Basilica del Voto Nacional in downtown Quito
Holidays in Quito, Ecuador
Nestled in a high Andean valley and hemmed between volcanic peaks, Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is a charming destination in a dramatic setting. Often called the most beautiful city in Latin America, Quito’s Old Town is the largest and best-preserved Spanish colonial centre on the continent, something celebrated by UNESCO when they declared it the first World Heritage City in 1978.
Unsurprisingly, the compact Old Town is the central attraction. Narrow cobblestone streets, restored colonial houses and over 200 churches, monasteries and convents are centred on three bustling plazas. With history woven into every corner, a guided walking tour is a great way to get your bearings and gain a full appreciation of this enigmatic city. But Quito’s Old Town is more than just a large museum; daily life throngs in its busy streets, where tourists rub shoulders with the colourful indigenous population.
If you only have a short time to explore, visit the Compania de Jesus, an ornate Baroque church with a Moorish flavour, admire the artworks in the city’s cathedral, and spot the sculptures on the giant Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional where traditional gargoyles have been overlooked in favour of Ecuadorian turtles and iguanas. If you’re feeling brave, scramble up the Basilica’s bell tower or climb to the domed roof of the cathedral for panoramic views over the city. Arguably though, the most spectacular view is from the summit of El Panecillo (Little Loaf of Bread), a small hill topped by the giant winged figure of the Virgin of Quito.
The modern town has fewer attractions, but plenty to keep you entertained. The most popular area for travellers is La Mariscal, known affectionately as “Gringolandia” thanks to its abundance of accommodation, shops, restaurants and cafes. If you’re looking for Ecuadorian souvenirs, the vibrant artisan market is teeming with brightly coloured clothes, alpaca blankets, woven bracelets and various other trinkets – haggling is expected. Alternatively pull up a chair in one of the bustling squares and people-watch over a coffee, see how the cosmopolitan roots of this city have influenced its restaurant culture, and try the local street food – tortillas, empanadas, llapingachos and ceviche are particularly wonderful, and you can’t leave without trying Latin American ice cream or horchata, a herb-based tea.
From Quito, it’s an easy journey to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) where you can straddle two hemispheres, a trip many combine with a visit to the volcanic crater of Pululahua. The Teleferico cable car will whisk you to the summit of Cruz Loma, from where you can appreciate Quito’s spectacular setting amid snow-capped volcanoes and verdant valleys. If you want to escape the city and immerse yourself in nature, the Mindo Cloud Forest and Pasochoa Forest Reserve are easy day trips from the capital.
Admire Quito’s dramatic setting from El Panecillo
Wander the chaotic streets of the Old Town
Haggle for souvenirs at a vibrant, indigenous market
Sample delicious street food and fusion restaurants
Straddle two hemispheres at Mitad del Mundo
Swap city life for nature at the Mindo Cloud Forest