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Quito, Ecuador: Thrilling Travel Adventure Amidst Volcanoes of the Andes

Sky-high capital is a colonial treasure city like nowhere else

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Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is South America's most overlooked luxury destination. Most luxury travelers to Ecuador rush off to the Galapagos. But Quito is one of the New World's treasure cities -- a beautifully preserved colonial capital.

Founded by Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s, Quito has unique historical flavor. The entire city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (in fact, it was the first designated site, in 9179). Wandering around Quito can transport you back 500 years.

Quito has many other charms: stunning volcanic panoramas, mansion hotels, fascinating markets, and rich cultural offerings.

Here, the top reasons for intrepid, trend-setting luxury travelers to consider a visit to Quito.

Quito Is Exotic yet Easy

A city different. ©Quito Turismo

Quito is both exceptionally exotic -- and extremely easy to get to.

  • Perched amidst the Andes, Quito is blessed with a gentle climate. Very high altitude close to the equator means it is always spring in Quito
  • Ecuador uses U.S. currency – that's right, American greenbacks. No hassles with money-changing here
  • Ecuador's economy is such that Quito is inexpensive, and a refreshing change from more conventional luxury travel destinations. The cab ride to your restaurant will be under 10 bucks. If you want a snack while strolling, a bag of just-toasted giant Andean corn, cancha, will cost spare change
  • Quito is an easy travel destination for Americans. Direct flights originate from Miami on American Airlines and LAN (four hours in the air) and from Houston on United (five)
  • Since the flight is longitudinal, jet lag is minimal
  • U.S. citizens do not need visas for Ecuador travel

Quito Is a Historic Treasure

La Compania Church ©Courtesy of Casa Gangotena.

Quito is all about the sights. It is the largest, best-preserved historic city in Latin America. A colonial capital of the Spanish Empire during the Age of Exploration, Quito made it into the first round of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The historic center of Quito has scores of well-preserved churches, chapels, convents, and monasteries, as well as abundant colonial art.

When you stand in Plaza San Francisco, you know you're in South America. This vast stone-cobbled square has been Quito's main square and center of commerce since Pre-Columbian times. The buildings lining the Plaza are historic treasures of Quito.

  • Iglesia La Compania de Jesus was built between 1605 and 1765. It is a Quito Baroque time capsule of old confession booths and relics of local saint, Santa Mariana de Jesus. Its gilt interior is not to be missed
  • Inspired by the Bourges Cathedral in France, Basílica del Voto Nacional is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the New World. Construction was begun in 1892 and is ongoing. Some Quiteños believe that if the church is ever completed, the world will end
  • Quito Cathedral, the New World's oldest, is of enormous historic and symbolic significance to residents. Construction began in 1562 and was completed in 1806
  • The Palacio Presidencial (Presidential Palace), Palacio de Corondelet, hosts a pomp-and-circumstance changing of the guard every Monday at 11a.m., with a band playing the Ecuadoran national anthem

Visiting churches is one way to see historic Quito. Another way: a hunger-trouncing culinary tour in Quito's Old Town led by the chef of Casa Gangotena (a hotel described below).

  • The tour, all on foot, explores San Roque, one of Quito's oldest and most traditional neighborhoods.

Quito Has Opulent Hotels

Quito luxury hotel ©Casa Gangotena.

Quito offers a range of accommodations: historic, rustic, or modern urban hotels.

These hotels also offer attentive English-speaking staff and some of Quito's most rewarding dining experiences. All have free wi-fi, wonderful bathtubs, great social spaces like lounges and libraries; and high-end, eclectic décor.

The hotel-room amenity to expect in Quito: complimentary baskets of tropical fruit.

Casa Gangotena is a classically elegant mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco.

