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Quito for Lovers
By Paris Permenter & John Bigley

Often a pre- or post-trip taken in conjunction with a Galapagos cruise or an Amazon excursion, the city of Quito, Ecuador is far more than just the location of the country's largest airport. Couples whose interests range from history to ecotourism to indigenous crafts will find several days of activity in this historic city.

Perched at an elevation of 9,318 feet above sea level, Quito is surrounded by even loftier heights including the snow-covered 19,347-foot volcanic peak of Cotapaxi National Park, the country's most visited park and a favorite with experienced climbers. For travelers arriving in Ecuador from lower elevations, Quito makes a good arrival point for a few days of acclimatization to the thin air before exploring the higher peaks or the páramo, the surrounding high altitude plateaus.

Quito's mid-range altitude also provides the city with a spring-like weather year around, an attribute that area residents have enjoyed since pre-Columbian days. The site of the city was first inhabited by the Quitu people but was later became a major Inca city, one destroyed before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. The conquerors set about establishing a new city on the site in 1534, and today many of the old Spanish buildings remain in Quito's Old Town.

Thanks to the historic structures of Old Town, UNESCO declared Quito a world cultural heritage site in 1978, preserving the colonial history of the bustling downtown. The oldest structure in the district is the Monastery of San Francisco, founded in 1534. Open to tourists, the church is adjacent to the San Franciscan Museum, filled with paintings dating back to the 17th century, woodcarvings, and handmade furniture.

The church looks out onto the Plaza de San Francisco, an expansive cobblestone area that's a busy gathering place for local residents (and a popular base for pickpockets.) Several blocks away, the Plaza de la Independencia also bustles with activity. The plaza is home to the Palacio de Gobierno, the presidential office marked with flags and uniformed guards.

Views of Old Town and the nearby volcanoes can be seen from atop El Panecillo, a hill in the older portion of the city. The hill, a popular tourist stop, is topped with a statue of the Virgin of Quito. From atop the hill, visitors can also view the city's sprawling skyline including Quito's modern high rise hotels in a portion of the city often called New Quito.

Where to Stay

Most of these five star hotels, as well as many sidewalk cafes, are located along 6 de Deciembre Avenida, 12 de Octubre Avenida, and Avenida Amazonas, three wide boulevards that comprise New Quito's business district. For spa lovers, the 250-room Swissôtel Quito (800-63-SWISS, www.swissotel.com) is home of the Amrita Spa, a Raffles brand using products imported from Singapore. The spa spans 25,000 square feet and includes indoor and outdoor heated swimming pools, 13 treatment rooms, and a fitness center.

Within walking distance of the business district, the 257-room JW Marriott Hotel Quito (800-228-9290, www.marriott.com) is a favorite with travelers and is the newest luxury property in the city. The cone-shaped hotel offers many views of the Pichincha Volcano as well as the city from its guest rooms. Onsite facilities here include an outdoor pool, health club, business center, and dining options that range from South American cuisine to sushi.

A longtime favorite with a new name, the Hilton Colón Quito (800-HILTONS, www.hilton.com) offers an executive floor, onsite casino, and the city's largest conference facility. The hotel also boasts one of the city's best locations, directly across from the Parque El Ejido.

What Should We Do There?

Parque El Ejido is the city's largest park, a shady gathering place that's often filled with families, crafts vendors, and travelers. East of the park, the Casa de Cultura Ecuatoriana, a circular glass building, houses an art museum as well as many exhibits on traditional Ecuadorian dress and music and a natural history collection.

For more dedicated art lovers, guided art tours of several city sites are available from Metropolitan Touring (contact Adventure Associates, 800-527-2500 or 972-907-0414, www.metropolitan-touring.com). The Art Gallery Tour includes the option to visit either two or three galleries including the Viteri Art Center and Posada de la Soledad, which focus on renowned contemporary Ecuadorian art. The tour recently added the Chapel of Man, Capilla del Hombre, to its tour schedule; the gallery showcases the artwork and the private collection of the late Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador's leading contemporary artist. The art tours also stop at two craft galleries, Folklore Olga Fisch and Galeria Latina, known for their fine art handicrafts.

Lovers with a real interest in shopping will want to book a day tour to the Saturday market at Otavalo. This open-air market dates back to pre-Inca days and features crafts, especially woven goods. Good-natured bargaining is expected, as is cash payment.

Touring the Region

Several companies offer day tours to Otavalo, many also stopping at the crafts community of Calderón, known for its bread dough Christmas ornaments and figurines. One- and two-day trips to Otavalo are offered by Turisvision (1-800-327-3573, info@turisvision.com, www.turisvision.com). All tours include an English-speaking guide.

Alberta-based Gate of the Sun (403-760-3565, Fax 403-760-3566, www.gateofthesun.com/otavalo/ ) offers private tours to Otavalo; visitors stop at Calderon and the woodcarving village of San Antonio de Ibarra. Gate of the Sun also offers two-day, one-night private tours of the region. Along with the above stops, the two-day tours also include the leather-working community of Cotacachi, and the village of Peguche known for its weaving and its Sacred Waterfall, followed by an overnight in a colonial style inn or hacienda. All meals and accommodations are included.

Another popular stop north of Quito is Mitad del Mundo, about half an hour from the city. This stone monument marks the equatorial line; visitors can stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and another in the Southern. Also at the site are several small museums covering local cultures and the history of the sun culture that developed around the equator.

South of Quito lie the famous volcanoes and peaks. Although this region is popular with serious climbers, day visitors are welcome as well at lower altitudes. Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador's largest tour operator, now offers a one-day rail excursion from Quito along the Avenue of the Volcanoes to Cotopaxi National Park. Visitors ride on an autoferro, a one-coach train, and have the opportunity to climb on the roof for an uninterrupted view of the Andes. Passengers ride to El Boliche then drive to the national park for a nature walk. The tours depart from Quito on Sundays only year around. For information, contact Dallas-based Adventure Associates (800-527-2500 or 972-907-0414, www.metropolian-touring.com).

For information on traveling to Ecuador, see the Embassy of Ecuador in Washington (202-234-7166, Fax 202-667-3482, embassy@ecuador.org , www.ecuador.org).