If the breathtaking flyby as you land in the undulating, mountainous valley speckled with colourful houses doesn’t make you twig, the lack of oxygen in the air as you climb the steep, narrow streets near the Basilica of the National Vow will certainly leave you in no doubt that the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, is the world’s second highest capital city.
Sat in a so-called ‘dry’ valley at over 2,800 metres (9,200ft) above sea level, and also known as La Ciudad de los Cielos (The City of the Heavens), Quito was founded by Spanish Christian invaders in 1534, and barely a day goes by without rain.
As far as tourists are concerned, the main city is split largely into two. First, the Old Town – which is all about old buildings, cathedrals, churches and the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary set up on a small hill in the middle of the valley – El Panecillo.
The Old Town has all the hallmarks of that charming Latin American colonial feel you can also find in places like Salvador in Brazil.
Colourful architecture can be found here in the Old Town, and also dotted around in the favela-esque areas on the steeper parts of the valley (- also reminiscent of Salvador).
The centre of the Old Town, Independence Square is bordered by the country’s main governmental building and the Metropolitan Cathedral and pretty streets that just beg to be wandered up nonchalantly.
The streets are a mixture of old and new: cafés, bakeries and second-hand book shops on one side, and mobile phone shops, fashionable boutiques and fast-food outlets on the other.
The Old Town is wonderful just to walk through – guidebook in hand or left haphazardly on your bedside table.
There is fantastic architecture and a lively street atmosphere with people selling things all over the place – food, jewellery, souvenirs. Quite simply, there’s a real buzz to the place.
Taking a look inside Quito’s Basilica of the National Vow – which was built around the turn of the 20th century – is well worth it. $1 will get you inside, and $2 at the south entrance will get you access to the Basilica towers.
Although the ascent is by very steep, not overly safe-looking ladders, the stunning views of the Quito valley make it totally worth it.
Although many guidebooks warn about pickpocketing and bag-slashing, the usual vigilance will probably see you through unscathed – and taking a taxi (they’re really cheap) after dark is always recommended, rather than taking a bus that’s full to bursting – public transport and crowded places is where the opportunists like to strike.
The second part of Quito to which tourists gravitate, to the north of the Old Town and across a number of attractive parks, is the New Town – the city’s Soho: bars, clubs, and chock-full of gringos (Western foreigners), with the Mariscal Sucre region sometimes known by locals as “Gringolandia” for that reason.
If you like partying, this is the place for you. It’s also where many of the hostels and hotels are located, suiting a variety of budgets – from $10 a night to over $150, depending on whether you wish to leave with all your possessions or not. (I opted for a $40 a night option and did.)
The area is perfectly safe during the day, but take taxis at night – even if it’s just a 10-minute walk. Further north of the Mariscal area, you’ll find La Carolina Park, which is perfectly nice in its own right, but also houses Quito’s beautiful Botanical Garden – which at $3.50 is definitely worth a look. Its orchid gardens are sublime – and those in Ecuador for the wildlife might well tick off another few species in this city haven.
Located 25km south of the Equator – giving Ecuador its name, of course – Quito’s 2.5 million-strong population sits next to the Pichincha volcano, or to be more accurate, stratovolcano.
Yes, it’s still active – last erupting in 1999 and showering the city in a small layer of ash. For those you want to get closer to the volcano (who wouldn’t?), in 2005 Quito built the TelefériQo (with a cheesy Q, pinched, of course, from ‘Quito’) – a gondola lift that will take you up to just shy of 4,000 metres above sea level, to the western edge of the Pichincha volcano – the Rucu (“Old Man”) – and least volcanically active part of the volcano.
Another 4km hike will take you up to the rim of the volcano – but a lack of time, and hitting the cloud after about 1.5km, meant we weren’t to conquer it that day. Next time!
It takes around 3.5 hours at a steady pace, and bearing in mind the reduced oxygen levels, you should be vaguely fit to do it, and I’ve seen a number of warnings not to attempt it on your first or second day in Quito – let yourself acclimatise properly first.
But the view, even from the top of the TelefériQo is absolutely worth the US$8.50 foreigners pay to get up there and back.
The grasslands at the top make up the special high-altitude Páramo habitat – home to some unique species, particularly birds such as plumbeous sierra-finch and stout-billed cinclodes – which can be easily seen on the pathways.
Things to do at the top: sample the extra-oxygen-filled shops; if you’re feeling lazy – take a horse ride up the hill; take a picture with an alpaca; visit the new high-altitude chapel, or perhaps hire and bike and fly back down the hill on two wheels.
To the north of Quito lies the Mitad del Mundo – Quito’s fairground dedicated to its fortunate latitudinal positioning. A mixture of parlour tricks showing water spinning one way to the north and the other to the south of the Equator line (which scientists will tell you is probably faked, as the Coriolis effect doesn’t have that big an influence on the quantity of water used in the fairground’s “experiments”) and a big Equator line monument (which was actually erroneously placed 240m away from the real Equator line) and that’s an hour’s drive both in and out of Quito, and a few dollars, wasted. I didn’t bother.
Much more my bag, and a feasible day trip from Quito (on the list to do next time) is Ecuador’s best-known and second highest volcano, which can be seen on a clear day from Quito itself – Cotopaxi, which stands just shy of 5,900 metres (approx. 19,350 ft) above sea level:
By the way, when talking about prices in Ecuador, I’m not translating into US dollars from a local currency.
Ecuador has been using the dollar officially for some time, after it underwent “dollarization” in 2000 following many years of unofficial use and economic turbulence. And that’s not the only good thing for US travellers, they use the same plugs as in the US – and triband mobile phone system.
And with flights from American cities starting from around $500 (as opposed to $2000 from Europe), it’s no wonder that Americans make up the bulk of visitors who come to Quito, Guayaquil – Ecuador’s biggest and more industrial city on the coast, and, of course, to the Galápagos.
Quito is great to visit as a group or alone – you’ll most likely make friends at some point, as friendly, gregarious single travellers aren’t hard to come by.