  • This luxury boutique hotel lets guests explore Old Quito while enjoying modern conveniences
  • Casa Gangotena occupies a French-style mansion with breathtaking views of the Plaza San Francisco. Decorative touches like high, frescoed ceilings harken back to earlier eras, while the spacious bathrooms place guests squarely in an indulgent modern setting
  • Casa Gangotena's restaurantis considered one of Quito's best. The hotel overall receives repeat awards from Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveller UK

Hacienda Rumiloma is unique: a design-conscious, rustic Andean getaway right in Quito.

  • This luxurious haven is run by a charming husband-and-wife team: Oswaldo, a celebrated Ecuadorian mountain climber, and Amber, a glamorous American interior designer
  • Hacienda Rumilona regally overlooks Quito from the slope of Volcano Pichincha. More to delight the eye: artworks everywhere, roaming peacocks, and llamas. Stoves that burn eucalyptus wood add a wonderful scent

Café Cultura is one of a kind.

  • Café Cultura perches in the artsy La Mariscal neighborhood. It is just steps from Plaza Foch, which houses Quito's liveliest nightlife scene (but is far enough to remain quiet at night)
  • Café Cultura opened in 1993 as the first boutique hotel in Ecuador, and its feeling is convivial and social. The hotel occupies a UNESCO World Heritage Building was a family residence for centuries. Its beautiful, serene courtyard is favored by hummingbirds
  • Every room in Café Cultura has a delightful hand-painted mural on the walls
  • Owner László Károlyi, from Budapest, founded Exclusive Hotels and Haciendas of Ecuador, a group of intimate, owner-run hotels

Quito's Restaurants: Old Recipes, New Ideas

Quito sophistication at ©Zazu restaurant.

Quito's dining scene is so varied, visitors can dine for a week and never repeat a dish. Here, you can savor hearty, traditional Andean recipes or international cuisine created by gifted chefs, either homegrown or from other South American countries. (Several chefs I met were en route to or from cooking stints in Europe, and were eager to learn Ecuadorian cuisine.)

For classic local flavor:

  • The same Quiteño family has run La Choza for decades, with consistency and flair
  • Estragon, set in an elegant villa, is helmed by passionate chef Edgar León, who uses only Ecuadorian ingredients in marvelous multicourse meals
  • Alma offers a tour-of-Ecuador tasting menu, with stick-to-your ribs Andean dishes, coastal ceviches, and Afro-Ecuadoran dishes from Esmeraldas in the north

For international excitement and ambience:

  • With its festive mood and delicious, up-to-the-minute dishes, Zazu would distinguish any city. It has been awarded the prestigious Relais & Chateaux rank. In Quito, Zazu draws a sophisticated crowd. Don't miss a look at its spectacular cylindrical wine cellar

Some of Quito's best restaurants are set in its top hotels.

  • The restaurant at Casa Gangotena boasts top-notch service and an innovative selection of house-made aji, a traditional hot sauce
  • Café Cultura has a romantic, low-lit dining room with a chef who customizes dishes for diners
  • Hacienda Rumiloma has a view that inspires even local diners to snap family photos. Its global menu creates a dilemma: so much looks so good
  • Hotel Plaza Grande offers the most unique, surprising dessert service in town, involving dry ice, ice cream, and a purple-robed religious figure called a cucurucho

Quito's Vibrant Cultural Life

Access: culture. ©Quito Turismo

Quito's museums, art galleries, and performing arts reflect an active, refined cultural scene. Quito museums to discover:

  • A crowd favorite is Museo Numismatico del Banco Central Del Ecuador, which shows a well-curated collection of old coins and money. The old faces on the coins and bills bring Ecudor's history to life
  • Museo Mindalae is a museum of traditional Ecuadoiran crafts and artisan work. It is in the artistic Mariscal neighborhood
  • Iliana Viteri Gallery specializes in contemporary art by Ecuadorian artists

Teatro Sucre Foundation, in the Plaza del Teatro, is the center of fine performance art in Quito. Under its umbrella:

  • Teatro National Sucre, by far the most important source for classical opera and ballet in Quito
  • Teatro Variedades Ernesto Alban, hosting an eclectic mix of political comedy, cabaret shows, operettas, puppets, plays, chamber concerts, dance, film, and more
  • The classical musicians who perform in the Plaza outside Teatro Sucre and in the streets of Loma Grande are sponsored by the Foundation

Quito visitors who take the time to explore local culture come away with a meaningful experience.

