The most dramatic attraction around Quito may be the looming outline of the potentially explosive Volcán Pichincha, but the most famous, busiest and most developed is La Mitad del Mundo. Almost directly north of the city, it’s a complex celebrating, and positioned (almost) on, the equator, with a monument, museum, exhibition spaces and the famous line itself, marked in the ground. On high ground overlooking the monument is a prehistoric site, Catequilla, which, it was discovered only recently, is exactly on the equator. Also nearby, and often included on trips to La Mitad del Mundo, is the huge volcanic crater Pululahua, whose foothills are home to thousands of acres of rich, cultivated farmland.
Northeast of Quito are Calderón, production centre for dough figurines, Guayllabamba, home of the capital’s zoo, and El Quinche, an important religious centre with an impressive church.
Southeast of the capital are the market town Sangolquí, San Rafael, with its excellent museum on artist Eduardo Kingman, and the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasochoa, a woodland refuge surrounding a volcanic crater where trails pass through abundant native forests rich in birdlife.
Other excursions and attractions within a short distance of the capital, but discussed in other chapters, include the birdwatching mecca of Mindo, the cloudforest reserves a few hours northwest of the capital, such as Bellavista, Tandayapa, Maquipucuna and Santa Lucía, the fabulous hot springs at Papallacta, the huge artesanía market at Otavalo, the ruined pyramids of Cochasquí and the Cotopaxi national park, dominated by its famous volcano.
Just 9km northeast of the capital’s outskirts sits CALDERÓN, a small town renowned for its brightly coloured figurines made of bread dough (masapán). The tradition is to take these to the cemetery on All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead (Nov 1 and 2) and place them on graves as an offering to departed souls. You can’t eat most of these painted and varnished figurines, but you wouldn’t want to chew off the intricate details, such as extravagant mock-filigree ruffs and fibrous hair. You can tuck into guaguas de pán (bread babies), with colada morada, the sweet, hot and purple, seasonal drink made with fruit, herbs and purple cornflour.
In town on Carapungo, the main street, there are a number of good artesanía shops. To get here by bus, take the Metrobus to the Ofelia stop and a “feeder” for Calderón.
Beyond Calderón, the Panamericana sweeps 700m down into the dry Guayllabamba gorge and plain. Stalls laden with jumbo avocados and exotic fruits line the main road into GUAYLLABAMBA, 32km from the capital and home to Quito’s zoo, the largest and best designed in the country. A few kilometres outside town, the Zoológico Guayllabamba puts the emphasis on crowd-pleasing native fauna, such as the Andean spectacled bear, pumas and condors.
Buses bound for Cayambe, such as Flor del Valle, which leave from Manuel Larrea and Asunción in the new town, usually stop at or just outside Guayllabamba. It’s a 30-minute walk up a cobblestone road to the zoo; at weekends there’s a free bus, otherwise a camioneta will take you for a small fee.
About 7km southeast of Guayllabamba lies the village of El Quinche, famous for its outsized church. For pilgrims, its most important feature is the wooden image of El Virgen del Quinche, carved at the end of the sixteenth century by artist and architect Diego de Robles, who was saved from tumbling hundreds of feet into the Río Oyacachi by a thorn snagging on his clothes.
Since Robles cheated death, the Virgin has been credited with countless other miracles, depicted by paintings inside the church and plaques on the walls. Visitors make their way from across the country to venerate her, especially during the festival in the third week of November, climaxing on November 21, and throngs of people receive blessings all year round. There are regular buses to El Quinche via Pifo from the Río Coca stop on the Ecovía system in Quito and others from Guayllabamba.
Twenty kilometres north of Quito, at 2483m on the fringes of the dusty town of San Antonio de Pichincha, lies the colonial-styled complex of whitewashed buildings, gift shops, snack bars and museums known as LA MITAD DEL MUNDO (The Middle of the World), straddling the line that divides the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres and gives the country its name – the equator (latitude of 0° 0’ 0”). Charles-Marie de La Condamine and his geodesic mission first ascertained its exact demarcation in 1736–44, and a monument to this achievement was raised across the line in 1936. Deemed not grand enough, it was replaced in 1979 with the current one. Modern GPS readings have revealed that even the new monument is seven seconds of a degree south of the true equator, roughly 240m adrift, but the finding has done little to dent the popularity of the attraction – local crowds flock to the site, particularly on Sundays and holidays, when music and dance performances are held in the afternoons.
From the entrance to the site, a cobbled street, lined with busts of La Condamine’s expedition members, leads up to the thirty-metre-tall La Mitad del Mundo monument, a giant concrete monolith replete with large metal globe. From its base, a line representing the equator extends outwards – even running down the middle of the aisle (and altar) of the church within the complex. Inside the monument is the Ethnographic Museum ($3), accessed via a lift. Once at the top, you descend by stairs through the museum, which displays region-by-region exhibits on Ecuador’s indigenous populations and their customs, with fine exhibits of native dress and artefacts.
