Quito, the capital of Ecuador in northwestern South America, represents the cultural, cosmopolitan and social epicenter of the country. This metropolis, which hugs the equator, is cupped in a verdant valley formed by the volcanoes of the Andes. The city’s 1.8 million residents are spread across a latticework of diagonal streets that climb to different panoramas in every direction.
The high-alpine air is thin and takes some getting used to, but once adapted you’ll be able to catch the aroma of fresh bread and coffee flowing from the nearest panadería. You’ll hear the voices of women in trensas selling homegrown fruit from giant baskets. And you’ll catch the smell of eucalyptus trees riding on the Quito breeze.
With mountains walling off the city on all sides and buildings that seem to stretch on forever, it’s easy to feel tiny in Quito. Which is why the TelefériQo was built—a cable car that leads to one of the highest summits of the Pichincha Volcano, the 13,500-foot Cruz Loma, where one can really grasp at the breadth of the city. From there, you can hike around the volcano, bike down or take the cable car back. Regardless of your mode of transport, you won’t know how the altitude will affect you until you’re there, so take it slow.
A taxi or bus ride will take you just north of Quito to the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, a complex of monuments, museums and shops marking the site of the middle of the world. Here, you can take a picture with one foot in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, watch water veer both east and west and balance an egg on a pedestal. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency so there is no need for conversions when buying your ticket at the entrance.
La Mariscal is Quito’s central tourist neighborhood lined with travel agencies, international restaurants and a selection of hotels. Just a block away from the cobbled Plaza Foch, in the heart of the district, sits Mama Clorinda, a three-story restaurant that serves almost every dish representative of Ecuador’s diverse regions. Their variation of llapingachos, fried potato pancakes stuffed with cheese and served with avocados, chorizo and peanut butter sauce, is emblematic of Sierran Ecuadorian cuisine. The top floor is a cocktail bar that overlooks the plaza, which becomes packed on weekend nights with partygoers and tourists alike.
For a different view, hop in a cab to Parque Itchimbia where the Greek-American-Ecuadorian Café Mosaico is located right at the top of a hill. Their waffles, moussaka and spanakopita are all delicious, but the star of the show here is the view from their terrace where the entire Centro Histórico unfolds before you. At its center, the haloed virgin statue of El Panecillo overlooks—and some believe, protects—the city.
The 16th century Plaza de la Independencia in the heart of the Old Town is flanked by whitewashed palaces, cathedrals and municipal buildings all surrounding the park with a fountain at its center. Here, you can aimlessly wander for hours, but make sure to pop into Cafeto for the perfect cup of coffee to help you on your way. Housed in a small, renovated church, the bright café is famous for their local grounds, so make sure to grab a bag to take home with you.
After, take a taxi to La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), a museum housing the collected works of legendary Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín. The leftist artist famously depicted the plight of the poor indigenous majority using sculpture, murals and portraits. The emotive, prismatic images take patrons on a journey through the history of Ecuador in often chilling visual detail—the leathery creases of a workingman’s hands, the wide-open stare of a starving woman’s eyes—and leaves a powerful impression.
Just off the edge of Parque El Ejído, one of the many green spaces of the city is the Mercado Artesanal, where indigenous artisans from across the country market their handmade wares. Here, you can buy anything from Panama hats (which are actually Ecuadorian), alpaca sweaters, Guayasamín reproductions, woven hammocks and tagua bracelets to delicacies like helados de paila, a type of ice cream traditionally made with volcanic ice.
Tucked away in the colorful and artsy La Floresta neighborhood is El Pobre Diablo, a bar that frequently hosts established local bands and where local creatives go to talk politics or cinema by the glow of votives while Afro-Ecuadorian beats emanate from the DJ’s booth.
Even more off-the-beaten-track is Café Guapulo, a cave-like bohemian bar that glues their patrons’ random drawings to the ceiling (they’ll hand you crayons upon entry) and serves their drinks strong. Order a pitcher of canelazo a la Amaruc, a citric cocktail made with sugarcane liquor, and head straight to the terrace to get an uninterrupted view of the colonial church at the center of the neighborhood and beyond that, the Tumbaco Valley. On a clear night, you can see the lights of the valley twinkle eastward, eventually coasting down to the Amazon jungle just hours, but an entire world, away.
American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta, LAN, Avianca and Copa all operate out of the brand new Mariscal Sucre International airport located 11 miles east of Quito.
Where To Stay
Formerly the French Cultural Centre, Café Cultura is a 26-bedroom boutique hotel housed in a renovated colonial mansion. Rooms start at $92.
The five-star Boutique Hotel Plaza Grande has 15 luxurious suites that overlook the Plaza de la Independencia in the heart of the Centro Historico. Rooms start at $200.
A queer mestiza travel writer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador,
mission is to decolonize travel media.