At an altitude of 2804m above sea level, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is one of the highest cities in the world. It’s also one of the most appealing cities in the South American continent. Founded in 1534 by Sebastian de Benalcazar, Quito has some of the best preserved colonial buildings and churches in Latin America, some of which are more than 500 years old, in its Old Town. But, this part of Quito which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO is only one side of this fascinating city. Its New Town, just a couple of miles north of the Old Town, resembles any modern capital with its gleaming skyscrapers and newly constructed mansions. Visitors can enjoy the unique experience of walking around centuries old courtyards and mansions in the Old Town and then make a trip to the several modern museums that showcase the citys history, in the central part of town. It’s a city that offers a delightfully close look at the past while, at the same time, offering all the conveniences and comforts of a 21st century metropolis. Most of Quitos attractions lie in the Old Town and the New town. A large part of the colonial architecture including the churches, buildings and mansions are located in the Old Town while the best hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping spaces and travel agencies are in the New Town. Besides being the entry point of choice for those on their way to the Galapagos Islands, Quito is also just a couple of hours from the glaciers of the Pichincha volcano, and a variety of crafts markets just outside the city.
All international flights into Quito land at the Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre which is about 5 miles from the heart of the city. Once inside the airport terminal, book a pre paid taxi for the ride to your hotel. The yellow taxis are easy to find and a trip to the New Town costs about $6.
Taxis are the preferred mode of getting around within the city and are very easy to find. They are extremely affordable too; a ride within the main city costs just about a couple of dollars with an extra couple of dollars charged for longer distances. The citys electric trolley lines also service the New Town and the Old Town and cost about 25 cents for a short ride. Tickets are only tendered against exact change and change machines are conveniently located at all trolley stations. Quito has an extensive network of buses, but the routes tend to be complicated. If you don’t want to navigate your way through a convoluted maze of roads, stick to the yellow taxes-they are the best way to see the sights.
Where to Stay
Located on a quiet street in the New Town, the Hostal Fuente de Piedre I is a simply furnished, yet comfortable little hotel that’s close to all the main tourist spots and shopping areas of the city. The in house restaurant is extremely affordable and a three course meal will only cost you about $3.
The Hostal Jardin del Sol is a small and inexpensive hotel that’s located to some popular bars and restaurants in the New Town. Guests can enjoy free Internet access at the computer room as well as a pick up service from the airport.
For a hotel with a lovely old world English feel, head to the Hostal La Rabida, a small and cozy home that has beautiful antique details in its interiors. There is a comfy living room on the premises with a fireplace.
Guests at the Hostal Santa Barbara can enjoy many of the Gothic architectural details left over at this 75 year old mansion-parquet flooring, dark furniture and dramatic stone fireplaces. Some of the rooms are massive and include a kitchen with a built in refrigerator.
The Hotel Vieja Cuba was formerly a colonial house that has recently been renovated with stunning results. Rooms are small but very comfortable and the restaurant downstairs dishes up Cuban flavors daily. There is also a bar and a massage service
The Dann Carlton is a boutique hotel in a nice neighborhood. Not all rooms are airconditioned and you will have to book one in advance. Guests get up to an hour of free Internet access everyday.
The Mansion del Angel offers excellent personalized service and beautifully decorated rooms. Breakfast is served daily on the rooftop terrace and includes a selection of home baked breads.
What to See
Iglesia de San Francisco
This was the first church built in Quito and construction began just a month after the Spanish arrived in 1535. It is built over an ancient Inca temple which is why the church seems higher than other buildings in the neighborhood. The interiors have a mixture of Catholic as well as indigenous symbols, especially symbols of the sun which were meant to attract and convert the indigenous cultures to Christianity. Almost a hundred years had passed before the construction of this church could be completed.
Casa Museo Maria Augusta Urrutia
Located between Sucre and Bolivar in the Old Town, this colonial building is the prefect place to envision 19th century life in a Spanish style home. The house formerly belonged to Dona Maria Augusta Urrutia and many notable world personalities including the Pope have visited here. The interiors include exquisite hand painted wall paper, Belgian tiles and a breathtaking collection of antique furniture. Regardless of the age of the house, it is quite contemporary and has modern appliances in addition to a cold storage room, an authentic wood burning stove from the period as well as the oldest grain masher in the country. Guided tours in English are available.
A $1 taxi ride from the heart of the New Town will get you to the Fundacion Guayasamain which houses a large collection of the artworks of the legendary Equadorean artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin. The museum is spread across three sections.
