“We’re only here for a day, but we’re looking for a good café,” says a couple from Alberta, Canada. “Any nearby recommendations?”
The young pair, donning backpacks, stands in the doorway of The English Bookshop in the historic district of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. They look hopeful at the shop’s owner, who happens to be a long-time ex-pat from the U.K.
“We leave for the Galapagos in the morning but wanted to relax this afternoon over a cup of coffee,” they add.
And therein lies the rub for tourism in Quito. It’s not that one cannot relax over a respectable espresso in the city (this is South America, after all), but that most visitors barely stay long enough to find Quito’s hidden and not-so-hidden gems — or experience the local Ecuadorian culture.
“Most tourists see Quito as a connecting point, a layover city, as they venture off to another destination like the Galapagos, Columbia, or Brazil,” explains Cristina Rivadeneira R, Gerente General – Quito Turismo. “That’s fine, of course, but people too often miss what we have to offer here. There are many worthwhile sites and experiences to enjoy in the capital city.”
High in the Andean foothills
Quito sits high in the Andean foothills, with an altitude of 9,350 feet, and is surrounded by some of the highest volcanoes and mountain peaks in the world.
In fact, the city lies in a valley between two active volcanoes in the middle of the world — it is home to the equator (a bucket-list visit for some, perhaps).
It’s also the world’s second-highest capital (La Pax, Bolivia is at 11,975 ft.), and has been labelled one of the most scenic cities in South America for good reason.
Expect colonial architecture, mixed with colourful buildings, intricately designed churches, street vendors, and markets built on historical ruins. And not far from the main city square, you’ll find nature-rich national parks, cloud forests, and communities dedicated to preserving the region’s farmlands, heritage, and natural beauty.
“Most visitors only stay here for about a day and a half,” adds Rivadeneira R. “We’re working hard to extend that to at least three or four days. We’d like people to fully experience Ecuadorian culture and cuisine. We believe it is worth their time.”
So, where to begin? The Ecuadorean capital spans some 30 kilometres and offers several distinct districts, both old and new, so it’s worth mapping out one’s preferences.
Although it’s possible to tour the region solo (public transportation is ample and affordable), a licenced tour guide will offer insights you’re unlikely to learn independently.
Old Town Quito
“My favourite place in Quito is the Historical Centre or old city because it offers a bit of everything,” shares Juan David Mantilla (find him on Instagram here), a local and nationally registered tour guide in Ecuador.
He’s been hosting tours for more than 20 years.
“It is a place where stories are shared and where you go to get the rich history and culture of the city. It is also where Ecuador earned its independence,” he said.
Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) is Quito’s main public square and, as its name suggests, is a symbol of the city’s autonomy — with a monument, honouring those that fought for independence in 1809.
Carondelet Palace, the Presidential Palace, is also located here. Once closed to visitors, the Palace now offers free guided walking tours.
What’s more: “The Historical Centre of Quito also represents the biggest conservated area in Latin America,” says Mantilla.
“Quito was the first city ever to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site back, as of Sept. 8, 1978.”
Quito was founded on the ruins of a 16th-century Inca city. Despite a major earthquake in 1917, the old city exemplifies Latin America’s least-altered and most-preserved historic centre.
“Within this preserved area, there is much to take in,” Mantilla says. “There are walking tours, museums, churches, hotels, street foods, high-end restaurants, cooking classes, and shops where you’ll find items much cheaper than outside the old city.”
This is what passersby miss about Quito. The capital city offers something for the history buff, the architect, the theologian, the connoisseur, the adventurer, the nature lover, and most any tourist.
This is what the couple from Alberta likely missed out on by settling for a mere cup of coffee. At the very least, that coffee should be paired with chocolate.
Case in point: Ecuadorian chocolate is one of the finest in the world, typically made from rare and native Arriba cocoa beans. These beans are rich but not bitter in flavour.
The popular República Del Cacao in the heart of Quito’s Historical Centre offers an incredible chocolate espresso.
But for a nearby, hands-on chocolate-tasting experience (that includes a variety of flavours like quinoa or amaretto), Indemini Báez Chocolate – Chez Tiff Artesanal is a must.
Protected architectural heritage
A stroll through the narrow cobblestone streets of Quito’s old city is sure to charm almost any sightseer.
The blend of colonial, European, and Indigenous styles is a testament to the city’s protected architectural heritage.
There are impressive landmarks such as the Plaza de San Francisco, with a known history that dates to the first millennium. This is where pre-Inca nomadic tribes exchanged goods from across the Andes, the Coast, and the Amazon.
Eventually, this ancient marketplace (once known as Tianguez) became an epicentre for the Kingdom of Quito and an Inca temple, before the Spanish conquered and renamed it the city San Francisco de Quito.
“The surface is made from volcanic stone and today it is home to the church and convent of San Francisco,” shares Mantilla. “This is the oldest and most significant religious site in Ecuador, with more than 3,500 works of religious art.”
There are three churches in San Francisco square alone, with more than two dozen in Quito’s old city.
