Cradled high in the Andes, in the shadow of sleeping volcano Pichincha, Quito combines historic charm and Andean culture with a unique, urbane aesthetic that enchants visitors to Ecuador’s capital city and keeps them coming back for more. At 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito’s high altitude means new arrivals should keep the urge to “do it all” in check before overexerting themselves, so a half-day Quito tour just might be the perfect low-key introduction to the city, or take a longer tour with a tasty Ecuadorian lunch.
Home to the largest Spanish colonial zone in Latin America, Old Town Quito forms the historic and incredibly picturesque heart of the Ecuadorian capital. Vast cobblestone squares such as Independence Plaza, with its Moorish-inspired architecture and important government buildings, and Santo Domingo Plaza, lorded over by the immense Santo Domingo Cathedral, punctuate the bustling neighborhood, full of locally-owned shops and eateries. Aside from being the starting point of Quito’s impressive Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, one of the largest Easter commemorations in the Catholic world, San Francisco Plaza serves as a hub for lovers of architecture, with the elaborately Baroque interior of San Francisco Church and recently-restored 19th century mansion Casa Gangotena standing sentry. Tour Old Town Quito by day or by night, and you can’t help but feel transported to a bygone era.
If the altitude doesn’t get you down, head up to El Panecillo, one of the city’s most popular panoramic viewpoints at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, crowned by a statue of a winged Virgin Mary, or go shopping for handicrafts and souvenirs at El Ejido Market on weekends. At night, head down to La Mariscal, the city’s popular entertainment district, for an evening of pub crawling or dancing—better brush up on those salsa steps and reggaetón gyrations—or take in an Ecuadorian folkloric ballet that offers a glimpse at the artistic side of the city.
Itching to get out of town for a few hours? Pop up to the Middle of the World Monument, where the Equator was “officially” marked in 1739, and have your picture taken while you straddle the line before trekking next door to the kooky Intiñan Solar Museum, which also claims to straddle the Equator. Nature buffs can get their fix with a trip to Cotopaxi National Park, named for the climbable snow-capped volcano within its borders that dwarfs the surrounding landscape as it rises 19,000 feet above sea level.