  • The Symphony Orchestra of Ecuador, with very low ticket prices
  • Jacchigua Foundation seeks to keep mestizaje (Indian-Spanish) culture alive with dance, theater, street fairs, indigenous holiday festivals, and more
  • Watching a church procession or parade is a good way to absorb Quito's pageantry and flavor
  • The year's big celebrations are Carnival (Mardi Gras) and Inti Raymi, the ancient Festival of the Sun. This celebration of the summer solstice is observed by the native peoples of the Andes in Ecuador and Peru

Quito's Chocolate Pedigree

©Kallari chocolate begins as cacao pods in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Ecuador is the world's largest producer of "flavor cacao." (Africa produces more "bulk" chocolate.) Ecuador is famous for Arriba cacao beans, which have distinct jasmine, fruit, and herbal notes.

Chocolate is not farmed in Quito. But all forms of the gourmet product are readily available throughout the city. Spiked hot chocolate is perfectly apropos for rainy Quito nights.

  • Some top brands are Pacari, Kallari, Hoja Verde, and Republica del Cacao
  • The traveler-friendly Mariscal and Plaza Foch districts feature chocolate boutiques and cafés
  • Green, progressive, free-trade Kallari Chocolate runs Café Kallari serves treats made from the company's Ecuadorian chocolate. The café also offers "cultural dinners" and small gifts handmade in the rainforest
  • Chocolate-making demonstrations take place at Republica del Cacao and Chez Tiff
  • Manos en la Ronda showcases artisanal chocolate methods and products
  • Ecuador Chocolate Tours, run by the American owner of Quito's Gianduja Chocolates, gets you inside Ecuador's chocolate culture
  • Duty-free Ecuadorian chocolate is ubiquitous at Quito Airport

Quito's Ubiquitous Roses

Nevado Roses fresh from the farm in Quito. ©Karen Tina Harrison

Roses thrive in the Andes' mountain air and volcanic soil, and are one of Ecuador's most important export industries. The showiest and hardiest Ecuadorian roses are reserved for export to the United States, Europe, and Asia.

But the roses sold everywhere in Quito are very beautiful, and a very Ecuadorian way to dress up your hotel room.

Nevado Roses, owned by a multi-generational family, is hailed for its supreme-quality blossoms of many kinds: roses with five-foot foot stems, a rainbow of colored varieties (including black), English-style "cabbage roses," edible roses, and super-fragrant roses

  • Nevado operates two major rose farms an hour and change south of Quito. One produces organic roses
  • The plantations and greenhouses provide an absorbing look at where and how some of the world's most beautiful roses are grown and begin their global journey
  • Visitors see all of Nevado's rose varieties
  • They are invited to lunch in the company cafeteria, where organic rose petals are incorporated into recipes
  • Nevado Roses' website is a bible for rose gardeners and rose connoisseurs

Hacienda La Compania, another well-known Ecuadorian rose brand, is north of Quito along the Route of the Roses. Along the way, many visitors stop for a few hours in the market town of Otavalo.

  • The owners' elegant, nearly century-old hacienda, always decorated with thousands of fresh roses, is not open to the public, but can be admired from afar
  • Nevertheless, a private tour of La Compania may be arranged through the companies listed farther down this page. La Compania's owners greet guests in person with an Ecuadoran snack or meal before introducing their family business

Quito's Fascinating Ethnic Markets

Otavalo market. ©DickClarkMises/Wikimedia

Quito overflows with rewarding shopping experiences. The relatively low prices and the fine craft of local artisans in wool, leather, metal, and wood yield souvenirs at every level of refinement that all manage to be good deals.

