discourse wanders away and back again and goes in circles at times, but ultimately he follows a methodology.  He begins with the horizon and works his way in to Quito. 

The dry season has just begun.  The sun is intense and the snow-capped volcanoes are in view.  He talks of the ancestral personification of the mountains and then comes closer to talk about the seven sacred hills surrounding Quito.   Finally, he segues to the city and the creation of man, making connections both visual and philosophical.  

Rivas shows how the churches and convents were constructed in a such a way as to form a cross – the Latin cross – with the horizontal axis runs north to south from La Merced to Santo Domingo and the vertical axis east to west: from San Agustin Convent to La Compañia de Jesus to San Francisco – following the direct path of the sun, a hint that the Catholic founders, in establishing their orders, either wished to dominate or assuage the sun-worshippers who preceded them.

Other guides could show this on a map, if they knew of it, but Rivas is the only one who climbs to the top of each church on the cross to prove it.

Rivas says the religious orders established themselves over several decades, creating their own world while leaving behind the outline of the former.

As we walk atop La Merced, Rivas leads us to a ledge, three feet wide.  You are invited to follow and cross over.  A fall to your left will bruise; a fall to the right will maim or kill.   At this point you realize you were never even offered to sign a liability waiver, proof enough you are in a different world.

Some in our group hang back, but I move forward with Julio.  As we circle the smallest of the domes (the church, like most, has two domes and a tower), the wind is brisk, though not cold, but it amplifies the precarious balancing act atop the church.

“This is an artisan dome that holds a part of our character,” he says.  I lean on it, partially as a shield from the wind, partially to feel more grounded.  I run my fingers over the green tile.

He begins a brief and eloquent discourse on the symbolism of the domes, the philosophy behind the architecture of the church.

“Look at the mountain,” says Rivas. I lift my gaze to the horizon, not sure which mountain he is talking about.  It does not matter.

He brings his attention back to our dome. “It is the same as the dome.  The same shape,” says Rivas.  He points to the other churches in the distance, their domes looming over the scattered buildings that distract from the Latin cross.  He points to Santa Clara and Santo Domingo.  “You see what inspired them.  We continue in the same school as our fathers.”

And Rivas continues: “Here, you only need to open your mouth, cry.  If you are hungry, everything is taken care of.  This is the religious history.”

He moves his gaze the next dome, back from where we had come.  You see it now with a different perspective.  It is higher.  Rivas continues: “There comes a moment when you have to create your own history…you make things happen for you, with your hands, with diligence, with the education you have received.”  It begins to feel like a sermon, but one you want to hear.

“Later, it is your turn, to construct your world…it is very important that you do everything you can with your life.”

His gaze has left the dome and moved to the tower.   “So you pass this grand, long, important period where you leave evidence of your life and you pass to the ultimate step.” 

He has explained the philosophy behind the architecture of the church. The three grand stages of life: creation, development, and the end. “You are a child, a man, and one day you must die.”

Neither the climb nor his sermon is for the faint of heart.  Yet part of you wonders if he is making it all up.

“I did an investigation,” he says. “It is not a coincidence.”  He points to the distance and counts.  “In La Compañia de Jesus, one, two domes, and a tower.”  His arm tracks to the left.  “One, two domes and a tower at the Cathedral.  One, two domes and a perpendicular tower at Sagrario.”  He motions further east.  “Two rainwater roofs and a tower at San Agustin,” and then back south, “In Santo Domingo it is the same, two domes and a tower.”

“Look at how the story of the mountains, the story of everything, how it has developed and how it unifies.”

It is plenty to think about as we descend back to the ground floor.  We depart for other points along the Latin cross. 

Throughout his tour Rivas offers a lot of lighter, anecdotal stories and some very interesting observations.  Why is the image of the sun in the ceiling of every church?  Why are pineapples and grapes carved into the altars?  Who is the fourteenth person in the painting of the Last Supper in the chapel at Santo Domingo? 

Though it is all great trivia for your next cocktail party, the overall message that comes from Rivas’s tour is about the heritage of Quito - what it is and where it comes from. 

At each church Rivas never fails to introduce to the group the caretakers.  He greets them like brothers and proudly talks about their humble service.  It is a reflection of his belief that the true heritage of Quito precedes the architecture that has been superimposed on a reality that even today cannot be denied.

Rivas is one of the few who link the natural heritage with Quito’s manmade patrimony, showing how the intangible is reflected in the tangible and he tells why this city is “worthy of being the first patrimony with all of the defects that one can have because you know that here things don’t matter.”

He says, “The people and the essence of the people is what matters.”

If you would like to take a tour with Julio Rivas, check his website at www.quitocitytour.com or call the office in Quito at 604-2427.  From the U.S. dial (800) 476-6047.


Ciudad Quito

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