The heart of Quito’s new town, officially called Mariscal Sucre but known locally as La Mariscal, is roughly bound by avenidas Patria in the south, Orellana in the north, 12 de Octubre in the east and 10 de Agosto in the west. The main commercial artery, Avenida Amazonas, is lined with banks, tour operators and souvenir shops, but the social focus is the Plaza del Quinde (also called Plaza Foch), at the intersection of Reina Victoria and Foch, where bars, clubs, restaurants and cafés are often thronged with people in the evenings. The jumble of colonial-style town houses, Art Deco villas and functional 1970s blocks means La Mariscal isn’t particularly attractive, but it is where the majority of visitors to Quito base themselves.
There are no really outstanding attractions in the new town proper, except for the first-rate Museo del Banco Central. Yet there is plenty of good stuff to do if you’re willing to take a short taxi ride, most obviously the wonderful TelefériQo, a ski-lift-type gondola which swoops up to a lofty vantage point on the hills west of the capital. On the high ground east of town, the Museo Fundación Guayasamín and the associated Capilla del Hombre showcase the powerful art of Ecuador’s most famous twentieth-century artist, while nearby Guápulo has the feel of a sleepy village far removed from the bustle and noise of the big city. Back in the centre, the new town does benefit from several precious green spaces, the Parque La Alameda, Parque El Ejido, and the extensive Parque La Carolina, where among the trees and cycle paths you’ll find a botanical garden, a natural science museum and the Vivarium, exhibiting snakes and amphibians.
Museo del Banco Central
Museo del Banco Central
Taking up the lion’s share of this landmark oval building is the nation’s premier museum, the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, which houses an incomparable collection of pre-Columbian ceramics and gold artefacts, as well as colonial, republican and contemporary art.
The first hall off the central lobby is the huge Sala de Arqueología, where you’ll find ceramic collections grouped according to the culture that produced them. Among the oldest pieces, near the entrance, are the simple female figurines crafted by the Valdivia culture (3500–1500 BC) – the first group in the Ecuador area to abandon a nomadic existence and form permanent settlements – which show different stages of female development, such as puberty, pregnancy and motherhood, in a touching, naturalistic style. Close by are many fine examples of Chorrera ceramics (900–300 BC), most famously the whistle-bottles in the form of various creatures, which mimic animal noises when water is poured into them.
Perhaps the most striking pieces in this room are the large, seated humans known as the Gigantes de Bahía, the work of the Bahía culture (500 BC to 650 AD), which range from 50–100cm in height and show men and women sitting with their legs crossed or outstretched, wearing many fine ornaments and elaborate headdresses. Also eye-catching are the pots and figurines of the northern coast’s La Tolita culture (600 BC to 400 AD), comprising fantastical images including fanged felines with long, unfurling tongues, or realistic representations of decapitated “trophy heads”.
Among the few non-ceramic works in the room are the stone seats supported by human figures on their hands and knees; these are the work of the Manteño-Huancavilca culture (500–1532 AD) and were probably thrones high-ranking authorities used during religious ceremonies.
Few attractions in Ecuador have made such a stir as the TelefériQo , a modern cable-car system you’d commonly see in smart ski resorts, which transports six-person cabins from a base station at 3050m on the lower slopes of Volcán Pichincha, up to the antennae-barbed peak of Cruz Loma at around 4050m. It opened in 2005 to enormous excitement and fanfare, and instantly became Quito’s most popular diversion for sunny days and clear evenings – hardly surprising considering there’s nothing remotely comparable to this in Ecuador. The 2.5km ride glides by in around eight minutes, wafting noiselessly above the last treetops and over into the páramo moorlands of the high Andes to arrive at a series of lookouts (one of them indoors), which give grand views over a capital ringed by the ice-tipped volcanoes of Cayambe, Antisana and Cotopaxi.
This is the attraction’s kernel of quality, smoothly operated, slickly organized and highly recommended. But there’s an awful lot of flimflam to circumnavigate while you’re here: souvenir stores, games arcades, artesanía shops, bars, cafés and food courts all seem to unfurl endlessly between the entrance and the cable car itself. There’s even a dedicated amusement zone, VulQano Park, whose star turns are the Montaña Rusa (Russian Mountain) roller coaster and the “Ejection Seat”, a two-seater sphere which is shot 60m into the air on elastic bands.
From the top of the cable car, short trails lead up to mountainside lookouts. Signs everywhere tell you to take it easy as you ascend and if you’ve arrived in Quito within a couple of days this is good advice, as you’ll definitely feel the thin air; there is a medical centre up here in case of emergencies. Remember to bring warm clothing, because it can be bitingly cold up here, especially if there’s no sun; there is an indoor area if you need it. Beyond the complex’s damaged fences, the trail continues for about three hours (for the fit and acclimatized) along a grassy ridge to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4627m). There have been a number of robberies and assaults around this peak, so you’re strongly advised to give the hike a miss.