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.
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.
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 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.
Quito’s chief attraction is the old town and its dazzling array of churches, monasteries and convents dating from the early days of the colony. Known to Quiteños as el Centro Histórico, the old town falls into a fairly small area that can be comfortably covered on foot in a day; trying to take in the forty-odd churches and assorted museums will quickly leave you feeling swamped and exhausted, so try to single out a few highlights. These should definitely include the three main squares – Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza Santo Domingo and Plaza San Francisco – as well as the charming little Plaza del Teatro. Of the city’s churches, the most impressive are San Francisco, La Compañía and La Merced, along with El Sagrario and San Agustín.
The old town’s most rewarding museum is the excellent Museo de la Ciudad, while the Museo Alberto Mena Caamaño and its waxworks set in evocative surroundings is also worth a visit. A short walk away, the Museo Manuela Sáenz, part shrine to the love between two of South America’s heroes of the Independence era, and the Museo Camilo Egas, a permanent retrospective of one of Ecuador’s greatest-ever artists, are fascinating. For a glimpse inside the best-preserved old-town houses, head for the Casa de María Augusta Urrutia or the Casa de Sucre, while for sweeping views of the city, a short taxi ride up to the summit of El Panecillo is highly recommended, or to the Parque Itchimbía – though the panoramas from the precipitous ledges on the spires of the Basílica del Voto Nacional can hardly be bettered.
Orientation in the old town can sometimes be confusing, as many streets have two different street names: the official name on green plaques, and the historical one painted on ceramic tiles; Calle Sucre, for instance, is also signed as Calle de Algodón (Cotton St).
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.
Perched on a small hill on Calle Venezuela, eight blocks north of the Plaza de la Independencia, the Basílica del Voto Nacional is the tallest church in Ecuador, thanks to its two imposing, 115-metre towers plainly visible throughout the city. Built in a flamboyant, neo-Gothic style, it’s a wild concoction of spires, flying buttresses, turrets, parapets, arches, gables and elaborate stained-glass windows. Despite construction beginning in 1892, the church – which is built largely in concrete – is still not entirely completed. The gargoyles, based on Ecuadorian fauna such as monkeys and jaguars, are a contemporary departure from the traditional representations of mythical creatures.
Don’t miss the fantastic views from two vantage points accessed by lift and steep metal ladders: an unnerving buckling roof on the northern steeple, and a higher spot way up on the east tower, past the third-floor café, then on stairs and ladders past the clock machinery and belfry to an artificial floor made only of wide steel grille. From here, those with a head for heights can squeeze out onto tiny ledges on the spire’s exterior for a genuine thrill.
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 Rafaeland 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 is currently caught between two street-numbering systems. A few years ago, an attempt was made to modernize addresses, whereby north–south streets would be prefixed by the letter N (for norte) if north of Calle Rocafuerte at the edge of the old town, while addresses on east–west streets would be prefixed by E (este – east) or Oe (oeste – west) to indicate their orientation to Avenida 10 de Agosto. Following these letters come street number, a dash and then house number. However, both old and new systems are currently in use, with many people being slow to adopt their new numbers, so throughout the chapter we provide the form of address used by the establishments themselves.
The majority of visitors to Quito stay in the new town, where there’s a huge choice of accommodation in all price ranges. The area is also lively after dark, and convenient for changing money, booking tours and sorting out laundry. Many streets are noisy, so it’s always worth asking for a back room.
Thanks to its ongoing regeneration, staying in the old town is becoming a genuine alternative, especially if you have the money to splash out on one of several new luxurious colonial conversions. Just accept that you can’t explore freely after dark beyond the central heart in the blocks around the Plaza Independencia.
Wherever you stay, it’s always best to take a taxi from your arrival point straight to your hotel and to avoid wandering the streets with your luggage. The following accommodation is marked on the maps.
Most new town accommodation is in the downtown zone of La Mariscal, with the biggest concentration on the streets around José Calama, where new hostales keep springing up all the time. There are lots of restaurants, internet cafés and a steady stream of backpackers around here too.
Accommodation in the old town can be less expensive than in the new town, though many of the cheapest places are quite unsavoury, particularly those around the bus terminal. Yet the recent smartening up of the colonial centre has seen the appearance of a new generation of luxury hotels and exclusive restaurants in refurbished historic buildings, outstripping anything the new town has to offer for antique charm with both comfort and location. Still, the old town remains behind the new town in terms of quantity and variety of services – but the reward is waking up in the very heart of things and not feeling as if you’re surrounded by hundreds of gringos.
If the hurly-burly of the city centre is too daunting, you could consider lodging in any of several good hotels on the outskirts of town, where you’ll have the benefits of a more peaceful and spacious setting, but still be within range to visit the city sights.
Quito boasts the best and most varied choice of restaurants and cafés in the country, from humble canteens to classy outfits offering a wide range of world cuisines, along with tasty seafood restaurants and typical Ecuadorian and Latin American restaurants. In Quito, comidas típicas generally comprise hearty food based around a fatty meat dish, such as roasted or fried pork (hornado or fritada), delicious cheesy potato cakes (llapingachos) and a range of soups (caldos or locros) and stews (secos).
Restaurants here are markedly more expensive than those outside the capital, but even the priciest are cheaper than their equivalents in Europe or North America. Set-menu meals, almuerzos at lunch and meriendas at dinner, are even better value, sometimes consisting of two or three courses for a dollar or two.
