Underrated Escapes: 10 Tips and Tricks for Discovering Quito, Ecuador

A visit to South America isn’t complete without a stop in Quito – Ecuador’s lively and dynamic capital.  Founded on the ruins of an ancient Incan city, Quito offers a rich history, unique culture, and mouth watering food while its proximity to the surrounding volcanic peaks serves as a perfect jump off to explore the lush and diverse natural areas nearby. Often overlooked because of the big city factor, Quito is very much underrated, and EscapeHere is happy to tell you why this South American city deserves your travel consideration:

City Overview

Nestled in an Andean valley but still managing a whopping 9350 foot altitude, Quito is considered the highest official capital city in the world. On their first Quito trip, many travelers make the common mistake of leaving their warm clothes at home thinking ALL of South America is hot. Think again – high altitude means cool temperatures, with an average high of 19°C (66°F) and an average low of 10°C (50°F), so pack those layers! Close to the equator, the average temperatures don’t fluctuate much throughout the year, so the best time to visit is dry season (June – September). Once you arrive, start learning Spanish – the Spanish spoken in Quito is much clearer than the surrounding area so it is a great place to learn!

Cathedral of Quito, Ecuador

Arts and Culture

You will be surprised by the diversity and beauty that you can find in Quito. Stop by Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus – an epic religious site decked out in gold, the Guayasamin Museum featuring the famous contemporary artist, and the little non-profit pre-Columbian art museum Casa del Alabado. Pursue more art at Museo del Banco Central, perhaps Ecuador’s most renowned museum. Visit Casa de la Cultura which features local Ecuadorian art as well as live performances. Downtown Quito has been declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site with one of the best preserved historic centers in the world, so get downtown and start exploring. Join a Free Walking Tour offered 6 days a week, and take a stroll around Old Town Quito to meet some other travelers and learn from the experts.

UNESCO old town in Quito Ecuador

Music

Not typically known for its music scene, Quito will surprise you with its range of musical options.  If you want something traditional, track down the National Symphony as they perform weekly in different venues around the city. Big names sometimes stop by Quito, so catch a concert at Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa or another big venue in the city. For folkloric, classical, and jazz music, be sure to visit the Casa de la Musica.  If you are lucky enough to be in town for the first week of December, you’ll witness the Fiestas de Quito – a huge party that includes incredible live music (and lots of liquor!). If you are into smaller music venues, catch some live music at La Liebre, Varadero, or El Pobre Diablo.

Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock.com
Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock.com

Sports and Recreation

Step away from traditional sports and recreation in Quito. Watch old men play Bochas; Ecuador’s version of bocce ball at Parque El Ejido, rent a bike and take part in a weekly Sunday 30 kilometer bike ride of the Ciclopaseo, or go mountain biking in the surrounding volcanoes, lakes and valleys with Biking Dutchman Mountain Biking Tours. Most weekends you can head to Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa, the home pitch for Ecuador’s national soccer team to watch the passionate fans support their home team or head to Mulligan’s or Finn McCool’s – the best sports bars in town – to watch the games live (and have some snacks and beers while you’re at it).

Soccer ball with Ecuador flag

Food and Drink

In Quito, steer clear of ‘international’ restaurants marketed towards hungry travelers, and dig in to the local food. Stop by Mercado Central for stall after stall of cheap, traditional street food like empanadas and locro de papa; a traditional Ecuadorian potato soup. A great food and drink zone is the Mariscal area – wander around and if the restaurant looks busy, it’s probably a good bet. Grab a plate of fritadas, empanadas and llapingachos at La Choza, ceviche at Fried Bananas, vegetarian-friendly dining at Govindas, and the infamous guinea pig (cuy) at Mama Clorinda. Finish your meals with tres leches cake or bienmesabe, both are delicious local desserts. Try Espiritu del Ecuador; a local golden liqueur with tropical fruit flavors, some local Ecuadorian rum, or one of the local beers: Pilsener, Club, Clausen or Biela.

Ildi Papp / Shutterstock.com
Ildi Papp / Shutterstock.com

Attractions

The city of Quito has plenty of attractions to keep you busy when you are in town. To get a bird’s eye view of the city, take the TelefériQo gondola ride (or hike) to the top of Pinchincha volcano where you can experience amazing panoramic views. Head 45 minutes from the city to The Middle of the World (or Mitad del Mundo as it’s called locally) where you can actually stand on the equator! Wander through the Parque Metropolitano or the Jardin Botanico to soak up some nature in the heart of the city, and take a Spanish class at Ailola Quito Spanish School Day Class.  Don’t worry if you’re sick of the city…just use Quito as a home base while you explore the nearby natural attractions (which we discuss in a few slides).

