It seems that large cities in South America get an undeservedly bad rap. While people usually think of crime-ridden streets, stinky piles of garbage pushed into unkempt ditches and heavy traffic clogging the roads, I can honestly say I have yet to actually see that in action—even after travelling through Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. True to form, stunning Quito, Ecuador did not disappoint. In fact, it wowed.
Holding bragging rights as one of the highest capital cities in the world, Quito sprawls out over never-ending steep hillsides, making for stunning views of the buildings perched on the lush, green cliffs. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1978, the city also boasts a gorgeous, preserved historic centre which should be on everyone’s must-see list.
Old Town (Centro Historico)
The heart of the Old Town centres around beautiful Independence Square, which is anchored by a cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace and the Archbishop’s Palace. Despite being the city’s epicentre, it’s a rather peaceful spot, and there are cute cafes where you can kick back and enjoy the sights and sounds.
The square is also home to the Independence monument, which shows a wounded lion, condor and a Roman goddess. While many people are content to simply meander along the cobblestone streets, there is also the option to go right inside the Presidential Palace which is still used by the nation’s leader! The best part is the hour-long tours are absolutely free, all you have to do is grab a ticket from a stand outside the entrance. HOWEVER, you must be sure to have identification like a passport or license on hand, otherwise you won’t get a ticket…sadly, I learned that lesson the hard way.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
If you see only one thing in the entire city, make it this.
Never in my life have I seen such an incredible church—and yes, I have been to Notre Dame! The neo-Gothic basilica which was built back in the 1800s is absolutely massive, taking up a couple of city blocks and stretching 115 metres high into the sky.
One of the first things visitors will notice are the intricate gargoyles adorning the façade, which depict Ecuadorian animals like Galapagos tortoises and iguanas. After heading through the massive front door and paying the $1 entrance fee, you’ll head into the sanctuary which features an incredibly long aisle (I pity the bride who walks down that one!), beautiful archways and stunning stained-glass windows that line the entire area. Visitors are allowed in the basilica during regular services—just be sure to be respectful of those in prayer. There are also some stairs on each side that take you up to lookout points.
However, the real lookout point is up. Wayyyy up. We’re talking about the very top of the basilica, and to get there you’ll have to navigate across a slim catwalk before climbing straight up a ladder. THEN you get to hike up about three sets of scary, steel stairs outside, which basically have no guardrail as you glance hundreds of feet below.
As I whimpered my way up, I felt like I was filming a scene in The Bachelor, where it’s all about conquering your fears and learning to ‘trust’ your significant other!
Fortunately, the view was totally worth my heart-stopping fear of heights, as the rooftops dotting the hills of Quito stretched out before us as far as the eye can see. It’s an absolutely incredible spot, and suffice it to say there is no better vantage point in the entire city. Keep in mind that you need to purchase a separate ticket to go to the top, which you can buy out in the courtyard on the ground level for about $2.
La Compania de Jesus
This gem of a church could be easy to miss, as it’s tucked around the corner from the main square and is rather unassuming from the outside. But the real magic starts as soon as you head inside.
The ornate church features hand-painted beams with stunning gold details, and is well worth the small entrance fee. Built back in the 1600s, its interior is completely cloaked in gold, making for a dramatic scene.
San Francisco Church
If you haven’t got your fill of churches, there is one more worth making at stop at: San Francisco. This cathedral overlooks a plaza lined with little shops, making it a great place for a scenic pit stop.
The large church was built way back in the 1500s and includes two bell towers framed by green hills. The interior is as intricate as we’ve come to expect in Quito, and features statues of saints, a large altar and artwork dating back centuries.
Once you’ve made it through all those historical buildings, it’s time to shop! Head over to La Mariscal, a district which is filled with hotels, clubs and cafes frequented by other tourists. It’s also home to an artisinal market, where you can pick up some authentic wares.
Finally, cap off the tour with a trip up the Teleferico. Stretching over 4,000 metres above sea level, the gondola takes you high up in the hills for an epic view of Quito, as well as mountains like Cotopaxi. Open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., a ride costs about $8.50 per person.
Day trips from Quito
Currency: U.S. dollar
Language: Spanish, but some people in the tourist industry also have limited English.
How to get there: In 2013, Quito opened a brand new airport outside the city called Mariscal Antonio Jose de Sucre. It’s modern and big—problem is, there is nothing around it which is a problem for those with flights getting in late or leaving early. Expect to pay $20-25 for a cab into the city, which you can grab at the airport’s official taxi stand to guarantee your safety. There is also an airport shuttle which costs about $8 per person.
Top tip: Brace for the altitude! Parts of Quito are 3,777 metres above sea level, which means some travellers suffer from altitude sickness. Take it easy when you arrive and avoid strenuous activity as you acclimate, and be sure to sip cocoa tea.
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