Many restaurants, particularly inexpensive and informal ones, have long opening hours (usually 8am–10pm), while more traditional establishments just serve lunch and dinner (often noon–3pm & 6–10pm); most places close on Sunday afternoons around 3pm.
The focus of Quito’s nightlife is La Mariscal, particularly the streets north of Wilson between Juan León Mera and Diego de Almagro, which are crammed with small, steamy disco-bars and clubs pumping out high-decibel dance music. It’s not all ear-shattering volumes and seething dancefloors, though; plenty of bars are geared more for drinking and chatting and others put on live music, often Cuban, rock, jazz and especially salsa, which is played almost exclusively in the ever-popular salsotecas, while peñas specialize in live folklórica (traditional folk music).
Most places tend to be fairly quiet through the week, totally packed Thursday to Saturday, and closed on Sundays. Bars are usually open from 8pm–3am, while clubs stay open from around 8 or 9pm until around 4am or longer, but often only from Thursday to Saturday. Although cover charges are usually minimal, some disco-bars and clubs have a small cover, which sometimes includes your first drink; others may have a consumo mínimo, meaning you have to spend a specified amount at the bar, usually the price of one or two drinks. Remember to take a taxi when travelling around Quito at night.
Aside from the national public holidays and mischief of Carnaval (see Basics), Quito features several of its own colourful fiestas that are worth a look if you’re in town. The city’s most prominent religious festival is Good Friday, when hundreds of barefooted penitents solemnly cross through the old town in mourning, many dressed in purple robes with pointed hoods, others dragging huge crucifixes and a few even wearing crowns of thorns.
Another major event comes on May 24, honouring the day in 1822 that the colony finally threw off the Spanish yoke at the Battle of Pichincha, when Quito erupts in a spectacle of booming cannons and military parades. The biggest fiesta of the year kicks off at the beginning of December and lasts for a week until December 6, marking the city’s foundation.
Celebrations include street parties, music and dancing, processions, bullfights at the Plaza de Toros, the election of the Reina de Quito (beauty queen) and general high spirits. December is generally regarded by Quiteños as a party month, topped off on New Year’s Eve with a street parade of años viejos – effigies, often of current political figures, which are burnt at midnight.
Quito can hardly be bettered for the range and quality of handicrafts on offer, so you can do all your shopping here rather than haul a bagful of souvenirs around the country. With the exception of a few expensive boutiques sourcing the very best from regional workshops, the prices aren’t generally that much higher than at the point of production.
For general goods, locals head to Quito’s shopping malls, where the best supermarkets, electronic goods and brand-name clothes chains are, or its street markets, especially for cheap clothes, food and hardware. For cheap food and produce – including wonderful exotic fruits – try the bustling Mercado Santa Clara in the new town to the west of the Santa Clara Trole stop, at Versalles and Marchena, or the Mercado Central, at Olmedo and Pichincha, in the old town.
Culture in Quito is thriving and thanks to the recent regeneration, renovation or reinvention of some key institutions, including the Teatro Sucre and Edificio El Bicentenario, the artistic scene has been enlivened throughout the city. The best way to keep track of what’s on in town is by checking the municipal events website wwww.quitocultura.com; the same body also produces a monthly information booklet. El Comercio newspaper also covers everything from cinema listings to theatre programmes.
The national centre for the arts, the Casa de la Cultura, 6 de Diciembre N16-224 and Patria (t02/2902272, wwww.cce.org.ec), is a leading venue for theatre, dance and classical music, showcasing international performers and home-grown talent, as well as frequent appearances from its own choral group and ballet company.
After the conquest, the Spanish Crown was faced with the task of colonizing its new territories and subsuming their indigenous population into its empire. From the beginning, conversion to Catholicism became one of the most powerful tools to consolidate power. Accordingly, religious art and architecture took on an enormous importance very early on: splendid monasteries and cathedrals dazzled and instilled awe in the natives, while paintings and sculpture were used both for visual religious instruction and to provide icons of worship that would replace their former idols.
In the early days, religious art was imported from Spain, but the need to disperse large quantities of it around the continent prompted the growth of home-grown artists’ workshops and guilds in the colonial centres, where Spanish teachers trained indígenas and mestizos. This resulted in a unique blend of indigenous and European elements: carvings of biblical characters were frequently clothed in typical native dress, for instance, and sometimes given indigenous traits and colouring.
The main production centres of religious art were Quito, Bogotá and Cuzco, each developing its own style. Over time, Quito artists became known for their mastery of polychromy (decorative colouring), particularly in their carvings of Mary, Christ and numerous saints, made out of cedar or red oak. Characterized by bold colours and exuberant decoration, the style found its greatest expression between 1660 and 1765, when the proliferation of high-quality Quiteño artists gave rise to the Quito School of art.
Led by Miguel de Santiago and Bernardo de Legarda in the early eighteenth century, and later by Manuel Chili, known as Caspicara, the Quito School’s most delicate and beautiful creations were its polychrome carvings, often of the Virgin, covered in sumptuous attire and exposing only the head, face, hands and feet. One of the most peculiar aspects of the style was an excessive take on realism, using human hair and false eyelashes, nails and glass eyes. The school’s paintings were characterized by vivid shades of red against darker, duller tones.
The movement began to wane towards the end of the eighteenth century, when secular subjects such as landscapes, portraits and town scenes began to replace religious ones. It finally died out after Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1822, when the type of religious art the school produced was rejected for its associations with the old regime.