For travelers, the confines of being “sheltered in place” for some indeterminable period are particularly burdensome. Nonetheless, while all of us are coping with the uncertainty of when life will return to some semblance of normal, it remains important to keep in mind that this “moment” in time is just that – a moment, a temporary situation that will pass for the most part. While the following notes were written before the current health and economic situation took such a dive, it remains our heartfelt belief that the idea of travel to alluring, unfamiliar and exotic spots such as the Galapagos Islands and colonial Quito serve to provide a vision and hope for what luxury travelers can expect in the not so distant future. With that said, we share with you a few words and images of our home city: Quito, Ecuador.
Much more than a jumping off-point for flying to the Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorian capital of Quito elegantly fuses colonial charm, architectural gems, and modern town living. As diverse as it is ornate, Quito is perched high in the Andes — approaching 2 miles above sea level — situated in a dramatic mountain setting flanked by snow-capped volcanoes and verdant peaks.
Possessing a rich indigenous heritage and linked to an impactful colonial past, Quito is awash with color-filled markets, historical plazas, narrow cobblestone streets and well-weathered buildings, many of which are now comfortable, luxury hotels.
Though there’s no end to the places of interest worth visiting in this Ecuadorian city, here we present just 10 of what we consider some of the most interesting sites that Quito has to offer.
1. Old Town and El Panecillo Hill
Boasting one of South America’s best-preserved historic districts, Quito’s “Old Town” is the city’s original colonial center, still filled with neo-Gothic and Baroque churches, leafy plazas, political buildings, lavish palaces, and museums. Simply strolling along the worn colonial streets, you’ll learn about the history of this vibrant district, which was first declared a UNESCO “World Heritage Site” back in 1978.
A tour of the district is likely to culminate with a drive up to the “Virgen de Quito” monument atop Panecillo Hill. From this vantage point, you’ll have a birds-eye-view of the city as well as the chance to enjoy a panoramic view over “Volcano Avenue”: two parallel mountain ranges that are home to eight of the country’s ten highest peaks – a spectacular sight to behold.
2. Capilla Casa del Hombre
Take a short drive to the near north of Quito takes you to the Guayasamin Museum & the Capilla de Hombre. The emblematic house-museum was the former home of Ecuador’s most famous painter: Osvaldo Guayasamin. In pursuit of his vision of turning this space into an icon of Ecuadorian painting, he donated his artworks, all the objects and furniture in his house, and his collection of pre-Columbian art to this museum.
Today, when you walk inside, you’ll note how the house is more like a gallery designed by the artist, with each space possessing its own character. As an indigenous painter with a political focus, his legacy lives on in this museum.
3. Calle La Ronda
With origins that date back to the time of the Incas, the long curving street known as “La Ronda” is an enchanting addition to Quito’s historic district.
Though once a den for drug dealers, criminals, and the homeless, the street actually benefited from neglect in that its historical buildings were never razed to make way for fast-food franchises or downtown condos. Instead, the streets doorways today open up to art galleries, museums, craft shops, and elegant restaurants. This lantern-lit street and its flower-filled balconies provide for a romantic ambiance that makes La Ronda one of the crown jewels of the city.
Quito’s mountainside cable car system — the highest in all of South America — will whisk you up from the foothills of the Pichincha Volcano to its summit (4,050 meters, or 13,300 feet above sea level).
In just 10 minutes, one of the six-passenger gondola cars that constitute the “TelefériQo” (from teleférico and Quito) will transport you to a site offering spectacular views of the whole city of Quito. So, what better way is there to enjoy the views offered by the city than from above, in the comfort of a gliding gondola?
5. Iglesia La Compañía de Jesus
Risking pure sensory overload in Quito’s historic district, you should be prepared to discover the majestic La Compañía Church, a guardian of the city’s stunning artistic and cultural heritage. As you approach the sanctuary, you’ll find its facade carved completely in gray volcanic stone. This artistry draws the attention of visitors not only for its beauty but also for the combination of styles and expressions of the “syncretism” that combines European and indigenous features.
In addition to the elaborate exterior of this magnificent church, within it you’ll find altars, pulpits, pillars, and arches adorned form head-to-toe in gold leaf, allowing these elements to shine like jewels. The construction of this temple took 160 years to complete, allowing you to be one of the more than 120,000 people who visit the La Compañía this year.
6. Middle of the World City and the Intiñan Museum
No trip to Ecuador (which means “equator” in Spanish) would be complete without a visit to the imaginary line that divides the planet in two. And since Quito is less than an hour from this equatorial line, such a visit is especially easy. Here, you’ll experience the amazing Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”) complex. At this site, located at 0° 0’ 0” latitude is the earth’s equatorial line, you can straddle the planet’s two hemispheres – a great photo op..!!
At the center of the Mitad del Mundo stands the centerpiece of the park: a 30m-high, stone trapezoidal monument topped by a brass globe containing a viewing platform and a museum, which provides a good introduction to the indigenous groups of Ecuador through dioramas, clothing displays, and photographs.
In addition, you’ll have a chance to participate in several experiments at the nearby Intiñan Museum, such as watching water go down a drain in a different direction only inches away from either side of the equator, or balancing an egg on a nail, or using an ancient sundial.
7. Artisanal Handicrafts Market
While Ecuador’s highland town of Otavalo is known for its famed handicrafts market, many of the same articles can be found at Quito’s traditional market. Located between the city’s Ejido Park and the Mariscal district (aka “Gringo Land”), you can find locally produced goods such as pottery, garments, handicrafts, and more.
This sprawling array of vendors, stands, and merchants are as much for the benefit of visiting tourists as for the indigenous Andean population. And whether you’re on the hunt for a bargain or not, the visual spectacle of the market is worth a visit for the photo opportunities alone!
8. Plaza Grande
Every Monday morning, you can witness the changing of the guards just outside Quito’s Presidential Palace. In this square called Plaza Grande, this formal ceremony is held, occasionally attended by the President himself, who oversees the events from the Presidential Palace’s balcony.
On other days, you can find a bench in the square and simply soak up the popular culture. People watching is the main pass time here, as you’ll see how the locals meet and greet while street-food vendors and buskers contribute to this always-vibrant site.
9. Basilica del Voto Nacional Church
Situated on the edge of Quito’s historic district, the Basilica del Voto Nacional is the largest neo-Gothic structure in Ecuador and one of the largest in Latin America. For its majesty and style, this Catholic church — which is in the shape of a Gothic cross — has been compared with other large cathedrals in the world, including the Basilica of Notre Dame (Paris) and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (New York).
Reaching a height of 115 meters, within it are 24 chapels representing the number of provinces in Ecuador. A striking feature of this huge cathedral is its gargoyles, which are seen on the facade and walls; but instead of classical motifs, these have been replaced by amphibians and reptiles of Ecuador, specifically animals from the Galapagos Islands.
10. “Gringo Land”
Only a 20-minute walk from Quito “Old Town” historic district is the contrasting “New Town” Mariscal District. An entirely different world, the area is a mixture of trendy cafés, international restaurants, travel agencies, cybercafés, disco-tech bars, and small hotels.
Quito’s nightlife epicenter, this is a great place to visit, whether for just a quick drink or if you are looking to salsa through the night. Living up to its nickname of gringolandia (“gringo land”), the area attracts foreigners but also locals alike, allowing this barrio to maintain an Ecuadorian flair.
To fully discover exciting experiences like these, take at least a day tour while in Quito. Expert travel coordinators will take you on a tour that introduces you to the “real” – authentic – Quito.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.