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
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, email@example.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,
For information on traveling to Ecuador, see the Embassy of Ecuador in
Washington (202-234-7166, Fax 202-667-3482, firstname.lastname@example.org