Quito is the capital of Ecuador, located high in the Andean foothills. At 2850 meters above sea level, it’s the second highest capital of the world.
Said to be the oldest of all South American capitals, Quito was built on the foundations of an ancient Inca settlement.
The narrow streets of the Old town are best explored by foot. The historic district is full of European-style houses and colonial red-time roofs. As a compliment to stoplights, the traffic is regulated by officers standing in intersections, armed with whistles that sound like angry birds.
Vista Hermosa Café Mirador on Mejia street is a great place to get your bearings of the city. Order a smoothie on the rooftop terrace and gaze at the city that sprawls over the winding hills.
There are two other viewpoints that offer even greater views. In the northern part of the old town, the imposing Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow) is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas. Scale the tower for unparalleled views.
In the far southern end there is another hill, easily spotted as the large statue Virgen de Panecillo dominates the Panecillo hilltop. I went inside and to the top of the statue, where the view is almost as great as from the Basilica. Beware of stray dogs though around the area.
To escape the heat and busy streets, why not visit some of the ornate churches? Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de La Merced has a beautiful interior with paintings featuring apocalyptic scenes of volcano eruptions. Catedral Metropolitana de Quito has an unusual passageway through a library and exiting through a tomb. Iglesia Católica San Francisco is the oldest in town and also worth a visit.
Most places in the old town feel relatively safe, even though we got a bit hassled by aggressive characters at Plaza Grande and Plaza San Francisco.
Ah yes, the eponymous and ubiquitous geographical curiosity. Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) is a 30-meter high monument that straddles the equator. Or does it? There is indeed a yellow line across the area and an entire town has been created around the monument, but unfortunately it turned out that the old mapmakers had made a slight mistake.
In the modern day of GPS, the real equator is actually a few hundred meters to the right, marked by a red line. To hide this embarrassing fact, they somewhat hid the red line behind a large wall, in order to attract visitors (and their money) to the grand monument instead.
The Quito area is home to 8 of Ecuador’s 19 volcanoes, naming the region “Avenue of the volcanoes”.
The best known is the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano, which is still active. It’s Ecuador’s second highest mountain and was the world’s highest volcano for years until the Chilean volcano Tupungato erupted in 1986.
We parked at the Limpiopungo Lake and walked around the area. Wild horses roamed the fields and condors soared high above us. The ground was a bit wobbly at spots, due to the old lava flows. We got up to around 4200 meters and decided to skip the highest peak at 4300 meters since we felt a bit out of breath by the altitude.
For an experience closer to the city, take the Teleférico gondola up to Pichincha Volcano. It’s well worth the effort, but keep in mind that it goes up to 4100 meters at most, so beware of altitude sickness. It also gets chilly at the top, so bring a warm sweater.
Several interesting options can be found all around Quito. One of the most common turned out to be Locro de papa, a famous Ecuadorian soup with avocados, potatoes and cheese. Not bad at all.
If you need more energy to fight the altitude, Magic Bean (north of Plaza Foch) is something of a backpacker place, with hearty food options such as pancake towers and hot chocolate with cheese.
There are a lot of crazy bars around Plaza Foch with all sorts of strange names (Dirty Sanchez, No Bar and so on), but you might want to skip these and head for a proper craft beer place such as Turtle’s Head on La Pinta. Or why not visit the lush bar Q and try the local specialty Canelazo (hot fruit drink with sugarcane liquor).
I deliberately saved the best part for last, or dessert if you wish. The chocolate in Ecuador is just amazing. There are lots of variety and retailers, such as Republica del Cacao. I tried to sample as many varieties as possible, making it a draw between Pacari and Wao.