Best of the World: Quito

Some people may be surprised to see Quito in Traveler‘s epic year-end Best of the World feature. But, as Elaine Glusac suggests in her write-up, Old Town Quito is in the midst of a renaissance. The Spanish colonial UNESCO World Heritage site often gets short shrift, with many travelers treating the city as a stopover en route to the Galapagos, but I can tell you from personal experience that Quito deserves main-event status.

Here are five reasons why:

Plaza de la Independencia

Old Town Quito’s bustling main square is home to the president’s residence, Carondelet Palace, which makes it a lightning rod for civic engagement and protest. If you’re used to the quiet, arm’s-length security that typifies seats of government in the U.S. and Western Europe, you’ll enjoy walking up to peek your head right in to the palace courtyard while guards in rich blue coats stoically ignore you.

La Compañía

You’ll find this spectacular 17th-century Jesuit church just a block from Independence Square. (You can spot its twin green-tile domes from any point in Old Town.) Though intricately carved, the church’s stone facade is no match for its rich interior. Upon entering the narrow nave, only one pew wide, prepare to be enveloped by towering golden walls. The gilded plasterwork draws the eye up with vertical, Moorish patterns that are offset by frescoes in shades of rust and baby blue. Visitors aren’t allowed to take photos inside, so be sure to stop by the gift shop for postcards on your way out.

Mercado San Francisco

Visit this indoor food market (and the small shops that line the nearby side streets) for a glimpse into the local culinary culture. You’ll see thousands of eggs stacked in pyramids, whole chickens with their claws pointing into the air, and an assortment of fresh fruit — including regional favorites like taxo (banana passionfruit), tree tomato, yellow gooseberry, naranjilla, and babaco — piled sky high. But don’t just window shop: participate by purchasing a good mix to sample back at your hotel room.

Museum of the City of Quito

Spend an afternoon (it’s perfect for a rainy day) here for a history lesson about the city. The museum is housed in a beautiful former hospital, built in the 1500s, with a large central courtyard, and the artifacts and replicas on display carry you through Quito’s past — highlighting its geological origins and colonial period — and into its present.

Olga Fisch and Galeria Ecuador Gourmet

Just outside Old Town, these two shops will satisfy your souvenir needs with their tasteful and authentic Ecuadorian chocolates, coffee, natural soaps and lotions, jewelry, and textiles. Don’t leave the country without trying on a few panama hats (which, paradoxically, hail from Ecuador, not Panama). You’ll see an eye-popping range of prices for the hats based on the quality of the straw and tightness of the weave.

If you find you just can’t get enough of the region, here are three gems worthy of a side trip outside the city:

Cotopaxi National Park

Explore the Avenue of Volcanoes in this 80,000+ acre park. Snow-capped Cotopaxi is still active, and overdue for an eruption, but that doesn’t sway visitors from driving an hour south of Quito to hike, bike, or ride horses.

Cross your fingers for clear skies, as the scenic overlooks can be a bit of a letdown when it’s hazy. In our hour-and-a-half hike around the flat grasslands of Limpiopungo Lagoon, we were treated to infrequent but breathtaking views of the shy peak as the clouds shifted.

Hacienda San Agustin de Callo

Owner Mignon Plaza will treat you like Inca royalty (and introduce you to her herd of carrot-loving llamas) when you visit Hacienda San Agustin near Cotopaxi National Park. Arrange a lunch stop, featuring her signature Andean potato soup, or an overnight stay in one of the 11 available rooms. The hacienda is built on the site of an Inca palace, with three styles of century-spanning architecture visible from the courtyard. Incas used giant volcanic stone blocks to build what is now the chapel and dining room.

Mashpi Lodge

The Andean range divides Quito (and the country) from the Amazon rain forest to the west and the Choco-Darien forest region east along the coast. Head northwest of Quito for a visit to Metropolitan Touring’s Mashpi Lodge in the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve.

Ecuadorian architect Alfredo Ribadeneira designed the stunning, minimalist eco-lodge to blend into the landscape. Our guide, David Yunes, led us on a series of challenging (and muddy!) hikes to explore the forest, flora, and fauna over our two-day visit. Highlights included discovering phosphorescent fungi on a night hike, swinging Tarzan-style through the forest on thick vines, and swimming under a powerful waterfall with big blue butterflies flittering above us.

Mollie Bates is the assistant art director at National Geographic Traveler, but will be leaving us shortly to pursue a design and technology fellowship. Follow her travels on Twitter @mebates.


