Quito, Ecuador

World Heritage City

Quito Cathedral
••• Quito Cathedral. ArtToday.com

At 10,000 ft (2850 m), Quito is breathtaking in more ways than one. Situated as it is, twenty-two miles from the Equator, a visitor would expect extremely hot weather but the altitude tempers that. There are no extremes in temperature, (see these averages) and year-round temperatures feel spring-like. There are two seasons, wet and dry, and for convenience sake, the wet season in termed "winter."

This makes Quito an all year-round destination, and a favored location to learn Spanish with a Language Program.

Quite apart from any other reason to travel in Ecuador, you'll want to spend time in Quito and the surrounding areas. See map.

For an "attractive and information-rich map covering an entire country/region in splendid detail. Useful information such as elevation, major transportation routes, and nation," consider Quito (direct buy).

Quito is surrounded by natural beauty, by the mountains ringing the city, some volcanic, some with white capped peaks, lushly forested hills and a fertile valley. Long before the Spanish arrived, Quito was a busy place. It was a major Inca city and was destroyed by the Incas in a scorched earth policy that only briefly halted the Spanish invasion. Sebastián de Benalcázar recognized the city's location and founded San Francisco de Quito on top of the few ruins left him. The founding date, December 6, 1534, is celebrated annually with the Fiestas de Quito.

Sebastián de Benalcázar's settlement grew into a city that went on to become an important asset to the Spanish.

crown. It became an episcopal seat, and then became the site of an Audiencia Real which extended far beyond Ecuador's current political boundaries. Until the 1830's Ecuador and Venezuela were part of Gran Colombia, with Quito as the capital of a southern province. Now it is the capital of the province of Pichincha, with a volcano of the same name.

The volcano is active, and during the latter part of 1999, threatened to erupt on a daily basis. Quiteños have been living with this possibility for centuries. Proof of Quito's durability lies with the important colonial buildings that still exist, and are well cared for in a section of Old Town.

Quito grew up and out from that colonial core, and now can be organized into three areas. South of Old Town is mainly residential, a working-class housing area. North of Old Town is modern Quito with high-rise buildings, shopping centers, the financial center and major business centers. North of Quito is Mariscal Sucre airport, through which most visitors to Ecuador arrive and depart.

Things to See:
Most visitors concentrate their time in Old Town, for which UNESCO named Quito a cultural heritage site in 1978. Here you'll find the city laid out according to Spanish planning requirements, with the central plaza as the heart of the community. The plaza is bordered by the Palacio de Gobierno, the Cathedral and religious buildings, and the Palacio Presidencial. The Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in South America, and has been repaired and remodeled countless times due to earthquake damage. Heroes of the Independence are honored and several presidents are buried here.

On the Plaza San Francisco, a few blocks from the Plaza de la Independencia, is the Monastery of San Francisco, the oldest colonial building in Quito. It houses the Museo Franciscano where paintings, art and furniture are on display. There, too, is the ornate, gold decorated La Compañia church There are many churches in the Old Town area, most built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Be sure to visit El Sagario, recently renovated, Santo Domingo, La Merced and the monasteries of San Augustín and San Diego for their museums.

Not all of the things to see in Old Town are of a religious nature. Most of the colonial houses were built of adobe around an enclosed patio. The best preserved houses, complete with traditional balconies, are on an alley called La Ronda or Juan de Dios Morales.

Some of the houses are open during daylight hours, and sell souvenir crafts. You can tour two historical homes, Casa de Benalcázar, the founder's home, and Casa de Sucre, where Field Marshall José de Antonio de Sucre, a hero of Latin American battles for independence, lived.

You'll see examples of Ecuadorian baroque in the art of the times, the mix of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art called the "Baroque School of Quito," in the Museo de Arte y Historia and the Museo de Arte Colonial. Don't miss the Casa de Cultura Ecuatoriana which houses several museums.

One of the best views of Quito is from El Panecillo hill, but go with a group if you are going to make the climb. Better yet, take a taxi. Stay on the paved areas around the statues of la Virgen de Quito and go in daylight.

New Town is the financial and business part of town, with modern buildings, shops, hotels and restaurants. There are also many museums and things to do and see in New Town. A don't miss is the Casa de Cultura Ecuatoriana which houses several museums, including the Museo del Banco Central, with wonderful archaeological displays.

The Inca gold sun mask is only one of the treasures on display. There are also musical instruments, traditional dress and art. For more art, visit Museo Guayasamín, the home of Indian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín.

In New Town, Parque El Ejído is a popular gathering place. For a safe view of many of the wildlife species found in the country, take a look at the Vivarium for snakes, turtles, lizards, iguanas and other species.