Otavalo, the most famous open market in South America, is more of a cultural experience than a treasure-hunting score. Try to go on a Saturday, when Otavalo is in full swing.

You won't find treasures or expertly made objects here. This is a cheap and cheerful ethnic market with colorful merchandise of the souvenir variety. Best bets:

  • Original paintings, drawings, and handmade jewelry sold in stalls by the artists themselves
  • Wool hats, scarves, and so on, some with designs of alpacas
  • Rugs and stuffed animals for children made of real alpaca wool
  • Wooden Andean instruments like flutes, panpipes, bandolins, and charangos

Cotacachi, near Otavalo, is the Quito region's leather-making town. It is lined with shops selling famed handmade leather jackets, shoes, bags, and more. Bargaining is accepted, and cash gets you a better price.

How to Bargain in Otavalo or any Andean Market

  • Case the market first for quality variations in similar items
  • Bring cash; lots of singles, so the vender won't have to make change, gives you more bargaining power
  • Whatever price the seller offers you, counter-offer with no more than half
  • Know how to say (number) dolares
  • No matter what the vender insists, that inexpensive alpaca wool item is not 100% alpaca. Expect it to be blended with synthetic fibers such as nylon or acrylic. Buy the item for its looks and its provenance, not for its purity
  • A pro's advice how to case a local market and name your price

Read more about shopping in Ecuador

Quality Shopping In & Near Quito

Homero Ortega, where Ecuador's president gets some of his Panama hats, has two showrooms in Quito. (Panama hats are called that because they were made famous by workers on the Panama Canal. They have always been made in Ecuador)

In Quito, numerous fine art galleries and gift shops sell gifts nice enough for your boss or your mother-in-law.

  • Genuine 100% alpaca scarves and expert marquetry are only two of the countless gifts available at Latina Galeria
  • El Quinde is Quito's go-to, official gift shop. Among other items, it offers purple-hatted cucurucho figurines and rural art
  • Plaza Naya is another worthwhile shop with a large assortment of handmade gifts
  • Gourmet souvenirs may be found at Ecuador Galeria Gourmet in La Mariscal

Quito's Nightlife Welcomes Visitors

Quito at night. ©Casa Gangotena.

Quito is a city of neighborhoods, all with their own character. Plaza Foch and La Ronda are the liveliest and safest neighborhoods in Quito.

Don't be afraid to venture forth. Bustling on weekend nights, these districts are brightly lit, with ample police presence. Street vendors mill about with goods in trays tied around their necks, like old-fashioned movie ushers.

La Ronda is a long cobblestoned street dotted with bars and cafés that offer live music and impromptu dancing.

  • Doors are open and music resounds, so patrons cam bar-hop into the wee hours
  • Cafés and restaurants on La Ronda are social, hosting groups of friends
  • La Ronda's handicrafts boutiques stay open late as well

Plaza Foch, at the intersection of Calle Reina Victoria and Mariscal Foch, is the after-dinner place to be. Its bars, nightclubs, and late-night food options span several blocks

  • Q, a bar and lounge whose sand-floored open-air seating area overlooks the plaza, is a casual, convivial establishment
  • Cats is an extremely welcoming and relaxed old bar. The owner, who named the bar after his favorite musical, stands outside with his longtime best friend, greeting guests. Tip: to meet new people, make a beeline for the foosball table in the rear

Quito Enchants with Horses & Haciendas

Saddling up near Quito. ©Ecuador Ministry of Tourism

Haciendas are rural ranches that host visitors who can reserve in advance and typically arrive by cab from Quito. They come for the fresh air, the volcanic panoramas, and the horseback riding

Horseback riding in Quito involves leather chaps and ponchos, which are a special experience all their own.

All haciendas have English-speaking staff, so no tour guide is needed. The best haciendas, like those here, have fresh, expertly cooked food often from ingredients grown on the property.