  1. Michael Grady
    Vilcabamba, Ecuador
    October 17, 2013, 2:54 pm

    Coming to South America, Ecuador has been a place I’ve always wanted to spend some good time at. Though I haven’t been to Quito yet, Cuenca and Guayaquil were great cities to visit.

    I do have to say, when and if you do come to Ecuador you must see what they call “The Valley of Longevity” Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

    Currently stay at an amazing place: loving the Andean lifestyle. Horseback riding through the valley, banana and coffee picking, views of the “Mandango” Mountain overlooking the town (this massive piece of land looks like a carved soldier laying down, it’s unreal) and for an American like myself… great to have lots of ExPats around speaking english, something you don’t see to much of in this country.

    Happy travels!

    March 23, 2013, 10:52 pm

    Thank you very much for your comments on Ecuador Gourmet Gallery. We are proud to present to our beloved Ecuador and its people through our wonderful showcase.

  3. travelyn
    December 27, 2012, 9:07 pm

    It is so interesting to read about places like Quito. there is so much to see and learn in South America. I guess it is becoming easier to visit these places now. I would love to see inside the Jesuit Church, the interior of churches have a real fascination for me and they are so beautiful. It is always disappointing when you can’t take photos inside a church, so thank goodness for the postcard shop. Thanks for the info.

  4. Maria a. Arteaga
    Woodbridge, canada
    December 27, 2012, 2:02 pm

    Mi Ecuador, te quiero por mi gente, por tus rios, por tus montes, por tus lagos y planicies, por tu cielo estrellado y porque siempre seras mi Patria.

  5. Sociedadverde
    December 26, 2012, 11:14 am

    finally some credits for Ecuador ….!

  6. Andre Hugo
    Quito, Ecuador
    December 24, 2012, 7:24 am

    Quito is my adopted home. I love Ecuador, there is so much to appreciate. I spend my time paying attention, appreciating, writing and photographing for others to share.

  7. M.Z.Ribadeneira
    Guayaquil, Ecuador
    December 19, 2012, 6:21 pm

    Thank you for the article on our World Heritage Quito.
    There is so many places to go to in Quito, Last week I went there and was able to get into a beatiful Cloister of the Carmelite nuns. They have a museum where they exhibit the best colonial manger that I have ever seen. Visit it is astonishing. After I went for dinner at Casa San Marcos at the San Marcos neighborhood and it was a great experience, plus this hotel boutique is just unique, it is a museum, but houses great comfort . Their rooms are beautifully decorated, and the staff so friendly that you will always want to go back. Also San Agustín de Callo is an experience on itself, I just felt in love with those inca stones and the church made inside of one of the inca ruins is just wonderful.

  8. Abigail Howell
    December 13, 2012, 2:43 am

    What a great country! I visited previous year in Quito and spent one month in Ecuador with my companion- a travel guide. I was overwhelmed by the serenity and peacefulness of this place, and the friendly nature of people. I visited Bano and climbed on Cotopaxi and Chimborazo and visited in many more destinations. Casa Sol is a great place to stay in Quito. The best part of the entire trip was exploring the Amazon Rainforest where I played a game of soccer against the children down in the Amazon.

  9. Eva P
    December 12, 2012, 3:23 pm

    I spent almost 2 months in Ecuador and 3 weeks in Quito. I’m totally in love with this city. It is so beautiful, and the people are so wonderful that it almost broke my heart to leave.
    To find the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo in this article made me really happy, because I spent more than a week there and can absolutely verify everything that is said here. Being there also gave me the opportunity to climb on the summit of the Cotopaxi with a tour operator from Quito (Gulliver Expeditions: ).
    Ecuador really teaches how to love life…

  10. Sadira Delgado Laiben
    arlington texas
    December 11, 2012, 8:35 pm

    I’m so proud to see my beautiful capital on the cover of your magazine, I born and live there until destiny brought me to the US I really recommend to go to my country and discover more treasures still hidden for tourist.
    Going to Quito next April

  11. Noel Weathers
    Orange, California
    December 11, 2012, 2:30 pm

    Great pictures. I was in Quito this August. Loved the place.

  12. Lisa Boice
    Salt Lake City
    December 8, 2012, 4:58 pm

    Nice overview! My husband and I are going to Quito in Spring. Spending a couple of days in Quito in between a week in the amazon and a week in the Andes–birding both locations.