Your travels in Ecuador may well take you to the buzzing metropolis of Quito. This gorgeous, historically rich capital city is packed with interesting sites to explore and its dramatic location amid green, misty volcanic Andean peaks makes for a mesmerising setting.
Quito’s crown jewel is its UNESCO-listed Old Town, complete with colonial monuments, museums, churches and architectural sites – walk alongside the 17th century facades, pretty plazas and art-filled churches as you mingle with the locals in the Mariscal, a compact area filled with guesthouses, ethnic eateries and bars. The area effortlessly blends the appeal of colonial style with 21st century living. It boasts a very lively nightlife too, as well as being home to some of Quito’s finest restaurants.
Dance the salsa
An energetic nightlife vibe runs through Quito’s streets, aided by numerous salsa venues which make it the dance capital of Ecuador. If you’re not about to get on the dance floor yourself, there are plenty of places to watch it in action. Alternatively, get out there and loosen your hips with a few lessons at a dance school.
Hike in the hills
Few cities can top Quito when it comes to hiking and climbing opportunities. Just 65 kilometres from the centre are dozens of volcanoes and mountains forming an impressive 400-kilometre stretch known as “Avenue of the Volcanoes”. Volcán Pichincha is a popular excursion once you’ve climbed 2.5 kilometres up the base of the volcano by cable car. It’s a good idea to take a little time in Quito to acclimatise to the high altitude before you set off.
Go up the volcano by TelefériQo
A ten minute ride in the cable car takes you to the flanks of Volcán Pichincha and to the top of Cruz Loma. At 4,100 metres above sea level, you can admire staggering views or, if you’re feeling energetic, take the popular three-hour hike and scramble to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4,680 metres). If you prefer, you can hire a horse to take you there. You will find them about 500 metres from the upper station. The views here are often at their best in the morning, before the clouds start rolling in.
Go to the Middle of the World (Mitad del Mundo)
In recognition of the fact that Quito lies very near to the equator, a monument stands on its line just outside the city. Strangely, the giant Mitad del Mundo was actually built in the wrong place, but it is still an interesting sight and houses science and astronomy exhibitions. Visitors also enjoy the quirky Intiñan Solar Museum, dedicated to ancient beliefs and local knowledge of astronomy, and situated on the actual equator.
Visit the Cathedral of Quito
The brilliant white cathedral of Quito is minimalistic on the outside and somewhat overshadowed by the nearby neo-Gothic basilica. On the inside, it’s contrastingly grand and adorned with impressive artworks from the Quito School, most notably a nativity image of the Three Kings sitting atop llamas. Other features include 18th century sculptures like The Holy Shroud by Manuel Chili Caspicara while the remains of the great independence leader, Antonio José de Sucre, lie here in a tomb carved from volcanic rock.
Stroll up La Ronda
La Ronda is a charming cobbled street, ideal for a leisurely daytime stroll. It shows its true colours at night when street performers, musicians and market stalls take over. La Ronda was renovated in 2006 and the colonial houses have been transformed into cafes, galleries, bars and art shops. This is the perfect place to find a cosy café to sip a canezalo, a hot Andean cinnamon and aguardiente (sugar can spirit) toddy.
Get your handicrafts at Otavalo Market
A two-hour trip from Quito, Otavalo is the ideal day excursion to experience local life in the form of the biggest indigenous market in all of Latin America. Market stalls sell an abundance of handicrafts as well as textiles (including ponchos) made by Otavaleño Indians adorned with Ecuador’s iconic bright colours and bold patterns – remember to haggle and be sure to leave some room in your luggage!
Visit Guayllabamba Zoo
29 kilometres north of Quito is an initiative to conserve Ecuadorian fauna and biodiversity. Quito Zoo’s main purpose is to protect endangered species as it conducts research and education programmes to increase awareness of the nation’s biodiversity. It holds the largest collection of fauna in Ecuador along with many animals that have been rescued from the illegal fur trade. The 45 species of fauna represent all regions of Ecuador, including the paramos, tropical rain forests, the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon Jungle.