Hacienda El Porvenir's tour, Tierra del Volcan (Land of the Volcano), treats visitors on horseback to breathtaking views of towering Ruminaui and the king of Andean volcanoes, Cotopaxi

  • The main guide doesn't speak English, but the horses don't mind

Hacienda La Alegria, a dairy farm turned hacienda, offers a well-planned and friendly day-visit program on horseback around a picturesque rural town

  • Guests can also book longer horse treks with La Alegria's English-speaking owners
  • Check La Alegria's website for horse profiles by name and temperament
  • Read up on a visit to Hacienda La Alegria by About's Guide to South American Travel

Hacienda Pinsaqui offers horseback rides on the dramatic Imbabura volcano

  • Pinsaqui is close to Cotacachi, the Quito region's famous leather-making town; many guest stop and shop

Beyond Quito: Day Trips & Overnight Excursions

Cotopaxi Volcano loom sover Quito. ©Ecuador Ministry of Tourism

Quito's Top Tours

Quito beckons visitors with Andean adventures. Some tried-and-true destinations:

South of Quito: Avenue of the Volcanoes, a mapped route, takes in many of the Andes' 78 volcanic peaks -- some active and smoking.

  • Visitors may stay for the day or overnight in Cotopaxi National Park also known as Tierra del Volcán. It is 50 miles from Quito

East of Quito, toward the Amazon Rainforest:

  • Chaupi Estancia, a winery 35 miles from Quito, offer an absorbing (and tasty) half-day excursion
  • Papallacta Hot Springs (Termas de Papallacta) is an elegant spa inn with naturally heated thermal springs. Visitors can come for the day or (better) stay overnight

North, deep into the Andes:

East, towards the Coast:

  • El Crater Hotel & Restaurant, a modern boutique hotel a half hour from Quito, has endless views of Pululahua Volcano, a good restaurant, a spa, and serene atmosphere

Quito is filled with English-speaking tour guides. The best have passed a government exam and are licensed. Recommended tour operators:

Take the train. Ecuador's trens are well organized, offering many choices of routes and travel classes.

  • In return for hours of noise and bumps, visitors are rewarded with the most comprehensive views of the Andes region short of a helicopter or small-plane tour
  • The trains are not the smoothest. If you're prone to motion sickness, bring pills
  • Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones are also a great idea
  • Keep your luggage close to you where no one else can get at it

Quito Travel Tips & Planning

Quito seen from ©Casa Gangotena hotel.

To Connect with Quito & Start Planning a Visit

For Your Safety in Quito

  • Take only taxicabs with orange license plates after sundown
  • Do not wear flashy accessories or jewelry
  • Wear a sturdy crossbody bag or fanny pack
  • Do not dangle cameras
  • Be extra cautious at transportation hubs and stations and in Plaza San Francisco
  • Read the U.S. State Department's A Safe Trip Abroad

For Your Health & Comfort in Quito:

  • Be aware that many people are sensitive to high altitude, and Quito is nearly 10,000 feet in the air (Santa Fe, NM, is 7,500)
  • High altitude increases fatigue; do not move too quickly in Quito or expect to adhere to your regular workout regimen
  • Drink coca tea for relief from altitude sickness. It's legal; ask your hotel's front desk or concierge for some teabags
  • Carry tissues for possible nosebleeds
  • Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for Quito's mountainous, equatorial setting
  • Dress in layers and carry a tiny umbrella for famously fickle weather
  • Roads are dusty, a handkerchief or scarf you can slip over your mouth will keep you from breathing dirt in
  • And will help with the smog (diesel fuel is common and the air polluted)
  • Ask your driver to shut the car windows and use A/C
  • Drink bottled water unless the hotel or restaurant purifies its own
 

As is common in the travel industry, the Guest Author was provided with a complimentary visit for the purpose of describing Quito. While this arrangement did not influence her article, About.com believes in editorial transparency. For more info, see our Ethics Policy.

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