Among the other sites in the complex are various national pavilions, representing the countries that took part in the expedition, each with its own little museum. A planetarium on site offers rather unimpressive hourly shows, but the more stimulating Fundación Quito Colonial, contains richly detailed miniature models of Guayaquil, Cuenca and Quito – featuring their own artificial sunrise and sunset. Also within the complex is a post office, gift shops, an ATM, restaurants and snack bars. Pig out – and then try the weighing scales here, knowing you’ve actually lost a little weight while on the equator. Thanks to the earth’s own bulging waistline, gravity is weaker here, so you weigh less; unfortunately, your mass will be the same.
A visit to the Mitad del Mundo is commonly combined with a trip up to the rim of the extinct volcano of Pululahua, whose 34-square-kilometre crater – one of the continent’s largest – has been protected since 1966 as a geobotanical reserve. Its unusual topography and associated microclimates not only support rich, cultivated land on the valley floor, but also lush cloudforests, 260 types of plants and a large variety of orchids. Outlooks on the rim afford views over bucolic scenery within the crater, beautiful networks of fields and small settlements squeezed around the two volcanic cones of Pondoña and Chivo, all cradled by the thickly forested and deeply gullied crater walls. It’s best to get up here early in the morning as thick clouds engulf the crater later in the day.
Thirty kilometres southeast of Quito, the luxuriant Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasochoa ($10) is a dense forest spread over Cerro Pasochoa (4200m), an extinct volcano whose western side collapsed in an eruption more than 100,000 years ago. The inaccessibility of the terrain, hemmed in by the crater’s remaining walls, has left the forest largely undisturbed, despite its proximity to Quito.
The reserve is managed by the Quito-based Fundación Natura, at Av República 481 and Diego de Almagro (t02/2272863, wwww.fnatura.org), which has installed visitor facilities, including private en-suite rooms ($10), basic refuge ($6), campsite ($5) and a kitchen; bring a sleeping bag and food. A variety of trails lead through the forest, rich in beautiful native trees and plants – including Andean cedars, orchids and podocarpus (Ecuador’s only native conifer), as well as 126 species of birds (a guide for sale at the entrance lists them all). One trail rises out of the forest and heads up across the páramo, following the outer slopes of the crater rim. It’s a six- to eight-hour hike up to the summit of Cerro Pasochoa; guides can be booked in advance ($10–40 depending on hike).
The most important town in this region, SANGOLQUÍ, 15km southeast of the capital, has an impressive church with an imposing facade and grand bell tower. Yet it’s much better known for its market, which runs all week, but on Sundays (and to a lesser extent, Thursdays) expands from its three dedicated market squares to fill much of the town. It’s a hard-edged and busy affair, perhaps lacking the charm of a highland-village market, but the energy of the local commerce is compelling, and being so close to Quito it makes an easy day-trip for those with limited time. Buses leave regularly from Plaza Marín in the old town (25min).
Twenty minutes from Quito or five minutes by bus from Sangolquí, and easily combined with a trip to the latter’s market, SAN RAFAEL has little of inherent interest, except for the excellent Museo de la Casa de Kingman (t02/2861065, wwww.fundacionkingman.com), a block from the park at Portoviejo and Dávila. Occupying a peaceful spot high on the banks of the Río San Pedro, this was the house of Eduardo Kingman, one of Ecuador’s greatest twentieth-century artists. Kingman is best known for depicting the privation of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, often capturing their plight in the expressiveness of their hands – a technique he later taught Oswaldo Guayasamín. There are some wonderful pieces exhibited here that support Kingman’s considerable reputation, as well as some colonial and republican art.
Buses to Sangolquí pass right by San Rafael’s park, from where the museum is just a short walk away. A taxi from Quito costs around $10.
Although Rucu (meaning “old” in Quichua) is extinct, Guagua (“baby”) has experienced renewed volcanic activity in the last few years, after more than three centuries of near silence. It has long been on yellow alert, warning of ongoing seismic activity and the possibility of an eruption. Should that occur, Quito would more than likely escape the lava flow, but not the dispersion of ash. The volcano’s last notable eruption, on October 5, 1999, produced an eighteen-kilometre-high column of ash and vapour that leered over the city in a giant mushroom cloud. Despite this display, experts don’t consider Quito to be in imminent danger.
Rising over the west side of Quito, the broad-based, emerald-sloped Volcán Pichincha has two main peaks: the slightly lower, serene-looking Rucu Pichincha (4675m) lies just beyond the hilltops, looming over the new town; Guagua Pichincha (4794m), 10km west of the city centre, is a highly active volcano, which erupted spectacularly in 1999, covering Quito in ash and dust.
Rucu Pichincha has been virtually out of bounds to climbers in recent years because the access routes to it from Cruz Loma and La Loma de las Antenas (the aerial-topped peaks clearly visible from the city) were extremely dangerous, due to the frequent assaults and robberies. The TelefériQo takes hundreds of people up to Cruz Loma each day, but we recommend not attempting the three-hour hike to the summit beyond the perimeter fences. Check with SAE for the latest security conditions.
Guagua Pichincha is best reached from the village of Lloa, southwest of Quito, from where a signposted dirt track leads up to a refuge just below the summit (about 5–6hr walk). The refuge is basic; bring your own food and sleeping bag if spending the night ($5), during which it gets very cold.
Most climbing operators in Quito offer the Guagua climb as a day tour, including four-wheel-drive transport to or near the refuge.