Iglesia de la Merced
This church was built in 1538 and houses an ornate gold leaf baroque altar and a splendid collection of oil paintings. A quick visit to the convent that still houses the priests, is very much in order. Here, you’ll find a Neptune sculpture at the center of a fountain and a sun clock dating back to the 17th century.
La Plaza de la Independencia
It is the main square in the Old Town and is surrounded on four corners by important buildings-the Government Palace with its strong Moorish architectural overtones, the more recently built City Hall, the Archbishops Palace with its courtyard flooring made from pig spines, and the 16th century cathedral with its superb art collection. The best time to visit the Plaza is at night when all the buildings are beautifully illuminated.
Museo Nacional de Banco Central del Ecuador
This enormous museum exhibits art objects over the millennia from 11000 B.C. to contemporary Ecuadorian art. The museum is a must visit for the manner in which it unfolds the influence of pre Colombian art on colonial, republican and modern art. The building is divided into four sections-the Archaeological Gallery with its masks and figurines, all inspired by the sun, the Colonial Gallery with its examples of the juxtaposition of pre Colombian art with European art practices, the Republican Gallery which has a collection of portraits of national heroes and lastly, the Contemporary Art Gallery which showcases landscapes and works by Oswaldo Guayasamin.
Where to Eat
You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to culinary options in Quito. The city offers something for everyone regardless of the size of your wallet, from cheap eateries where a meal will cost $1.50 to the most upscale international cuisine restaurants. Chinese joints are extremely popular with the locals who call them chifas. There are also a number of moderately priced Indian restaurants. The Marisal neighborhood has some great restaurants including El Maple which dishes up vegetarian chow and Il Risotto, an romance-themed Italian ristorante, complete with fresh red roses, candles and opera music. In the New Town you’ll fins a wider selection of fine restaurants including La Choza, an Ecuadorian joint with outdoor garden seating, La Terraza del Tertarro, a penthouse restaurant renowned in the city for its selection of succulent meats and La Vina, considered by many to be the best restaurant in the city. The wine menu at this upscale restaurant is legendary and it attracts its fair share of corporate honchos and socialites.
Although there are a large number of bars and clubs in the city, you won’t find a wide variety in the after dark options in Quito, However, there some great English style pubs and trendy bars. There has been a boom in the sheer number of salsa clubs and discotheques in the city that usually cater to an 18-40 age bracket. Penas are the more traditional Ecuadorian partying venues and feature Andean music and all night drinking.
The main buys here are handicrafts, art objects and figurines. The quality is sometimes poor and its best to stick to a few stores that support indigenous artisan groups. The Exedra is a non profit community that sells painted ceramics, murals and artwork. The Galeria Latina displays a range of top quality alpaca sweaters, pottery and silver jewelry. Olga Fisch Folklore on Avenue Colon has a superb collection of carpets, pottery, tapestries and decorative art objects all inspired by indigenous cultures and made by local communities. For gorgeous handmade linen including baby clothes, bed linen and table linens, head to Punto en Blanco. Casa Indino Andino is one of the better places for crafts shopping in Quito. It has an expensive collection of ceramics, both originals and reproductions dating back to pre Colombian times, religious art objects from the colonial period and intricate silver jewelry.
Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve
Barely 2 hours outside Quito is the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, a 1800 acre vast bioregion with waterfalls and the best bird watching opportunities to be found anywhere. Local tour operators offer packages to the reserve, but you can also hire a private taxi from $45-$50 for the trip. The reserve is a must visit not just for the 275 varieties of birds that inhabit it, but also for the incredible variety of plants and flowers. Although the trip is short and you can easily make it back to Quito by evening, an overnight stay at the Bellavista Hotel is highly recommended-the food is excellent and the postcard views of the colorful birds and the mountains beyond are spectacular.
Cotopaxi National Park
Several agents organize day trips to the Cotopaxi volcano, the highest active volcano on the planet. A typical trip will include a long journey to the parking lot situated 4500 meters above sea level. From there, it’s another couple of hours to the point where the glaciers begin. The views are spectacular for those with enough energy for the long walk from the parking lot. Alternately, you can hire a taxi and drive about an hour and a half out of Quito to the parking lot and then hike upwards to the refuge or onwards to the glacier point at your own pace. Biking enthusiasts might enjoy a mountain biking trip that begins at the parking lot and winds its way through dense forests and clear lakes. For $40, a trip will include biking equipment, lunch and protective gear.