View from TeleferiQo gondola Quito Ecuador

Nightlife

Even though Quito doesn’t have the ‘party ‘til the sun rises’ reputation of major club hot-spots like Buenos Aires or Rio, Quito can hold its own in the nightlife department with no shortage of places to let loose on the dance floor or grab some drinks. Head to the Mariscal district around Calama, Mariscal Foch and Reina Victoria Streets for the best selection, where you’ll find Cats, Diego de Almagro, Calama, and Oceana Club Lounge to get your dance on, or explore the pubs in the district if you’re looking for a more laid back evening. Some local travel tips: expect a cover charge for live music, remember that most places close at midnight during the week and 2am on weekends, and catch a cab home to stay safe in the early hours!

Nightlife 2

Accommodations

You have plenty of options of where to stay when you visit Quito Ecuador. For budget-saving options, check out 593 Hostel Boutique, Discovery Quito Hostel, Community Hostel or Minka Hostel where you’ll get great value for money and the added bonus of making new friends by getting to know other travelers. For higher end stays, check out Casa Gangotena Boutique Hotel for a luxurious historic setting or Hotel Casa de Hacienda La Jimenita for beautiful old-world Ecuadorian charm. If you plan to stay in Quito for an extended period of time, consider renting an apartment or a condo to get a real feel for the city and enjoy the experience of living like a local.

Ildi Papp / Shutterstock.com
Ildi Papp / Shutterstock.com

Shopping

Looking for some local art work to remember your time in Quito, or perhaps some souvenirs?  Wander through just about any street in the Mariscal District and you’ll see lots of little markets, or check out Olga Fisch Folklore or Shepherd for a hassle free experience. If you have time for a road trip, visit the famous Otavalo market (located in the town of Otavalo about 2 hours away).  If not, try your haggling skills at the Mercado Artesanal Metropolitano. If you are missing the big chain stores, visit Centro Comercial Mall El Jardin. Inside you’ll find all the big brands including many recognizable North American chains as well as fast food restaurants.

Ecuadorian crafts

Natural Beauty

A trip to Quito isn’t complete without exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding area. To get the most out of the area, consider renting a car or leave the organization to someone else and join a sightseeing tour group. Take a day trip to the nearby Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Reserve where bird lovers can delight in seeing some of the more than 375 species that call this forest home. In fact Maquipucuna harbors about 4% of the world’s bird diversity! Check out Hacienda La Alegria farm, a family-run organic farm where you can enjoy a horseback ride while you take in the natural beauty. Visit the active volcano Cotopaxi and check out condors at the Limpiopungo Lagoon or, if you have longer, consider a rafting trip on the nearby jungle rivers, or go all out and visit the Galapagos Islands for a once in a lifetime experience.

Galapagos South Plaza island

9 Best South American Sightseeing Cities

When it comes to sightseeing, it’s hard to surpass the rich history and sheer beauty of South America. Whether an intrepid traveler wants to peruse 400-year-old cathedrals or observe the horizon while relaxing on sandy beaches, South America is the destination of choice. With all of the options in South America it can be hard to choose a destination. Here are the top 9 South American cities that give tourists the best sightseeing experience.

1. Rio de Janeiro – Jewel of Brazil

Rio is possibly the most beautiful city in South America. From the towering Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain to its famous white beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema, Rio is a must for any visitor to South America. Braver souls can enjoy the wild hustle and bustle of the pre-Lent Rio Carnival or take a cable car ride up Sugarloaf Mountain to enjoy a stunning 360-degree vista of the city.

Rio de Janeiro

2. Buenos Aires, Argentina – City of theatres

Tourists looking for a dash of European flair, should look no further than Buenos Aires. Aficionados of dance should attend a milonga, a uniquely authentic Argentinian tango party that takes place nightly at various venues. Sightseers who enjoy quieter sights can explore the city’s many museums such as the National Historical Museum and the Che Guevara Museum, childhood home of the famous revolutionary. The thespian tradition of Buenos Aires is celebrated at the city’s many theatres like the Cervantes Theatre. The Teatro Colón is considered by aficionados to be one of the top opera venues in the world and has featured performances by opera singers like Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.

Buenos Aires

3. Quito, Ecuador – Gateway to history

Lovers of history will enjoy Quito’s charming colonial historic center. Including Carondelet Palace and Independence Square, the historic center is also home to the San Francisco Monastery. Completed in 1604, it is the earliest surviving building in the city.

Quito Ecuador

4. Santiago – Cultural center of Chile

Santiago boasts many picturesque locations such as the scenic Cerro San Cristóbal. Wine connoisseurs will enjoy touring the verdant vineyards located on the outer reaches of the city. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights documents the country’s darker moments by commemorating the victims of General Pinochet’s regime.

Santiago Chile

5. Cusco, Peru – Seat of the Incas

Cusco’s large Incan complex of Saksaywaman is a must for any sightseer. The site’s beautifully fashioned stone walls and huge plazas provide an unforgettable viewing experience. Hatun Rumiyuq street is the location of several important sites such as the Archbhisop’s Palace, built over the former palace of Incan ruler Inca Roca. The blending of two cultures can also be seen at Qurikancha and Santo Domingo where the sacred Incan sun temple of Qurikancha is topped by the Spanish church of Santo Domingo.

