Is he asleep?” I ask. My guide, Freddy, shakes his head. “No,” he replies. “The last time was two years ago. There was ash this thick on all the cars.” He holds his fingers an inch or so apart. We’re talking about Cotopaxi, the almost perfect, snow-capped cone in the distance. “But he’s not the worst,” Freddy adds. “There are others that erupt much more often. And people’s lives are at risk when they do.”
But the Ecuadorian capital is unperturbed. In fact, this extreme geography is all part of Quito’s make-up. In the cloudy shadows of its volcanoes, the long, narrow city is wedged untidily into the furrows and folds of the Andean foothills, spilling up their slopes at a lofty 9,350ft — the world’s second-highest capital after Bolivia’s La Paz. As we edge closer to Quito, Cotopaxi’s ghostly white tip — now tainted with tales of danger — dips behind the houses and high-rises of the approaching city. Silently, almost spectrally, the volcano has disappeared.
Blessed with dramatic urban-meets-rural panoramas, I wonder how Quito has remained one of South America’s best-kept secrets for so long. Visitors have long used it as a mere jump-off for the Galápagos Islands, and its bashfulness on the world stage has meant tourists have opted for the continent’s more hedonistic cities instead. But with a shot of new-found confidence running through its veins, the city’s finally stepped out from behind its clouds to reveal a spectacular colonial centre — it was, along with Kraków, one of UNESCO’s first World Heritage Centres — its myriad Andean traditions unbuckled for all the world to see.
Acquaintances with Ecuador’s capital city made, we head to El Panecillo, a suburban hill crowned with the halo-topped Virgen de Quito statue. Here, the city unfurls beneath us. The clouds have parted, the chequerboard of buildings glowing in the high-altitude sunshine. Behind us, in the distance, looms the silvery zenith of Cotopaxi. But Quito still remains blissfully unruffled.
See and do
Quito Botanical Garden: Enormous ferns, gunnera plants with parasol-like leaves, cycads sprouting crowns of needles — there’s a touch of Jurassic Park about Quito’s beautiful botanical garden. If you want a taste of Ecuador from the Andes and beyond, this lush spot, hidden in Carolina Park, heaves with exotic plant life from across the continent, from carnivorous pitcher plants and delicate orchids to cacti and an impressive bonsai collection. Arrange a guided tour — with explanations, facts and figures, the superlative vegetation becomes all the more impressive.
La Capilla del Hombre: Perched high in the quiet Bellavista neighbourhood, this is no actual ‘chapel’, as its name (‘The Chapel of Man’) suggests. Rather, it’s an artistic homage to mankind, and the magnum opus of the late Oswaldo Guayasamín. The gallery, which houses works by the Ecuadorian painter and sculptor, explores a number of themes, from the oppression of indigenous peoples to poverty and suffering. Next door is the artist’s well-preserved home, decked out with Guayasamín’s private art collection and lavish religious icons.
Churches: Quito’s ornate churches give their Old World counterparts a run for their money. Presiding broodingly over the paved expanse of Plaza San Francisco, the 16th-century Church and Convent of San Francisco is one of the finest and largest examples of colonial architecture in South America. Inside, it’s unashamedly flamboyant and bathed in gold. Nearby, the La Compañía de Jesús church is touted by locals as the country’s most beautiful — one look at its near-perfect symmetry, extensive artwork and glinting gold motifs and it’s hard to disagree. La Compañía de Jesús, Cuenca 477.
Yanacocha Natural Reserve: Quito’s closeness to the great outdoors makes it perfect for nature lovers. In less than an hour, the hectic city gives way to the cloudy, leafy heights of Yanacocha Natural Reserve — a joy to walk through, taking in the misty greenery and twittering birds of the cloud forest. There’s a good chance of seeing the striking hummingbirds that call the reserve home, including — if you’re lucky — the black-breasted puffleg: tiny, endangered and endemic to this small patch of Ecuador, it’s Quito’s official emblem.
City museum: This museum in the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana cultural complex explores Quito’s long, riveting history through a sizeable array of art, relics and archaeological artifacts dating back several thousand years. The museum’s prized treasure: a gold Inca sun mask in the aptly named Sala de Oro (‘Gold Room’); its craftsmanship and lustre are truly dazzling.
Teleférico: Ride on the Teleférico cable-car to the Pichincha Volcano, reaching heights of nearly 13,000ft. From its ear-popping summit, the city gloriously spreads out below, with the silent silhouettes of volcanoes a dramatic backdrop. Take a warm jacket and breathe lightly — it’s chilly at the top and the air is thin.
Patio Andaluz: This handsome, peach-coloured bolthole in the heart of the Old Town bubbles with colonial charm, with plenty of original features and traditional touches. Breakfast in the bright, airy atrium is not to be missed, with local fruits and pastries laid out on colourful cloth. Look out for the giant turtle made of bread.
