Set high up in the mountains, Quito is the capital city of Ecuador. Outside of Rio, Buenos Aires, or Bogotá, I have always pictured South American cities to be past their prime — built up in the past and left to just decay. I had always imagined Quito to be dirty, grimy, and a bit unsafe, with a pocket of modernity. I’m not sure why I thought this way — probably too much American media and experiences in Central America that I lumped together.
Regardless, I came to Quito without high expectations. And in the end, I loved this city. It was phenomenal! Throughout town, I discovered amazing food: from delicious outdoor stalls to food markets to good Western food. Any city with good food is a city I love.
Despite the altitude, I walked and walked around the city, though sometimes my lungs felt like they were going to explode. I enjoyed the mix of Old World Spanish architecture and modern buildings. Moreover, the city was a lot cleaner than I expected. (After spending considerable time this year in Central America, it was nice to visit a city that didn’t have trash littered everywhere!) One day I was at Ejido Park and I came across an Ecuadorian version of The Three Stooges (an old American slapstick comedy group). My Spanish isn’t good enough to understand what they were saying, but their slapstick was funny. I sat watching them for a while.
If you are looking for things to do in Quito, I suggest the following activities:
El Panecillo – El Panecillo, or “The Bread Roll,” is a hill overlooking the city. It’s famous for its views and used to contain a temple before the Spanish arrived. On the hill is the statue of the Virgin Mary that was constructed in 1976 and is 41 meters tall.
Enjoy the architecture – Quito is home to a number of colonial and excellently preserved houses. The two best can be found in an alley called La Ronda: Casa de Benalcázar (one of the early founders of the city) and Casa de Sucre, where Field Marshall José de Antonio de Sucre, a leader of Latin American independence, lived.
The equator – Given the country’s name, it shouldn’t be surprising that the equator is in the country. It’s located near Quito, and you can visit the real one and the fake one. The fake one is a 30-meter tall monument, constructed between 1979 and 1982. However, when they got GPS and checked it, it turned out they were off. Now you can visit a mini-museum paying homage to indigenous Ecuadorian culture that has the REAL equator in it. They have a few fun science experiments there too.
Plaza de San Francisco – Though you’ll see many churches in the city, San Francisco is one of the oldest and prettiest. The city’s oldest building (begun in 1534), it is baroque in its design. There is a huge plaza outside the church that is good for people-watching.
Cotopaxi – Approximately two hours south of Quito is the world’s highest active volcano (19,348 feet). It is a brilliant location for outdoor activities such as mountain climbing, hiking, horseback riding, and even camping.
Parque Metropolitano – Parque Metropolitano’s height provides the best views of the city. You can get a lot of good photos from here, and the surrounding neighborhood is quite nice. I recommend asking where the entrance is before you walk there or you’ll find yourself (maybe like me) using the tourist map only to find out that all the “entrances” are locked except the main one.
The Old Town – Most visitors concentrate their time in Old Town, which is a UNESCO site. Here you’ll find the city laid out according to Spanish planning requirements, with the central plaza at the heart. The plaza features the Palacio de Gobierno, the Cathedral, and the Palacio Presidencial. You will also find Independence Square here.
Museo del Banco Central – The Central Bank Museum has a good collection of artifacts from all of Ecuador’s regions and cultures. There are many pre-Incan artifacts too. I wouldn’t have thought a bank museum would have such things, but this one does and it’s not that expensive to get into.
La Mariscal – This is where all the expats and tourists seemed to be. I couldn’t walk five feet without a Texas BBQ or Irish pub popping up. This neighborhood was trendy, filled with bars and posh restaurants. It seemed like the place to be at night, what with all the bars and clubs, but during the day it was simply filled with tourists eating overpriced food. The houses in the area are nice and colorful though.
Quito was a lot different than I thought it would be. I expected a grimy South American city but instead found one rich in culture and architecture, and filled with good food. There’s a lot to do here, there’s plenty of history, good nightlife, and friendly locals. And what more could you ask for from a city? I would definitely like to go back there.
(However, I met a guy who worked for the American embassy while there. He and his girlfriend had nothing nice to say about Quito. To them, it was a dangerous place where people try to cheat you. I inquired what he did for the embassy and he said he dealt with all the emergency calls American tourists place. That experience probably colored his perception of the city since he only hears the bad stories. I was glad I met him at the end of my trip. His slanted view might have made me more guarded while I was there.)
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