Quito, Ecuador: El Panecillo

A 150-foot statue of a winged madonna towers over Quito’s central historical district on a steep hill called El Panecillo. The madonna, named “Woman of the Apocalypse,” stands atop a globe and steps on a snake in classical Holy Virgin form. It is a new monument commissioned as recently as the later half of the 20th century, but the space it occupies extends deep into history, and is a central driving character in a narrative of cultural and spiritual imperialism.

Quito Street
El Panecillo and a Quito street.

Prior to Spanish arrival, the site of El Panecillo was called Yavirac. It hosted the pre-Inca and Inca celebration of Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, observed on June 21. The Inca legend states that Atahualpa was called to build a temple of gold on top of Yavirac to honor the sun. Gold matches the sun’s rays, and is symbolic of the life that springs forth from the Sun Father and the Earth Mother. The Spanish, hungry for the conquest and power that gold brought them, conquered Yavirac during their 16th century invasion, and divided the gold they plundered from the site. Maybe they knew they were destroying something sacred and didn’t care; or maybe they were blinded to the sacred in their material quest for wealth.

When the first city of Quito, named Santiago de Quito, was formed under Spanish occupation in August, 1534,  the indigenous resistance was ongoing through the organizing efforts of Ruminahui. However, Santiago de Quito was located about 120 miles to the south, near what is now called Riobamba. Later that same year, in December, 1534, Ruminahui was captured, and the city of Santiago de Quito moved to its present day location and was refounded. Ruminahui was beheaded in January, 1535. What is the connection between Ruminahui and the present day location of the city of Quito? Was he defending the temple of gold atop Yavirac from Spanish ruin? Is that why the city relocated within close proximity to material wealth immediately after his capture?

The hill is now called El Panecillo, which translates in English into a type of white bread. According to the stories, the Spanish were homesick for their bread baked from wheat, an ingredient unavailable to them at the time. Since the round hill rises from the earth much like a loaf of bread expands during the day, they named it El Panecillo. Nothing remains of the space that for many centuries represented a sacred spiritual pilgrimage to recognize the forces of earth and sun necessary for human survival.

My friend and I attempted the hike to reach the top of El Panecillo, but we had to turn back with the end in sight. A pack of wild dogs was guarding the path, and they wanted us to leave more than we wanted to continue. In hindsight, I feel that might be fitting. What business did we have to wander ignorantly up to an ancient civilization’s sacred site? Maybe the dogs are onto something.

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