Surrounded by snow-dusted Andean volcanoes, the Ecuadorean capital of Quito is shoehorned into a web of high valleys, a few miles south of the equator. Founded by the Quitus, the pre-Colombian indigenous inhabitants of Ecuador, the city was remodelled by the conquistadores from the 1530s onwards, and offers a fascinating blend of Spanish, indigenous Quitus and Incan influences.
For years the capital was overlooked by international travellers en route to the Galápagos archipelago, Ecuador’s Darwinian wildlife mecca. Today, however, the city’s well-restored Centro Historico (Old Town) is a magnet for tourists and locals drawn to the churches, restaurants, museums and galleries populating this picturesque and culture-laden neighbourhood.
There’s hardly a street or alley without a view of green-flanked slopes or soaring volcanic peaks. Although divided into three main parts — the old city, the modern city, and the southern-northern districts — it’s the Old Town where the lion’s share of the capital’s charms lie.
Despite the fact UNESCO named Quito a World Heritage City in 1978, the Old Town sat in a sad state of decline for many years, until a group of enlightened politicians and businessmen stepped in, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on restoration, gentrification and improved security, thus breathing new life into its historical treasures.
“A decade ago I wouldn’t have brought my foreign clients here at this time,” says local tour guide Analia Arrata, as she stands on an Old Town street corner at 11pm. “It was dilapidated, dirty and often dangerous. These days I’m proud to show off Old Quito. Quiteños say it’s like el rostro de Dios — the face of God. We joked that it was a pretty ugly face before, but now the city’s back to her beautiful best.”
See & Do
El TelefériQo: Many Quito visitors choose to start out with a ride on El TelefériQo; it’s the perfect way to suss out the lie of the land. The sky-high cable car system transports passengers up the side of the active volcano, Volcán Pichincha, to a height of over 4,000 metres, offering breathtaking (literally) views in the process. An oxygen bar at the top can counter altitude sickness.
Calle la Ronda: Nowhere is Quito’s brave new face more apparent than on this pedestrianised, 17th-century cobbled street at the southern end of the Old Town. Formerly a red light district, it houses a vibrant community of artists and intellectuals, and brims with an eclectic mix of shops, workshops, cafes, bars and tiny restaurants.
Museo de la Ciudad: Located at one end of Calle la Ronda, the City Museum is one of Quito’s best, profiling life here from 10,000BC to the present day. museociudadquito.gob.ec
Plaza Grande: Begin your tour of the Old Town at this plaza, flanked by City Hall and Quito’s Metropolitan Cathedral. This is a classic Latin American plaza, full of snack peddlers, musicians, gossiping octogenarians and kids offering cut-price, shoe-cleaning services.
Plaza de San Francisco: Just up from Plaza Grande is the magnificent Plaza de San Francisco, one of the most iconic sights in the Old Town, bordered by Volcán Pichincha and the stunning Church of San Francisco. Check out the adjoining museum located in a former cloister, which houses many valuable paintings and relics.
Parque Metropolitano: If you’re looking for a green urban escape make a beeline for this patch, one of the biggest city parks in South America. Offering great views over the city, it’s the perfect place to walk, jog, cycle, picnic and watch quiteños at play.
Adventure junkies: Hang glide and paraglide over the city from the slopes of Volcán Pichincha, or mountain bike down the nearby Mount Cotopaxi for a hefty dose of adrenalin. Too much hard work? Take a hike. quitoparagliding.com bikingdutchman.com
Mariscal Crafts Market: If you can’t make time for the market town of Otavalo, famous for its touristy indigenous bazaar, this is the best alternative. A maze of permanent booths on Jorge Washington, it has artisanal offerings, from alpaca ponchos and tapestries to pottery and jewellery. Goods here should be viewed with a discerning eye, and prices can be negotiated, but not by much. Open daily 10am-7pm.
Quicentro: Quito’s most centrally located and glitziest mall contains art galleries and craft shops, as well as a wide range of international clothing emporia and chic cafes. The supermarket and pharmacy in the basement have all your essential staples, while an extensive food court and games arcade will keep the kids happy. quicentro.com
Centro Artístico Don Bosco: Located close to Calle 10 de Agosto, this is the shop window for the co-operative of indigenous woodworkers from Ecuador’s Andean highlands, set up to try and stem the tide of urban migration. Here, you can find exquisite and reasonably-priced furniture, as well as some beautiful knick-knacks and picture frames. centroartisticodonbosco.com
Like a Local
Get out: Take a trip on the newly restored railway line between Quito and El Boliche for magnificent views of Mount Cotopaxi. A round trip,the outward journey takes around three hours; a stopover in El Boliche offers a selection of short walking trails. Buy tickets and hop aboard the train at Chimbacalle Station on Avenida Pedro Vicente, just southof Old Quito.
