High in the Andes, Ecuador’s capital, Quito, unfurls in a long north–south ribbon, more than 35km top to bottom and just 5km wide. To the west, the city is dramatically hemmed in by the steep green walls of Volcán Pichincha, the benign-looking volcano which periodically sends clouds of ash billowing into the sky and over the streets. Eastwards, Quito abruptly drops away to a wide valley known as the Valle de los Chillos, marking the beginning of the descent towards the Amazon basin. It’s a superb setting, but apart from in July and August it can be bone-chillingly cold, with its much-vaunted “spring-like climate” all too often giving way to grey, washed-out skies that somewhat undermine the beauty of the surroundings.
Central Quito divides into two distinct parts. The compact old town, known as the centro histórico, is the city’s undisputed highlight, a jumble of narrow streets and wide, cobbled plazas lined with churches, monasteries, mansions and colourful balconied houses. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town contains some of the most beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture on the continent and the frenetic crowds of indígenas and mestizos that throng its streets give it a tremendous energy. A reputation for poverty and crime has traditionally discouraged tourists from actually staying here, but a sustained regeneration effort is turning it into a genuine alternative to the neighbouring, bland and modern new town, whose concentration of banks, shops, bars, hotels, restaurants, tour operators and internet cafés is convenient, if a little characterless.
As a major crossroads with 1.8 million residents, Quito is a busy transit hub to which travellers usually return between forays to the jungle, the coast, the Galápagos Islands and the northern and southern sierra. Featuring dozens of language schools, it’s also a good place to learn Spanish, and many visitors spend several weeks or longer here mastering their castellano. It’s an easy city to spend time in, even with the inevitable pollution and screeching horns, but when you fancy a break there’s plenty nearby to keep you occupied.
The most popular day-trip is to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) on the equator, marked by a massive monument and several museums, a trip often combined with a visit to the giant volcanic crater of Pululahua. Other attractions in the area include the market at Sangolquí, Eduardo Kingman’s house in nearby San Rafael and the Pasochoa forest reserve half an hour to the south, one of many protected areas nearby offering great birdwatching and hiking. Lesser-known attractions can be found northeast of Quito, including the religious sanctuary of El Quinche, the little town of Calderón, where curious dough figurines are made, and the zoo at Guayllabamba, featuring a host of native species.
Quito’s altitude (2800m) can leave you feeling breathless and woozy when you first arrive – most visitors adjust in a couple of days, often by resting, drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol.