Quito, Ecuador is the kind of place you could happily immerse yourself in for a week or more, but if you only have a stopover (say, en route to the Galápagos), there’s no reason you can’t get a decent taste of what this lovely colonial city has to offer in 24 hours.
The first thing you need to understand about Quito is that it’s the second-highest capital city in the world after La Paz, Bolivia. It has an elevation of just under 10,000 feet. The last thing you want is to waste your limited time in this charming place holed up in your hotel room with a pounding headache, so drink plenty of water during your travels for adequate hydration and as soon as you land, drink some coca tea. It’s the Andean remedy for keeping altitude sickness at bay.
You’ll want to rise early for coffee, which is one of Ecuador’s most important crops. Head to the feel-good Kallari Cafe, which was started by the indigenous Kallari Association and is entirely farmer-owned. You can’t go wrong with their fair trade americano. They also have fair trade organic brownies, made with dark chocolate grown and harvested by a co-op of 850 ethnic Quichua farmers in the nearby Amazon.
Once you get your caffeine and chocolate fix, wander through old town’s cobbled streets, where you’ll find some of the most stunning colonial churches in the Americas. Quito has the distinction of being the first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site on the first World Heritage list back in 1978.
Check out the 18th-century La Merced, which has paintings of volcanoes erupting over colonial Quito. It’s said that no one has climbed the tower to ring the bell for over two hundred years – local legend says that it’s possessed by the devil. Right by La Merced is La Compañía de Jesús church which took 160 years to make – it’s considered by many to be Ecuador’s most beautiful building.
Catch your breath in the Plaza Grande, which is the heart of Quito’s old town. Surrounding the plaza are some noteworthy buildings: to the east stands the Palacio del Gobierno where the president works (free tours are given). To the south is Quito’s main cathedral. While it’s not as stunning architecturally as some of the other cathedrals in town, it does have an interesting painting of the Last Supper with Christ and his disciples feasting on cuy (guinea pig), chicha (a fermented corn drink) and humitas (corn dumplings).
Opposite of the church is Palacio Arzobispal, a massive building that has a lot of restaurants, shops and cafes around a fountain courtyard. If you don’t feel like going any further to find a good restaurant, just head to Hasta la Vuelta Señor and try traditional Andean dishes like ceviche, locro de papa (potato soup, usually served with avocado and cheese) and seco de chivo (goat stew).
After lunch, you have two main choices to get a great view of the entire city. The first is to take a taxi to the west side of town to the TelefériQo, a gondola that zooms you approximately 1.5 miles (10 minutes) up the slopes of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. At the nearly 14,450-foot (4100m) summit, you’ll have incredible views and a lot of photo opps as long is the weather is on your side.
Your second and more active option is to climb to the top of the double-spired Basílica del Voto Nacional, a 15-minute, slightly tiring walk up from the old town. Once there, a lift takes you up to a shop and café. You’ll want to keep going up from there, and then over a safe but sketchy-looking plank walkway above the dome, continuing to a winding staircase. From this vantage point you can spot everything from beautiful buildings to local kids playing futbol, all with the powerful presence of the Andes as the backdrop.
If you want to get some shopping in before dinner, head over to La Mariscal handicraft market, which has nine alleys of Ecuadorian souvenirs. Traditionally-dressed women will try to sell you alpaca hats, sweaters and blankets, Panama hats (which actually originated in Ecuador), suede purses, Galápagos coffee, and even shrunken, human-looking heads. Don’t get too creeped out by those – they are actually made from goatskin. Feel free to negotiate a little on the price you are first given.
Treat yourself to dinner at Octava de Corpus (it’s a good idea to make a reservation first). This restaurant is run by the very hands-on owner, and is set up in a beautiful colonial home. Try their quinoa-encrusted fish after their shrimp appetizer. The wine cellar is among the most diverse and extensive in Ecuador, but if the altitude is bothering you at all, you should probably skip alcohol and keep hydrated instead.
If you’re up for drinks after dinner, Vista Hermosa is nearby and has a rooftop terrace with impressive views over the old town and live music on weekends. You can also taxi over to La Ronda, which used to be a bordello strip, but now the pedestrian alley is a vibrant place full of music, dancing, and food. Meander through the back alleys to find some bars with local bands. It’s perfectly safe to be there late at night, but you should take a taxi back to your hotel.
Rest up, and next time, plan for more time in Quito. This is a city that deserves to be leisurely explored. You’ll probably find that the more time you spend in Quito, the more deeply you will fall in love with the city.
Photos: James Kaiser, Florent Figon, Ecuador Ministry of Tourism