If you never considered Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to be an exciting place to explore, I hope you change your mind after reading this article. Think of a historic city centre protected by UNESCO, think of wild natural gems of Andes, think of the equator that cuts Ecuador into two pieces, think of avocado and rose plantations, think of the origins of chocolate… Sounds exciting? Scroll down to reveal more!
And read my blog about Galápagos Islands if you love South America and nature too!
1. Historic Centre
Forty years ago Quito’s historic centre was declared the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site ever alongside with Polish Kraków. Archeological research reveals that there were settlements in this area several thousand years BC.
History of this place is anything but boring: Inca city, Spanish conquistadors, independence movement, revolutions, earthquakes, active volcanoes…
Now Quito’s historic centre is considered to be one of the well-preserved in Latin America. With colorful historic streets such as Calle La Ronda and its richness in astonishing buildings, it’s a the prettiest city to explore.
Plaza de la Independecia (Independence Square) is the place you might consider to be the best point to start your journey around this city from because the presidential palace called Carondelet Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, the Municipal Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito are all located in here.
Another beautiful square is Plaza San Francisco named after Church and Convent of St. Francis.
Interesting fact: Quito is the second highest capital in the world being 2,850 metres above the sea level. For some people it might be physically challenging to adopt to those conditions.
2. Religious places
The mix of different cultures makes Quito’s architecture so unique and memorable! As you have probably noticed by now, both main squares are famous for their religious buildings. I’ve never seen so much gold in my life – even in Constantinopolis, oops, sorry, in Istanbul.
La Catedral, or the Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito founded in 1562 overlooks the Independence Square. It is an extremely beautiful mix of four distinct architectural styles: Gothic Revival Mudejar, neoclassical, and Baroque. La Iglesia de El Sagrario, a 17th century chapel, is attached to it.
El San Francisco, the Church and Monastery of St. Francis, at Saint Francis Square was founded in 1534. It houses the original statue of the famous winged Virgin of Quito created by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734 – see more about this symbol below. The monastery’s courtyard with its blooms, palms and live birds in cages looked to me as a perfect background scene for 1001 night!
Another gorgeous place not to miss is Basílica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow). Although it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in both Americas and its stained glass leaves you breathless, it’s not the most interesting thing in it if you ask me. Thinking of gargoyles, what pops up in your head? Maybe some scary monsters of Notre Dame de Paris or deformed human face from Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence? Nothing like it in Quito! Be ready to be surprised to spot gargoyles in the form of iguanas, tortoises, armadillos, crocodiles and many other Ecuadorian animals!
Make sure you also pay a visit to reserved and modest Iglesia de El Carmen Alto and splendid Jesuit church called Compañía de Jesús heavily decorated with gold.
Interesting fact: Many buildings in Quito belong to the unique architectural style called Baroque school of Quito.
3. El Panecillo Hill
For the best views over the city of Quito choose El Panecillo. El Panecillo literally means ‘a loaf of bread’ and it corresponds to the hill’s shape.
On top of it there is an aluminium winged Virgin (by Herrán Matorras), the largest copy of the statue from the El Francisco church. It looks like she is almost dancing on her pedestal while guarding the city! This monument erected in 70s was inspired by the original Virgin of Quito and the description of Woman Of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon underher feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
4. Up to Pichincha Volcano
Although El Panecillo can provide you with amazing views you can still elevate view experience to the next level. Take the TelefériQo gondola lift to Pichincha volcano, one of the highest aerial lifts in the world! Pichincha is an active volcano with two peaks and the highest point of 4,784 m.
High in the clouds, you can even have a luxury of taking a selfie with a llama! Please make sure you have some warm cloths with you: you might freeze not only from the breathtaking scenery but quite literally from cold!
5. Quito Botanical Gardens
Jardín Botánico de Quito is definitely one of the hidden gems of the Ecuadorian capital. It was decided to turn La Carolina Park into a botanical garden in 1989 and now this place is ready to share with you some secrets of the Andean flora.