Theologian or not, visitors would be remised not to visit the renowned Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow). The largest neo-Gothic temple in the Americas, it offers a tremendous view of the Historical Center from atop its towers (to those willing to climb the steep outdoor ladder-like stairs).
Adorned by “gargoyles” that represent species endemic to Ecuador (including iguanas, tortoises, armadillos, and condors) and beautiful stained glass, the architecture was inspired by the famed Notre Dame and Bourges cathedrals.
And what cathedral is complete without some folklore?
“It is said the Basilica is unfinished,” says Mantilla. “It was built over several decades, starting in 1892. It was never fully completed but this was done on purpose.” Supposedly, a deal was made to save a few souls: if it is ever fully built, legend has it the world will end. “So, it’s been left nearly but not quite complete.”
These are the stories a good tour guide will leave you with.
“Food is about sharing and community”
Perhaps the best way to experience Quito, a city that prides itself as the “cultural centre of the country,” is to immerse oneself.
Walk the local markets, try an exotic fruit smoothie (there are several delicious concoctions), or enjoy a warm canelazo in the evening (a spiced cider-like drink, with plenty of options in the La Ronde neighbourhood).
Better yet, schedule a cooking class and learn about Ecuadorean cuisine from a local. The talented and knowledgeable chef Dennis Jara Pantoja offers classes via the Altamira Gastronomic Experience. (Email email@example.com for more info)
“We have a lot of love and care for the food here in Ecuador. It is something we can share together while getting to know one another better,” he says. “My mother used to say that if there’s enough for two people to enjoy, there’s enough for four people. We always have an extra plate for visitors.”
One location for the class is in the spacious Masaya – Viajero Quito Hostel in Quito’s Historical Centre (the private rooms are larger than many hotel rooms). It offers free daily walking tours and has a beautiful courtyard with a picnic area, a community kitchen, and a restaurant (where Jara Pantoja also works).
“For us, food is about sharing and community,” he adds. “It is a gift.”
“Four worlds in one city”
Outside of the Historical Centre, Quito offers both a vibrant city and an array of outdoor beauty.
For views of the mountainous landscape, consider the TelefériQo cable car, one of the world’s highest aerial lifts. It runs 2.5 kilometres and about 3280 ft. (1000 meters) up the east side of Pichincha Volcano to the Cruz Loma lookout.
At the top, there are plenty of trails and horseback riding. It’s also possible to hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (15,354 ft.), but the round-trip takes about four hours and hikers should first be acclimatized to the altitude.
Another hike-worthy location is found in Ecuador’s Cloud Forest, which begins about an hour outside of the city.
As its name suggests, the forest is typically shrouded in fog like a rainforest. It’s an ideal spot for bird watching (there are more than 500 species) and flower spotting (Ecuador has more than 4,200 species of orchids alone).
Comprising some 48,000 acres, the Mindo Cloud Forest (a part of the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve) is one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world.
“The absolute best thing overall in Ecuador, in my opinion, is that you have four worlds in one city,” shares Mantilla. “I use the term ‘world’ because each landscape is unique. For one, you’ve got the Amazon and places like the Cloud Forest that are full of biodiversity. Then, there are the volcanoes and the Andes or what’s considered the highlands. In contrast to that, there’s the coast with its beautiful beaches. Last, but not least, another biological laboratory is found in the Galapagos.”
According to Conservation International, a non-profit environmental organization, there are only 17 megadiverse countries in the world. Ecuador sits sixth on that list despite its relatively small size.
Just be sure to spend a few days exploring the capital city first.
“From the history of the old city to the beauty found in the nature surrounding us, it is worth a visit, for sure,” says Mantilla. “We are very lucky that we have so much diversity in Ecuador and such a variety to offer travellers.”
The Middle of the World monument. Stand in two places at once. Here, you can straddle the northern and southern hemispheres, experiencing Latitude 0. Learn about the Geodesic Mission and visit several museums in the area.
The Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve is home to the world’s only inhabited crater, with the dormant Pululahua volcano by its side. Pululahua, which means “cloud of water,” is one place you’re likely to experience the cloud-forest phenomenon of dense fog. The result is a mystical scene, best explored by walking into the crater, riding down on horseback, or simply enjoy the view from the top.
AGAVE SPIRIT ECUADOR is a comprehensive museum that has recovered the knowledge of and honours the Andean agave culture. Experience the history and tasting of agave — including Miske, the Ecuadorean distilled alcohol made from the sap of agave plants.
Mercado de San Francisco is one of the oldest markets in Quito at 120 years. It’s the place for fresh fruits, veggies, smoothies, handcrafted items — and homeopathy. In the Andean energy treatment done here, the curadora (healer) uses a unique combination of herbs, nettles, and flowers to tap the skin, which is meant to refresh and release negative energy or toxins.
La Mariscal district, a subsection of Ecuador’s New Town, is where to go for nightlife. It’s also worth a daytime visit for the cute shops and cafes — and architecture. Although it’s known for its tourists and backpackers, it also offers local flavour, including traditional Ecuadorian food. Consider dinner at Achiote, a family-owned restaurant, built on the property where the chef’s grandparents lived.