Taxi tip: If you’re travelling by taxi make sure you have small notes or coins to pay the driver, who will turn up his face at a $10 bill; the minimum taxi fare in Quito is $1. After dark, it’s almost always safer to use taxis rather than walk — be sure to take a card from your hotel with its address on it.
Mama Clorinda: One of the best places in Quito for traditional Ecuadorean cuisine. Order the excellent seco de chivo (goat stew), llapingachos (potato-cheese patties), and locro (cheese, potato and avocado soup). T: 00 593 2 254 2523.
Le Petit Pigalle: From escargot to steak tartar, this popular restaurant in the Mariscal neighbourhood offers a French bistro experience in the heart of the Andes. Try the crème brûlée and chocolate mousse. lepetitpigallerestaurant.com
Zazu: Fine fusion dining in elegant surroundings. With arguably the best ceviche (seafood dish) in Ecuador, Zazu is one of the classiest eateries in Quito. It also has a great wine list. zazuquito.com
El Pobre Diablo: This boho restaurant is one of the best live music venues in the Ecuadorean capital, for jazz and blues, and electronic and experimental music. elpobrediablo.com
Reina Victoria Pub: For those in need of a home-from-home hangout, the Reina Victoria (Queen Victoria) offers multiple beers on tap, pool, darts and even a weekly quiz night. T: 00 593 2 222 6369.
Blues: Quito’s answer to London’s Ministry of Sound, this trendy club in the north pulls in a style-conscious young crowd and international DJs. T: 00 593 2 222 3206.
Casa Gangotena: The former home of a wealthy Quito merchant, this beautifully restored and exclusive boutique offering has a prime location in Old Quito — be sure to check out the rooftop views over San Francisco Plaza or chill out in the hotel’s wonderfully peaceful garden. casagangotena.com
Mansión del Angel: Right in the centre of Quito in the Mariscal Sucre neighbourhood, the Mansión del Angel is a former colonial-style mansion, featuring a restaurant, spa and gardens, and complimentary afternoon tea. mansiondelangel.com.ec
Café Cultura: A characterful and uniquely styled hotel in the centre of the city, Café Cultura is one of Quito’s most charming and idiosyncratic accommodation choices.Run by raffish owner Laszlo Karolyi, this former mansion has 26 individually designed rooms, plus a well-stocked library, open fireplace, high-end restaurant and free wi-fi. cafecultura.com
There are no direct flights between the UK and Quito. KLM flies daily via Amsterdam, Iberia flies daily via Madrid, and American Airlines flies daily via Miami. klm.com iberia.com americanairlines.co.uk
Average flight time: 15h.
Public transport in Quito is a little haphazard, though flagging down a taxi is generally the easiest and most convenient way to get around. Taxis are cheap; some have meters, some don’t — if they don’t, agree a price before you set off. Hotels will usually assist with price estimates and giving drivers directions. The Old Town is best explored on foot, while buses and trolleybuses should be avoided — as routes are typically very complicated — unless it’s a short trip.
When to go
At nearly 3,000 metres, Quito is one of the world’s highest capitals; its proximity to the equator means it has a fairly constant, cool climate with temperatures around 14C, making it a year-round destination. There are only two seasons: summer, from the end of June through to September (the dry season), and winter (the wet season) stretches through the rest of the year. However, any rainfall is never prolonged.
Need to know
Visa: Visitors from the UK are allowed to stay in Ecuador for 90 days without a visa.
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.60.
Health: Travellers should ensure all routine vaccinations are up to date. Malaria medication is not necessary for Quito, but may be required for lowland areas of Ecuador. Wear sunscreen and take time to acclimatise to the high altitude in Quito.
International dial code: 00 593 2.
Time difference: GMT -5h.
How to do it
A 12-day trip with Journey Latin America visiting Ecuador’s highlights and staying three nights in colonial Quito starts from £3,198 per person, including international flights, transfers, B&B and excursions. journeylatinamerica.co.uk
The experienced guides of Quito City Tour Travel offers custom, multilingual tours of Old Quito and beyond. quitocitytour.travel
The Rough Guide to Ecuador. RRP: £15.99.
Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)