The landscape variety and weather conditions contribute to the insane variety of plants in Ecuador, and Botanical Gardens have a wonderful collection of them. Believe me, many of local plants look like out of this world! All sorts of colours and shapes, they are nothing like we are used to see in Europe.
Tip: Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporter of cut flowers. So, if you’re interested in more familiar flowers and don’t have enough time, pop into a flower shop – you’ll be positively surprised by local roses.
You might be surprised but Ecuadorian fruits really deserve a separate line in my list. If you visit a supermarket or a big local market in Quito, you’ll be astonished by the amount of fruits you have never seen in your life such as babaco, pepino, tree tomato, taxo, naranjilla, chirimoya, grenadia.
You’ll meet something familiar as well so please don’t pass by guayaba (guava), yellow watermelon, goldenberries or yellow pitaya. Mango, papaya, oranges are also worth your attention.
7. Otavalo Market
Otavalo is a small town 110 kilometers away from Quito which is famous for its Otavalo Market, or Centenario Market, in the Plaza de Ponchos. If you are looking for a unique experience of strolling around the colourful artisan goods crafted by locals that’s your place! Fruits and grain, blankets, alpaca wool cloths, hand-colored paintings, belts, traditional musical instruments, fake shrunken heads, silver jewelry, hats, carved wood toys, and so many more to explore. I, for instance, became a proud owner of a llama necklace and ponchos.
Nevertheless, please beware that not all of the products are made by hand even if they so because Otavalo becomes more popular among the tourists and some products are made in factories nearby.
Tip: the best time to pay Otavalo a visit is usually Saturday and Wednesday.
8. Ciudad Mitad del Mundo
Ever dreamt of visiting the Middle of the Earth? Then that’s your chance! North from Quito you’ll find a real Mitad del Mundo where the equator cuts Earth in two hemispheres (yellow line on the photos).
It’s not surprising that this place is so important for the Ecuador because the name of the country has an unmissable link with the word ‘Equator’. Among the places of interest you can find the Equatorial monument, several museums, planetarium, and ancestral village.
9. Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve
Nearly-50-years-old Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve is nearly 50 years old and one of the largest protected areas of the Andes. Could you imagine that it occupies about 243 000 hectares of wild nature treasures? It includes mountains and volcanoes, rainforests and highlands, flora and fauna – that’s a lot to explore! Make sure you don’t miss amazing views of Cuicocha lake right inside a volcanic crater.
One cannot experience another country’s traditions without tasting at least several traditional dishes or ingredients.
Although I’ve already mentioned the fruits, please do not stop there. First of all, exploring Quito won’t be complete without chocolate and cocoa products. It’s well-known that Latin America is a motherland to the cacao tree Theobroma cacao L and it has been traced that cacao has been grown here for centuries. Nowadays Ecuador is one of the biggest cocoa producers on our planet. The most expensive chocolate in the world – To’ak chocolate – is also Ecuadorian: £521 per 50g. Would you give it a try?
Another ingredient not to miss is avocado. To put it shortly, Ecuadorian avocado are perfect. Grown locally, they are smooth, delicious and fresh. If I had to choose one dish with avocado it would be Locro de papa – it is a traditional cheesy potato soup with some avocado slices on top. Btw, did you know that avocado is considered to be a fruit?
Look for yuca, or cassava root. It is used in many ways including making ‘chicha’, fermented alcoholic drink of indigenous people of Ecuador’s Amazon. Meanwhile, my favorites are yuca bread (pan de yuca) and stuffed yuca fritters (muchines de yuca).
Ceviche – this does not require any extra introductions. Raw or marinated fish and seafood with lime juice and some extra tomatoes, onions, peppers, cilantro are mouthwatering. Langostinos are not to miss.
Hope you enjoyed my today’s blog!
Some photos were taken by my husband 🙂