Wedged into the folds of the Andes, the world’s second highest capital city (surpassed only by La Paz, Bolivia) contains the best preserved Spanish colonial core in the Americas. Despite this, travellers tend to overlook Quito as they make their way to the country’s Pacific islands treasure, the Galápagos. But times are changing, and this city of two million is having a moment.
A burgeoning food scene, new boutique hotels, and a subway slated to open by year’s end are encouraging visitors to explore this modern city with an ancient soul. “Quito is best understood as a collection of diverse neighbourhoods united under a volcano,” says Jorge Vinueza, of Ecuadorian travel magazine Ñan. “These elements give it a unique energy that you only have to walk its streets to feel.”
The city’s UNESCO-designated centre is a rabbit hole of riches, but don’t stop there. Take the teleférico to the top of the volcano. Stock up on textiles at the Artisanal Market. And on weekends, make like the Quiteños and head out of town.
A barrio with everything essential: coffee, culture, and chismes (gossip)
Ahacienda estate until the early 1900s, this wildflowered area was one of the first neighbourhoods to emerge as the city expanded beyond its colonial borders between the World Wars. There are ornate Italianate mansions, low-slung early modernist houses, and high-rise apartment buildings. Artists and creatives began moving in some 20 years ago to give it the alternative, indie vibe it has today. “The first inhabitants of La Floresta brought with them the spirit of the historic centre, the panaderías, cafeterías, lavanderías, sastrerías—what we call oficios, or trades,” says Vinueza. “Along with the more recent graffiti artists, musicians, and filmmakers, it’s what gives this barrio its aliveness.”
You don’t need an elaborate plan. Just wander. You might decide to take in an art film at the pioneering Ochoymedio theatreor visit the offices of travel magazine The Ñan to purchase some authentic souvenirs the staff picked up during their sojourns throughout the country. Scoop up designer-made decor from Libertina Tienda GalerIa or sample superfoods like quinoa at Vegano de Altura and chocolate at Hoja Verde. Time for uncafecito (a black coffee)? Head to Jervis or Botánica. For a free guided stroll of the neighbourhood, check out Quito Street Tours.
Panama hats were born in Ecuador, where they’re still woven by hand from toquilla straw. Photo By: Robert van der Hilst/Getty Images
This sleek spot in New Quito’s Benalcázar neighbourhood is walking distance to crêperies, cafés, and high-end shopping, as well as La Carolina, the city’s version of Central Park, ideal for strolling and jogging. Well-appointed rooms feature mid-century modern furniture. en.leparc.com.ec
One of the city’s newest boutique hotels grew out of an old house in the traditional working hood of La Loma Grande, near many of the sites in the historic centre. The house once harboured conspirators of the 1875 assassination of President Gabriel García Moreno. Now remodelers have reversed years of neglect and incorporated contemporary architecture to create a structure that evokes history without replicating it. Ecuadorian art adorns the rooms, and the restaurant’s menu changes daily to highlight dishes from different provinces. www.hotelmama-cuchara.com
With its prime location on Plaza de San Francisco—the heart of the historic quarter—this is undoubtedly the best address in the city. The former palace home of presidents and landowners was rebuilt in art nouveau style with art deco touches and eventually turned into a 31-room hotel. Don’t miss the rooftop terrace for unfettered views of the old town. www.casagangotena.com
Four ways to eat well, from street food to Novo-Andean.
Quiteños drink coffee all day long (and don’t even think about ordering decaf). Try the cafeterías in Plaza Grande for people- watching. Serious coffee lovers should head to Café Galletti Teatro Bolívar, a family-run business that works with small fincas. To warm up on chilly nights, select one of three popular hot drinks: canelazo (made with sugar cane alcohol), vino hervido (mulled wine), or chocolate con queso (yes, with cheese). Sip them with dazzling city views at Pim’s Panecillo or Cafe Mosaico.
