To be honest, I wasn’t too excited about visiting Quito. After living in Peru for two years, I didn’t think another Andean city would have anything new to offer me. I viewed it simply as an obligatory stop on my way to the Galapagos.
I was mistaken.
Quito, Ecuador’s second largest city, is a surprisingly forward-thinking capital. It gracefully mixes elements of a modern metropolis (diverse dining options, efficient transportation systems, lively nightlife) with a colonial charm that easily rivals Cuzco, and a dizzyingly array of day trip options. And with a population of two million, the city has the bustle of a working capital but manages to maintain the appeal of traditional Andean hospitality.
I knew Quito was quietly capturing my heart the moment I set foot in the city’s Central Historical District. And apparently I wasn’t alone. In 1978 Quito was one of the first cities to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is currently considered to be the most intact and extensive historic district in South America. Plaza Grande is an immaculate square covered with well-maintained gardens and strategically placed benches surrounded by fountains, statues, and shady palm trees. Ringed on all four sides by sturdy whitewashed historic buildings, the plaza feels like a secure colonial hideaway. The Presidential Palace (called the Carondelet) overlooks the area and is fronted by a long balcony. On Mondays, Ecuador’s popular President Rafael Correa makes an appearance.
From the four corners of the plaza, narrow streets lead to other appealing attractions. With 46 churches within Old Quito alone, finding sanctuary isn’t difficult. Just around the bend, Seven Cross Street (officially called Calle Sucre) contains seven churches, including the gleaming Compania de Jesus. I’m slightly ashamed to say that, like I approached Quito overall, I approached this church with skepticism. I’ve visited a lot of historic churches and was doubtful I’d find anything to distinguish this one from all the others.
Once again, I was wrong.
Compania de Jesus is Ecuador’s most ornate church. This is evident before one even steps inside. A massive gold leaf door welcomes visitors into a building made of volcanic rock capped with domes of green and gold. The inside gleams gold from all directions, but the eye is inevitably drawn to the solid gold and intricately carved alter. It is the most ornate church in Ecuador, and probably all of Latin America as well. Compania de Jesus is filled with stories, from the mismatch of one real staircase and one false, to the skylight window surrounded by 12 angels that on June 21 (Inti Raymi, a major indigenous religious festival in the Andes) works as a perfect sun dial.
An equally delightful though drastically different church is Quito’s Basilica del Voto Nacional, an elaborate collection of neo-Gothic towers, arches, and gables. As the tallest church in Ecuador, anyone who braves the steep stairs, narrow passageways, and precariously placed latters is treated to a glorious panoramic view of Quito. The building is decorated with unique gargoyles in the shape of condors, monkeys, and turtles.
If the view isn’t impressive enough for you, head higher. The teleferiQo is an aerial tram that takes you from Quito’s breathing height of 9,350 feet above sea level to an eye watering 13,300 feet asl. This steep ascent takes place during a 10 minute ride up the foothills of the Pichincha Volcano.
In fact, it’s Ecuador’s soaring heights and access to the coast that draws scientists studying equator-related issues to the country (Quito is named after the indigenous Quitu people who fought against Inca invasion in the 15th century; Ecuador is named after the equator). Although the equator obviously runs through numerous countries, Ecuador boasts the highest and lowest equatorial points. This is celebrated in two museums, La Mitad del Mundo and Museo Solar Inti Nan. Both claim to be located on the equator, though Museo Solar Inti Nan has a better claim to this, as La Mitad del Mundo is about 800 feet off the mark. Either way, both complexes have interesting museums and displays related both to the equator and Ecuador’s local history.
As my time in Quito came to a close, I felt like I had already had a complete and fulfilling Ecuador travel experience. I almost didn’t even need to continue on to the Galapagos. Almost, but not quite. Read about my experience cruising the Galapagos
Keen to see Quito for yourself? Check out our Galapagos & Ecuador Tours tours here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.