Cusco Peru

6. Manaus, Brazil – Portal to the Amazon

Located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, Manaus provided almost unlimited opportunities to tour the lush jungle and explore the tangled banks of the world’s second longest river. Exhausted ecotourists relax at the city’s Ponta Negra beach, enjoying the area’s bustling nightlife.

Manaus Brazil

7. Puno, Peru – Lake among the stars

Puno is the best place to see the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Several indigenous festivals like Candlemas and Puno Week are held annually in the city.

Puno Peru

8. Cartagena, Colombia – The Walled City

Cartagena’s main attraction is the fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Built in 1536 to keep pirates at bay, its distinctive stone walls guard the entrance to the city’s port area. Nearby the colonial-era Walled City is home to many churches and museums.

Cartagena Colombia

9. La Paz, Bolivia – City of museums

La Paz is home to a variety of museums; many like the Ethnography and Folkolore Museum focus on local indigenous cultures. Sightseers made of sterner stuff can tour the infamous San Pedro prison, a semi-autonomous facility where prisoners govern themselves.

La Paz

12 Can’t-Miss Sites in Quito, Ecuador

Founded in 980 A.D., the ancient city of Quito, Ecuador offers centuries of history along with awe inspiring views of the nearby mountainous volcanoes. Considered the location of the middle of the world, the city offers numerous fascinating attractions.

Here are 12 Can’t Miss Sites in Quito:

La Compañía de Jesús

The magnificent structure required 150 years before completion in 1765. The exquisite craftsmanship becomes apparent in the intricate stone carvings on the exterior and extends into the elaborate wood carvings of the interior. The ceiling bears 7 tons of gold leaf in addition to the gold accents seen throughout.

La Compañía de Jesús

San Francisco Church

The massive complex spans two blocks and consists of a temple, chapels and a convent. The interior boasts beautiful Baroque wood carvings along with gold leaf and silver accents on the alter pieces and various figures. The facility boasts numerous stained glass windows. The church also houses a museum.

San Francisco Church, Quito Ecuador

Basilica 

Considered the largest church in the city, one must admire the gothic architectural features at close range. Inside, visitors find numerous stunning stained glass windows. Different areas of the church feature
sculptures of the saints and the virgin of Guadalupe. Tours include scaling the towers for commanding views over Quito.

Basilica, Quito Ecuador

Casa del Alabado Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

The facility gives visitors a glimpse into the more than one dozen civilizations that once inhabited the country. The ancient artworks found in the museum date back to 1500 B.C. Though some works served as utensils for everyday life, the sculptures represent the spiritual beliefs of the under, middle and upper worlds.

Pre-Columbian Art

Old Town

This historic region of the city boasts narrow streets and beautiful Colonial architecture in addition to a number of impressive churches and plazas. Visitors may also view demonstrations provided by the many local artisans. The scenic area provides many photographic opportunities.

Old Town, Quito Ecuador

Itchimbia Cultural Complex and Park

This spectacular glass and metal building stands atop a hill east of the older part of the city and offers amazing panoramic views of the historic city center, the peak of Cayambe and the Pichincha volcano. The area also features over 400 flower species in addition to 40 species of birds.

Itchimbia Quito Ecuador

La Plaza de la Independencia / La Plaza Grande

Fearing that the Incas might poison the community water, the Spaniards established a well here in the 16th century. Today, the location serves as a social centre and features the Archbishop’s Palace, the Cathedral, City Hall and the Government Palace.

La Plaza Grande Quito Ecuador

Pichincha Volcanoes

The Rucu Pichincha and the Guagua volcanoes lie west of the city and rise over 4,500 meters in height. A famous battle occurred here in 1822, but today, the area hosts an amusement park, restaurants and shops. Visitors enjoying hiking the area or taking horseback rides around the mountains.

Volcano Quito Ecuador

Jar din Botanico (Botanical gardens) 

The gardens contain the natural vegetation found throughout the country and includes over 3,500 species of orchids. The park additionally features a lagoon for water activities and a sports complex for jogging, soccer, tennis and horseback riding.

Botanical Gardens

Mitad del Mundo

North of the city, this monument represents the area where the equator passes through the country. The structure houses a museum that explores the culture and heritage of indigenous peoples. Nearby stands the Intiñan Solar Museum, an astronomy museum. The site also offers various cafes, restaurants and shops.

Mitad del Mundo Quito Ecuador

Parque Metropolitano

Covering 571,176 hectares, the location represents the largest urban park in the city. Visitors find numerous trails through a eucalyptus forest along with many different sculptures. Four distinct areas provide plenty of room for cycling, hiking or jogging. The east end of the park provides views of the Antisana and the Cotopaxi volcanoes along with the Guayllabamba River basin.

Eucalyptus Forest

Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Reserve 

Encompassing approximately 6,000 hectares, the reserve has 32 kilometers of trails that lead through the rainforest. The location serves as home to over 2,000 plant species, 45 mammals species and over 350 birds species. The site remains popular for viewing the spectacled bears.

Cloud Reserve, Quito Ecuador