At Quitu, chef Juan Sebastián Pérez prepares for an extravagant spread. Photo By: William Hereford
Chamomile ice cream sweetens any tasting menu in Quitu. Photo By: William Hereford
Long overshadowed by Lima, Quito’s food scene is now making headway. Inventive chefs such as Alejandro Chamorro of Nuema are elevating Novo-Andean cuisine using products of coast, sierra, and jungle and reinterpreting indigenous and Spanish colonial traditions. At Chulpi, Carlos Saltos dishes out fresh takes on street food in a small house in the residential Las Casas neighbourhood. Don’t miss the pairing menu at Quitu, chef Juan Sebastián Pérez’s altar to Ecuadorian gastronomy.
For a dollar or two, you can feast like a king on Ecuador’s comida callejera, or street food. Different areas have their specialties, so make like a local and nosh on tripamishqui (chewy but flavourful tripe) at outside stalls in La Vicentina; quesadillas (more of a pastry, nothing like the Mexican dish) in San Juan; candies from Las Colaciones de la Cruz Verde (try the so-called caca de perro—”dog poop”); and cookies made by the Carmelite nuns at the Carmen Alto convent in the historic centre.
Chocolate may well have originated in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but only in recent years have homegrown chocolate companies refined and developed the raw product. The most well known of them, Pacari, offers a two-hour minicourse in its historic downtown store that includes making and packaging your own organic truffles. Other chocolate houses worth visiting: República del Cacao, Chez Tiff, Hoja Verde, and fair-trade shop Tianguez (located under San Francisco church).
Explore a city of historic splendour in a region of natural wonder.
Quito has marvellous museums, including the Museo de la Ciudad and the Museo Nacional del Banco Central, but don’t overlook these two under-the-radar gems: The Casa del Alabado showcases the surprising and sophisticated workmanship of pre-Columbian art within an elegant Spanish colonial house. And Casa Museo Guayasamín displays paintings and murals at the home of Ecuador’s most famous 20th-century artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.
The neo-Gothic spires of the Basílica del VotoNacional tower over Quito’s historic centre. Photo By: William Hereford
Despite its notoriously fickle weather (keep a rain jacket in your bag), Quito often sees the sun. After you’ve acclimatized to the altitude, take the teleférico up the city’s volcano, Rucu Pichincha, for a look around. Loved by locals, centrally located Parque La Carolina has running trails, a man-made lake, and the orchid-filled Botanical Gardens. On Sundays, rent a bike and cruise Quito north to south on roads closed to traffic for the weekly Ciclopaseo.
It could take weeks to see all of the city’s churches. If there were a people’s choice, it would be San Francisco church and plaza, its winged Virgin of Quito statue above the altar replicated to gigantic proportions on Panecillo Hill. But there’s also the gleaming, gold-leaf-plated interior of La Compañia, built by the Jesuits in baroque style. If you don’t fear heights, scale one of the towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional for heavenly vistas.
All the volcanoes and lakes within a 96-kilometre radius encourage weekend jaunts. North of Quito is the world-famous Otavalo market; stay at the new Otavalo Hotel and arrange a guide for the textile and music workshops. South of Quito, adventurers can climb the majestic (and active) Cotopaxi volcano or take in the views from horseback at Hacienda El Porvenir. Baños, at the base of another volcano, Tungurahua, is known for its thermal springs.
Ecuador’s equatorial encounters.
The French-led Condamine expedition famously mapped the line between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres just 22 kilometres north of Quito, and visiting the official site, La Mitad del Mundo, is a popular excursion. A massive monument and bright yellow stripe of demarcation make for cool snaps straddling the line. The problem is the 18th-century explorers were about 800 feet off. To get closer, you’ll have to go to the nearby Intiñan solar museum, a hokey attraction with mock physics experiments. For the most accurate GPS readings and scientific explanations, head to Quitsato, near Cayambe, site of a large solar clock and the best place to appreciate the gravity of where you are standing.
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