48 hours in Quito
The number of visitors to the Ecuadorean capital of Quito is rising – and they’re no longer heading straight to the Galapagos. Instead, they’re taking time to appreciate its fantastic architecture, sample its wonderful food scene and explore the cloud forests within easy reach of the city. And to stand on either side of the equator, just outside Quito’s centre.
It’s a great time to visit – this year is the city’s 40th anniversary as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and a new metro system, set to be unveiled in 2019, will make exploring this South American gem even easier.
08.00: Get your bearings with a wander around Plaza de la Independencia, in Quito’s old town. This beautiful square is surrounded by Quito’s most important buildings: the cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, Municipal Palace and Presidential Palace. Talk nicely to the guards outside the presidential residence and they’ll let you inside the gates to pose for a selfie next to the soldiers at the palace’s entrance.
If jet lag hits, head to the cafe inside Hotel Plaza Grande. For added wow factor, order the Los Corridos (traditional, homemade ice cream). The lights will dim, bells will chime and a purple cloak-wearing cucurucho (penitent) will deliver your dessert, served atop a smoking bowl of dry ice. plazagrandequito.com
09.00: Quito’s altitude, at 9,350ft, means it’s best to take things easy on day one, and luckily, some of the city’s most beautiful churches are close to the main square. Start with Quito Cathedral, completed in 1806, 246 years after work began. This explains the mixture of styles – there are beautiful gothic arches, a baroque altar and a neoclassic choir. For a bit of bling, check out the nearby La Compañía de Jesús – seven tonnes of gold adorn the interior of this enormous church.
10.00: See how locals shop with a visit to the nearby Mercado San Francisco. You’ll find everything from toys to hardware in this huge market, although the fresh produce stalls aren’t for the squeamish (you’ll see cows’ tails and entire pigs’ heads). Equally fascinating is the medicinal herbs section. Locals come to meet herbal healers who will identify their ailment before cleansing them. After being diagnosed, the customer enters a curtained booth and strips naked, before the healer beats them with sprigs of the prescribed herb. En route back to Plaza de la Independencia, keep an eye out for the piñata shops, which fill this part of Quito. They come in all shapes and sizes – popular options include Minions and (presumably for more mature customers) beer cans.
11.00: Satisfy hunger pangs at Casa Gangotena, a restaurant tucked inside a restored mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco. Recommend the bonitísimas (corn patties made with quinoa and trout) or one of the restaurant’s legendary ceviches. Try El Origen, which hails from Ecuador’s Manabí province, and is served with avocado and peanuts. casagangotena.com
12.00: The middle of the day is the perfect time to visit the middle of the earth. To complicate things, Quito has two. For years, tourists flocked to the government-funded Middle of the World Park to stand on a line said to be the highest point on the planet’s midpoint, at zero degrees latitude. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – something which came to light when a GPS-equipped tourist pointed out that the real thing was a few hundred metres away. Bizarrely, the government-funded version still stands, complete with souvenir shops and signposts listing distances to Paris and London. The real Middle of the Earth, a few hundred metres away, is infinitely more interesting. Knowledgeable guides lead tours of the site, which includes a replica of an indigenous village. At the equator line, they conduct fascinating experiments, including one that proves that water drains in opposite directions either side of the midpoint.
14.00: A 20-minute drive from Quito will take you to the Pululahua volcano. Its crater is home to a small (and brave) farming community, and the area, known as the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, has a wide range of wildlife, including spectacled bears and several species of big cat. If energy levels dip after a stroll around the slopes, make a beeline for El Cráter restaurant, which teeters on the rim, for some cocoa tea. elcrater.com
15.00: Head to the nearby Yunguilla community for a tour of this rural village. The 50 families practise sustainable farming, help reforest the surrounding area and maintain camera traps set up to monitor wild animals. Arranging a tour with community members is easy, but homestays are also possible, and a new restaurant is expected to attract even more tourists. maquipucuna.org/yunguilla
19.00: Back in Quito, admire the view from Vista Hermosa, a rooftop restaurant in the city centre. Getting there is half the fun – enter on the ground floor and a waiter will escort you to the antique lift, before closing the grille and sending you skywards. Food has an international flavour and there’s regular live music. vistahermosa.ec
Want to know what happened on Tamara’s second day in the beautiful Quito? Read more on her article at Travel Weekly now.