Hotel Sheraton Quito: Located just a stone’s throw from the glittering Quicentro shopping mall, the Quito outpost of this American giant feels surprisingly intimate, with bright, comfortable rooms and diligent staff. Expect all the mod cons and an extensive choice at breakfast.
Casa Gangotena: A local institution commanding a prime spot on Plaza San Francisco, Casa Gangotena impresses from the off with its elegant rooms finished with grand flourishes, including art deco furnishings and intricate paintings. The restaurant is another highlight, offering a sophisticated take on Ecuadorian cuisine.
Cafeteria Fabiolita: This inconspicuous little cafe in the shadow of the cathedral serves up hearty fare, including hefty roast pork sandwiches and a pork stew with corn — all of which lures in queues of locals for lunch. Grab a table under one of the green parasols with a guava juice watch the leafy Plaza Grande tick along.
El Esmeraldas: Fresh seafood is one of the true joys of Ecuadorian cuisine, and few places do it as well as this. Its white-washed terrace filled with locals feels like a beachside shack — even more so when the likes of zesty crab ceviche and coconut-coated prawns arrive at the table. Order the encocado, too — a vibrant dish of fish in a lightly spiced coconut sauce that’ll have you begging for the recipe. Isabel La Católica N24-560, Quito 170143. T: 00 593 2-222-6616.
Urko: If the traditional local delicacy of roasted guinea pig doesn’t tickle your fancy, fear not — Quito’s novo-Andean cuisine scene is thriving right now, with inventive menus such as Urko’s at the forefront. The cool, charcoal-toned kitchen takes traditional mountain and coastal ingredients and gives them a cosmopolitan makeover. Standout dishes include goat stew croquettes and pork in spicy ají sauce. Whatever you order, it’s best accompanied with a zingy passion fruit pisco sour.
Bandido Brewing: Let the excellent home brews flow in this former chapel-turned-pub. There’s a tipple for every taste — produced at the Bandido microbrewery across town — from treacly stouts to nicely balanced, American-style pale ales.
El Pobre Diablo: Moody lighting, bunting and colourful wall hangings set the tone at this popular restaurant, bar and live music venue. Locals turn up in their droves most nights, drawn by the eclectic mix of music — often jazz and local folk — although the cocktails are worth sticking around for.
Café Democrático: There might be too much choice for places to go in the Mariscal District, Quito’s vibrant after-dark neighbourhood, but the buzz coming from this alternative hangout is hard to resist if you’re after a good time. Soak up the music with a pisco sour before salsa-ing ’til the wee hours.
Like a local
La Floresta: This neighbourhood’s streets, humble bars and grocery stores offer up an authentic slice of Quiteño life. Come dusk, all manner of locals stop by for a hearty meal at Parque Genaro Larrea, where a night market serves up bubbling pots of spiced stew, tripe, and pillowy empanadas dredged in sugar.
Colaciones de la Cruz Verde: Luís Marcelo Banda Smith and his family have been making colaciones (tiny, colourful bead-sized sweets) for generations at their shop near Plaza San Francisco. It would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the noise from the pan he makes them in. Luís is usually found standing at the open shop front in an old T-shirt, patiently shaking a giant pot of the little confections every few minutes, sending tempting wafts of sugary steam into the street. Calle Bolívar OE8-97.
Herbal healers: Tucked away in a corner of the rather unassuming San Francisco Market, in San Roque, is a small group of women in white overcoats. Pharmacists? Not quite — the ladies are practitioners of the art of diagnosing and curing ailments with plants. Whether a rubdown with stinging nettles and rose petals will actually cure your aches and pains is open to debate, but the whole ritual is fascinating — bizarrely relaxing, even — and a much-respected part of local culture. Come on a Tuesday or a Friday if you’re after a check-up; these are supposedly the best days for a diagnosis.
Calle La Ronda: The candy-coloured buildings and hanging baskets of this cobbled street are worth a detour in themselves, but it’s what’s behind them that people come for. These old city centre townhouses are home to the workshops of artisans who’ve been honing their skills in Quito for generations. Take a look at intricate wooden cabinets being made, or ornate metal artwork hammered out by hand, destined for churches all over Quito. Indulge in a bar of organic 80% cocoa chocolate at Chez Tiff Artesanal, before calling at Luis López, at Humacatama, where the walls are adorned with his beautifully made panama hats — which are, of course, actually a product of Ecuador.
The Old Town is walkable, but crossing the city may be easier on four wheels. Locals hail yellow cabs; tourists may find it easier to book via their hotel or apps like Easy Taxi. The sprawling transport network can be daunting, but north-south routes on the efficient Trole trolleybuses are straightforward.
When to go
Equatorial Quito has a consistently mild climate year-round, although May-September is a little warmer and less wet. A highlight of the Quito calendar is Easter’s Semana Santa festivities, where the streets are flooded with streams of purple-clad participants.
How to do it
Rainbow Tours has a 12-day Ecuador Explorer Private Tour, with four days in Quito, from £3,785 per person including flights, accommodation and all transfers.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)