On top of the World in Quito – Ecuador:
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is the highest capital in the world, located at 2,850m (9350 feet) and lies on a plateau in the foothills of the Andes, surrounded by active volcanoes. Easily reached from a number of airports, it is about a 14.5hour flight, landing at Mariscal Sucre International. Due to its proximity to the equator, there are only two seasons; wet and dry. Temperature is normally 11 degrees at night and 25 in the day, with occasional showers appearing at random. Strangely enough, it felt very much like a British summer when I visited in July.
Quito caters for all kinds of tourists and offers some great value hotels ranging from top 5-star luxury through to decent and safe backpacker hostels. I started my visit with a stay in the Anahi Hotel, a designer hotel only a few streets from the centre of Quito. Each room has a unique design and persona, with many guests returning who ask for specific rooms. It was well appointed with good wifi and is the ideal place to stay for those wanting comfort, value and location.
To get an idea of the size and sprawl of Quito it is best seen from high up, and the best way to do this is from one of the mountains. This is achieved by using the highly popular Telerifico, a cable car, which lifts visitors up to 4,052m (13,297ft) along a 2.5km journey that takes 15 minutes. At this height the air is thin, and some people do feel it, but the best way to handle it is to drink coffee and take things slowly. Those that want to go even higher can continue walking up another 1000ft! Looking down on Quito you can see the sprawl of the city over the floor of the plateau, as well as all the surrounding mountains that form the area known as the Avenue of Volcanoes.
The first area to visit in Quito is the Historical District, which was built on the foundations of the Incan city at the site before, and is known for its well preserved 16th and 17th century churches. Much of the architecture can be seen as a blend of European, Moorish and the indigenous styles making it feel deceptively familiar yet always interesting.
Independence square, known as the Plaza Grande, is the centre point for the Historical District, bordered by the main Cathedral to the South, the Presidential Palace to the West, the Archiepiscopal Palace to the North and City Hall to the East. The square also hosts many coffee shops and is seen as a daily working and meeting place by many Quito residents.
The Cathedral is one of the oldest in South America, known for is amazing domes and is built in a variety of neo-classic styles, noticeably Baroque and Moor. Visitors can climb up and almost secret stairway in the walls of the church to get to the domes on the roof. From there the views across the Square are impressive, even more so at night when everything is illuminated.
Moving on from the Square takes you to the Church of La Compania de Jesus, known as the jewel of the Baroque Period in America. Started in 1605 it took 160 years to build and is as impressive as it is intimidating. The almost total gold leaf inside gives this church a wow factor that almost hides the quality of the artwork and carvings. If you could only ever visit a few churches in your life, this should be one of them.
Walking around the Historical District of Quito, many of the roads are on steep inclines and the mountains are ever present, giving a sense of security to the town that the original settlers thousands of years earlier would have appreciated.
The food markets are full of colour, with locals buying and selling seasonal produce, and with more varieties than you could imagine. The San Francisco Market is the oldest in Quito, having been there for over 120 years, and many of the stall holders have been running their stalls for generations. Alongside the produce, there is also freshly cooked food, fried potato cakes, as well as almost every variety of soup you can think of. And the soup is usually like a thick broth, a filling meal in itself.
Food is obviously a big part of Quito life, and you can find somewhere to eat anywhere in the city. Street food is safe and very tasty, although it helps if you know what you want and many of the sellers don’t speak English. Small restaurants are usually filled with locals eating many of the spicy chicken or meats cooked with plantain or any one of the 240 different varieties of potatoes in Ecuador. Top 5 star restaurants, like the Cedron, in the heart of the Historic Quarter, are a throwback to the lofty colonial era, and boutique restaurants like Octava de Corpus have a quirky side that makes them must be destinations for anyone visiting Quito.
Just a few roads on from the Plaza Grande is the La Ronda neighbourhood where Morales Street is located, a place designed for tourists to see traditional games played in the streets, bordered by small artisanal craft workshops. The workshops proudly show the making of wooden toys, tops, games and artifacts as they would have been made and played with for centuries. The street players actively encourage you to get involved and play against them, without any pressure to buy anything. They just want you to understand the culture of Quito. It is no surprise that Quito Turismo (the Quito tourist board) is on this street.
Also on Morales Street is Dulce Placer – “The” Ice Cream shop. It is a destination in itself, with over 300 different flavours that you can sample, many of which are designed for local tastes with local produce. Flavours like Canelazo (warming cinnamon) and Chochos (Andean bean) cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
As you walk around the Historical District you are always under the gaze of the statue of the Virgin of Quito, high up on the top of the Panecillo slopes to the South of the city. The Virgin of Quito is the only winged virgin in the world (also known as the Virgin of Quito) and is made up of over 7,000 pieces of aluminium.
A quick drive up to the top of the Panecillo, or walk for the fit, rewards you with spectacular views across the South of Quito, including views of several peaks and volcanoes of the Andes. Quito is a millennial city that has not changed its layout in over four centuries and from the height of the Panecillo you can see how the city and its house interact and merge with the hills and mountains. It is no wonder that UNESCO made Quito the First World Heritage site. I went there in the evening and as the darkness crept in and the lights of the town started to come on, it made for a spectacular view and visible transformation of the city below.
Then it was on to one of the many great restaurants that Quito has to offer. More of that later!
I travelled as a guest of Quito Tourism