North of Quito:

Quito is a little more than 13 mi (22 km) from the Equator, and a trip to the Mitad del Mundo allows you to straddle both hemispheres, stroll around the monument and then climb the viewing platform. There's an ethnographical museum and a scale model of Quito's old town. A few miles away is the pre-Inca site of Rumicucho and the volcanic crater of Pululahua.

The market town of Otavalo is a popular destination for the Saturday markets which have been there since pre-Inca days.

The Otavalan Indians are famous for their traditional dress and jewelry. You can buy textiles (weavings and clothing) and handicrafts at the market. (Photo of a Woman making Cloth.)

Saturday is the main day for the handicraft and the animal and livestock market, although the food and produce market is open almost every day.

The activity is clustered around three plazas, with crafts in Poncho Plaza , beginning at dawn and ending around noon. It is best to go early as the market gets very crowded with tour groups arriving mid-morning. Brush up your bargaining skills and enjoy the experience. If you haven't bargained before, try this technique. Ask or note the price. React with disbelief. Offer half the stated price. The seller will react with disbelief, perhaps in flowery and verbose terms. Up your offer slightly. The seller will lower his/her offer a bit. Up your offer again, and the seller will lower the price. Continue this process and compromise somewhere around seventy-five percent of the initial price. You'll both be pleased with the process.

When you're are through with the market, browse through the Instituto Otavaleño de Antropología. If you schedule your trip for the first two weeks in September, you can enjoy the Fiesta del Yamor. There are processions, music, dancing, fireworks capped with the crowning of the Reina de la Fiesta.

Otavalo is in the Andean highlands and a weekend there is a good way to savor the markets, tour the nearby Indian villages along the PanAmerican Highway and enjoy a walk around Lago San Pablo and view Imbabura volcano .

For more shopping, go north of Otavalo to Cotacachi for the leatherwork, and then to go to Ibarra, the small colonial capital of Imbabura , for woodwork. If you have the time, take the train from here to the coastal town of San Lorenzo. The route drops from Ibarra at 7342 ft (2225 m) above sea level to sea level over a 129 m (193 km) route. The train ride is not for the faint-hearted, but you'll see spectacular scenery.

From Ibarra, you can get to Tulcán, near the Colombian border. It's a market town, and the gateway to Páramo de El Angel where you can trek through the Cerro Golondrina cloud forests.

South of Quito:

Take the PanAmerican highway south of Quito along the Valley of the Volcanos to Latacunga. You'll see Cotopaxi, the second highest Ecuadorian mountain, and the two Illinizas (north and south), fertile valley, farms and many small villages where life goes on much the same as it did years ago.

Be in Latacunga for the Thursday market in the village of Saquisilí, considered to be the most important village market.

The village of Pujilí has a Sunday market as does the village of Zumbagua. For either, get there ahead of time if you plan to stay locally. You might be able to camp near Laguna Quillotoa, a scenic volcanic lake. Take your own water. The lake is alkaline.

You shouldn't miss the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, Ecuador's most visited national park. You can visit the small museum, hike, climb, camp or picnic for small fees. Or you can do no more than gaze in awe at the mountain.

Going further south, you'll travel to Ambato, now restored and modern after a devastating earthquake in the late 1940's. If you're there in late February, you might enjoy the Flower Festival or the Monday market at any time of year. Ambato is called the "Garden of Ecuador" and the "City of Fruits and Flowers" due to the abundance of products grown in and around the city. You can visit the home of Juan Montalvo, Ecuador’s most important writer, which is now a museum and library.

From Ambato, you'll visit Chimborazo, the tallest volcano in Ecuador, and then go on to Baños, the gateway to the Amazon Basin, a hiking and climbing center, and the site of natural hot springs. The spas, pleasant weather and recreational opportunities make this area popular with both Ecuadorians and tourists.

It is a busy place, with people traveling to the Oriente , the Amazon basin and forests. You can arrange jungle trips from here, or stay in town to learn Spanish at one of the language schools.

There is lots to do in Baños. It's located in a beautiful setting that encourages you to enjoy the mild climate and the outdoors. The best known thermal bath is the Piscina de la Virgen by the waterfall. Piscina El Salado offers pools with varying temperatures so you can choose the one most comfortable for you. Tour the Museum and Sanctuary of the Virgen de Agua Santa.

Stay in Baños to hike and trek. There are plenty of hills to try, plus Tungurahua volcano, part of Parque Nacional Sangay offers climbing for various levels of expertise. Also in the park is El Altar, the extinct volcano which offers a challenge to climbers. Backpackers enjoy the high plains called páramos.

You can rent mountain bikes and horses for another way of getting around. You can also enjoy rafting, half-day trips on the Río Patate and full day trips on Río Pastaza. Two waterfalls along the Pastaza river are the Agoyan Cascade and the Ines Maria Cascade, both popular with visitors.

Enjoy your trip!