The capital city of Quito is considered the gateway to the Galapagos, so it’s no surprise that this colonial city has seen some foot traffic. If you’re just passing through, however, shame on you. Nestled amid snowcapped Andean peaks with volcano vistas for days and greenery galore, this lively historic city is intoxicating to say the very least. I found it very clean, secure and with more history than the History Channel could broadcast, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a finalist to be named as a new 7 Wonder City of the World.
| Highlights of Quito |
If you’re in town on a Sunday, explore the cobblestoned streets of the historic center as they’re closed to traffic from 8am to 2pm. I was blown away by how bike friendly the city was, with designated streets for only bikers. Oh how so many cyclists in the U.S. would kill for this emphasis in their cities. You know, Ecuador is known for their big expat population. Just sayin.
Basílica del Voto Nacional is Ecuador’s largest Gothic cathedral, adorned with gargoyles inspired by the country’s iguanas, pumas and Galapagos tortoises. Plaza de la Independencia, Quito’s main square, is close by with the city’s 16th Century Metropolitan Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Place and City Hall. If you couldn’t already tell the Catholic religion is near and dear to the local’s hearts, it’s even more evident when walking another block to find the city’s most antique Catholic cathedral, San Francisco Church. Perhaps the most impressive place of worship to visitors is La Compañía Church where everything that glitters is gold, literally.
Once you’ve taken in as many cathedrals as you can stand, check out the pre-Colombian art at Museum Casa de Alabado or take a taxi up to the hill of El Panecillo. Here, you can pay a visit to the 148 ft. tall silver winged Virgin statue made of aluminum, modeled after Bernardo de Lagarda’s La Virgen de Quito sculpture from the San Francisco Church. You can see the entire city of Quito on a clear day.
Zazu Restaurant with it’s local, fresh ingredients isn’t to be missed, and the same can be said about Theatrum Restaurant and Wine Bar, a fine place for dinner with its Mediterranean cuisine and Latin twist. Plaza Foch is where the young and the restless gather for a fun night out, and keep in mind most bars close by 3am.
| Where To Stay |
The historic district is the place to be, although I’ve heard talk of the new side of town to be something to see as well. Here are my recommendations:
- La Casona de la Ronda: Situated on the pedestrian street of La Ronda, you couldn’t ask for a better location. With 14 beautifully traditional rooms, the hotel’s the furniture is hand-carved with traditional handicraft pillows. The staff is warm and welcoming, walking guests to taxis, making dinner reservations when necessary, and offering any comforts of home when asked. I adored my stay here and would highly recommend it for guests in need of a low-key, trust worthy hotel.
- Hotel Patio Andaluz: 32 elegant rooms with antique-style furniture located only feet from Plaza de la Independencia.
- Hotel Plaza Grande: Located directly in Plaza de la Independencia with 15 suites taking you back to Spanish colonial times.
- Hotel Casa Gangotena: Restored historic mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco with 31 rooms of painted tin ceilings, antique furniture and marble bathrooms. Go hungry as it’s a culinary treasure!
Note that Quito sits at 9,350 ft high and those susceptible to altitude sickness should stick to coca water – it does miracles for headaches. Also, cheap taxis are recommended for getting around, especially at night. Indulge in the chocolate, coffee and ice cream shops that are offered all over the city – delicious!
| Day Trips from Quito |
Mindo Cloud Forest: This tranquil rainforest is about 2 hours from Quito. With so much nature to see, this trip is for the avid bird-watcher at heart as it’s home to over 450 different species. Other activities include hiking, visiting orchid farms and butterfly farms, going on a chocolate making tour, drinking artisan beers, seeing the waterfall sanctuary or tubing the Mindo River.
Otavalo Market: This is where handicrafts come to thrive. About 2 hours from Quito exists the town of Otavalo and where Plaza de los Ponchos is a rainbow of textiles. The biggest day to find unique leathers, blankets, wall hangings, handbags, table runners, and bright alpaca-wool sweaters is undoubtedly Saturdays, although it’s buzzing every other day of the week as well.
Cotopaxi: About 45 minutes away from Quito, this is a hiker’s day-trip dream as this National Park is home to one of the world’s highest active volcanoes at 19,347 ft high, competing with only two other volcanoes for the title. I think it’s obvious you should be in good physical condition to hike this thing, and of course, beware of altitude and the many pains it brings.
Papallacta: Time to relieve your body of the soreness it received when hiking Cotopaxi or drinking too much in the Mindo forest. Less than 2 hours from Quito, Papallacta boasts the country’s most plush and picturesque hot springs with mineral-rich baths that are believed to possess healing powers that the locals swear by.
Baños: Saving the best for last, my favorite day trip from Quito involved venturing two and a half hours via car to a place whose name translates to “baths,” as the city is home to various hot springs. First, I’d recommend allowing your inner 7-year-old to come out and Swing at the End of the World, also known as La Casa del Arbol in Spanish. Being an adventurers’ playground, there are many outdoor activities in Baños such as hiking to waterfalls (namely Pailon de diablo), zipping down ziplines, bungee jumping, white water rafting, paragliding and biking. With so much awesomeness, this destination deserves some more time, but if you’re pressed for it, anything is possible.
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