The hilly city of San Francisco del Quito is a World Heritage gem.
San Francisco del Quito (or Quito) was the first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1978. Quito is overshadowed by other dazzling South American destinations (think Amazon River, Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands). If you’re on your way to the Galapagos Islands, it’s worth spending some time in Quito. The city’s appeal is its well-preserved historic centre. There’s an exceptional collection of colonial churches, chapels, convents, monasteries and plazas.
My visit was the start of a Scenic Tours group journey through South America. Here’s how we spent two days in Quito.
Our first stop was Al Parque Itchimbia, where we climbed steps to a hilltop view of the city. The gentle hill left me feeling breathless and light headed as I admired the world’s highest capital city from afar.
2850m above sea level, Quito fills the valley floor and is 60km from end to end, with a picture-postcard backdrop of the 4784m Pinchincha volcano. Unfortunately, the volcano stayed cloaked in cloud during our visit.
The bus dropped us off at Plaza Grande (Independence Square), where our guide delivered a potted history of Ecuador while we gazed at the bronze and marble sculpture commemorating Ecuador’s independence from the Spanish in 1822.
The square is surrounded by historic buildings such as the presidential palace (its colonial patio is open to the public), Metropolitan Cathedral (where a hero of South America’s liberation movement General Antonio Jose de Sucre is buried) and the Archbishop’s Palace (which houses an information centre, shops, cafes and restaurants).
A walking tour of Quito’s Old City, which is the largest historic centre in Latin America, revealed Spanish and Moorish architecture built around ruins left by the Incas.
The city’s churches are decorated in a distinctive style that is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art known as the “Baroque school of Quito”.
I was struck by the contrast between the opulent interiors of La Compania church – which took the Jesuits 16 years to build and is adorned with gold leaf on its ceiling and walls – and the streets around it.
Around the streets, there were men selling coca tea and lollies; mothers walking the sidewalks with babies slung in crochet backpacks; women with long plaits peddling lottery tickets on street corners; and cloth shops advertising cheap tailored pants for $5.
We walked to La Ronda, a traditional street with flags, flowerboxes and a view of the Virgin Mary monument atop Panecillo hill.
Then, a visit to Esquela Taller Quito showed us how the historic district is being restored with the help of students who are learning traditional crafts like sewing, tailoring, embroidery, wood-working, metal work and gold-leaf techniques.
Ecuador straddles the equator and there are a couple of tourist attractions constructed around this quirky detail.
In the 18th century, an expedition from the French Academy of Sciences marked the equator 24km north of Quito at a spot called Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World). Even though the French got it wrong (it’s close but not the real equator), Mitad del Mundo receives plenty of tourists who come to be photographed in front of the 30m stone trapezoidal monument topped by a brass globe.
Not far away, Museo de Sitio Intinan also claims to straddle the equator.
Here, guides entertained us with carnival-like demonstrations, such as water draining counter-clockwise north of the equator and clockwise across the line south of the equator.
Dinner at La Belle Époque was a highlight, mostly for its glittering views of the historic centre lit up at night and masked opera singers who entertained us as we dined.
The itinerary offered three choices of excursions: the Mindo and Cloud Forest, which is a rainforest reserve 80km northwest of Quito known for birds, orchids and rare flora; the colourful Otavalo Indian market in the northern highlands famous for textiles, exotic fruit and herbal remedies; and the Antisana Ecological Reserve, which most of the group chose.
Quito is located near the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a road through two rows of snow-capped peaks. Nine of them are over 5000m.
The 5700m Antisana volcano is Ecuador’s fourth highest.
On a fine day, visiting the volcano would have been the pick of excursions but grey clouds hung in the sky as our bus crawled out of the city.
In the 120ha ecological reserve, the road wound through lush hilly countryside with pretty green valleys and steep-sided slopes while knowledgeable guide, Roberto, educated us on Ecuador’s volcanoes and the ecosystems around them.
We reached a stark treeless páramo (or plateau) at the foot of the glacier-covered peak.
It was cold, overcast and drizzling as we hiked along the flat road in a landscape reminiscent of the Scottish countryside on a grey autumn day.
The volcano hid behind cloud the entire time.
We searched for condors, black-faced ibis, carunculated cara-caras and Andean gulls, which we saw flying in the distance.
Roberto stopped often to point out lichens, wildflowers, pillow moss and grasses that thrive on the windswept páramo. Because of the strong winds, nothing taller than grass and low-lying succulents are found in the open. Plants in this type of habitat are pollinated by beetles or by birds, as the winds are too strong for flying insects.
Later, a couple of chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys), stole the show when they galloped down a steep slope in pursuit of wild horses.
For me, the day’s highlight was lunching at Octava de Corpus, an atmospheric restaurant hidden in a colonial terrace in the historic centre. The walls were chock-a-block with Ecuadorian and South American art and it had an enormous wine cellar, with more than 230 bottles of wine from around the world.
Swissotel Quito was our comfortable base for three nights, with entry level rooms (they comfortable but could do with refurbishing) provided as part of the Scenic Tours package. Suites in the hotel were spacious and well-appointed with newer accessories and furnishings.
The hotel’s recently opened La Locanda restaurant offered an inventive menu of Peruvian Mediterranean fusion cuisine.
Swissotel Quito (ph: +593 2 2567600) is a five-star hotel.
Scenic Tours has South American tours that include Quito. Phone 1300 SCENIC (723 642).
What we liked about out Scenic Tour
•Having a tour director to handle issues that cropped up.
•Stress free touring where decisions were made for us.
•Travelling with new friends.
•Tipping was included.
What we’d change:
•More free time to wander around during the city tour
•Staying closer to the historic centre would have also made it possible to explore independently