Wonderful, forgetable Quito. Ecuador

September 20, 2010 at 3:26 am 3 comments

When compared with the rest of South America’s major cities Quito seems to shrink into the shadows. Its elevated sprawl is dwarfed by that of La Paz in Bolivia, its colonial beauty belittled by Arequipa in Peru, its churches unremarkable next to those of Córdoba in Argentina, its Incan importance miniscule after a visit to Cusco in Peru and who could dare to take on the all-night madness of Buenos Aires’s nightlife? Indeed it seems that beautiful, historical, fun Quito is a little unmemorable when considered on a wider scale.

That’s not to say that Quito isn’t worth a visit though. In fact, its the city’s lack of airs and graces that make it such a worthwile destination. Despite extensive renovations and careful conservation, Quito’s old town – a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site – still has the feel of a regular work-a-day city. All the colourful, ornate old colonial buildings are still inhabited, many used for their original purposes and the citizens seem rather nonchalant about their surroundings. Shops selling ovens, televisions, washing-machines and motorbikes(?) are tucked into the front of listed buildings and sit alongside plastic furniture restaurants and laundrettes. So unpretentious is it in fact, that it is possible to take a guided tour of the still-functional Presidential Palace without appointment – a rarity in self-important South America. And much like the rest of Ecuador, Quito welcomes its visitors with outstretched arms (when we were walking down the street one day a man leaned out of the window and screamed “Welcome to Quito!” at us).

One feature of the city that you won’t forget in a hurry however, is Basílica del Voto Nacional. Regal at the top of one of Quito’s many cobble-street hills, the gothic towers of the church provide unparalelled panoramic views of the city which is nestled at the base of the Andes. The only problem is that in order to glimpse these views you first have to climb several winding stone staircases, cross a creaking elevated wooden walkway and tackle several narrow iron ladders – two of which are wide open to the elements and hang hundreds of metres above the flagstones below. The beautiful pavillion at the top of the tower is worth every sweaty, pants-soiling moment though. If you don’t have the stomach for heights, Basílica del Voto Nacional is still worth a look for its incredibly simple but surprisingly restful interior.

Another of Quito’s many appeals is its central location within spitting distance of many of the country’s top attractions. Within two hours of leaving the city you can zipline into cloud forest, climb a still-active volcano, navigate a volcanic lagoon or stradle the equator. Have you ever noticed that Ecuador is the Spanish for equator by the way? Considering how many tourists board buses towards the equator every day, it is surprising how many leave without ever actually seeing it. Mitad del Mundo is where everyone heads first to snap photos of the big red line painted on the ground and to pose in front of the huge monument. After an overpriced lunch and perhaps a quick trip to the observatory, most hop back on their bus and towards Quito. Far fewer exit the facility, take a left and walk 300m down road.

For those that do spare the extra time, a much more interesting experience awaits. As it turns out, the original monument and red line are located 300m away from the real equator as mapped by modern GPS systems (blame the French – the locals do.) Obviously once noticed the problem had to be rectified but rather than move the whole shebang a little down the road, the government decided to build a much less advertised, more reasonably priced museum to mark the point. Here as well as balancing an egg on a nail and watching water flush in opposite directions on either side of the equator, you can learn a little about Ecuadorian history – from how to make a shrunken head to seeing replicas of the different houses and weapons used by various peoples throughout the country’s history.

While it may not have the highest altitude, the prettiest churches or the most important historical sites, Quito by day is an attractive city in which it is very easy to feel at home. And after travelling for a while sometimes you just need to go visit a place where there is no obligation to tick off lists – just somewhere pretty to have a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.

There are more pictures from Quito available in the gallery


Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick  |  September 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    I have lived in Quito for over 16 years, I am happy to help with any questions you might have about the country. Patrick- bullock0005@yahoo.com

  • 2. Christine Orr  |  September 24, 2010 at 4:15 am

    My daughter is in a study abroad program in Quito under the auspices of Univ. of Miinnesota. I planned to visit her, staying in a hotel and taking a short trip to an ecolodge in the rainforest. However she insisted that I not visit because it was too dangerous. In less than one month, 4 of the 28 students in her group have been victims of armed robbery. She was with her host family mother in mid-day when, stopped at a traffic light, an armed robber stuck a gun in the window and threatened to kill them. An embassy representative who spoke to their group re safety. assured (?) them that they were not alone. He referred to a talk he gave to another group of college students who had been there several months. 50% of the group had been victims of some sort of assault or another. My daughter would not consider going into town alone. She has, per her report, acquired a demeanor approaching that of a native and avoids eye contact with people in the street. Now, by my way of thinking, this frequency of assault merits some mention when travel to Quito is discussed. Earlier I had been dismissing my daughter’s concern about safety. I had planned to query Lonely Planet posts re the safety concerns in Quito. However, with this information, that she provided somewhat reluctantly because she didn’t want me to worry about her, I concluded that, since it seems unsafe to look at a street map in public, I might have to console myself with a trip, say, to Paris. My daughter says that Quito has been inundated with refugees from the Colombian drug wars, the poverty is pervasive and brutal, and the increased incidence of robberies an inevitable outcome. Be that as it may, some advisory re this risk seems warranted. CNO

    • 3. P.J.Andreadakis  |  January 26, 2011 at 10:18 pm

      It’s about time wiser heads told it like it is, south of the border. There’s absolutely no safety traveling in Mexico, Central America, or South America, for that matter. Not even in Costa Rica (personal experience there and elsewhere). Spoiled foreign teenagers who must have their way are the result of lousy parenting; so, mothers, man-up…


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